By: John Berthelsen and Neeta Lal

The arrest last week by Indian police of a Sierra Leone-registered ship operated by the Virginia anti-piracy company AdvanFort, shines a spotlight on the dramatic proliferation of seagoing Blackwater-style private militias out to thwart Somali and other pirates for profit.

Protection is a fertile market, with “business opportunities,” as they are called, more than doubling since 2008. Scores of PMSCs – private military security companies made up mostly of heavily armed former SEALs and SAS and British Royal Marines Special Boat Service personnel – have sprung up to combat piracy, creating a security industry worth as much as US$6 billion annually.

There could be even more, since there is no registry that might give some clue as to who they are – or as to the quality of their personnel or the success of their operations. It was estimated in a recent Bloomberg report that about 40 percent of the 42,500 ships that transit the region each year now use armed guards, compared to 15 percent a year ago.

The companies are made up almost entirely of elite ex-military and ex-law enforcement personnel, who find that the PMSCs offer attractive and lucrative work, much safer than providing private security in war-torn places like Iraq, where they risk being blown up, shot or kidnapped. Aboard the MV Seaman Guard Ohio – Advanfort’s ship, for instance –were eight Indians, six British nationals, and some Estonians and Ukrainians and 25 security contractors along with semi-automatic weapons, 35 guns and over 5,000 rounds of ammunition.

So far in 2013, according to the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau, 176 incidents of piracy – including 10 hijackings – were reported across the world, with 57 hostages continuing to be held by Somali pirates. And as navies and private companies like AdvanFort have increased their presence off the Somali coast, Nigerians and others on the other side of Africa have picked up the idea of piracy as a lucrative enterprise.

In addition, the waters near Johor and Malacca in Malaysia have reportedly now surpassed Somalia in piracy incidents, according to the International Maritime Bureau although the Strait of Malacca so far has remained safe for international shipping. However, the Kuala Lumpur-based IMB has warned mariners to take precautions when plying the 960-km stretch shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. It remains to be seen if the PMSCs will move into that stretch of water as well.

Ship-owners have grown tired of paying ransom demands that now average US$4-$5 million compared to just US$15,000 in 2005, according to a study by Peter Chalk, a senior analyst for the Rand Corporation. In 2011, Chalk wrote, US$159.62 million was paid out to secure the release of captured vessels, including a record US$12 million for the return of the M/V Zirku – a Kuwaiti-owned oil tanker that seized in 2012 and held for 73 days, Chalk wrote in a 2012 paper commissioned by the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.

AdvanFort and the others are out to do well by doing good. An external escort – an accompanying patrol boat – costs anywhere between US$10,000 and US$100,000 depending on the length of the accompanied trip, usually a week or so through endangered waters, according to Chalk’s paper, while on-board security details typically run between $21,000 and $50,000 per transit.

AdvanFort’s Seaman Guard Ohio, which had been spotted for about a month in or near Indian waters by officials before a cyclone drove the ship out of international waters and into India’s exclusion zone, was home to 35 or so men who were largely alumni of the US Navy’s SEALS and the British SAS, a spokesman in Herndon, Virginia in the US told Asia Sentinel in a telephone interview. The Seaman Guard Ohio is one of several ships stationed in various places around the globe, the spokesman said, providing on-board security for ships making transit through dangerous areas.

“We provide maritime security, consultancies for governments, for companies trying to wind up contracts overseas, help them secure ships,” said the spokesman, who declined to be named.

Most of the personnel, he said, “are ex-law enforcement, ex-military, all trained annually and screened for psychology and physical, given firearms training. They are all Americans and British.”

The PMSCs provide a lucrative post-service employment deal for tough guys – and girls – who have mustered out and are still looking for action. As with AdvanFort, discharged military personnel from the UK and the US make up the majority of Western contractors. And there are plenty of them to pick from. More than 6 million military personnel have been discharged since the 1990s as the cold war wound down, and as more are leaving the service as Afghanistan drones into its 12th year.

After some initial reluctance to have boatloads of trigger-happy ex-servicemen floating around looking for trouble, several governments, including the United States, have become more receptive to the PMSCs, as have cash-strapped shipping companies caught in the global downturn who have seen their insurance rates drop by as much as 40 percent for ships accompanied by security teams passing through pirate-infested waters.

Nonetheless, there is the potential for trouble, partly, as retired US Navy Rear Admiral Terence E. McKnight, the US Commander of Task Force 151 off the coast of Somalia, pointed out in an interview published on AdvanFort’s website. Because the United States has refused to ratify the Law of the Sea, there is no way to enforce seagoing law as countries do for the directives of any nation-state. The private security teams aren’t subject to any regulation.

If the incidents listed on the AdvanFort webpage are any indication, the company’s personnel are eager to engage, although they have been careful to fire shots close to potential pirates to warn them off – not as the Italians did – at the men in small boats themselves.

“Most of the security teams are hiring ex-Special Forces members who are trained not only on self-defense, but security issues,” Adm. McKnight said in the AdvanFort interview. “All indications are that the majority of the teams that are out there are sanctioned by the governments and have gone through some type of certification, on how they are trained and what they are trained for. So it’s not like the Wild West, where it was: ‘Let’s just form a posse and grab people off the street.’ The last thing you want to do is have a company that is sending people out there who are not trained and we have an incident that would put a bad name on the maritime community.”

SEE RELATED STORY: Trouble On India’s High Seas

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