Getting French and personal with pirates

Apr 15, 2008
Author: Bob Couttie

From Bob Couttie’s Maritime Accident Casebook

By Bob Couttie

For France, the taking of the 850 tonne luxury yacht Le Ponant by the highly organised ‘Somali marines’ pirate gang was a matter of national pride. In a part of the world where France had had a powerful presence for centuries, it was an insult, it was personal on a national scale, it was an insult.

The Somali Marines, one of four such groups, is a loose collection of well-armed, well-disciplined, well-financed fishermen-cum-pirates equipped with-state-of-the-art communications equipment. They are unsullied by fundamentalist Islamic politics, they want the cash with a reputation for politeness towards their involuntary guests.

Some 25 piracy incidents have been credited to them in the past year. While their ability to seize ships gets a lot of attention their real strength is organisation. Once a ship is seized a logistic chain ensures that those aboard can hunker down during extended ransom negotiations with supplies of food, water and cigarettes for a long period, and replacement pirates put on board to allow the other pirates some rest and recreation.

It's an expensive business but the rewards of the warlords who finance the operations are high. The warlords themselves risk little since they demand reimbursement from the pirates for any losses, like the skiffs sunk during the Danica White incident in 2007.

The difficulties and dangers of dealing with warlords is well presented in Blackhawk Down, an incident that still haunts the American psyche when dealing with the madness that is Somalia today. You can't do much to a people that have nothing and who are already hurting desperately. Calls not to pay ransom are little more than bluster, and often politically hypocritical. One seafarer, at least, has been executed to make the point, and one wonders how many seafarers' deaths would be acceptable.

Refusal to pay doesn't work, the kidnappers will simply move on to another target, perhaps after executing the ship's crew. Put it like this, if a thug puts a gun to your face and demands your wallet, will he stop robbing people if you refuse to give it over?

Of course not. He'll shoot you and move on. What will work is to identify and target the pirate's shore-base and act forcefully. Whatever one thinks of the European and American empires of the 19th and early 20th century, they did provide the conditions under which pirates bases could be unilaterally attacked effectively. In today's political economic and diplomatic climate such actions are rare. In that sense, the French action in Somalia is a throwback to the 19th century, the era in which, it could be argued, the French are most comfortable. It would appear the old ways are the best ways.

When Le Ponant was taken on 4 April, Gendarmerie counter-terrorism units were sent to Djibouti, about 1,000 kilometres away. Djibouti is also the headquarters of the 13th Demi-Brigade of the Foreign Legion, an organisation with a deservedly fearsome reputation and a deeply embedded institutional experience in the region.

While details of what happened next are likely to remain hazy, it is likely that a decision was made at the Elysee Palace by President Nicolas Sarkozy at a fairly early stage.

One can construct a likely scenario. The frigate Le Commandant Bouan with a Canadian helicopter from HMCS Charlottetown tracked the yacht and built an intelligence assessment as the yacht finally anchors off the port of Eyl. Meanwhile, French government personnel and the yacht owners, CMA-CGM confer. Public announcements are made that paying a ransom cannot be discounted. The largely notional Puntland government is brought into play to provide at least a veneer of an invitation for forceful intervention to legitimise the action.

On Friday, 11th April, the ransom, a modest USD2m is paid and the pirates release the hostages and leave the yacht. With the hostages now safe, the armed intervention begins. There are conflicting accounts of what happened during that

Now, happy, the pirates were tracked by French attack helicopters back to the fishing village of Jaliban. Realising they'd be trailed, several of the pirates tried to make a run for it in a vehicle which was disabled by a sniper and its occupants arrested. Part of the ransom was recovered and what were described as several 'interesting bags' were recovered. Six out of 12 pirates were captured. While French officials deny anyone was killed in the operation, eyewitnesses claim that three people died and eight were wounded in rocket attacks from the helicopter.

Whatever information is drawn from the captured pirates, the issue will be how to act upon it. Putting the pirates themselves on trial is probably not a viable option, given the situation in Somalia, and expecting the Puntland government to capture or kill the warlords who finance these ventures is expecting too much.

The French action has certainly torn a hole in the traditional invulnerability of the Somali Marines, it may need a couple more such actions to make the point. The challenge will be to turn that success into a long-term gain. Part of that may involve leveraging the traditional rivalries between the four main pirate groups in Somalia.

Cutting the umbilical cord between the pirates and the warlords who finance them must be a part of any long term strategy. Giving some form of economic independence and opportunity to those communities most subject to the warlords, and defending them from the warlord wrath, must be part of that strategy. Many of the pirates are young and savvy, yet without hope in a pseudo-nation that offers them little. Pirates are not stupid. A taller order will be to tackle the clan loyalties on which the warlords depend, and which is an essential part of Somali culture, and its curse.

Warlords are the centres of gravity of this system, they cannot, as a class, be removed, but can be replaced, if the political and military will is there to do so. It was said of Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, by an American politician, “He's a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch”, we have to replace the existing warlords with our sons of bitches.

Maritime Accident Casebook was created by Bob Couttie in June 2006. It quickly established itself as an authoritative, credible source, popular among both seafarers and maritime accident investigators. It is a voluntary, free resource for seafarers and those who train them and support are always welcome.



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