Hey Team Room members, here is a preview of something I am working on right now.  I’m still waiting on some additional information so this is still a work in progress.  Please keep this on the down low until I publish it on SOFREP. -Jack

Much has been made of the threat of piracy over the last several years. Considering that piracy predates terrorism by hundreds of years it strikes many of us in the Special Operations community as absurd that US and international law has had such difficultly in coping with the piracy issue off the coast of the horn of Africa and beyond.

The rise of the Private Military Company and private security contractors (often bemoaned by the same politicians who make use of their services or use them as proxies while keeping their hands clean) is something that simply is not going away. With ships valued at hundreds of millions of dollars with equally valuable cargo on board, it only makes sense to take on a few guns for hire when these commercial vessels travel through the maritime choke points frequented by pirates.

At this time perhaps as much as 80% of the maritime security industry is dominated by British companies, well over a hundred of them although one of the larger ones is called Control Risk. The British have a bit of home field advantage as many of their maritime concerns are focused around former colonies, such as Oman, where the Brits have deep historical and institutional ties. About 10% of the market is in the hands of American companies. These companies include Nexus Solutions run by a former US Marine and based out of Washington DC, Espada out of San Antonio, Trident Group run by a group of former SEALs, and SeaGuard.

If the ship includes defensive measures such are barbwire or concertina wire around it, this would be done while at port. The security team will often fly into a place like Oman with their weapons, then get on a water taxi and meet the ship they are detailed to while it is underway. This is actually the most dangerous part of the job for the security men. There are two ways to get from the ferry to the deck of the massive commercial ships. You can climb a ladder or get into a cargo net and be winched up to the deck. As squirrely as it sounds, the cargo net is actually the preferred method as it is safer. One British security contractor slipped off the ladder and fell into the water between the ship and the tug boat where he was crushed to death. Other accounts of men getting their legs crushed are more common.

Once on board, the security team begins working in shifts, usually four hours on and eight hours off. At its height, maritime security guards with Special Operations backgrounds could pull in $1,000 a day, but those days are long gone as the industry settles into a decline and the Private Military Companies seek to hire less qualified people at lower rates and cut every corner they can. Some British companies are now hiring guys for $100 a day. At that price you can imagine that you won’t be getting a highly trained former SAS operator or Royal Marine.

As with much of the private military industry, the use of Third Country Nationals (TCN’s) is becoming the norm. Now you will more often see one Brit or American supervising a team of three or four Filipinos, Thais, or Indians. The Maritime Security companies will do recruitment drives, pitching people in the Philippines, Thailand, or India who have military connections for personnel. Many TCN’s are straight shooters out of their country’s maritime commando units. Additionally, many Filipinos and Indians speak English which makes life easy on a team with a Western supervisor.

Weapons continue to be a vexing issue in the maritime security field. It is fairly straight forward for organizations like Trident Group which provide security for US flagged ships leaving America and returning to America. They are able to equip their men with the proper weaponry and night vision equipment. A ship like this can even have its own armory on board. However, few ships are US flagged in this day and age as companies seek to avoid US regulations and unions.

Other companies working on ships out of other parts of the world have more difficultly. While weapons are legal in international waters, they may not be legal where the ship is originates from or wherever its final destination is located. In many third world countries the situation gets even more dicey. In places like Egypt the laws are literally changing from day to day. In some countries the law is whatever a customs official decides it is until he is appropriately bribed. In some instances, contractors have had to live by their wits and and bluff their way out of a one way trip to a third world prison for the crime of simply doing their job.

In order to skirt around corrupt regimes, unrealistic laws, and mitigate the risk of having contractors thrown in jail, the concept of floating armories has evolved. As the ship is nearing its destination, a small boat will pull up along side while in international waters and the security contractors will transfer their weapons off to the floating armory prior to making port. This smaller ship will now wait 12 miles out in international waters until the next ship with a security contract is pulling out to sea and then transfer the guns back to contractors on board.

Other times, contractors have been forced to dump their weapons over the side and into the ocean before making port in order to be in compliance with local laws. While this isn’t a big deal with fairly inexpensive AR-15 rifles, one company found the price of doing business to be a bit much as contractors were forced to toss .50 caliber Barrett anti-material rifles into the drink at the end of each voyage.

One international armory is run by an interesting character named Bruno in Djibouti. Known to sell weapons to security companies and pirates alike, this Frenchmen is unable to leave the country because of the law enforcement and intelligence agencies waiting to sink their hooks into him. While US Special Forces are supposedly in Djibouti to help fight piracy, they might want to try looking around the Bruno estate. Sources indicate that he lives on the same street as the Prime Minister and one of the most prolific pirates in the horn of Africa.

Back to the nuts and bolts of maritime security… While underway, pirates are known to begin probing commercial ships as they pass around the horn of Africa. The vast majority of probes and attacks are at night although pirates are also known to hide in the fog during they day. The maritime security contractor on shift that night monitors the Automatic Identification System, or AIS, radar on the ship and when he gets a blip on the screen he begins looking for pirates, usually in stolen fishing vessels, with his binoculars.

In high winds the AIS system will get feed back as it reads white caps out in the ocean, giving off false signatures and making it difficult for contractors to discern real threats. All ships in international waters are supposed to have their AIS beacon activated which acts as a sort of IFF system for commercial shipping routes and provides some basic information to the captains of each ship. When you get a radar reading that displays no AIS beacon then you know something is amiss. Security contractors will then attempt to hail the vessel on the radio and ask them to turn on their AIS beacon. If no one answers, then you’ve got yourself a pirate.

At this point the contractor on shift will call up his buddies who are sleeping or watching movies below deck to take up a defensive posture. When dealing with Somalian pirates, this is where the stand off ends nine times out of ten. When the pirates begin probing, the contractors flash their AR-15 rifles to show that the ship they are fixing to board is armed. The Somalians will break off at this point and look for a softer target.

Why Piracy Has Faded From the Horn of Africa

Read Next: Why Piracy Has Faded From the Horn of Africa

The reality of piracy is that it is an economic system and the pirates are known to be more or less professional about it at this point. The modern world sends fishing vessels into Somalian waters to rape them of sea life. With no real central government, Somalia cannot defend itself from commercial overfishing. The pirates thus see their actions as a simple tax on the West for using their waters. Once captured, they want to ransom off the boat and their prisoners with as little violence as possible.

If the pirates find a ship that is unprotected, they will then attempt to board. The stolen fishing vessel will loiter about four miles behind the tanker ship where there is a blind spot with the AIS system. They will then launch several skiffs, smaller rubber boats, that the pirates will actually board from. When the tanker is actually filled with oil the ship is sitting much lower in the water which makes it even easier for them to board, usually with an aluminum ladder with hooks attached which go over the railing.

During a boarding, or attempted boarding, the captain of the ship and his crew will lock themselves in the Citadel, a safe room near the bridge of the ship. The captain can even pilot the ship from inside some of these safe rooms where he and the crew will remain until the coast is clear. As mentioned previously, the pirates will peel off upon seeing weapons on board or getting some warning shots. Rarely do full blown firefights happen.

However, piracy is on the down swing around the horn of Africa and the new front appears to be opening in West Africa. Unlike the Somalians, the Nigerian pirates are known to be extremely violent. They will board foreign ships, murder everyone on board, steal everything on board, and then ransom the ship back to the owners. Maritime security contractors say it is a completely different ballgame over there. Another major commercial shipping choke point is the Malacca Straights between Singapore (a commercial shipping hub itself) and Indonesia. Pirates in this region board ships but are mostly concerned with breaking into the captains safe more than ransoming off the ship and its crew, more like a maritime stickup than anything.

What shakes out in West Africa remains to be seen.