I’ve had an interest in the private maritime security industry and the international regulations thereof ever since a friend’s ship was taken by pirates a couple years ago, so when friend of the blog Jay Fraser* approached us about doing an interview with his friend who runs a maritime security company, we jumped on it. I hope you find it as interesting as I do! – DW
Many of us grew up with pictures of swashbuckling pirates and images of Errol Flynn in movies like “Captain Blood” and “The Sea Hawk.” [ed: and some of us grew up with Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook...] In school, we learned about the Barbary Pirates attacking American and British shipping vessels off the Northwest Coast of Africa, near Tripoli and Algiers, and President Thomas Jefferson’s naval responses. More than two hundred years have passed, and while the locale has shifted to the northeast coast of Africa, the problem piracy remains. Today, piracy is focused primarily in the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean. Pirates are live firing against merchant vessels, sometimes attempting to board the ships, and are using violence and ransom as a means to an end.
As noted in a recent update published by Stratfor, with the end of the monsoon season and the return to calmer water in the region, the piracy season is “back on.” One of the more recent trends is the emergence of companies hired by the shipping companies to place armed personnel on the commercial vessels in efforts to discourage and limit the success of these pirates.
I’m privileged to know and to call a friend a man who operates one of these private security companies, Jim Jorrie of Espada Logistics and Security Group (San Antonio, Texas). I interviewed Jim for an audio spot for ThreatsWatch about three years ago and he and I recently talked about doing an update. Thanks to my friends at Gunpowder & Lead, here is the interview we did just a few days ago.
Jay Fraser: Jim, when we spoke back in April 2009, it was right after some pirates in the Gulf of Aden had overrun the Maersk Alabama. The ship’s captain Richard Phillips was held captive after the rest of the crew was released. The incident ended when Navy sharpshooters were able to take the kill shots. But this incident brought to the attention of many Americans the problem of piracy on the high seas, and especially off of the coast of Somalia in the Gulf of Aden. Today I would like to cover a lot of ground in a short time and have you explain how the piracy problem has evolved in the last three years.
Jim Jorrie: Thank you Jay for this chance to give an update from our last interview. Yes, the last three years have been very interesting and things have really changed out there.
JF: Since G&L is a new audience, can you give us a quick bio and then a capsule version of how you got into the pirate fighting business?
JJ: I started out in 1983 enlisting in the Navy and moved on to receive a commission in the Army with a focus on Defense support to Civil Authority missions. As a civilian I have worked in the intelligence community and held the post of Homeland Security Coordinator for San Antonio and the surrounding areas. I have also had the privilege of being involved in several National Response Plans such as the Pandemic Influenza response plan. Around 2004 I was asked to provide some security assessment work for private oil exploration in Colombia. This bloomed into multiple security projects and was really the genesis of ESPADA. About 3½ years ago we had an opportunity to assess the emerging piracy problem in the Gulf of Aden. Since one of our core competencies is providing logistics in austere locations, providing anti-piracy security services was a natural fit for our company.
JF: When we spoke earlier this week, you and I talked about the changing nature of the Somali pirates and specifically about their levels of aggression, the fact that they are better armed and that they now use tactics like kidnapping.
JJ: Three years ago the piracy was conducted by two major clans in Somalia. Since that time, organized crime syndicates have joined the enterprise increasing the technology, intelligence gathering and execution of piracy. Also, there emerged confederations from other countries that expanded the pirate network. For example, vessels that are overtaken in the lower Red Sea may now be taken by Eritrean or Yemeni criminal confederations that will in turn transfer the ship to the Somali clans that in turn negotiate for the ransom. The same is true on the east coast of Africa where you may have Kenyan and Mozambican confederate criminal organizations that cooperate with the Somali pirate clans.
We continue to see the use of RPGs and AKs in most attacks, but there have been a few attacks where the pirates have used crew-served weapons such as the PKM. Other than that, the major change in operating tactics has been the actual use of the hijacked vessels as mother-ships. They use cranes that are on the ships to lift the pirate skiffs onto the deck of the ship and then take the hijacked vessel far out at sea to launch their attacks.
JF: Some people aren’t really aware of the rules of engagement your company and others must operate under. Can you explain a bit of what has to be done in order for you to operate and perform your security functions (restrictions, still not permitted to fire on sight or have to wait and return fire?).
JJ: This continues to be an interesting source of debate. The International Law of the Sea that covers piracy is several hundred years old. And it is very clear on what rights a ship’s Captain has to defend his ship from a pirate attack. Of course in recent years lawyers have gotten further involved in crafting specific, eloquent language that restates rules from the Barbary pirate days. For example, if a pirate vessel fires on a ship the ship’s master may use any means at his disposal to safeguard his ship and crew. For a security team, this means we can fire warning shots to communicate to an approaching or menacing vessel that he is approaching an armed ship. However, if the security team fires on an approaching vessel without the command of the master in defending the ship, then the master/team/owner etc. are liable for the actions. Most engagements will begin and end at approximately 300 meters from the vessel. At this distance the pirates either begin firing at the ship or the warning shots communicate the potential danger of them proceeding. To many people, having to wait until a heavily armed pirate boat is within 300 yards of the vessel and – more importantly – until it has fired on the vessel before the vessel’s security team can respond is an uncomfortably short distance, but those are the rules of the game in antipiracy security.
JF: I think one of the more interesting things people need to hear is about the practical business issues of running a company like Espada. The other day you mentioned some points about the need for rapid deployment. Can you add to that?
JJ: Unlike a traditional contract, our services are hired ad-hoc. This presents some extreme logistics and personnel challenges for us. It is very expensive to fly people back and forth halfway around the world, so you have to have facilities in the Area of Operation in which to house them. A normal notification of a request for our services comes with about 48 hours advanced warning. Paying the security team members doesn’t stop, so scheduling them for follow on transit work and reducing their down time is of key concern. The cost of insurance for this sort of business is, as you can imagine, astronomical. And on top of these challenges is the fact that many of the countries know that the ship owners and security team can work out of their designated transfer points. So at times, just getting a bus ride from the airport to the boat with equipment can cost over $10K USD. With all of the deposits, insurance, working capital requirements, and emerging regulatory requirements I would hate to try to start a business like this now as it would be very hard.
JF: One of the comments you made struck me when you mentioned about weapons regulations.
JJ: While I am a firm believer in the accountability of firearms, US companies have been put into a competitive disadvantage to their British and European counterparts with regards to regulatory compliance and authorization in marine security. We spent a lot time early on asking different government departments the proper way to export weapons for the exclusive use of our security personnel. Unfortunately, not having the resources of some of the other large defense contractors, we made a few missteps in the handling of the reporting. The British and Europeans, in contrast, received active support from their governments, even to the extent where they were able to get letters of endorsement for their business from the government. Clearly this is something the US government does not do. I do think that the US regulatory agencies are starting to come up to speed with understanding the commercial requirements of the marine security industry. And is my hope that they will continue to work with legitimate maritime security organizations to help facilitate and not restrict their business. Bottom line, the more successful we are the more Americans we put to work.
JF: I guess one final question is about the “soldiers of fortune” that you encounter in theater and the problems they are creating for you and your company.
JJ: This turns out to be a classic example of one or two organizations that have no business being out there in the first place, screwing something up and the rest of us having to deal with the whiplash of new rules. Whatever happened to the old adage that if you stepped on the foot of your date, you weren’t invited back to the dance? Weapons authorizations, terrestrial logistics, and the other aspects of operating in a marine security business are serious and complex. This is not an arena that a group of hunting buddies needs to venture out into carelessly. Very few problems have come from the larger more established companies.
JF: Jim, is there anything else that you’d like to add before we wrap this interview?
JJ: I think I will leave you with two comments. One, there is a lot of good combat veterans out there that are unemployed. And I would put out there to you that this line of work is something they should consider, as we strongly prefer to hire veterans because of their training and professionalism. Lastly, in all my travels over the last 3 years setting up our maritime security operations I have gained a renewed appreciation for being an American. It is easy to get caught up in the political rhetoric and other problems in our communities. But when you spend time in other countries dealing with their politics, their regulations, their lack of a constitution and civil liberties, it gives you a new perspective that maybe this 300 year experiment that we call America isn’t that bad after all.
*Jay Fraser is a technology entrepreneur currently operating two ventures, one of which is involved in counterfeit detection and covert surveillance technologies. He serves as Principal Investigator for this company’s Department of Defense contracts, and has also coordinated sensitive international special projects. His responsibilities include strategic direction, operations, managing programs with federal agencies and National Labs, negotiating licensing and R&D agreements, and dealing with potential commercial partners & customers. The second company, newly formed, is involved in the information sharing environment with the ability to enable seamless exchange of information across and among a network of authorized users. Until recently he wrote about issues related to homeland security, policy implications, and technologies used in the Global War on Terror for ThreatsWatch.Org. Mr. Fraser is an experienced public speaker and often lectures on technology strategy and technology transfer.