Anti-Piracy Inc.

Somali piracy attacks targeting shipping through the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean have significantly risen in quantity, sophistication and audacity. The U.S. Navy SEAL team rescue of the kidnapped crew of the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama last April provided a dramatic example not only of this threat, but also of the lethal force being brought to bear by states in the fight against piracy. However, this week’s attack on the Panamanian-flagged vessel Al Meezan purportedly has demonstrated the first example of another form of lethal force being used against pirates: teams of armed private security guards hired by commercial shipping companies to protect their assets en route through the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean.

Details about the attacked ship Al Meezan – as well as its private security contingent – remain hazy. The ship has been attacked and boarded by pirates twice in the past year, and there has been speculation as to whether or not this cargo vessel has been used in illegitimate commerce. Despite these questions, original reports indicate that the ship’s private security guards exchanged gunfire with the pirates, fatally wounding one, according to the European naval force that arrived on the scene after responding to the ship’s distress call.

While experts have noted that maritime security companies have been expanding their anti-piracy services in this region to commercial shipping for several years, this fatal shooting incident marks a new threshold in the little-known fight between private security and pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

In light of this, policymakers need to ask themselves three questions. First, why have some commercial shipping firms resorted to hiring private security companies? Second, what options do shippers have for protecting themselves on the high seas? And third, will maritime security companies be viewed as uncontrollable rogue forces or as force multipliers in a cooperative public-private effort to defend shipping commerce from pirates?

One reason piracy is a problem, aside from the key component of the criminals who cause it, is insufficient publicly provided security. Laws, even at sea, mean little unless they can be enforced. As the Somali government fell, piracy simply grew in its absence. While international cooperative naval efforts such as the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor in the Gulf of Aden seem to have been successful in the past year, pirates simply have sought out unprotected prey elsewhere in the Indian Ocean. The size of the U.S. Navy and its Western partners has continued to shrink since the end of the Cold War, complicating efforts to patrol the million square miles comprising the Gulf of Aden and Somali basin. Navies cannot be everywhere, meaning it is impossible to monitor and protect all shipping in the region. This problem has been exacerbated by the internationally inconsistent tactical, legal and logistical issues of catching, trying and convicting pirates, especially in light of Somalia’s nonfunctioning government.

Shipping companies traveling through areas with an elevated risk of piracy have several options. They can change their route and sail around the southern tip of Africa. However this imposes tremendous costs in both travel time and fuel. Other shippers prefer to rely on their insurance policies to offset risk while sailing through the Gulf of Aden, noting that some studies of attacked vessels suggest that some companies are not at risk of attack because their ships can outrun the small boats used by the Somali pirates. Some companies have invested in technologies that enable crews to protect themselves or have employed guards to use nonlethal technologies in the event of an attack. Controversially, other shippers have used armed guards, such as reported in the case of the United Arab Emirates-owned Al Mazeen.

Shipping organizations such as the International Maritime Bureau and the International Chamber of Shipping and International Shipping Federation have opposed the use of armed guards because they may escalate the violence. Because pirate gangs already have fired rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons during their attacks, this argument rests on the claim that Somali pirates have not yet willfully killed any of their hostages held during ransom negotiations. In contrast, U.S. and U.K. unions representing the rights of workers onboard sailing ships have openly discussed, and occasionally supported, the possibility of allowing sailors the right of armed self-defense.

While arming crews – essentially putting firearms into the hands of nonprofessionals – comes with obvious safety risks, the maritime private-security industry is itself divided on the question of whether to employ their use. Though the retired military personnel typically hired by these security firms have a professional familiarity with firearms, the legal ramifications and liabilities for doing so are unclear at best. So, too, are the political and public-relations costs for the client involved in a potentially fatal shooting incident. There also is the possibility that some less legitimate firms might not have hiring practices as stringent as others have. Under these circumstances, it is an open question as to whether this incident will be viewed – legally and popularly – as a clear case of legitimate self-defense or an unnecessarily reckless and unregulated act of illegal violence.

Because of this uncertainty, the one question that has been a constant at maritime security conferences and other symposiums is this: What happens the day after an armed guard kills a pirate? That day has arrived.

Claude Berube, who teaches at the United States Naval Academy, and Patrick Cullen, who teaches at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies. Their forthcoming book is Maritime Private Security: Market Responses to Piracy, Terrorism and Waterborne Security Risks in the 21st Century.