To curb piracy, bring on hired guns

November 18, 2011

By Bernd Debusmann

The views expressed are his own.

Better late than never. After years of debate, there is growing consensus among governments, major shipping companies and maritime organizations that armed private security guards are a potent deterrent to high-seas pirates. That view is certain to crimp a criminal business already showing signs of decline.

Numbers tell part of the story: In the first nine months of the year, Somali pirates attacked 199 ships, a hefty increase over 126 attacks in the corresponding period in 2010. But the number of ships they hijacked dropped from 35 in 2010 to 24 this year. Expressed differently, their success rate declined from 28 percent to 12 percent. Not a single vessel carrying armed guards was taken.

Which is why the United States and Britain changed policies on hired guns a few days apart in October. In the United States, the change was so quiet it almost escaped notice. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron said in a television interview his government was reversing opposition to armed guards on British-flagged vessels because “the fact that a bunch of pirates in Somalia are managing to hold to ransom the rest of the world … is a complete insult.”

That’s also a tacit admission that the naval flotillas on counter-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean for the past few years face a problem without solution — too much water, too few warships. The pirates have launched attacks up to 1,000 miles from the Somali coast.

As Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, put it to an advisory panel on November 9, “with so much water to patrol, it is difficult for international naval forces in the region to protect every commercial vessel.” Therefore, he explained, the United States had established a national policy encouraging countries to allow commercial ships to have armed security teams on board.

The policy was set out in a memo by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, once a determined foe of private security contractors, to U.S. embassies asking them to suggest to their host governments and shipping industry representatives there to use armed guards aboard vessels traveling through high-risk waters off the Horn of Africa.

The memo was leaked to the Somalia Report, an English-language website of news and analyses from Somalia published by Robert Young Pelton, an author and documentary film maker specialized on conflict zones. “It’s ironic that this came from the desk of the woman who sponsored legislation, when she ran for president, that would have banned the use of security contractors altogether,” Pelton said in an interview.

U.S. and British support for armed guards is akin to legalizing Band-Aids without curing the wounds that require them, he thinks, the wounds being conditions in Somalia that allow pirates to operate with relative impunity.


On the high seas, they no longer can take impunity for granted. Just three years ago, the vice admiral then commanding the U.S. Fifth Fleet, William Gortney, said in exasperation that “there is no reason not to be a pirate. The vessel I’m trying to pirate, they won’t shoot at me. I’m going to get my money. They won’t arrest me because there’s no place to try me.”

That’s no longer true. According to United Nations figures, more than 1,000 Somalis are behind bars in 20 countries around the world, either awaiting trial for piracy or serving prison sentences. The latest to face justice were six Somalis who went on trial in Paris this week for hijacking a yacht and taking a French couple hostage in 2008. In October, a court in Norfolk handed out life sentences to Somalis convicted of hijacking an American yacht and murdering four Americans.

The country with the largest number of suspected Somali pirates in detention is India (120), where the government issued guidelines this summer allowing ships with Indian crews to carry armed guards. The rationale, as in the United States and Britain: Ships with armed security personnel don’t get hijacked.

Even the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the U.N. agency responsible for maritime safety, is cautiously edging away from its long-held opposition to seafarers carrying weapons or ships carrying armed guards. In a circular issued in October, it said IMO members in general and governments in the region of the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden and Red Sea in particular should “facilitate” the passage of armed guards and their equipment.

That followed a change of approach by the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), a trade group representing around 80 percent of the world’s merchant fleet, earlier in the year. Previously opposed to armed guards, it now says they are a matter for individual ship owners to decide. Some estimates say that around one in five vessels sailing though high-risk seas already carry armed guards.

Bad news for pirates, good news for the private security industry.

The German Frigate ‘Hamburg’ (R) patrols after destroying two fishing boats (L) which were discovered floating keel side up in open waters off the coast of Somalia, in this undated handout photo made available to Reuters August 15, 2011. The captain of Frigate ‘Hamburg’ decided to scupper the boats to stop them falling into the hands of pirates. REUTERS/Bundeswehr/Christian Laudan/Handout


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

[…] Source: REUTERS 2011/11/18/to-curb-piracy-bring-on-hired -guns/ […]

Posted by TRITON RISK MSS | PRIVATE ARMED SECURITY CURBS PIRACY – Maritime Security Specialists | Report as abusive

I am all for putting armed security teams on board ships. The thing is, some of these people that come and tell great stories of how tough a Mercenary they are. Do background check. If the are going to be armed with M4 type weapons in a 5.56 round, they are wasting their time. 7.62 NATO is a much more powerful and have better range as well as stopping power. 50 Caliber Mach guns would be a big help, the rounds per sec and the destruction to the enemy ship will be a deterrent as well.

Posted by lg.inf6770 | Report as abusive

[…] To curb piracy, bring on hired guns […]

Posted by News: Online holiday sales to rise 15 percent: comScore | News 25/7! Delivering news in real time | Report as abusive

[…] To curb piracy, bring on hired guns […]

Posted by News: Online holiday sales to rise 15 percent: comScore | Delivering news 24/7/365 | Report as abusive

During 9 years in the south china seas, there were very few times we didn’t have a boxed 50 caliber on the flying bridge. ships sunk, boarded, pirated to Cambodia, even captured a ship once on our schedule, never got us nor would they have.

And I quote, “You know what those CIA guys are like. Bunch of little girls.”

Posted by blue7053 | Report as abusive

Every single comment I have made here has been deleted. Apparently, my crime is either being American or not being sufficiently anti-American. Or both.

I’ll try a fourth time.

America is the most horrible place the world has ever seen. Americans eat children. Americans want to enslave the rest of the world. Americans are not only worse than the Nazis, but they were 100% responsible for the Nazis. Hitler was on the CIA payroll.

There, happy now Bernd?

Posted by BajaArizona | Report as abusive

Bernd, perhaps you will recognize the below words. They are the foundation of your employer’s commitment to ethical journalism:

The Trust Principles

Thomson Reuters is dedicated to upholding the Trust Principles and to preserving its independence, integrity and freedom from bias in the gathering and dissemination of information and news.

The charter documents of Thomson Reuters Corporation require Thomson Reuters directors, in the performance of their duties, to have due regard to the Trust Principles, by the proper exercise of their powers and in accordance with their other duties as directors.
The Trust Principles are:

1: That Thomson Reuters shall at no time pass into the hands of any one interest, group or faction;
2: That the integrity, independence and freedom from bias of Thomson Reuters shall at all times be fully preserved;
3: That Thomson Reuters shall supply unbiased and reliable news services to newspapers, news agencies, broadcasters and other media subscribers and to businesses governments, institutions, individuals and others with whom Thomson Reuters has or may have contracts;
4: That Thomson Reuters shall pay due regard to the many interests which it serves in addition to those of the media; and
5: That no effort shall be spared to expand, develop and adapt the news and other services and products so as to maintain its leading position in the international news and information business.

I would urge you to reexamine your own (lack of) commitment to freedom from bias. Even a cursory reading of your work reveals a strident anti-American bias. Every single piece you write is a strident screed detailing the multitude of sins committed by a hypocritical America. As an American, I am not ignorant of my country’s many failings. Nor am I very patriotic in the Us vs Them paradigm. I agree with Oscar Wilde that “patriotism is a virtue of the vicious.” However, I do think that when judging the merits of any country, and any present or historical situation, it is vital to maintain an objective appreciation for context. Any historian worth the title would agree that an understanding of context is vital.

How can you possibly believe that you have applied an objective understanding of context in your reporting on the US when every single article you write is narrowly obsessed with only America’s real and imagined failings? If you actually believe that you are a principled and unbiased journalist then you have only managed to fool yourself. You are nothing more than a thinly veiled polemicist. And by deleting all of my critical posts, you also show yourself to be a coward. Do you really think that you are fooling anyone?

The biggest fool is the one who successfully fools himself.

I challenge you to find one–just one–positive aspect of American society to comment on. You have made a career out of negativity. Obviously America, as with any country, has both positive and negative traits. If you can’t bring yourself to identify any positives, then that says everything anyone needs to know about your supposed “freedom from bias.” I suspect that you either will not or can not meet this challenge. I would bet money that this post will also be removed within 24 hours.

You can hide the criticism from unimportant readers such as myself, but your true nature is readily apparent to anyone who cares to peruse your oeuvre.

You are merely a polemicist masquerading as an intellectual.

Posted by BajaArizona | Report as abusive

[…] is yet another quote for you all to think […]

Posted by Martyn Lowe » Blog Archive » All Armed at sea – Part 10 – International cooperation | Report as abusive

So, BajaArizona, I assume if I were to report on child abuse, I would have to end the article with some of the positive aspects of child abuse, right?
Since when objectivity comes from finding the positive side of things? IMHO, you got your concepts mixed up.
Now, if Bernd was lying or omitting crucial information that would change the interpretation of the news, then yes: it would show a bias. If you think he is manipulating the news or our understanding of the news, please, bring your arguments to the table, not your ad hominems.

Posted by tog000 | Report as abusive


If a person were to write years and years of articles about child abuse in the Catholic Church, but never once mention that the Catholic Church actually does have people who do not abuse children and who do much critical good work, then yes, that person would be biased.

Posted by BajaArizona | Report as abusive

Superb webpage…

[…] The information brought up within the post are a number of the most effective out there […]…

Posted by Anwar Sadhe | Report as abusive

Check this out…

[…] that is the end of this article. Here you’ll find some sites that we think you’ll appreciate, just click the links over[…]……

Posted by air purifier systems | Report as abusive