November 04, 2010

Citadels in the sand

I have long resisted commenting on the citadel strategy that is being flouted as the second coming by the best piracy management practices folks and their accomplices. Briefly, this Plan A involves the crew locking themselves up in a strong room on the ship when boarded by pirates- often the steering gear compartment- after tripping the engines and generators. The cavalry from the coalition navies comes in to rescue them as the frustrated bad people flee the dead ship facing capture or death in a firefight.

There is no Plan B.

I comment now because I fear that more seamen will soon be killed by what I consider is a foolish strategy. (A seaman or two has already died when boarders fired through a door- presumably not a steel one- in one incident.) For it is just a matter of time before the pirates figure out a speedy tactic to breach the shaky bastion that the crew have fled to. Time is indeed critical, because the pirates win if they can get to the crew before the naval forces get to them. I would, in their place, be running drills with plastic explosives to see how quickly a watertight door or similar can be blown off the hinges. (Let me tell you, after witnessing an accident on a ship where a battery exploded in a confined airless room at sea, that the door blows off quite easily.)

What then, if the strong room is breached? Will the pirates, who have shown remarkable adaptability so far, make a decision to execute one or two of the crew to deter other ships from the citadel approach? How soon before an explosion kills somebody? What happens if they decide to chuck a few grenades into the engine room before they leave, or start a fire outside the citadel? What happens when an unarmed and untrained crew face khat-chewing desperados with Kalashnikovs now made more irate and frustrated? What happened to the ‘no-resistance if pirates board’ recommendation that has been long advised- what I call the ‘if rape is inevitable’ response? Will the best management people take responsibility for the consequences when somebody is killed?

Pigs will fly long before that happens.

The fact is that Somali piracy was a headline a year or two ago; by now it is hardly news anymore. As with reports of violence from Iraq or Afghanistan, another hijack does not titillate the global citizen or the media; it may even elicit a yawn instead. The fact is, also, that the best management folks and their spin-doctors are underplaying and underreporting the menace while simultaneously exaggerating the few successes; as an example, Ecoterra’s reports indicate to me that many near trade, fishing and such vessels hijacked off Somalia are just not reported in the official figures. This fudging of figures, this tom-tomming of the success of the ‘Citadel Strategy’- a term probably floated by a bright eyed media advisor and which conjures up images of a fortress instead of an asphyxiating steering gear compartment that is the reality- is all part of this creative endeavour. Pirate attacks have increased and are more widespread, and now include incidents in the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea alarmingly close to the Indian mainland. They have also moved south.

Meanwhile, the EU squabbles over proposals to float private navies to combat the Somali pirates. Resistance to the idea of armed guards on ships continues, although some owners are certainly using mercenaries aboard their fleets. Wary as I am of the trigger-happy Blackwater types, I cannot see many options to a problem I am convinced will stay with us for many years, especially since we do precious little to solve it. The criminal neglect of the entire issue of piracy by the industry continues. The breathtaking tragedy is that the strategies and tactics that will probably work are not being exercised or even seriously contemplated.

Here are some that should.

First, armed guards. The canard about how this will escalate violence is nonsense, given the scale and violence of the Somali attacks. Armed guards will be an excellent deterrent, in my opinion. The pirates are not a couple of guys with knives coming to steal your ropes and paint; they are already armed to the teeth, and they intend to take the whole ship away. They have, in the past, killed or wounded seafarers and at least threatened rape. They have beaten, starved and ill-treated hostages for months. The violence has already escalated long ago, and to use this excuse is rubbish. Using the same reasoning, not a single weapon should be carried by security at international airports.

Consider this: what are the best management folk recommending right now? Lock yourself in the panic room and await armed men who will rescue you, right? How is having armed guards on board much different to this? Besides, using the same citadel reasoning, if armed men on board can hold off pirates for the same amount of time that the crew plans to spend in the steering flat, the navies can still come to the rescue, right? Then why is everybody, including the IMO and other industry organisations, stubbornly resisting this? Are there other reasons? Does the plot, monsieur, thicken?

Second, ships changing routes. Not going to happen and we all know why.

Third, a mechanism for prosecution of arrested pirates, which is a bad joke thus far. Surely, we could have come up with a workable law after years of escalating piracy. As things stand, the international legal response to piracy is pathetic.

Fourth, a naval blockade of Somalia. Will take a huge amount of resources, but, as luck would have it, is being recommended by the African Union too, albeit for other reasons. The AU wants an air and naval blockade of Somalia to stop arms getting into rebel Al Shabaab hands. Ramtane Lamamra, the AU peace and security commissioner, told the UN Security Council less than two weeks ago that "The African Union is very concerned that the insecurity in Somalia is spilling over into the region.” Asking the naval forces that are fighting piracy in the region to provide more tangible and operational support to the Union’s AMISOM soldiers that prop up the Somali government, such as it is, Lamamra wants a naval blockade and a no-fly zone over Somalia “to prevent the entry of foreign fighters in Somalia as well as flights carrying shipments of weapons and ammunition to armed groups in Somalia." The Somali Foreign Minister echoed the blockade call, saying that his country was “in a dire situation”.

Shipping needs to throw its uncertain weight behind this blockade demand, because a blockade will greatly and coincidentally strengthen the fight against piracy. The best way of stopping piracy is to stop the criminals a few miles off their friendly neighbourhood beach, not in the vast ocean. Let their villages become pirate citadels; let a blockade ensure this.

The problem is that the best management folks are managing the situation instead of fighting it. Their strategies look impressive in boardrooms and conference halls; they look very shaky at the front line. The problem is, also, that we have ceded the seas to the pirates, concentrating instead on coastal security and maritime security ‘corridors’ that are failing. After another attack close to the Indian coast, this time on a VLCC just 350 miles from Mangalore, India is failing, too.

The citadel strategy, like much of the global response to piracy, is akin to children making a sandcastle on the beach in a rising tide, calling it a citadel, and then sticking their heads in it.

And then hoping like hell that they will not drown.


1 comment:

Rajneesh L said...

Good God Manu- I am surprised that the Best Management guys have not put you in the haircross for exposing their canard - which as you rightly described looks impressive in the boardrooms and conference halls. Not on a non-naval ship in the Indian Ocean