Blackwater to Protect Somali Shipping Lanes

by Kevin Jon Heller

A couple of months ago, I blogged about the possibility that Blackwater would support the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Darfur.  That hasn’t happened yet, but the company seems to have found another line of work — fighting pirates off the coast of Somalia:

Blackwater Worldwide and other private security firms — some with a reputation for being quick on the trigger in Iraq — are joining the battle against pirates plaguing one of the world’s most important shipping lanes off the coast of Somalia.

The growing interest among merchant fleets to hire their own firepower is encouraged by the U.S. Navy and represents a new and potential lucrative market for security firms scaling back operations in Iraq.


NATO, with a flotilla of warships due to arrive in Somali waters this weekend, is trying to work out legal and regulatory issues surrounding the use of armed contractors before adopting a position on private security companies.

But the U.S. Navy, part of the coalition already patrolling off the coast of Somalia, says the coalition cannot effectively patrol the 2.5 million square miles of dangerous waters and welcomes the companies.

“This is a great trend,” said Lt. Nate Christensen, a spokesman for the Bahrain-based U.S. 5th Fleet. “We would encourage shipping companies to take proactive measures to help ensure their own safety.”

Somali officials also approve of the private contractors.

Abdulkadir Muse Yusuf, deputy marine minister of the semiautonomous region of Puntland, said private firms are welcome in Somali waters. As well as fighting piracy, he said, they could help combat illegal fishing and toxic waste dumping.


Last week, Blackwater announced it was hiring a ship fitted with helicopters and armed guards for escorting vessels past Somalia’s pirate-ridden coast. Spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said it had received 15 inquiries so far.

The interest in private security is understandable, but is Blackwater really the kind of company that merchant fleets, the US Navy, and Somalia want providing it?  The articles notes that some maritime organizations believe — with justification, if Blackwater’s sorry track record in Iraq is any indication — that “armed guards may increase the danger to ships’ crews or that overzealous contractors might accidentally fire on fishermen.”  Indeed, for that reason, at least one British security company does not arm its employees:

“The standard approach is for (pirates) to come in with all guns blazing at the bridge because when a boat is stopped it’s easier to board,” said David Johnson, director of British security firm Eos. “But if you have guns onboard, you are going to escalate the situation. We don’t want to turn that part of the world into the Wild West.”

Johnson’s employees don’t carry arms, relying on tactics that can be as simple as greasing or electrifying hand rails, putting barbed wire around the freeboard — the lowest area of the deck — or installing high-pressure fire hoses directed at vulnerable areas of a ship.

One tugboat confused its attackers by going into a high-speed spin when pirates approached, causing the attackers to give up — and leaving the crew sick but safe.

High-tech but non-lethal weapons include dazzle guns, which produce disorienting flashes; microwave guns, which heat up the skin causing discomfort but no long-term damage; and acoustic devices that can blast a wave of painful sound across hundreds of yards.

Johnson believes his company’s refusal to carry guns has helped attract business: inquiries have gone up three- to fourfold in the past few months.

At a minimum, the legal issues surrounding private security for shipping need to be resolved before Blackwater and the other US companies get anywhere near the pirates.  The last thing we need is a Nusoor Square at sea.

4 Responses

  1. More than likely, the presence of an escorting ‘bodyguard’ ship would deter pirates from attacking in the first place, rather than leading to a confrontation. We aren’t speaking of the type of ambiguous situation a walk through a civil war zone would bring. 

    All in all, it sounds reasonable to me. If I were a pirate, I’d pick an easier target and stay away from guarded vessels (and I’m sure they’re legion in international waters). 

  2. On private contractors fighting pirates, I remember in the 1967-70 period in Lagos, Nigeria’s harbor that ships were plagued with pirates – except the Russian and Japanese ships.  What I was led to understand is that the Russians and Japanese crews would open fire whenever they heard anything and so pirates would not seek to board their ships (going up the chain of the anchor was a favorite way).  Do not know if those wielding the guns were private contractors or not but “triggerhappiness” was certainly a quality in demand at that time for that risk.  One would think that when one is in a country that kind of triggerhappiness would not be a preferred quality when there are diplomatic downsides (innocents killed as opposed to pirates) with local authorities.

  3. In the discussion about private security contractors and piracy, there have been repeated references to the “difficulties” posed by international law to the use of lethal force in protecting merchant shipping.  Presumably these problems arise from the UNCLOS or some other international convention.  As I am not an expert on maritime law, can anyone here at OJ (or other commenters) explain what these “difficulties” might be, specifically what the UNCLOS says about the use of force on the high seas?

  4.  Nathan — Art. 107 of UNCLOS permits seizures of pirates and pirated vessels on the high seas by “warships or military aircraft, or other ships or aircraft clearly marked and identifiable as being on government service and authorized to that effect.” However, that only applies on the high seas, not in Somali territorial seas.

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