Saturday, October 29, 2011

Piracy, Terrorism, Somalia, Drones and Marines

Towards a fighting resolution of the Somalia problem?

Piracy: more and more of a problem
The IMB's Piracy Reporting Centre in Kuala Lumpur published figures for the first quarter of 2011 regarding pirate attacks off Somalia: 97 attacks have been counted, an increase of 32 on the same period last year, and 18 vessels were hijack with another 90 either fired upon or boarded. These have resulted in the murders of seven crew members, 34 injuries and the capture of 344 people who are now being held hostage, bringing the total number of those being held by Somali pirates by the end of March 2011 to 596.
The data about kidnapping, injures and murders is particularly worrisome, as It reveals a disturbing, growing trend in the use of violence in these assaults, which initially wasn’t present: only two injuries were reported in 2006.
It is estimated that, every year, some 23,000 ships come down the Suez Canal and Red Sea into the Gulf of Aden, and about 40,000 transit the Straits of Hormuz. With the movements of thousands of dhows, ocean-going fishing vessels and other smaller craft, it means that piracy affects only about 0.1% of vessels transiting in the area. But this detail is deceitful.

Geographically, piracy is localized in what is simply the most strategically relevant corner of Earth, crossed by good part of the most important commercial sealanes. In particular, every year 40% of the world's energy resources go through the Straits of Hormuz, and 11% through the Suez Canal. The area at risk spans about 2.2 million square miles of ocean, encompassing the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, most of the Indian Ocean, the North Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Gulf, while in the Indian Ocean alone, the borders of the “danger area” extend all the way south to the border between Tanzania and Mozambique, eastwards past the Seychelles towards the Maldives and north to the coasts of India, Pakistan and Oman.
To cover this immense area (twice as big as the whole Europe, Uk included), 25 nations have teamed up to create the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), headquartered with the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. CMF is composed by three Combined Task Forces:

CTF-150, with Maritime security and Counter Terrorism role
CTF-151, with Counter Piracy role
CTF-152, Arabian Gulf Security and Cooperation. CTF 152 is generally commanded by one of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, on 6 month rotation. The GCC comprises Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman.    

CMF is commanded by a U.S. Navy Vice Admiral, who also serves as Commander US Navy Central Command and US Navy Fifth Fleet. All three commands are co-located at US Naval Support Activity Bahrain. Deputy commander is a UK Royal Navy Commodore, with other senior staff roles at CMF headquarters filled by personnel from member nations, including Australia, France, Italy and Denmark. Participation is purely voluntary and the contribution from each country varies depending on its ability to contribute assets and the availability of those assets at any given time.

Command of the three task forces is taken over, for 6 months at a time, by one of the contributing nations. CTF-151 is currently under Italian command, with the destroyer Andrea Doria deployed in the area.

The flexibility of CMF is, however, an issue: the organization works without an overarching political or military mandate, unlike NATO and EUNAVFOR, so that no member of CMF will ever be asked to do anything that is outside its national mandate. The legal implications of this, mean that any suspected pirates have to be dealt with by the jurisdiction of the country whose navy catches them, making each case unique. The recent case of the raid of british Marines from RFA Fort Victoria, which freed the hijacked Italian ship ‘Montecristo’ and lead to the capture of 11 pirates, for example, saw the arrested men being handed over by the UK to Italy for prosecution under Italian law. This method has had some success, but there have been consistent calls for adopting an international rule: Jack Lang, UN's Special Advisor on piracy, argued for the establishment of an international legal process, aiming for an international court providing appropriate legal instruments to deal with suspected pirates in a consistent and clear way.  

The area and challenges are both vast, and even 25 nations working together are not managing to put enough warships in the area. In 2008, CMF, NATO and EUNAVFOR agreed to establish the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor with the agreement of the merchant community, and to patrol it with a concentration of warships. This initiative, was initially very successful, resembling the concept of convoys in the two world war, when the issue was that of submarines. Ships are directed in mass into a safe “corridor” which the warships of the various navies are better able to constantly guard and protect.
However, the pirates refused to stop and moved their activities further out into the Indian Ocean, using the infamous 'motherships', larger merchant ships and previously pirated dhows or ocean-going vessels used as bases for launching assaults out at sea. This change in tactic expanded the pirates' areas of operation massively, pushing their range of action up to 1,000 miles away from the Somali coast.

The escalation
Piracy is often played down, but it is a very real concern. With the number of attacks raising constantly, and with their cost to the shipping and insurance companies growing more and more, there’s been an escalation in the gravity of the situation.

London’s Lloyd’s all but raised the project for financing a private fleet of escorts and security vessels for protecting shipping in the area.  

Dutch-Norwegian listed ocean transport company Dockwise, world leader in the market of super-heavy sea transports and known for its fleet (the largest in the world) of Float-On, Float-Off vessels often used to carry whole oil rigs and other massive and incredibly expensive payloads, warned the Netherlands’ government that it would sail its vessels under a different flag unless the country changed its laws to allow private guards to stay on ships in order to fend off pirate attacks.

The impact of Dockwise’s warning was pretty serious. The government, well aware of how much money comes from the fleet being flagged in the country, so much so that the Dutch soon after announced that they would allow their warships to strike pirates even ashore. An official Danish government anti-piracy strategy, published in June, suggested tougher measures, including the use of special forces and even bombing of pirate bases, with raids ashore to be made without warning the Somali “government” at all.
Even so, they are still hesitating on allowing armed guards aboard vessels, but the pressure is increasing, and they will probably decide in this sense sometime soon.

After the Montecristo crisis, Italy announced that the Marina Militare (the Italian Navy) would make available for hire a first group of ten 6-men teams of Marines from the “San Marco” Regiment. These government-trained guards can now be hired by Italian shipping companies to provide security to their vessels.

The UK itself in 2010 expanded the Fleet Protection Group Royal Marines, raising P Squadron, to provide embarked teams for RFA ships and government-chartered vessels transiting in dangerous areas. One day, a further expansion might allow the creation of teams on the Italian model, which british shipping companies could hire and put aboard their own vessels.
Hired guards aboard british-flagged merchant vessels are to be legalized, and companies of sea guards on hire are already working hard – and well paid -, often giving work to ex-Marines or men from the armed forces.  

Jihad, terrorism, pirates, a failed state and Kenya
But that is not as bad as it gets, because it gets worse. According to the US, Somali pirates are in league with the terror group al-Shabaab, which has spoken of a "sea jihad" and has opened a marine office to co-ordinate with pirates. The Kenyan government estimates 30 per cent of the ransoms are channelled to al-Shabaab.

And in these days, Kenya started military operations against Al-Shabaab, sending its troops into Somalia to clean up the border area. Kenyan land forces are operating in southern Somalia, in an effort to route Al-Shabaab militants bases in townships near the Somali South-East border with Kenya. Like the Libyan rebels in the recent campaign, the kenyan forces are assisted by foreign air and naval support: in particular, US drones flying out of Ethyopia and the gun of a French warship. Air attacks by fast jets have been signaled over the al-Shabaab forces, and it has been speculated that they might have been American planes, but the US denied the assumption.

Kenya started the operation as a retaliation for a series of raids by Somali gunmen who have attacked and abducted foreigners from Kenyan territory. Kenya is concerned about the prospect of al-Shabab attacking Nairobi, and westerners which are fundamental to its economy. Recently, al-Shabab threatened to bring the ”flames of war” to Kenya.
Near the border, in Kenya’s own territory, the Kenyan security forces are launching a crackdown on Kenyan residents suspected to be helping al Shabab. Inside Somalia, Kenyan forces captured six towns in six days, including the pirates’ havens of Ras Kamboni, Dhobley, Tabda, Beles Qooqani, Oddo and Kolbio.

The main objective of the current campaign is the town of Kismayu, and nearby ports of Marka and Baraawe, providing the main source of revenue for al Shabaab, from port fees, business taxes and smuggling. Kenya has refused to put any timelines to its mission, announcing that it will withdraw only when it feels that Al-Shabaab is no longer a threat. Negotiation with the terrorist group is currently ruled out, and it is expected that the African union will be reinforcing the currently heavily-understrenght military presence in Mogadishu. Authorized by the UN in 2007 and set at 12.000 men, the force present at the moment counts only around 9000, from Burundi and Uganda. On November 15, the Intergovernmental Development Authority, that groups together Uganda, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Sudan and Somalia will organize a conference, and it is expected that Uganda and Burundi will then confirm their willingness to provide a further 4,000 men, with Djibouti deploying 1,000 more. This force, known as AMISOM, is currently holding its positions in Mogadishu, with the spokesman Paddy Akunda saying there are currently no plans to provide support for Kenya's mission, although, asked if AMISOM had any plans to join the Kenyan operation at a later point, Akunda said they would "cross that bridge when we get there."

The US recently confirmed that they are flying drones from Ethiopia all the way over Somalia. It is also well known that US Special Forces have made raids into Somalia in several occasions to fight terrorist groups linked to Al-Qaeda. At the moment, any link to the Kenyan operations is denied, but it is hard to believe it, and in any case no one, in Europe or in the US, can possibly oppose the current stance of Nairobi. They are doing the dirty job for us.

Commandos raid
And in the list of “events” relating to Somalia, it has today been confirmed that the Royal Marines made, last July, an amphibious raid into Somalia. Viking armoured vehicles were involved, inserted with landing crafts by 539 Assault Squadron. The vehicles then pushed “well inland” in the lawless Somalia to seize an influential local clan chief, which was taken back to the amphibious ship. 

Viking vehicles of 539 Assault Squadron during exercises in Cyprus as part of Cougar 11 deployment. Between Libya war and raids in Somalia, the amphibious ready group has had an eventful deployment!

The clan chieft was then questioned by MI6 and Foreign Offfice officials, centering on issues such as terrror training camps and the seizing of hostages. A very “Commando-style” operation, one which was not done in quite some time. Details are still minimal, and it is unlikely that much more will be told.

More worrisome than piracy, is the fact that UK and US-born terrorists are believed to be increasingly travelling to Somalia for training rather than Pakistan and Afghanistan, making of the lawless country the “new” (not really) hot spot.

Very little is known about the raid. Not even the name of the ship involved, or which Commando unit. However, it is quite easy to restrict the options: it was probably HMS Albion since she headed ‘East of Suez’ in June, after exercises in the Mediterranean sea. The Marines were from 40 Commando, embarked on board.
The ship had been part of the maxi-deployment “Cougar 2011”, first deployment of the Response Force Task Group (RFTG) - the UK's maritime quick reaction force, centered for the occasion on 40 Commando. The deployment saw HMS Albion, HMS Ocean, HMS Sutherland, RFA Cardigan Bay, RFA Mounts Bay, RFA Wave Knight and RFA Fort Rosalie involved, leaving the UK in early April in two main groups. Trafalgar-class submarine HMS Triumph and Type 42 destroyer HMS Liverpool were also to be part of Cougar, but they almost immediately were diverted to Libya, where they took part in the war.
The exercise set sail two weeks earlier than planned due to the war in Libya, and a significant number of vessels from the Task Group (mainly HMS Ocean and Fort Rosalie) were then assigned to operation Unified Protector. HMS Albion moved on with the exercise, and passed Suez, so she is almost certainly the source of the Somalia raid.   

For sure, even with incomplete information, summing it all together, we have the picture of quite a dangerous situation developing in Somalia, with some potential for further developments.


  1. Hi Gabriele, - RM Cdo Raid;
    In my humble opinion, this the ideal role for RM Cdo units, raids like this should be there main role.
    It's what we can do, we have all the assets to do, not some fantasy force that we can't afford and don't have.
    Even when, (and if Ocean goes) we could still mount similar such operations from Albion or Bulwark.

  2. The Response Force Task Group "introduced" by the SDSR is, really, a copy of the US Marines Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) - MEU(SOC) - which is the smallest brick in the force of the USMC: a mini-army of 1700 to 2200 men with artillery, armour and helicopters.

    Since Afghanistan's 2001 invasion was done, in no little measure, with 2 such units (15 and 26 MEUs), i do not look down to the RFTG.

    Battlegroup ops are ok, but re-establishing a larger amphibious capacity and retaining brigade-sized chances of action will be firm points of my "SDSR15".

    Just trying to think of something to cut in the balance of things to make it "realistic" and not a wish list.
    But holy hell. There really should be no more cuts. When you look into it as i'm trying to do, you see more and more that there's really no more space for further reductions...

  3. Thanks for your comment Gabriele,
    In my opinion, there will be further cuts in SDR 2015. I just cannot see the MoD bringing the budget under control.
    I also think there is will not be the politcal will to deploy boots on the ground in anything over battle group level for sometime to come.
    Keeping ships in extended readiness, men trained for operations, and HQ's operational, costs money. Money that we just don't have for fantasy forces.
    We can't even afford to equip 5 battalions with upgraded warriors! It would be nice to have lots of stuff, but I am sorry to say, the money is just not there!

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