Sunday, August 21, 2011

Wanted: Pirate Cultural Advisor

On August 11th, the office of the European Union's anti-piracy force, NAVFOR, published what has to go down as one of the oddest want ads in history:

Career Vacancy: Pirate Cultural Advisor

Post Description:
To provide the Operation Commander (OpCdr) and OHQ staff with pirate cultural and religious advice and in particular to advise on pirate trends and weaknesses, including their perceived role in Somalia. 

Professional Experience: 
Military or ex-military who has worked with the CP [counter-piracy] Forces and/or other parties involved in CP (industry/insurers/negotiators). 
Education: NA
Security Clearance: EU Secret

"The job title may sound ambiguous," Commander Harry Harrison, a spokesman for EUNAVFOR, subsequently admitted in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph. Ambiguous, certainly, but also bordering on nonsensical. According to the above job description, a knowledge of the pirates' "cultural and religious" proclivities would be an asset to the potential applicant. If there is a religion that sets pirates apart from the rest of the Somali population, it is unknown to me (though they do, admittedly, hold an unorthodox interpretation of the Koran's injunctions against theft).

"Cmdr. Harrison," the Telegraph reported, "said NAVFOR might also be interested in Somali applicants with detailed knowledge of the country and its clans." How many Somalis, particularly those moving in pirate circles, have military backgrounds (I'm guessing that the EU does not credit time served in clan militias)let alone experience working with the counter-piracy forces? It would not surprise me if not one qualified candidate exists; those who submit CVs are likely to be either foreign blowhards or local con artists.

On one hand, this could be a good indication, a sign that the European Union has become aware that something more than raw military force is needed in solving the problem of Somali piracy. More likely, a diktat has come down from high-ranking apparatchiks to make the piracy mission more "locally owned," "consultative," or whichever other buzz-word-of-the-moment is making the rounds at the top levels of EU leadership. One quick, incoherent press release later, and it's back to blowing pirates out of the water. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Daily Show and more

My August 9th appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (for US viewers, the full segment is also available here): 


...PBS NewsHours with Ray Suarez: July 29th spot on Bloomberg's Inside Track, with Deidre Bolton: 


...and a few more:

  • C-SPAN Book TV interview with Cliff May, President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies
  • Canada AM with Seamus O'Regan 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Of Coast Guards and Pirates

Some months back, Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times reported that the United Arab Emirates had contracted Reflex Responses—a private security firm with ties to Blackwater Worldwide founder Erik Prince— to build a mercenary army composed of primarily Columbian and South African recruits at a military base in the middle of the desert. The ostensible purpose of this Praetorian Guard is to keep an eye on Iran, although a skeptic might wonder if the recent wave of Arab unrest has helped convince the Emirati authorities of the need to keep the other eye on their own citizens.

Reflex Responses is only the latest example of the growing trend of states farming out the functions of their militaries to the private sector. Much has been written in recent years about the moral and practical hazards of employing private security contractors in war zones, where oversight is limited and the firms frequently operate in an environment of virtual impunity. In Somalia, which barely possesses a government capable of delegating away its own functions, the unforeseen complications can be even more far-reaching.

Such was the case in Puntland, the autonomous region in northeastern Somalia that spawned the 2008 outbreak of maritime piracy, and where I spent three months researching a book on the subject. In 1999, almost a decade before the Somali pirates began to crowd the pages of the international news, then-Puntland president Abdullahi Yusuf brought in the British military contractor Hart Security to provide a Coast Guard for the nascent statelet. For the task of preventing illegal fishing along Puntland’s 1,000-mile coastline, the firm was given one sixty-foot trawler and a force of seventy local men. Hart’s profit was to come from hypothetical future revenues from the sale of fishing licenses to foreign companies, which it split almost evenly with the Puntland government.

In the face of a brief civil conflict from 2001-2002, Hart withdrew from Somalia and was replaced by the Somali-Canadian Coast Guard (SomCan), a hastily-cobbled-together outfit run by Abdiweli Ali Taar, a former Toronto cab driver. At its height, SomCan operated a fleet of six patrol ships and four hundred marines, and the company claimed to have identified and arrested a total of thirty illegal foreign fishing vessels. During its tenure, SomCan carried Hart’s fishing license business model to a new level, serving as the direct agent for several south Asian fishing companies, and even going so far as to post its own marines on the decks of its clients’ ships. Its relationship with one Thai company, Sirichai Fisheries, was literally skin tight, with Sirichai reportedly providing the uniforms for the SomCan marines. SomCan continued operations until 2005, when the firm was fired by Puntland president Mohamud Muse Hersi after its own employees hijacked a Thai fishing vessel and demanded an $800,000 ransom.

Following their dismissal, there is substantial evidence—including from my own interviews with pirates—that former Hart and SomCan marines turned to piracy. During one of my trips to Puntland, I interviewed a pirate named Ombaali, a sullen and physically stunted youth in his early twenties, who had to be virtually dragged through the door and forced to speak to me. Ombaali, who had served as a “holder,” or hostage guard, during three pirate operations in 2008, reported that eight members of his extended gang (roughly fifty individuals) had had past histories in the Puntland Coast Guard. “They were the most experienced at attacking and capturing,” he said.

It would be overly simplistic to attribute the better organized and sophisticated breed of pirate that burst into the Gulf of Aden in 2007 and 2008 solely to Puntland’s failed coast guarding experiments; the timing of the piracy outbreak had much more to do with the fiscal and military collapse of the Puntland government in 2007 than a sudden decision by former coast guards to collectively turn to a life of crime. But there is no denying that the skills and experience possessed by ex-Hart and SomCan marines—trained, in many cases, to a European standard in marksmanship, marine navigation, boarding and seizure operations—rendered them ideal employees for the new businesses springing up in Puntland’s coastal towns.

The Puntland government, moreover, is yet to learn from its past mistakes. In November 2010, Puntland entered into a deal with Saracen International, a South African private security firm with no clear address, to “train and mentor” a thousand-strong “Puntland Marine Force.” The firm—whose Ugandan subsidiary has been fingered by the UN Security Council for training rebel paramilitary forces in the Congo—is headed by Lafras Lutingh, a former officer in the South African Civil Cooperation Bureau, a notorious apartheid-era internal security force. Several months after the announcement of the Puntland deal, Saracen was revealed to be covertly backed by Erik Prince, and funded by the United Arab Emirates. Pressure by the Associated Press and The New York Times subsequently led to the Puntland government shelving the project, at least for the time being.

Guns-for-hire are always a tempting option for governments, particularly in a failed state where national institution building can often seem like a hopeless task. But unlike an army or a police force, private contractors can disappear as quickly as a contract expires, leaving unpredictable long-term fallout. The case of the Puntland Coast Guard should serve as a cautionary tale from the anthology of unintended consequences, an illustration of what can come from selling off pieces of a state before the state exists at all. Yesterday’s coast guards, after all, can become today’s pirates.

 [The preceding was an unpublished Op-Ed I wrote about a month ago—somewhat out of date, but hopefully still of interest. Much of the content was taken from a chapter in my book, "Of Pirates, Coast Guards, and Fishermen."]

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Daily Show and The New York Times

First, I received some great news yesterday: I'm going to be on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart this coming Tuesday. I'm driving down to New York tomorrow with a few friends, to enjoy the city for a few days before the show. Needless to say (but I'll say it anyway), I'm looking forward to it.

In other news, the following is an excerpt from Joshua Hammer's review of The Pirates of Somalia, which will appear in this week's edition of The New York Times' Sunday Book Review:

Bahadur captures the inner workings of Somali piracy in extraordinary detail. The organizational structure of typical pirate cells, he explains, includes not just attackers, interpreters, accountants and cooks: almost every group also has its supplier of khat, a plant flown into Somalia by the ton every day from Kenya and Ethiopia and chewed for an addictive high. Like low-level urban crack dealers, the pirates at the bottom rung of the hierarchy make barely enough to survive. But, high or low, these brigands practice some peculiar rituals. After receiving his cut of the ransom on the captured ship, one pirate tells Bahadur, each man must toss his mobile phone into the ocean — a precaution to make sure no one can call ahead to his kin to arrange an ambush of his fellow cell members.

The full review is available here.

It's been a great couple days.