An Interview with Vanda Felbab-Brown
By Bartholomew Thanhauser
You spent last spring chasing and interviewing pirates in Djibouti, Somalia and Kenya. Did these conversations surprise you?
Just to clarify, I wasn’t able to interview pirates in all three places. I only managed to track down pirates in Somalia – and even that was very hard! I noticed there was a big difference in mood among the pirates. In 2007 and 2008, the pirates had been very willing to be interviewed and quite easy to access. But in my recent visit, many would not discuss their operations or even admit that they were pirates. Interviews would be set up and then no one would show up.
One of the things that was most surprising to me was just how effective the naval patrolling has become. I had been skeptical for a long time that naval patrolling could achieve sufficient density of operations to really create a deterrent effect, but it has been successful. The key aspect of its success has been the employment of citadels and other best practices lessons that allow far greater response times for the naval patrols. That has made a huge difference. Other defensive measures, such as convoys and regional deployment of AI, have also helped.
Could you tell me more about citadels? What are they and who operates them?
What we call a citadel is essentially a safe room on a ship. It’s a space on the ship that is barricaded and has a large supply of water and food, where the crews can retreat for days at a time while they wait for naval patrols to rescue the ship. So, pirates can take over the ship, but they might not get the crew. As a result, when a naval patrol arrives, it can engage in armed action against the pirates because they won’t risk killing the crew. That has really made a significant difference in the ability to deter and counter pirate attacks.
In 2012, there were more attacks on seafarers in the Gulf of Guinea than off the coast of Somalia. Have anti-piracy strategies used in the Gulf of Aden been applied in combating attacks in the Gulf of Guinea?
Some of them are being applied, others are not. First though, it’s important to note that there are considerable differences in how pirates operate in these two areas. Off Somalia, they capture a ship, hold it for months and demand ransom for the crew and cargo. But in the Gulf of Guinea, particularly in Nigeria, most of the attacks have been simply to steal oil or other cargo from the ship. They have not been holding the crew or the ship itself hostage for more than a few days at a time. The reason behind this is that there are already extensive oil smuggling networks on land throughout the region. So you can get a lot of money stealing oil from a ship, and selling it through illegal refining and distribution networks.
This difference has many implications. One implication is that a crew is unlikely to be exposed to the trauma of being held hostage for too long. However, this also means that the life of the crew members is not worth much in monetary terms for the pirates. If you don’t seek to get money for crew members, you can shoot them while taking over of the ship. So, if all the pirates are trying to do is steal oil or cargo and disregard the life of crew members, there might not be enough time for a naval patrol to act, hence the deterrence effect of measures such as the citadels might be smaller.
Second, you don’t have the same density of naval patrolling in the Gulf of Guinea that exists in the Gulf of Aden. Nowadays off Somalia, there are many naval patrol deployments – the EU’s Atalanta, U.S., Russian, Chinese, Indian. The Saudis and the UAE have deployments or are paying considerable money for private patrolling. There is a great density of military assets, compared to the Gulf of Guinea, where there is almost none.
The reason behind this is that, in the Gulf of Guinea, most of the pirate attacks take place in territorial waters, while off Somalia – in the Gulf of Aden and increasingly deep into the Indian Ocean – most attacks take place in international waters. International naval patrols can operate in these waters because under international law, this is common space. To operate in the coastal waters of Nigeria, however, you need to have permission from the government of Nigeria. And many of the West African governments will be extremely reluctant to issue such permits because of the political implications for sovereignty.
Also, importantly, reluctance stems from the fact that many local politicians, coast guards and navies in West Africa are involved in illicit activities. So if you’re going to allow a naval deployment from the United States to operate in your territorial waters, if the patrol catches pirates, the pirates may inform you: “By the way, the governor of this area is selling the oil that we steal!”
So many of the tactics that were employed in the Gulf of Aden are not being implemented in the Gulf of Guinea, and it will be really challenging to implement them because the nature of piracy and the broader context are different in these two gulfs.
Perhaps changing topics a little bit, I understand that one of your other topics of research is illegal fishing. Could you talk a little bit about the links between illegal fishing and piracy?
I think there is an indirect link, although the claim is often made, especially in the case of Somalia, that there is a direct link. Somali pirates themselves often maintain that they have become pirates because big fishing fleets have over-fished the sea. That is a bit simplistic and not entirely accurate.
The claim that there is a tremendous amount of illegal fishing off Somalia (and for that matter off West Africa) is absolutely true. You have both illegal fishing by small fishermen from Yemen, as well as massive over-fishing and illegal fishing by big fishing fleets, such as those with bottom trawlers from China, Taiwan, Japan, and Europe. Where the pirate overfishing narrative becomes problematic is that hardly all of the pirates used to be fishermen. And those who were actually fishermen would really not have the capacity to fish in the same part of the ocean that these big fishing fleets fish. Somali fishermen – whether turned pirates or not – fish mainly close to the surface and do not have the more environmentally destructive capacity to fish in deeper waters. So their competitors would be small, Yemeni fishermen, not the big fishing fleets.
There is another interesting connection between illegal fishing and piracy, or more precisely, anti-piracy efforts. Piracy has inadvertently created some mechanisms for reducing illegal fishing because it forces ships to deploy the AIS [Automatic Identification System] trackers that they carry and not try to hide their whereabouts. For example, say that I am a Chinese fishing trawler, fishing in Somalia’s territorial waters. Ten years ago, no one would know that I was fishing illegally and I wouldn’t have a tracker on because there were no pirates. Five years ago, I might put the tracker on because now the Chinese government requires that I do. But still, I would sometimes turn it off, such as when illegally fishing in some restricted area or someone’s territorial waters, and thus game the system. But because of piracy, I now want to keep the tracker on all the time – and not spoof the system – because I might need a naval patrol to come to my defense against a pirate attack. So anyone with access to AIS will see the position of my ship, whether I am sailing in restricted waters or someone’s exclusive economic zone.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that I won’t illegally fish in Somalia’s exclusive zone. After all, what does it matter that I am operating in Somalia’s exclusive zone if there is no one who is going to punish me? But in the future, this could be used to act against illegal fishing – whether precipitating law enforcement actions or merely an NGO exposing the fishing ship’s whereabouts and applying name-and-shame tactics.
What actors are taking charge to combat piracy and combat illegal fishing? Ultimately, who is the most effective? Are they governments? Are they international organizations that are leading the charge to fix these problems?
Well, with respect to piracy, it’s primarily nation states and governments. And that’s partly because naval assets are held by nation states. In the terrestrial domain, we have groups like the UN peacekeeping forces, but in the maritime domain there are no UN naval assets. Therefore, any naval enforcement action has to come from either the home government within one’s territorial waters, or in international waters, from some sort of international naval coalition like Atalanta.
That said, the shippers themselves are taking a lot of action, whether building defensive measures like the citadels, or increasingly hiring private guards to serve on ships sailing through troubled waters. And I should note that hiring private guards was one of the most controversial decisions shippers have taken because it came with a mess of legal liabilities, and may ultimately motivate greater violence on the part of the pirates. So, it’s both the shippers themselves and governments that are the primary actors in shaping responses to piracy.
You also have other entities, like the International Maritime Organization, that have been extremely useful in providing information about best practices, such as how to avoid and defend against pirate attacks. Their background support has been enormously helpful.
In the case of fighting illegal fishing, law enforcement responses have again come principally from individual country’s naval forces. But NGOs have been crucial in exposing the problems, including the governments’ complicity, and lobbying for better regulations and enforcement. Unfortunately, big special interest groups, such as fishermen’s associations, have also been very powerful and effective in preventing the adoption of crucial measures, such as tighter fishing quotas and restricting some areas from fishing.
You noted earlier that the decision to take on private security forces onto the ships was somewhat controversial. In an article from 2011, you wrote that, in the short term, paying ransom to pirates is ultimately the “least bad option.” Can you explain why?
That article got me in a lot of trouble and a storm of controversy. Everyone thought that it was complete heresy – the mantra, with some good reasons to prevent contagion effects, is to claim that “we” never pay ransom. The article though was motivated by several factors that I would perhaps not apply to the Gulf of Aden today. Let me explain why.
The core of my argument was that if you look at successful anti-kidnapping operations on land in the 1970s and 1980s, such as in the United States, the response to kidnappings was heavy SWAT or raid-type response. In many of the raids, the hostages could end up dead. As a result, policies evolved to engage in prolonged negotiations, deferring raids to the absolute last moment. Now, the reason why this policy could work is because the U.S. law enforcement controls land: Ransom would be paid, hostages released, and then the police would capture the kidnappers as they tried to get away.
In the Huffington Post article, I was arguing that in contrast to this example, you have very large areas in which pirates operate. I drew another contrast in the article – pointing to anti-piracy successes in Southeast Asia. In both the 2000s and in previous centuries, success in Southeast Asia came principally from the ability of anti-pirate forces, such as local governments, to control land and deprive the pirates of land safe havens. Again, something elusive in Somalia, despite the creation of highly controversial semi-militias like the Puntland Maritime Force. Thus, in the context of these two key ingredients of success previously – controlling land and being able to prevent safe havens and escapes – the chance that law enforcement forces would be able to counter the pirates off Somalia appeared very small. The temptation would be to mount a lot of raids that would result in many dead hostages.
What I ultimately underestimated was the willingness of countries to deploy enough naval assets and establish sufficient density of presence to deter many of the attacks. In other words, I underestimated the international willingness to deploy enough assets to have sufficient attack response time, which the citadels greatly extended. I’m still surprised by how much deterrence effect there is today in the Horn of Africa. That said, none of the root causes of piracy off the Horn have been adequately, if at all, addressed. So should naval patrolling there lessen, the deterrent effect would be diminished, and piracy would most likely be robustly up again.
You have several articles on piracy that are in the works. Could you give us a preview of your current research on piracy and illegal fishing, and looking forward, what are the topics that interest you the most?
I’ve given you, in some ways, previews of both. My current work and some of the focus today has been comparing the Gulfs: how the Gulf of Guinea differs from the Gulf of Aden, and what kind of responses transfer, which do not, and how they have to be adjusted. Second, my current research examines how pirate networks are anchored in local context, and the relationship between local populations and pirates. For example, looking at how the pre-existence of oil-smuggling networks makes piracy in the Gulf of Guinea unique, and the radically different policy implications that result. Much of the on-the-ground research on piracy and anti-piracy measures in Southeast Asia and in the Horn will be reflected in a chapter on piracy in my forthcoming book on managing illicit economies.
Finally, I’m curious: Are you planning on trying to interview pirates in the Gulf of Guinea like you did in the Gulf of Aden?
At some point, I think, it would be great. I have no current work plans in the area, but down the road,yes, it’s very much on my mind to do some in-depth on-ground research and interviewing there.