Battling Somali pirates: Maritime businesses weigh in

In London, the business capital of the world's maritime industry, firms shape decisions on arming ships and negotiating with pirates.

Graeme Gibbon-Brooks knows a thing or two about boarding ships.

During 16 years with Britain's Royal Navy, he served in the Middle East and East Africa as a deep-sea diver, gunnery officer, underwater saboteur, and countersabotage specialist.

These days, he offers his knowledge of piracy and terrorism as part of a thriving industry that is deeply rooted in Britain's heritage of merchant trading and naval dominance. In London, the business capital of the world's maritime industry, dozens of maritime law firms and insurers have a tradition that stretches back hundreds of years.

Such firms provide services from security and legal advice to negotiations and handling of ransom situations – and demand has been steadily growing.

"More often now, we are being asked by shipping companies to provide analysis of private security companies," says Mr. Gibbon-Brooks, whose firm, Dryad Maritime Intelligence, consults on security arrangements for shippers.

Two high-profile rescues in the past week – one by US forces of the captain of the US-flagged Maersk Alabama, and one of hostages held on a French yacht – have underscored the increasing threat from pirates. Already this year, pirates have attacked at least 80 vessels. On Wednesday, the French Navy captured 11 pirates who had failed in an attack on the Liberian-flagged Safmarine Asia. The French frigate is part of "Operation Atalanta," a European Union's antipiracy effort.

In response, companies are taking a variety of measures.

Many opt to employ unarmed guards on ships navigating the Gulf of Aden. But taking more assertive measures is complicated by the laws governing the use of force and the carrying of weapons.

Ships are governed by a variety of regulations – those of the ship's owners, for example, as well as the laws of the country whose flag the ship flies. They are much more stringent in relation to the carrying on board of automatic weapons than shotguns. Shotguns are more common, says Gibbon-Brooks – but similar to "using a dagger in a swordfight.

"You are waiting for [pirates] to get extremely close before you use it," he says, explaining that Somali pirates typically shoot into a ship's bridge, intimidate the crew, and then climb on board.

Dryad Intelligence sells nonlethal equipment like the long-range acoustic device (LRAD), which emits an almost ear-splitting noise when fired at targets. A device of this type was used unsuccessfully in February by former British Royal Marines working as guards on a US-owned tanker, the MV Biscaglia.

The pirates were undeterred, and the guards eventually abandoned the ship by jumping overboard after trying to defend it using flares and pretending that scaffolding pipes were rocket launchers.

Gibbon-Brooks explains that equipment such as the LRAD have to be seen in the context of naval strategy, which is about "layers" of defense. While unpleasant, its noise is largely intended to let the pirates know that they have been spotted at an early stage, suggesting that the "cavalry" could soon be on the way to a ship's rescue.

Once a ship has been taken, a lengthy process of negotiation begins.

Here's where companies such as Holman Fenwick Willan, which has been representing clients in shipwrecks and collisions since it was founded in 1883, come in.

One of the most prominent legal firms, its staff operate around the clock in response to calls to an emergency hotline.

"It's a 24-hour business, because, as you can imagine, there are underwriters here in London but then we have negotiators out in the Middle East and we have to correspond with them," says lawyer and partner Toby Stephens. The firm has had approximately 30 cases involving piracy since July last year; currently, it is handling more than four involving vessels still being held.

In many cases, companies want to know first if it is even legal to pay a ransom. British law permits this, although it is not quite so straightforward everywhere.

Ransom demands are commonly in the range of $1 million to $2 million, although pirates demanded as much as $25 million in the case of the Sirius Star, a Saudi oil tanker taken earlier this year with a cargo estimated to be worth more than $100 million.

That case illustrated the difficulties for all sides in the actual delivery of the payment. At least five pirates drowned trying to collect part of the ransom – reportedly between $3 million and $3.5 million – after it was dropped close to the ship by parachute.

Maritime firms, of which there are dozens, are quick to deny that they are exploiting the situation off the coast of Somali. But Simon Beale, a marine underwriter, admitted to the BBC that fees for firms whose vessels have been hijacked can cost just as much as the ransom itself when the services of lawyers and others are employed.

Despite its obvious dangers, the trade continues to be a tempting one for Somali pirates, who are estimated to have made $50 million last year.

But have the stakes now been raised by the recent rescues by American and French forces?

Stephen Askins, a former Royal Marine now working at another London law firm dealing with kidnappings and ransoms at sea, says this is not necessarily so.

"Certainly, it has raised the tension, but we have been through periods of tension before, and we will not really know for another two, three, or four weeks," says Mr. Askins, who argues that having armed guards on board ships raises the risk to the crew. "No one knows where the ripples will go."

"I don't know what the real risk to the crew of the Maersk Alabama was, but in the context of what is going on, there is a code of conduct. No one takes it for granted, but generally, captured crews are well looked after. To put the French action into perspective, it took place on the same day as a commercial ship was released.

"Perhaps if another French or American ship is taken," he continues, "it will show if the events of the last two weeks become aggravating factors, because there is no doubt that the pirates regard some people in different ways."

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