Blackwater vs. Blackbeard off the coast of Africa

Europe sends warships to stop pirates off of Somalia while Blackwater offers private security for hire to shipping companies.

Published November 25, 2008 11:52AM (EST)

The most important things in life are simple, at least in the world of Erik Prince. A square-jawed American with closely cropped hair, Prince served as an elite soldier in the U.S. Marines in Bosnia, Haiti and the Middle East. Given his experience, he believes that it will be relatively easy for him to distinguish between good and evil on the new battlefield, the high seas.

"If a couple of guys are sitting in a six-meter (20-foot) fishing boat, in the middle of the Gulf of Aden, and if they've got bazookas in their hands, they're clearly not out there for the fishing," says Prince, 39, the CEO of Blackwater Worldwide, the world's largest and most infamous private security firm. "You have a pretty good idea of what they're up to."

Prince is recruiting fellow former Marines to provide a new service: escorting merchant ships. In performing the job, their first step will be to issue warnings to attacking pirates through the ships' PA system. This will be followed by a few shots in the air as a deterrent. And if none of this works, the sharpshooters on board the two helicopters on Blackwater's ship, the McArthur, will do their jobs.

Up to 3,000 of his mercenaries have already been deployed to support the U.S. military in Iraq. There, they acquired the reputation of shooting first and asking questions later. This has already caused problems. In September 2007, for example, 17 civilians were killed during a Blackwater mission in Iraq.

Blackwater is now receiving inquiries from dozens of new clients, mainly shipping companies and shipping insurance companies. All of them want the same thing: for Blackwater mercenaries to guide their freighters and tankers safely past Somalia, through the world's most dangerous waters, the hunting grounds of bands of pirates armed with Kalashnikovs and grenade launchers, attacking anything that comes into their sights. In their flip-flops and inflatable plastic boats, they look more like small-time crooks, the sort hardly worth the effort of any Coast Guard vessel. And yet, in reality, these pirates are causing huge problems for the naval fleets of major powers -- and, of course, for the governments in places like Berlin, Paris and Washington.

Somali pirates have already attacked more than 90 ships this year, three times as many as in 2007. They have managed to hijack 39 freighters, tankers and fishing vessels. At least 14 of them are currently anchored, under heavy guard, off pirate villages along the coast. The ships' crews have been waiting for months for ransom money to arrive and secure their release. The United Nations estimates that shipping companies have already paid close to $31 million in ransom.

The pirates scored their biggest catch on Nov. 15. Far out in the Indian Ocean, 420 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia's neighbor Kenya, they hijacked the Saudi Arabian tanker Sirius Star, one of the world's largest, filled to capacity with more than 300,000 tons of crude oil. The pirates could threaten to unleash an oil spill bigger than anything the world has seen yet, contaminating large swaths of the ocean.

The tanker hijacking triggered crisis meetings around the world, among leaders worried that the pirates could threaten world trade and the energy supply to the West. About 95 percent of all goods traded internationally are transported by ship, and one of the key bottlenecks in shipping is the Bab al-Mandab, or "Gate of Tears," the straits at the southern tip of the Red Sea, within range of the pirates. More than 16,000 ships have to pass through the Bab al-Mandab each year.

Representatives of neighboring countries met last week in Cairo to discuss urgent measures to address the crisis. A short time earlier, European Union military officials had flown to Northwood near London to coordinate the E.U.'s first joint naval mission, in which it plans to send a number of warships to the Horn of Africa. Operation Atalanta is scheduled to begin on Dec. 8.

Four NATO ships are currently patrolling the Horn of Africa, protecting, on behalf of the United Nations, freighters carrying food cargos. Ships belonging to the E.U.'s Atalanta mission will replace the NATO vessels.

But NATO is prepared to stay longer, given the E.U.'s slow rate of progress. Last week, it was still uncertain whether E.U. military officials in Brussels would even be ready to submit their operations plan by Dec. 5.

Laws and mandates are not the only sticking point for the Western military forces, which, whether under NATO or U.N. command, are simply in too weak a position. The pirates are fast, "professional people," says French Vice Admiral Gérard Valin. A warship faces the difficult task of intercepting the pirates in the critical 15 minutes they need to board a ship. Once the pirates have taken hostages, the narrow window for taking military action has closed.

A normal frigate traveling at full throttle can reach speeds of up to 30 nautical miles an hour, or about eight nautical miles in 15 minutes. This, says Valin, is a minuscule deployment radius. "When the pirates see a warship on the horizon, they know that they have all the time in the world." Based on Valin's calculations, one warship can only secure 1 to 2 percent of the waters off Somalia.

Commodore Keith Winstanley of Her Majesty's Royal Navy says: "The pirates will go where we are not. If we are patrolling in the Gulf of Aden, they'll go to Mogadishu. If we are in Mogadishu, they will be in the Gulf of Aden." To address this challenge, an American naval officer recommends that the shipping companies actively arrange for their own protection. This means traveling in convoys, and using defensive measures such as barbed wire, electric fences and sonic canons. Ship owners could also hire private mercenaries for their protection.

The U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet has had ships patrolling the Horn of Africa for many years. The Russian frigate Neustrashimy also patrols the waters off Somalia, and Moscow is now sending more ships to the region.

"We should have no illusions"

These are all well-intentioned efforts, say experts, but they note that this is hardly the way to secure Somalia's 1,860 miles of coastline. And controlling the Indian Ocean, where the Sirius Star was hijacked, is an impossible task. "We should have no illusions," says Valin, the commander of the French Navy in the Indian Ocean.

If the Russians and a handful of officials at the U.N. had their way, the whole thing could escalate into a war. Dmitry Rogozin, Moscow's ambassador to NATO, has called upon the E.U. and the Western alliance to "extinguish" the pirates' stronghold on land. Rogozin proposes a limited "coastal operation," and argues that this would be the only way to get rid of the pirates.

Although he is probably right, the idea of limited operations in a country like Somalia, brimming with hatred and violence, is impossible.

Western troops would be drawn into the horror of a civil war raging among warlords, Islamists and clans that has already claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people -- the same adventure that ended in a nightmare for the Americans in 1994. At that time, U.S. soldiers, sent in to help people in war-torn Somalia, were eventually forced to withdraw under a hail of bullets. In Mogadishu, a mob triumphantly dragged the body of a killed U.S. soldier through the streets.


And yet military intervention would seem so easy in the flat, savanna landscape of Somalia's coastal region. In a place where the view on land is almost as vast as it is on the water, there is little in the way of cover.

Most of the pirates are from one of three coastal towns, Eyl, Hobyo and Harardere, dilapidated seaside settlements with several thousand inhabitants each, unpaved roads and a handful of piers jutting out into the surf.

A surprisingly easy target

Early last Tuesday morning Abdinur Haji, a fisherman from Harardere, was out fishing along this coast, as he does most mornings. "As usual, I got up at 3 a.m. and went to the sea to go fishing. And then I saw this very, very large ship. It was anchored less than three miles from the beach. I have been fishing here for 30 years, but I have never seen such a huge ship."

The Sirius Star, christened in March, is one of the biggest ships ever built: 1,080 feet long, three times as heavy as an American aircraft carrier when fully loaded, too large for the Suez Canal and for most ports. It is part of a fleet of 19 supertankers used by Aramco, the Saudi state-owned oil company, to supply the world with the commodity that creates wealth. The Sirius Star was en route from the oil terminals in the Persian Gulf to the United States, and its Polish captain, along with 24 sailors and officers, had planned to take the vessel around the Cape of Good Hope.

The tanker's course was far from the routes where pirates have lurked until now. Some naval experts considered it unlikely that pirates would even dare to target such a colossus -- and yet the task is easier than it would seem.

A mother ship -- either a traditional dhow or a fishing cutter -- must have taken the men far out to sea, the attack boats in tow. This is the way the pirates normally operate. A radar device costs $1,875, and GPS receivers can be had for as little as $125. Finding prey on the high seas is easy, especially for pirates with time on their hands and a sack of khat. A popular drug among pirates, khat produces a euphoric high followed by mild depression during withdrawal, which is easily counteracted by chewing on more leaves. Time passes quickly for khat chewers.

Perhaps the pirates knew about the Sirius Star's whereabouts in advance. According to experts on the region, the pirates have spies in port cities like Dubai. Their operations may also be coordinated and controlled by powerful backers.

Once a target ship comes into view, the pirates generally move quickly. The attack boats dash off and pull up alongside the target ship. The men throw grappling hooks over the ship's side and use ropes and rope ladders to climb on deck. If the crew resists, with water from high-pressure hoses, for example, or if the captain attempts to outmaneuver the attackers, the pirates are quick to threaten their victims with their weapon of choice, the RPG-7.

The old Soviet rocket-propelled grenade launcher can hit a ship at 1,640 feet. Propelled by a rocket motor, the grenade can penetrate armored steel up to 60 centimeters (two feet) thick. A captain sitting on 300,000 tons of oil would be well advised to surrender quickly.

The pirates forced the crew of the Sirius Star to sail the tanker to Harardere and drop anchor there. When fisherman Haji saw the ship, two small boats were en route to the supertanker, with 18 men on board, followed by a third boat, carrying food and khat.

A short time later Farah Abd Jameh, apparently one of the pirates, contacted the Arab television network Al-Jazeera to announce the gang's ransom demand: "The ransom will be taken in cash to the oil tanker. We assure the safety of the ship that carries the ransom. We will mechanically count the money and we have machines that can detect fake money." Another pirate said: "The Saudis have 10 days to comply, otherwise we will take action that could be disastrous."

The pirates were originally believed to have demanded a ransom of $25 million, which would have been 10 percent of the combined value of the Sirius Star ($150 million) and its cargo ($100 million). On Monday, however, sources from Somalia said that the ransom figure had been reduced to $15 million.

A few years ago, ransom demands were normally on the order of several tens of thousands of dollars per ship. The shipping companies always paid, and prices rose. Today, the average ransom for a ship and its crew ranges from $500,000 to $2 million.

"London has a lot to do with it"

"The company is always required to bring the money in cash," says piracy expert Roger Middleton, who has just completed a study on piracy in Somalia for Chatham House, a British think tank. "After that, it is normally taken to Mombasa or Yemen, where it is turned over to security professionals. They load the millions onto small boats or tugboats, sail out to the hijacked ship, pull up alongside and hand over the sacks of money."

In many cases, the cash passes through the hands of several intermediaries. "London has a lot to do with it," says a security expert with International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "A number of law firms have specialized in the business," says the owner of a Spanish fishing trawler who had to pay a ransom to get his ship back from the pirates. "Sometimes one wonders whether the pirates are really in Somalia or perhaps in London."

The negotiations and money transfers usually take several weeks to complete. During this period, the pirates treat their prisoners on board the ships relatively well, says Colin Darch, a British captain.

On Feb. 1, the pirates hijacked his Danish deep-sea tugboat, the Svitzer Korsakov. One of the pirates barked at Darch on the bridge: "My name is Andrew. I speak English. This is Omar, our boss. Do as he commands."

They sailed the ship to Eyl, dropping anchor off the coast there. "The pirates chewed khat all day long," says Darch. "We survived on cigarettes, goat meat and camel's milk." The pirates occasionally chugged back to land in their boats to buy food. They initially demanded $2.5 million in ransom money.


Control Risks, a British security firm, conducted the negotiations. The British drove a hard bargain, and eventually the two sides agreed to a ransom of $678,000 for the ship. "It took them all night to divide up the money amongst themselves," says Darch. After 47 days of captivity, he and his five-man crew were finally allowed to hoist anchor.

Twelve hijacked ships are currently at anchor off the white sand beaches of Eyl. One of them is the MV Faina, a Ukrainian merchant vessel carrying a cargo of 33 tanks destined for shady African buyers. The negotiations are currently at about $8 million, down from the pirates' original demand of $20 million, Sugule Ali, a pirate leader on board the MV Faina, told Spiegel. Tempted by the new wealth, men are flocking to Eyl. Young pirates guard the ships being held hostage, provide reinforcements and prepare for new attacks. Their bosses drive large SUVs, use their spoils to have mansions built between the town's huts, invest in new restaurants and hotels to accommodate the influx of pirates and are taking second and third wives. "All you need is a boat and three guys, and already you're a millionaire," grumbles a former officer in the now long-defunct Somali navy.

Taking the long route

The pirates are costing the global economy millions, and fear of them is already forcing some shipping companies to avoid the route around the Horn of Africa and through the Suez Canal. Instead, captains are taking the long route around the Cape of Good Hope, through the dangerous Agulhas Current, which can produce monster waves that have even swallowed large freighters.

The route from the Persian Gulf to the Dutch port of Rotterdam is about 6,500 nautical miles, as compared with the Cape route, which is about 11,000 nautical miles. For a shipping company operating a tanker, this translates into an added cost of about $1 million for round-trip passage.

Despite the cost, the Norwegian firm Odfjell now plans to use the longer route for its fleet of chemical tankers, one of the world's largest. Frontline Ltd., one of the world's largest oil tanker shipping companies, has similar plans. Both Maersk, a Danish company that operates a container shipping fleet, and Taiwanese competitor TMT plan to send their slower ships around the Cape. Their customers, and ultimately consumers, will pay the added cost.

Insurance companies are now asking shipping companies to pay higher premiums for the increased risk. Anyone planning to send a ship through the Gulf of Aden these days is being asked to pay a pirate surcharge. The fee can amount to up to 0.25 percent of the value of the ship, says Tim Turner of the maritime division of Beazley Group, the largest syndicate for this type of insurance within Lloyd's of London. For a ship worth as much as the Sirius Star, the premium would amount to about $250,000 -- for a single trip through pirate territory.

Of course, the premiums also depend on other factors. For instance, they are lower for fast and tall ships, which are more difficult for pirates to board.

But security experts also have their eye on another potential threat: terrorism at sea. There are already signs that Islamists are interested in the pirates' methods. Maritime attacks could "serve terrorists as a means of economic destabilization," warns the U.S.-based Rand Corporation in a new study. They could "cooperate with the pirates or assign certain missions to them."

In April, a jihad Web site already pointed out that "maritime terrorism is a strategic necessary." On the road to an "Islamic caliphate," the site continued, it will be important "to control the seas and the ports, beginning with those surrounding the Arabian peninsula," where fellow Muslims at sea have already chased down "crusaders" and "Zionists."

Security experts paint an especially horrific scenario, in which Islamists hijack a supertanker, pilot it toward a city like Singapore or New York and then blow it up. In 2003, armed men took control of a chemical tanker off the Indonesian coast. Their goal was not to hijack the ship, but merely to learn how to pilot such a giant vessel. Then they disappeared.

On Friday of last week, a heavily armed group of Islamist fighters combed the pirate town of Harardere, searching for the hijackers of the Sirius Star. They told residents that they were out to get the pirates. The Saudi tanker, they said, is a Muslim ship.

Sending in the commandos

The Islamists on land pose a greater danger to the pirates than Western warships at sea, because the warships have a history of infrequent intervention. In April, French special forces units captured a few pirates that had hijacked the Le Ponant, a large yacht. Last week, a helicopter based on the German frigate Karlsruhe chased away eight or nine pirate boats that had surrounded a British tanker.

The INS Tabar, an Indian frigate equipped with stealth technology, has energetically fended off the pirates in recent weeks. On Nov. 19, the high-tech vessel intercepted a pirate mother ship, but then came under fire when the pirates started shooting at the Indians with Kalashnikovs. The Tabar fired back vigorously -- in self-defense, says the Indian navy -- all but destroying the pirate ship.

But there are large gaps between the warships patrolling the region's waters, "and we can help to close them," says Ann Tyrell of the security firm Blackwater Worldwide. According to Tyrell, the McArthur, Blackwater's warship, is ready to set sail with a sufficient number of mercenaries on board, and could be deployed within a few days.

The Blackwater warriors are not the only ones to have entered the fray in this new market. Drum Resources Limited, a British security company, reports that the number of inquiries for escort protection has grown tenfold within the last six months. Owner Peter Hopkins sends teams of four to eight men, who board his clients' ships in the Egyptian city of Port Said, near the Suez Canal, and remain on board until the ships reach Oman or the Kenyan port city of Mombasa. Four bodyguards cost about $8,100 a day, plus expenses. Though armed, the men first attempt to protect the ships, when under pirate attack, with sonic canons or barbed wire.

John Harris, one of Blackwater's American competitors, takes a tougher approach. He guarantees that pirates don't stand a chance against the mercenaries working for his firm, Hollow Point. According to Harris, his men are also capable of liberating hijacked ships. "Either way," he promises, "we'll bring your crew and your freight home. Either we negotiate, or send in a commando."


By Der Spiegel staff

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