John Burnett was sailing in the South China Sea one night over a decade ago when he was attacked by pirates. The incident changed his view of the world of piracy and shaped his career from that point forward. Burnett is the author of 'Dangerous Waters, Modern Piracy and Terror on the High Seas' and also serves as a consultant and advisor on piracy issues. He has worked with agencies such as the US State Department, the US Council on Foreign Relations and the Dutch government.
Burnett spoke with CSO Senior Editor Joan Goodchild about the recent spate of crime in the waters near Somalia and what shipping companies can do to protect themselves.
You were the victim of a pirate attack. Can you give me the details of that?
I was sailing alone across the South China Sea and I was going to meet my wife in Singapore. Late one night, I was down below and hard a thunk. I thought perhaps I had hit a submerged container or a reef. Then I heard footsteps on my deck above. Anybody who is a yachter or a sailor knows if you don't expect anybody on your boat and you hear somebody on your deck it's as frightening as being on land in your bed and hearing an intruder.
I got beaten up pretty good with the back end of an assault rifle. I could speak some Indonesian, so I lead them into my cabin down below. I was polite. That's the key to all pirate survival stories: You don't resist and you try to be as accommodating to them as possible.
What is the main motivation of pirates? Is it robbery plain and simple?
Actually, it's not robbery. It's greed. It's money. Pirates are attacking ships off the coast of Somalia not because of the cargo the ship carries. Pirates are attacking ships off of Somali because of the human cargo.
When they attacked the Sirius Star (a large oil tanker hijacked last month) there was nothing they could do with the crude oil on board. The 25 men on board were worth a lot more to them than the crude oil or the ship itself.
It seems every day there is news of what is happening in the waters near Somalia. Is anyone safe from these kinds of attacks now?
Every vessel is vulnerable to a hijacking. I wrote that in 'Dangerous Waters.' I warned that a fully-laden VLCC (Very Large Crude Carrier) -- a ship as long as the Chrysler Building is tall, carrying 300,000 tons of crude oil -- would be hijacked.
It's interesting to note that when it comes to hijacking, every ship is vulnerable: From the 50-foot Indian fishing boat that the Pakistani terrorists used to attack Mumbai to the Sirius Star, which is 1,000 feet long. No ship is invincible.
About 100 ships have been attacked so far this year. Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991. So why has this escalated so much in recent months?
It's not a question of a government not caring. It's a question of a government not controlling. It's anarchy out there. This high seas crime wave is a pirate free for all. There is no one to stop piracy.
What happened is this time last year there were between 100-150 pirates on the entire Somalia coast. Now there are closer to 1500. And, according to my sources, I'm told the waiting list is very long. The list of job applicants is long. Everyone wants to get into the act. Its Somalia's fastest growing industry.
Piracy is now a thriving business in the region?
Oh sure. Everyone along the coast is making money. There is a cottage industry that is built up around piracy. These little fishing villages -- these once destitute fishing villages -- are now layers of wealthy pirates. They buy more wives, more laptops and computer games for the kids. They buy SUVs and have new homes built. So this is the best game in town.
A lot of these attacks are resolved with payment of ransom. Isn't this encouraging more piracy?
Of course it is. Absolutely. You pay ransom, you encourage more hostage-taking. I hear so many calls for the Navy or the Marines to go in, like they did with the Barbary pirates, with guns blazing. But not even the military believes that is possible. When you have 300 men and women, right now, staring down barrel of loaded guns, there is nothing you can do about it. When pirates attack a ship, if the military can get there in time before they board the ship, they can prevent the attack. But once pirates are aboard the ship there is nothing even the most powerful naval forces in the world can do about it.
How do the pirates usually get OFF the ship without being apprehended, provided there has been some response to the attack?
Often the pirates, as part of the ransom deal, get safe passage back to shore. This was the case of the ransom paid for the release of the Svitzer Korsakov held for 47 days.
So, what can be done? If there is no government to care what happens or about public perception, is it simply every man for himself?
Every man for himself is certainly what the case is now. My thought is if Barack Obama wants to talk to our adversaries, maybe he will send someone to talk to the Islamic Court Union that once ruled Somalia. When they did rule Somalia, there wasn't any piracy. As soon as the Americans and Ethiopians kicked out the ICU, piracy came back with a vengeance.
If piracy is to be stopped -- someone is going to have to talk to the ICU and say "OK, let's have you control and run Somalia." Then international shipping can go through these waterways unimpeded.
No one is calling for that and it's not a popular notion. But you've got to talk to people and I'm hopeful the new administration will think along the lines of at least making some contact with the ICU. This should be one of his (Obama's) first priorities: To send someone with the State Department to contact someone with the ICU.
There are several companies now who are charging hefty sums to serve as guards for large ships. Blackwater Worldwide is one well known firm getting into this. Also there is a British firm called Anti-Piracy Maritime Security Solutions. Is this strategy effective?
First off, this piracy is a maritime security company's dream. This is Christmas to them. I won't mention names, but I'm very close to many of them. I know some of them intimately.
I know that one of the companies was formed only in June. Now they have a bunch of former SAS and SBS (Special Boat Service) commandos on board protecting their ships. But they haven't even had a chance to train these people. So you have these maritime security companies popping up daily and saying "We are experts in anti-piracy." But they are only in the sense that they have former SBS boys who are riding herd on the ships. I think a lot of these shipping companies need to really vet these security firms very well or you are going to find that a lot of them are jumping overboard. Having armed guards on boards really doesn't stop piracy, as we saw recently when a ship was hijacked with three security men on board.
What can a shipping company do to take some measure to protect itself?
One problem with this is that most shipping companies look at piracy in terms of risk assessment. There are 20,000 ships a year passing through the Gulf of Aden. There are a lot of military assets. So a shipping company's attitude is it's probably going to happen to someone else. It probably won't happen to us. And if it does, we will worry when the time comes. That's risk assessment.
A security officer of a shipping company can only plead with powers that be to equip the ship with a Long Range Acoustic Device (a device which emits a loud noise to ward off attackers), but that's expensive. Or they can have guards on board, which is also expensive. So the chances are most shipping companies are going to say "Well let's just take a chance that we won't be targeted."
The only other they thing can do is make sure the crew is well briefed about what happens when approached by pirates. Some shipping companies suggest the citadel affect: total lockdown. That is fine, but it doesn't necessarily stop a pirate from coming on board.
A ship should appear to be on an antipiracy watch. It needs to have some defenses, like a fire hose going outboard and, at night, halogen lights on the decks. The pirates might think there is another ship nearby that is not so alert and might be an easier target. It's a crapshoot. But you have to show you have some defenses.
Was your inspiration for your present career primarily due to your experience as a pirate victim?
Absolutely. I was as one who thought pirates were Blackbeard and Captain Kidd and Hollywood fantasy. But I found out these aren't swashbuckling rogues swinging through rigging, rescuing damsels in distress. This is a very serious and sometimes brutal crime.
I also get somewhat touchy when people say things like "Let's celebrate piracy and have 'Talk Like a Pirate Day.'" That, to a victim of piracy, is not something that goes down very well.