Private security contractors killed a Somali pirate Wednesday–and no one seems to know how to react.

Roger Middleton from the British think tank Chatham House commented that there’s currently no regulation of private security on board ships, no guidelines about who is responsible in case of an attack, and no industrywide standards. So what’s next?

“This will be scrutinized very closely…The bottom line is somebody has been killed and someone has to give an accounting of that,” said Arvinder Sambei, a legal consultant for the U.N. In other words, security contractors should standby to be investigated for their actions. It’s just not clear who will be doing the investigation–the ship’s flagged nation (Panama), the owners’ home nation (UAE) or the nation from which the contractors have citizenship (unknown).

All of this is making me wish I attended an open lectureheld here at the Academy by LCDR Berube on private security contractors as a possible solution to the piracy question held here at the Academy a few weeks ago. (LCDR Berube was recently spotted on Midrats talking about DADT.)

Do we want private security contractors helping secure ships from piracy? Sure, ships have the right to defend themselves. The follow-up questions of how closely their actions are monitored (a huge investigation every time there’s an incident could prove unwieldy) and who holds them accountable have yet to be answered. Any thoughts?

Posted by Jeffrey Withington in Maritime Security, Navy, Piracy
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  • Chaps

    Navies of the civilized world have long known how to handle pirates: kill them, sink their ships. Now wussy lawyers and even wussier politicians want to wring their hands and have investigations. Civilization takes another blow to the head.

  • This happened on a Panama-Flagged vessel. Panama has not outlawed the use of arms on their ships, instead leaving it to vessel owners and operators to decide whether or not to defend their vessels with weapons.

    So this is theirs to investigate or not and I doubt they would do an in-depth investigation, other than perhaps an incident report in order to document the specifics of the event, especially considering that the death did not happen on the vessel.

    The only other party that would have standing to investigate would be the territory the vessel was transiting at the time, if any given how far out at sea these attacks have been happening at.

    Merchant vessels have been quietly adding security teams to their vessels simply because that is the only way to defend against these attacks. Take this case for example, the Naval helicopter arrived after it was all over, discovering the death from the attack in the process. They are just too far away to provide immediate help. The defenders need to be onboard the ‘high value targets’.

  • One more thing. the only people not knowing how to react are those who are against placing arms on merchant ships.

    The ITF has been dead set against any arms on merchant ships, but just recently had to open the door to arming as other options are proven to be less than perfect. They are against using private guards but that is a position they need to take to defend their ‘Flags of Convenience’ campaign.

    “Unions back use of armed guards on vessels LLOYDS LIST

    David Osler – Thursday 18 March 2010

    SEAFARER unions have backed the use of armed military personnel on board ships transiting piracy prone areas “where appropriate”, while at the same time reiterating their resistance to the arming of seafarers themselves.

    The policy brings the International Transport Workers’ Federation broadly into line with leading shipowner organisation BIMCO, which argues that while shipowners should concentrate on implementing best practice guidelines, armed services shipriders might be suitable in some circumstances.

    A meeting of ITF seafarer representatives in Berlin also condemned unnamed major flags of convenience for their failure to take concrete action on the piracy issue.

    Although tacitly conceding that most FoC nations lack the capacity to project their armed services worldwide, a statement from the union grouping argues that none have even volunteered to allow their jurisdictions to be used for the prosecution of alleged pirates.

    “It is unforgiveable that the major flag of convenience states have done little more to fight piracy than sign pieces of paper,” the statement said.

    The meeting also professed itself “gravely concerned” by attempts to prevent payment of ransoms, and maintained that it is the duty of shipowners and flag states to take all necessary measures to swiftly reunite seafarers with their families when they are held hostage.

    In response to such concerns, the ITF will shortly launch an international petition for tougher action on Somali piracy, and will seek to raise half a million signatures worldwide between now and World Maritime Day on September 23.

    The call will be for governments to “dedicate significant resources” to the problem, in a bid to find “real solutions”. States said to be “ducking their responsibilities” will be asked to follow the lead of those actively involved in counterpiracy efforts.

    ITF maritime co-ordinator Steve Cotton said: “This decision has empowered us to build a worldwide campaign to put pressure on all governments to close the gap in their anti-piracy efforts. At the end of last year we warned that a point had been reached where the affected area had become too dangerous to enter, except in exceptional circumstances.

    “We also highlighted the scandalous negligence of countries making billions from ships they are doing nothing to protect. There has been no improvement since then.” – Lloyds List”

    One major problem the naval forces in the area have is coordination and communication. Merchant ships and flag-states are providing lots of information on vessel movements and apparently they are still trying to figure out how to handle it all. I understand that one office has staff that rotates every two weeks, forcing groups dealing with them to start from scratch regarding a number of projects…

  • Warrant Diver

    Why is a legal consultant to the UN weighing in? Does the UN have any authority in this matter?

  • Kelly

    You know what the mission statement for those guys should be?


    Yes, ships have the right and obligation to defend themselves, but it would be so nice if the PC crowd could take an even strain and use a little common sense.

    BZ to the gunnery party. Hopefully this current situation will serve as a clear example to future pirates who wish to show the active intent of being stupid.

    CS1 Kelly(SW, AW)

  • Chuck Hill

    Consultants have no standing.

    Was the pirate armed?
    Were the crew in danger?
    Did the security guard act in self defense or defense of others?


  • oldsnipe57

    Not haveing the facts of the incident at hand, one can only assume that the ‘Pirate’ was, in some manner, jeopardizing the security guard and/or his client. Self defense is acceptable given the fact that the act of piracy is itself universally regarded as unlawful.

  • sid

    and no one seems to know how to react.

    `Well.. I know how I’d react.

    If any of them are ever in my neck of the woods, they can look me up, and I will buy them beers….

  • SwitchBlade

    If the merchant ship would have used a .50 Cal HBMG there wouldn’t have been any survivors or small boat for the helicopter to take into custody.

    This “legal” hand wringing is ridiculous and the merchant ship should ignore any further queries from any authority other than their flagged country.

  • Benson

    Just what we needed involved in the fight against piracy: Lawyers. Because they always make things work more efficiently.

    Look, pirates are not legitimate foreign forces taken captive in the course of a war. They’re illegitimate, illegal combatants waging a terror campaign against the international community.

    So private security forces ended up shooting a pirate in international waters? Oh well. Don’t engage in a campaign of terror against merchant ships and this won’t happen.

  • Paul

    I don’t even think this is a “PC” matter. For me it’s more of a “UN doesn’t want to take a definitive stand where they may be held accountable to someone…” type of incident.

    What, really is the big deal? There’s no reason for someone to try and board a ship out at sea unless it’s either for an emergency or for nefarious purposes. Wouldn’t that seem to imply that the ship has a right to defend itself?

    One issue that I do see here are all the problems surrounding flag of convenience ships with multiple contractors, subcontractors, et al. Someone, somewhere has to say “OK, here’s the jurisdiction about this…”

    Legally, a ship is considered part of the country who’s flag it flies, right? But what if that country doesn’t really care, and has no power/interest/desire to force that shipping company to protect it’s mariners and ships? Then what?

    I’m betting that the UN will waffle, hold meetings, go to banquets, consider the issue, take fact finding trips to Aruba and Switzerland and come back to go on vacation after the “work” and decide nothing. What, legally, can the US do to kind of change that? We flagged ships during the tanker wars, right? So what if we did the same, stationed an amphib at the mouth of the Red Sea and put a team of Marines on each ship passin’ through and picked them up at the southern end of the route? Give each ship a squad, a large American Flag and a large USMC flag to let the pirates know who’s there.

  • Derrick

    I still think this article had a very good and cost effective solution:


    The whole reason ship owners use flags of convenience is that they don’t want to pay the cost to fly the US flag. That requires that the ships employ US Seafarers and are built in the US (except by special exception like the Kuwaiti Tankers or the WESTPAC EXPRESS), pay taxes in the US, follow ABS standards, and meet USCG requirements. So even if you offered them protection, they won’t take it, it is cheaper to pay the insurance.
    We should do nothing. When the shipowners complain I would just direct them to the Panamanian, Liberian, or Maltese Embassy (or whoever). By attempting to do anything to stop piracy outside of protecting the US Flag ships, we are only encouraging flag of convenience. We should provide every US ship with a armed escort and or a full security detail, fully prosecute the pirates under US law if the ships are attacked (the US legal code against Piracy should be used as a template for how to write laws), and otherwise let flag nations deal with the problem. We should not attempt to be the worlds policemen, we just encourage everyone else to shirk their responsibilities. Just to use one example, Norway has hundreds of oil tankers in international trade, how many ships do they have patrolling?


    Paul, a merchant ship is not legally a part of the country to which it is flagged, nor is there any obligation for the flag state to protect it. In territorial waters, the sovereign state is obligated to protect the ship and may also regulate it, and on the high seas the flag state is obligated to regulate the ship.

  • Bill Wells

    As with many questions of this type, those making the rulings will have to read through the piles of material of how the same question was dealt with in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

    The United States passed its first ‘piracy’ act in 1790 just months ahead of creating its only naval force–the Revenue Cutter Service. There was no U. S. Navy to enforce this law on the high seas and would not be until 1798. The ‘pirates’ then were American manned French privateers (well, pirates in the press). Then again the Brits and Spanish had their own set of pirates running about.

    Real enforcement did not come until after the War of 1812 when things got so bad in the Gulf of Mexico a huge amount of political pressure was placed on Congress to act. Then again the U. S. Navy claimed in 1819 it did not have the resources to battle the pirates–presumably looking for construction funding. Eventually, Commodore Patterson and his squadron with the help of the cutter Louisiana and Alabama pushed Lafitte around but could do little with Spanish Cuba.

    The federal resources were limited and between ports the merchant vessels had to fend for themselves. This merchant self-protection is the area where the research should begin to answer those questions. I would not limit it to one particular region or nationality. This is, after all, an international concern.

    It does seem strange that the questions were not asked before civilian contractors were hired.

  • Paul

    Thanks for the answers UNSVO!

    I see your point about not encouraging flagged vessels to depend on the protection of the US, so would such a system like I suggested work for US flagged vessels? Would the marines/navy even be interested in that type of plan?

    But that then begs the question– what if there isn’t a functioning government in a part of the world with a shipping lane such as off of Somalia? Who then has the authority? I know there theoretically is a government there but it’s pretty ineffective on land much less at sea.

  • “Legally, a ship is considered part of the country who’s flag it flies, right? But what if that country doesn’t really care, and has no power/interest/desire to force that shipping company to protect it’s mariners and ships? Then what?”

    The major FOCs do care. Remember if a ship is take, they need to deal with the mess. This is a perfect example as a shipowner flying the Flag of Panama cared enough to spend thousands of dollars to defend the ship with armed guards.

    As for the protection provided by Naval forces out there, the results have been mixed. That is a big body of water out there where a naval ship 30 miles away is too far. (Take the MAERSK ALABAMA for example) It will be a different story if they start putting marines on ships as they go through.

    One more thing, it is in the best interest of the US and UK navies to catch whatever pirates they can find simply because the next ship they attack might be one that the US cares about…

    Why protect foreign flag oil tankers delivering oil to Europe? Because if something happens to them, the price of oil everywhere goes up…

  • Bill Wells

    If piracy is an international crime, what difference does it make what flag it flys?

    As Fred Fry noted the next one could be yours.


    “If piracy is an international crime, what difference does it make what flag it flys?”

    Thats the problem, it is not an international crime. It is solely a crime against the nation in whose waters it is committed, if they have a law against it, or for the flag state. That is it. See anything about piracy in the Law of the Sea? Hence the many catch and release programs in place by everyone.

    As to being in our best interest, it is also in the best interest of every other nation. Let them pony up the forces if they want to do anything about it, or have the flag states allow the arming of their merchant ships. International law is very clear, this is a flag state issue.

    Of note, since the pirates are technically stateless vessels, then if they were killed attempting to hijack the ship, there is no country who has jurisdiction except Panama. They clearly don’t care, so I don’t see the issue.

  • Grandpa Bluewater


    “Legally, a ship is considered part of the country who’s flag it flies, right? But what if that country doesn’t really care, and has no power/interest/desire to force that shipping company to protect it’s mariners and ships? Then what?”

    In this case, the busybodies in the legal profession and in various bureaus of various nations (who are legion)are frothing at the mouth due to the fact that the flag state doesn’t care (that the mercs shot the pirates), and has no power/interest/desire to force the shipping company to NOT protect its mariners and ships.

    Unlike all the Euros who are aghast that a ship, its crew, and its
    security contractor effectively and decisively defended themselves
    with deadly force when threatened with deadly force.

    After all, just because you are alone in a remote part of the Indian Ocean, far beyond the reach of any power on earth to render timely and effective assistance, doesn’t mean you should act like it’s the wild west. That sort of behavior would be just…uncivilized.

    Oppressing the poor pirates like that. Something must be done!

  • Bill Wells

    Okay, no international law but there are international conventions on the topic. The EU is discussing piracy and armed robbery at sea. Of course, discussion is not action.

    I suppose it is a matter of wet foot or wetter foot. Whether in territorial waters or not. The U. S. boarded and took two ships in Cambodian territorial waters in the early 1970s.

    Without the cooperation of the neighbor states to curb the crimes at sea it will continue.

    I’ve asked elsewhere but it seems that the 1,000 ship international fleet of a decade ago to help curb problems including piracy has fizzled out. What happened?

  • Of course the lawyers are baffled. Pirates at sea, until the advent of “touchy-feely” PC-inspired “justice” orchestrated by lawyers, have been killed where found, their ships sunk, and their bases destroyed.

    The United States Navy has as part of its charter the eradication of pirates so as to protect American maritime commerce at sea. It is long time past due to adopt a more realistic Rules of Engagement policy. To paraphrase the Captain of USS GROWLER (SS-215): “Find ’em, Chase ’em, Sink ’em (his) and Kill ’em (mine).

    Once you start eliminating the pirates for good and they understand that there’s no more “catch and release” revolving door, then you’ll see a decline in the number of attacks due to 1) demotivated pirates and 2) lack of replacements.

    The tactics that have worked well in the past are just as applicable in the present. All that’s necessary is the WILL to employ them and keep the lawyers on the beach where they belong.


    The US Navy is chartered to protect the US Merchant Marine and I have no problem with that. Capture any pirates that attack a US Flag ship and throw them in jail for life (only legal penalty for piracy) or just shoot them, no problem there. GITMO is emptying out, we even have a ready made home for them. Retaliate against their bases if they choose to attack us, again no problem. Retaliate against their bases if they choose to attack a Panamanian flag, Maltese flag, or some other country? No! Go complain to the flag state or buy insurance. We have no legal right to do so, and frankly, no compelling reason to do so.
    The US attacked the Barbary Pirates because they attacked the US Merchant fleet and demanded tribute. Did we care that they continued to attack British or French ships? Nope. Did we do anything against the Malacca Pirates? Nope, because they didn’t do anything to our ships.

    My solution is simple,
    1. Guarantee US flag ships a continuous close naval escort (say 2000yds or less) or an armed naval detachment at all times. Offer the same deal to any other country that wants to join us subject to providing forces in proportion to the number of ships protected. So if Malta wants to play, pony up a few dozen warships. Can’t do it, sorry, not my issue.
    2. Announce to the entire world that the next time a US flag ship is attacked, we will retaliate against the leaders of the Pirates and their havens. Then do it.

    Lets see what all of our patrolling and posturing has done to date for the US merchant marine:
    1. Maersk Alabama incident. OK once we lost the ship but why was a US flag ship carrying US Cargo not escorted? There are only a couple hundred US flag ships in international trade, it wouldn’t be hard if we were not worried about everyone else. Major failure in my books but at least redeemed in the end.
    2. Second US flag ship carrying US government cargo in the same area attacked shortly after Maersk Alabama, again without escort. Ship escapes but so do pirates. No pursuit, no retaliation, zip, zilch, nada. Major failure, totally indefensible. Time to fire some admirals.
    3. USNS ship attacked but the ship evaded. We did not pursue the Pirates! They attackad a US naval ship and we let them sail away without a reaction, and then told the world that was the right way to respond to the pirates! Major Failure number 3.

    The best protection that a ship could have should be the Stars and Stripes on the mast. The pirates should see it and run.

  • leesea

    USNVO fact check. The HSV WestPac Express was crewed by US mariners from the inception of its charter 8 yrs ago. She was reflagged to US after one year and now is owned by Sealift Inc a US shipping company and crewed with US mariners. Your are very right key is not whether the ship is US mariner crewed by whether it flies the US flag. Subset when is US Navy going to show real support for the US Merchant Marine and not lip service? Has anybody noticed the foreign navies taking action with only token USN particpation?

    The solution is not so much an armed naval escort for all US flagged merchant ships simply because there are NOT enough US warships to perform the mission. THE solution is to re-activate the Naval Armed Guards under MSC and assign them to ALL US flag ship which do business with the Navy. That is many if not most US ships. This can be easily done and in action within months. Give the option for similar service to all US flag merchant ships.

    I really like your idea about GITMO for pirates (except for cost?) Termination would be cheaper and more effective.


    Since the Westpac Express was built in Australia, it does not qualify to be US flag without an exception, which was granted in that case (no complaint here, just pointing out the fact). I also believe it also wasn’t certified to ABS standards during construction, though it was later certified to ABS when it was reflagged.

    Escorting US flag ships would not be a problem. While I don’t know the exact number, last I saw, less than 300 ships flew the US flag in international commerce. The number that transits the Red Sea and Indian Ocean on any given day is probably less than 2. Not real difficult. If we couldn’t provide an escort, a 12-18 man security det could be embarked in Suez and debarked when clear of the danger zone or vice a versa if going the other way. You would probably need less than 500 Sailors to provide security including training commands, rotations, etc. Equipment would be pretty basic, I would go with small arms plus a pair of .50cals or M240s and a few Javelins with the requisite comm and surveillance equipment. You would probably only have to blow up one or two pirate skiffs before they got the message and left you alone.

    If you get pushback from the shipping companies (I can’t image why, especially if you pay your own way) just make it a requirement if the ship is carrying US Government cargo. That would pretty much guarantee they had no choice.

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    Well, if free Naval Armed Guard Dets are offered to any US flagged ship, we mignt see a reversal of the long term trend of taking ships off of US flag registration for a flag of convenience.

    Such a policy would make Old Glory the premier “flag of security”, and in troubled times, security argueably trumps convenience.

    Another drain on the OM&N pot of money, what’s a SecNav and CNO to do?


    Lets see, conservatively say 500 Sailors at $100K per year, figure another $30k per year in per diem for 150. Add a little more for ammunition and training. Works out to less than $60 million per year, and you may be able to use existing security personnel if they are not to overextended. If you got 10 ships to change flags, you would employ 500 US mariners (assuming 6months per for 25 crew members per ship) at close to $50k per year. Between multiplyer effect, income taxes and tonnage taxes you probably come close to breaking evem. In any event, pretty cheap.

  • Not Former Naval Person

    Well, what would be the result if some shipping companies got together and ran some Q ships. Vulnerable but valuable looking ships, but with seawater or the like for cargo, and a mercenary crew. Sail high risk routes.

    When attacked, just sink the pirate’s small craft and keep on going. And, of course, keep your friggin mouths closed. Pretty soon the various motherships are going to start wondering what has happened to their guys. The pirates aren’t in a position to bring lawsuits anywhere. They are simply outlaws in the full sense of the word: no law protects them.

    Even better would be to find the mother ships, and sink them. Maybe capture an RHIB or whatever they use, with its crew. Force them to take you to the MS, then deep six everyone. Would put an even larger dent in this business.

    When their ranks and resources had been sufficiently attritted, maybe plant a rumor that most ships now have armed guards, and they take no prisoners. These guys are in it for the money, and when that isn’t there, and their buddies just disappear, they will figure out something else to do.

  • bigiceman

    As a former sailor I am aghast at the vascillation of the international community on this issue. Pirates are outlaws of the most lawless type. When they attack a ship at sea the self-defense of the ship should be sure, certain, timely and complete. After the encounter there should be nothing left but flotsom and shark-bait.

    Ship’s log entry: Unknown vessel approached at XXXX hours at XXXX latitude and longitude. On-watch personnel determined that the vessel occupants were pirates intent upon boarding. Pirate vessel sunk.

    End of story. No prisoners, no concern for those left adrift without a working boat. Shoot the ones you can see and sink the attacking craft. The great thing is the ease of cleanup; Police your brass and let the fish worry about the rest.