Pirates are threatening global capitalism on the high seas. In addition to hijacking the Saudi supertanker Sirius Star, Somali pirates have captured more than 90 vessels in the past month. This includes the Ukrainian ship, MV Faina — laden with 33 Russian battle tanks — a Thai fishing boat, a Korean freighter and others.
While a number of states have a navy presence off the Somali coast, including an undisclosed number of US ships, the US Navy says it’s "overburdened, and that private companies must ensure their own security".
Enter Blackwater. In recent days, 66 shipping and merchant companies have contacted Blackwater for help in protecting vessels.
The well known private security firm has been sending out some mixed messages lately. In July of this year Associated Press reported that Blackwater’s CEO Erik Prince had told the press that the contractor would be leaving the world of private security because it put "their entire business at risk" and would be looking to move into other sectors, including (would you believe) humanitarian aid.
Blackwater later clarified that Prince was not talking broadly about security contracting, but specifically about their presence in Iraq — which Blackwater would be scaling down as they look to diversify and pursue new opportunities.
Blackwater is the biggest private security contractor in Iraq, and has copped a lot of criticism over the years, most especially for killing 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square in September 2007.
The former Special Forces operatives who run Blackwater have sought new opportunities for the firm in conflict zones with much lower profiles than Iraq. So Africa seems perfect — indeed, like the other big security firms, the company is already engaged in providing security and training to a range of governments on that continent.
Such is the diversification of Blackwater’s client base, that according to the counterpunch blog, "Actress and Darfur activist Mia Farrow recently met with the corporation’s owner, Erik Prince, to discuss using the company in a military role in the western Sudan."
If it’s true and Farrow’s prepared to front the cash, she could soon find herself riding shotgun on a helicopter joyflight in a Blackwater "Little Bird" chopper, like these fun-loving guys.
Counterpunch notes that mercenary outfits are all over Africa again:
"MPRI is training militaries in Benin, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda and Senegal. DynCorp is doing the same in Darfur and Somalia. While the cover story is fighting terrorism and ensuring stability, US military intervention — direct and through mercenaries and its client state, Ethiopia — has thoroughly destabilised Somalia, creating a crisis that rivals Darfur.
The US’s training of foreign fighters has come back to bite it in the past, and the US Department of Defence has given some attention to the question of what this training could do for stability in the region.
A US Army Strategic Studies Institute study into DynCorp‘s training of the Liberian Armed Forces found that US-trained soldiers were at the core of "[every]armed group that plundered Liberia over the past 25 years".
So mercenaries are back in Africa in a big way. Up in the Gulf of Aden, it would seem there are plenty of people willing to pay for security, with insurance premiums soaring for shipping companies and governments of relatively wealthy trading nations keen to stabilise the area.
Bloomberg reported that in the first nine months of this year pirate attacks increased 500 per cent and 51 boardings were attempted. Of course NATO has sent seven warships to attempt to stem the problem, but it’s a huge area, the rules of engagement for dealing with pirates are sketchy and the bureaucratic cogs turn slowly.
In October, "gcaptain", a blog for mariners, reported that Blackwater is moving into naval operations.
"The private military organisation known as either a private security firm or a mercenary organisation (depending on your political beliefs) has sent its 183-ft M/V McArthur to the Gulf of Aden, off Somalia, to combat pirates."
"[Blackwater] has tentative plans to build a small fleet of two or three anti-piracy vessels, each able to carry several dozen armed security personnel, according to reports in Lloyds List Maritime."
Forbes reported that, "Although the Blackwater vessels will not be armed, the crew will be. Unlike official military personnel, they may have fewer qualms about using those arms against pirates."
The announcement received some support from the blogosphere, such as this post from "Thinker" on Dangerzone, "Let Blackwater have their way and sort the pirates out."
The ships will also have helipads capable of launching attack helicopters similar to those Blackwater has frequently used in Iraq which can be seen in these videos.
Meanwhile, the Huffington Post notes that the economic windfall for pirates in war ravaged Somalia has been significant:
"Somalia’s increasingly brazen pirates are building sprawling stone houses, cruising in luxury cars, marrying beautiful women, even hiring caterers to prepare Western-style food for their hostages.
"Northern coastal towns like Harardhere, Eyl and Bossaso, the pirate economy is thriving thanks to the money pouring in from pirate ransoms that have reached $30 million this year alone. ‘There are more shops and business is booming because of the piracy,’ said Sugule Dahir, who runs a clothing shop in Eyl. ‘Internet cafes and telephone shops have opened, and people are just happier than before.’ In Harardhere, residents came out in droves to celebrate as the looming oil ship came into focus this week off the country’s lawless coast."
(The poverty and boom of the pirate towns has been captured beautifully by Guardian photographer Veronique de Viguerie.)
Governments and corporations paying private contractors to fight Somali pirates is not a new phenomenon. In 2005 — back when there still was a Somali Government — an approach was made to hire the US firm Top Cat Marine. The proposed fee was US$50 million, but the deal fell through, according to blogger Noah Shachtman, because the company was deemed too "shady".
In the current climate, it’s surprising that mercenaries could lose a tender because they have a governance problem.
One factor working against the use of mercenaries is the reluctance of some shipping companies to fight the pirates. Commenting on the Agonist "canuck" says, "If I were an owner of a large shipping company, I would not be employing tactics that escalate violence, endanger the crew or the cargo it’s carrying."
Companies are looking at non-violent ways to lessen the chances of their vessels being captured, like simply going faster to increase the force of the wash around their hulls.
Uneasy about the role of mercenaries, blogs like Opinio Juris have been very interested in the approach taken by UK security firm Eos, which puts unarmed staff on ships. They quote its director David Johnson: "[If ] you have guns onboard, you are going to escalate the situation. We don’t want to turn that part of the world into the Wild West." The article continues:
"Johnson’s employees don’t carry arms, relying on tactics that can be as simple as greasing or electrifying hand rails, putting barbed wire around the freeboard — the lowest area of the deck — or installing high-pressure fire hoses directed at vulnerable areas of a ship.
"High-tech but non-lethal weapons include dazzle guns, which produce disorienting flashes; microwave guns, which heat up the skin causing discomfort but no long-term damage; and acoustic devices that can blast a wave of painful sound across hundreds of yards.
"Johnson believes his company’s refusal to carry guns has helped attract business: inquiries have gone up three- to fourfold in the past few months.
At a minimum, the legal issues surrounding private security for shipping need to be resolved before Blackwater and the other US companies get anywhere near the pirates. The last thing we need is a Nisoor Square at sea."
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