To curb piracy, bring on hired guns: Bernd Debusmann


Better late than never. After years of debate, there is growing consensus among governments, major shipping companies and maritime organizations that armed private security guards are a potent deterrent to high-seas pirates. That view is certain to crimp a criminal business already showing signs of decline.

Numbers tell part of the story: In the first nine months of the year, Somali pirates attacked 199 ships, a hefty increase over 126 attacks in the corresponding period in 2010. But the number of ships they hijacked dropped from 35 in 2010 to 24 this year. Expressed differently, their success rate declined from 28 percent to 12 percent. Not a single vessel carrying armed guards was taken, Reuters reports.

Which is why the United States and Britain changed policies on hired guns a few days apart in October. In the United States, the change was so quiet it almost escaped notice. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron said in a television interview his government was reversing opposition to armed guards on British-flagged vessels because “the fact that a bunch of pirates in Somalia are managing to hold to ransom the rest of the world … is a complete insult.”

That’s also a tacit admission that the naval flotillas on counter-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean for the past few years face a problem without solution – too much water, too few warships. The pirates have launched attacks up to 1,000 miles from the Somali coast.

As Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, put it to an advisory panel on November 9, “with so much water to patrol, it is difficult for international naval forces in the region to protect every commercial vessel.” Therefore, he explained, the United States had established a national policy encouraging countries to allow commercial ships to have armed security teams on board.

The policy was set out in a memo by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, once a determined foe of private security contractors, to U.S. embassies asking them to suggest to their host governments and shipping industry representatives there to use armed guards aboard vessels traveling through high-risk waters off the Horn of Africa.

The memo was leaked to the Somalia Report (, an English-language website of news and analyses from Somalia published by Robert Young Pelton (, an author and documentary film maker specialized on conflict zones. “It’s ironic that this came from the desk of the woman who sponsored legislation, when she ran for president, that would have banned the use of security contractors altogether,” Pelton said in an interview.

U.S. and British support for armed guards is akin to legalizing band aids without curing the wounds that require them, he thinks, the wounds being conditions in Somalia that allow pirates to operate with relative impunity.

On the high seas, they no longer can take impunity for granted. Just three years ago, the vice admiral then commanding the U.S. Fifth Fleet, William Gortney, said in exasperation that “there is no reason not to be a pirate. The vessel I’m trying to pirate, they won’t shoot at me. I’m going to get my money. They won’t arrest me because there’s no place to try me.”

That’s no longer true. According to United Nations figures (, more than 1,000 Somalis are behind bars in 20 countries around the world, either awaiting trial for piracy or serving prison sentences. The latest to face justice were six Somalis who went on trial in Paris this week for hijacking a yacht and taking a French couple hostage in 2008. In October, a court in Norfolk handed out life sentences to Somalis convicted of hijacking an American yacht and murdering four Americans.

The country with the largest number of suspected Somali pirates in detention is India (120), where the government issued guidelines this summer allowing ships with Indian crews to carry armed guards. The rationale, as in the United States and Britain: Ships with armed security personnel don’t get hijacked.

Even the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the U.N. agency responsible for maritime safety, is cautiously edging away from its long-held opposition to seafarers carrying weapons or ships carrying armed guards. In a circular issued in October, it said IMO members in general and governments in the region of the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden and Red Sea in particular should “facilitate” the passage of armed guards and their equipment.

That followed a change of approach by the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), a trade group representing around 80 percent of the world’s merchant fleet, earlier in the year ( Previously opposed to armed guards, it now says they are a matter for individual ship owners to decide. Some estimates say that around one in five vessels sailing though high-risk seas already carry armed guards.

Bad news for pirates, good news for the private security industry.