Duel at the Suez Canal World Scrambles to Deal with Pirate Threat

In their inflatable speedboats and armed with bazookas, Somalia's barefoot pirates are posing a threat to world trade. Now that they have hijacked a supertanker, Europe is deploying warships in the region, while private security firms are offering their services to shipping companies.

By SPIEGEL Staff


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 US 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 US 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: that Blackwater mercenaries 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 estimate that shipping companies have already paid close to €25 million ($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 swathes of the ocean.

An Italian destroyer escorts a World Food Programme vessel delivering assistance to Somalia.
AFP

An Italian destroyer escorts a World Food Programme vessel delivering assistance to Somalia.

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 EU'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 and will include the German frigate Karlsruhe.

Germany's Difficult Mission

The Europeans, however, have already become entangled in a terrible mess of mandates, misgivings and procedures. In Berlin, experts are arguing over whether a police officer will have to be on board the Karlsruhe, because some believe that soldiers should never be allowed to arrest anyone. The French call it "une querelle d'Allemand" -- a typically German argument.

The Germans want to be part of the effort, but not fully, and they want to do more, but are not entirely sure how or what they should be doing. Germany, once again, is wiggling its way into an international mission, but is having a more difficult time dealing with it than almost any other country.

Defense Minister Franz-Josef Jung wants to see the German navy provide nothing more than emergency assistance, which would mean taking action against pirates only if they attack a civilian vessel within view of a German frigate. In Jung's opinion, if the pirates are already on board and they make off with the entire ship, hostages included, the German warship may neither pursue the gangster nor sink their mother ship.

Attacks off the Horn of Africa.
DER SPIEGEL

Attacks off the Horn of Africa.

Those who choose to fight pirates could also end up taking prisoners, which raises the question of what to do with them. No one knows, exactly. The Interior and Foreign Ministries are opposed to bringing prisoners to Germany. They fear that those who are released for lack of evidence would be entitled to stay there, since extradition to Somalia is out of the question.

Such prisoners would be under the jurisdiction of the Hamburg District Court, Division VII. A judge at the court's Renaissance building on the city's Sievekingplatz Square would have to issue an arrest warrant on the day after capture. But that would require bringing the captured pirates to Hamburg first, which raises the question of how exactly that would be done.

Last Wednesday, senior officials from the Interior, Foreign, Defense and Justice Ministries met in Berlin to flesh out a solution. They concluded that pirates should only be sent to Germany is cases of "serious violation of German legal interests." Proposals outlining the details of the procedure have been worked out, and they are seen as unproblematic at the departmental level. If the cabinet ministers agree, a corresponding law could be passed by the German parliament, the Bundestag, before Christmas, giving Germany the necessary legal basis for action.

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 EU's Atalanta mission will replace the NATO vessels on Dec. 8.

But NATO is prepared to stay longer, given the EU's slow rate of progress. Last week, it was still uncertain whether EU military officials in Brussels would even be ready to submit their operations plan by Dec. 5. Without it, the Bundestag refuses to even address the issue of German naval participation in the mission.

Laws and mandates are not the only sticking point for the Western military forces, which, whether under NATO or UN 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 miniscule 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 US 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.

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