Former Marine and Special Agent Kevin Doherty is the owner of Nexus Consulting Group of Alexandria. He founded the company in 2005 to focus on US law while actively protecting US citizens, equipment and cargo from the threats of terrorism and criminal activity.
In shadow of the second attack on the Maersk Alabama and the murder by pirates of the Captain of the Singapore based MV Theresa VIII in the process of her hijacking, I interviewed him last Friday focusing on the role of private security companies, their efforts to defend American merchant ships from piracy, and the evolving threat going forward.
Salamander: How many people do you have working for you? Are they employees or are independent contractors?
Doherty: The operational people we bring in are independent contractors. Due to the nature of the contracts we get, they are very short term and therefore we cannot bring in full-time employees.
Salamander: Due you work with American flagged shipping companies, or are you international in scope?
Doherty: Currently we are only dealing with American flagged companies. We are looking to expand and are looking at a variety of companies that are interested in our services. For now though, we have dissected US lay enough that we are comfortable enough with them. We think we can work internationally; it is just that we haven’t focused a lot dissecting those laws.
Salamander: When you are executing your security contracts, are you operating under US laws, international laws, or does it depend on the contract you have with the individual companies?
Doherty: It’s actually, “all of the above.” We are all US citizens, we are responsible to US laws when on US flagged vessels, vessels are under international law when in international waters, but they follow the laws of their flag of origin. When our personnel are in transit through the territory of foreign countries, then you have to follow those laws as well.
Salamander: There are a lot of questions out there about arming merchant ships, with the two sides arguing if it is a good idea or a bad idea. There is a large difference of opinion and perspective between what you do and what many European and international organizations feel is the right path to take when it comes to keeping merchant ships away from predation by pirates. Why do you think they have the view that they have?
Doherty: I have to question what their agenda really is. Just this week we have the example of Somali pirates using deadly force. They shot and killed the Captain on one of the vessels. They are using deadly force to terrorize merchant mariners transiting the Gulf of Aden, who are just exercising innocent passage – trying to do their job.
The people who say, “Let’s not use weapons. Let’s not go there yet.” I question their agenda. I think a lot of that attitude comes from the fact that a lot of these organizations and a lot of those people who are supporting that stance are in the United Kingdom.
As I mentioned earlier, I used to be Special Agent Kevin Doherty. In my work, I used to travel through the UK. Even then, on official business with a diplomatic passport, I was not allowed to bring my firearm into the UK. They have some of the strictest firearms laws in the world, and you look that the IMO and you look at the shipping companies and you look at the insurers, they are mostly based in the UK.
You really have to question the agenda of those who know clearly that the Somalis are using deadly force, from AK-47s to RPGs. They are saying, “Don’t arm yourself against that.”
“What is your agenda?” That is my question.
Salamander: Having spent some time in the UK, and worked with the British military, I am very familiar with trying to deal with the point of view that they have.
Doherty: The thing is, they are not saying that we shouldn’t; they are saying that we can’t. They want us to maintain their standards – because they can’t maintain ours. I don’t understand how people can say, “Kevin, you can’t put weapons on ships, you escalate the situation.”
How much higher can I escalate? The pirates are already using deadly force. They are firing RPGs.
Salamander: I know that what you do is defensive in nature, but the company that used to be known as Blackwater was trying to do something quasi-offensive with their own ship, but that went nowhere.
One thing that we have talked about on our blog and that I would be interested in getting your point of view on is addressing piracy from an economic aspect.
Throughout the history of piracy, and written about as far back to Roman times, a common thread is the economic calculus of piracy that is closely involved with what risk is involved for the pirate to engage or not to engage in piracy.
If the pirates know that certain ships with certain flags have a defensive capability; economically, it makes no sense for them to make an effort to go after those ships. So, those flagged ships that do not defend themselves, or as we saw recently with the Spanish, come from nations that have a habit of paying ransom, one would think that the pirates would target those ships and nations.
Do you see that level of sophistication in the pirate operations, or are we giving them too much credit for economic literacy?
Doherty: Until the Maersk Alabama this week, I would say that you were giving them too much credit and sophistication. However, for them to be able to attack the Maersk Alabama twice in six months, is either statistically phenomenal or they deliberately targeted that vessel.
We have seen them indiscriminately attack ships, as we saw with the attack on “Grey Hull” German Navy ship that in the dark that they could not distinguish from a merchant ship at night. So there is an aspect of randomness to their attacks.
We have heard that there is an intelligence component coming out of London where insurance company sources are sending information to the Somalis telling them what different ships’ insurance thresholds are. The Somalis are asking for exactly the right amount of money that insurers will pay. They are not asking for $20 million, they’re not asking for $20,000; they are asking for $2.47 million dollars that just happens to meet the threshold of that specific contract.
Do I have the link analysis to prove that? No. Do I think it is suspicious? Absolutely.
Do I think that in light of the incident with the Maersk Alabama – where the Maersk Alabama was attacked by armed pirates twice in a six month period; like I said – it is statistically unfathomable or they were specifically targeted.
Salamander: Moving back from the broad view of piracy, let me ask you a few specific questions about your security teams.
What type of weapons or defensive equipment do they bring with them, or is that something you wish to keep close hold?
Doherty: We are transparent. I believe that the greatest threat to the merchant mariners out there is the RPG. We are seeing it deployed by the pirates more and more. It is a nasty weapon that can be used out to almost 1,000 meters. With that, when you are talking about armed security teams, you have to mitigate that threat, you need to be able to reach out to ranges up to and greater than 1,000 meters.
The weapon systems we are talking about are at a minimum a 7.62 round and higher. We have .50 caliber sniper rifles, semi-automatic, that we employ on some of our vessels because we need the ability to stop the pirates from using the RPG against the protected vessel.
Salamander: During the Iran-Iraq War, the Iranians used the RPG very effectively against very large merchant vessels. Do you know if any shipping companies have looked at that experience toward any possible steps they can take, if any, to mitigate that threat through how they load their ships – or any damage control assets they may carry?
Doherty: No, not that far. We saw in Iraq that RPGs can stop M-1 Abrams. Those are heavy armor vehicles. Merchant vessels make their money by shipping as much as they can at the smallest cost. If they start reinforcing their ships, they will not be able to operate that merchant vessel as a commercial enterprise.
We are going back to the old Soviet model of dealing with the RPG when they were fighting the Afghans. They realized that they could not stop the RPG, so the decided that they just needed to avoid them. To do that, we try to create a bubble around our vessels.
Salamander: Obviously you want to keep them away from the ship, but like we saw recently with a Chinese ship where the crew, for a lack of a better phrase, repelled boarders; if your security forces found themselves in a situation where pirates have made it on board a ship and in the course of defending the ship took some of the pirates prisoner – what type of legal ramifications are there for taking prisoners? Do you follow US, host nation, international, or some other legal arrangement?
Doherty: Piracy is a universal crime. The semantics though break down into if this is a pirate attack, or is this an armed attack, or is this just a trespasser. That is important. In defining someone as a pirate, which we can clearly do in the Gulf of Aden, because it is a universal crime, you can try them in any particular venue that has nexus to that piracy.
If it happens on a US flag vessel, they can be tried in the US. If it happens on a US vessel in international waters, they can be tried either in the US, or under the Tribunal in Kenya where there is an agreement. If it happens in Saudi waters on a US vessel, they could be tried in Saudi Arabia, they could be tried in the US – or even perhaps in the Tribunal set up by the UN.
The problem is that the threshold for evidence you need for something like a crime scene. We haven’t reached the point where the Captain and his crew can process that like a crime scene.
Salamander: The Chinese example is an outlier, but has there been any occurrences where a crew has successfully repelling pirates without a security detachment on board, or is that simply beyond the skill set or training ability of these merchant mariners.
Doherty: No, it happens daily if you look at some of the UK TMO reports. My last transit was made the 10th through 20th and there were seven reported attacks. All of which were repelled, none of which had armed security at the time they were attacked.
You will see the gambit; a potential pirate vessel close; merchant vessel speeds up or creates a large enough wake; goes to fire hoses; tries to make itself a tougher target; then the pirate probe breaks contact. We have seen this happen a lot in the last month.
The US Navy has put out best practices, and that is good. The problem is that the pirates are reinvesting their money. They are becoming better, faster, stronger, more sophisticated. They used to say, “Stay 800nm off the coast and you will be OK.” Well, last week we had a vessel get hit 1,000nm off the coast.
Then they say, “Do 16kts or better and you will be OK.” Well, Captain Phillips said he was doing 18kts or better when he got hit on the Maersk Alabama. The Sirius Star, I think, was doing 23kts when she was taken down. So they give you a list of best practices, but it still isn’t a silver bullet.
Salamander: That leads us right into my next question that you already answered to a certain extent; but I want to throw it out there anyway. It’s a two-parter in a way. There is always an arms’ race with piracy, and Darwin’s theory applies. With the money they are getting from the ransoms being paid – Spain being the last one to pay – and the pirates reinvesting that money like you said, I think that obviously a concern you would have would be the escalation in both equipment – for instance moving away from fishing old boats to something that can go faster then 23 kts – and weapons that as the RPG is the greatest challenge you have now – what could make the challenge even greater?
Doherty: It isn’t what we could see, it is what we do see. Last month the US Navy reported that it was shot at with a heavy caliber weapon. If they have the ability to reach out beyond 1,000 meters, if they start pulling out DShK, if they start pulling out true military assault weapons on these vessels – the DShK is the Russian equivalent of the US .50 cal machine gun – it is a nasty weapon. They clearly have those weapons available to them.
One of my biggest concerns is when one of those guys in Mogadishu decides that, “Hey, this is a good business model.” I think we can fairly say that to this point it is just the normal pirates, but when the battle hardened fighters in Mogadishu decide that they want a bit of that action, then it could get real ugly.
Salamander: The experience we have already had on the ground in Somalia is what it is, but a lot of what we are doing right now is strictly defensive; we are defending ourselves from the arrow and not going after the archer.
Salamander: So, the problem is that these pirate nests along the coast that everyone knows about.
When you look at the previous experience with piracy, when you are talking about the Mediterranean, the Caribbean and other places, that you do not really solve the problem until you clean out the nests. That means going ashore as a military action.
Doherty: Or diplomatic.
Salamander: Or diplomatic, exactly. I know you aren’t a diplomat, but I know you talk with people whose expertise is in this area. Do you see this progressing in the diplomatic area in any way, or is it one of these unfortunate areas where things will have to get worse until the international community finally says, “Enough.”
Doherty: I caveat this slightly by saying when I was Special Agent Doherty, I did carry a diplomatic passport and I do have a bit of a grasp on it. But to be diplomatic, there has to be an entity to talk to. At this point however, they are just too fragmented. You have Somaliland, Puntland, the Islamic Republic of Somalia, in addition to various clans who claim their particular areas. So, the destabilized nature of that nation is such a challenge, and unfortunately that destabilization is part of the problem of trying to deal with the diplomatic path to solve it.
Sadly, what we see in the end is that it takes some military force to come in and hold the ground and not let the factions to terrorize and fragment. To literally put boots on the ground, have curfews, etc. That is what we did in Iraq. We secured the area and then we gave space for the diplomats to come in and attempt to build a better situation both politically and tangibly. That is the model.
I don’t think though that this is the case here. It is such a quagmire in Somalia that no one is willing to dive in to that hornet’s nest. As a result, it is a Petri dish over there, where the fungus is growing tremendously.
Salamander: Do you see passive defenses, like the LRAD they used on the Maersk Alabama, or fire hoses in conjunction with evasive maneuvers as an effective long term tool in defeating an attack by pirates today? As part of your kit, do your teams include passive defense devices? What are your feelings going forward in light of the escalation of force by the pirates as we discussed earlier?
Doherty: Some of those systems are very expensive. I love the fact that those tools are in the toolbox. I love that the appropriate tools are available for the right level of attack. As those pirate vessels are trying to come alongside and they have a ladder and you have a firehose, then that is great and that is appropriate and correct.
However, as we saw with the LRAD last November, on the Biscaglia there was an unarmed British security team of four who were using the LRAD as their final protective line. The pirates we shooting AKs at the vessel, and the security team had to literally jump overboard, and the pirates took the ship.
The LRAD is not effective as a deterrent system as part of your protective barrier. It is effective as an alert system. I think the problem is when people look at these levels of escalation; they try to use these things you would use at Levels 2 & 3 when things have escalated to Levels 5 & 6.
It is analogous to a police officer using mace to stop someone who is shooting at him. It doesn’t work. It isn’t what it was designed for.
Salamander: As we wind things up, is there something that we haven’t covered or that you wanted to add, something you think would help the readers at USNIBlog get a better handle on what you do and what you see going forward concerning the security of our merchant ships?
Doherty: Well, we could talk about this for days because I believe in it, it is the right thing to do. It is bucking the system though, because the old ways as held by the old dogs are saying, “Don’t arm. Don’t arm.”
Well, it’s not about barbed wire; it’s not about halogen lights. It is about stopping the RPGs and the pirates who want to do harm to our mariners. Moreover, as former Special Agent Doherty as part of the intelligence community, I firmly believe that the US mariners are not going to be treated as part of this old model.
The Somalis still have a bone to pick with us dating back to 1993. I am convinced that the pirates are going to be paid the same in by the folks in Mogadishu, as they will by Lloyds of London.
We know this, as when the pirates got on board the Maersk Alabama the first time and they found out they had Americans, Captain Phillips stated that they were full of joy. I don’t think they will treat Americans the same as they will Filipino crews.
With that, we need to recognize that it is a mortal issue when you are going through those waters. We can’t be talking about fire hoses and barbed wire when the Somalis are talking about AKs and RPGs.