About Me

My photo
I saw active service in conventional, clandestine and covert units of the South African Defence Force. I was the founder of the Private Military Company (PMC) Executive Outcomes in 1989 and its chairman until I left in 1997. Until its closure in 1998, EO operated primarily in Africa helping African governments that had been abandoned by the West and were facing threats from insurgencies, terrorism and organised crime. EO also operated in South America and the Far East. I believe that only Africans (Black and White) can truly solve Africa’s problems. I was appointed Chairman of STTEP International in 2009 and also lecture at military colleges and universities in Africa on defence, intelligence and security issues. Prior to the STTEP International appointment, I served as an independent politico-military advisor to several African governments. Until recently, I was a contributing editor to The Counter Terrorist magazine. All comments in line with the topics on this blog are welcome. As I consider this to be a serious look at military and security matters, foul language and political or religious debates will not be entertained on this blog.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


I am astonished at the world’s response to the continuing piracy problem off the East African coast.

Pirates are criminals – there is no “nicer” or “softer” or even “politically correct” manner to describe them and what they do. In short, they transgress international maritime law. They highjack ships and hold the crews hostage. They demand – and get – massive ransom payments.

There is no excuse for their actions – they are simply criminals that have got the West and the shipping companies quaking in their boots. In days gone by, they would have been hanged if they were caught. Today, we have become so spineless that we would rather turn a blind eye and hope they do not attack our country’s ships.

Surely, someone somewhere must have realised by now that using political correctness as a method of countering piracy has failed – and can never succeed. Water cannons and bean bags have never been a real deterrent – except maybe to ill-prepared rioters. Sending naval task forces into the pirate-infested areas is likewise a hollow threat. Yet, the taxpayers have to fund these navies in order to protect the shipping companies who don’t repay the costs of the naval task forces. In short, it is a great business deal for the shipping companies.

Whereas many PMCs and individuals – myself included – have written concepts, plans, proposals and more on how to counter this menace, no one has yet had the courage to implement these plans for fear of international condemnation. International law is in this instance also a prohibiting factor as there is great uncertainty as regards the legalities of having weapons on-board a ship, something that is in reality very simple. But, it seems, no one likes a simple plan. The more complicated it is, the more people like it.

Even more astonishing is that everyone is keen to give an excuse why the pirates are operating – from the failed-state theory to great poverty. That is, in a sense, much like condoning a bank robber and then making excuses for his criminal behaviour. As long as no one gets seriously hurt, it must be okay…

The message everyone is sending these pirates is that it is perfectly acceptable to commit their crimes. Besides, how much of their profits are sent to organised crime groups and even terrorist groups, thus allowing them to continue to operate? How much of these pirate actions are being coordinated from Europe, the Middle East and the UK? By all accounts, most are.

Well, I for one think it is time to take drastic action. If I am condemned for this, then so be it.

It is time that someone with some backbone stood up and admitted it: The only way to stop the pirates is to attack them on the ground. They need to be taught a very severe lesson – the lesson being that organised crime is not acceptable and that they will suffer the consequences for their actions.

If there is really a desire to end piracy, the best manner to achieve this will be by launching ground assaults on their safe-havens. Of course, this may upset those who wish to continue to be politically correct and humane. But they, too, must now decide whether this type of crime is acceptable or not.

If aggressive, decisive and targeted action is not soon taken, these criminals will simply continue to do what they do and even spread their wings to richer pickings elsewhere.

The strategy is simple: the pirates need to be stopped. The time has come to take offensive action. A group of well-trained men, correctly equipped and supported, will be able to wreak havoc on the pirates – before they even set sail from their harbours.

I, like many others, would be happy to plan and carry this action out on behalf of any government that has some backbone.

Will there be any takers? I doubt it…

My next posting will take a critical look at the so-called "troop surge" strategy.


Jake said...

Eeben, Wow. This post must be hot off the presses as I appear to be the first to comment.

As much as I agree with you that pirates are criminals they have, in fact, carved out a very sustainable business model so far.

I also agree completely with both your proposal for action ashore as well as the reasons why no one is likely to take you up on it.

I have been in discussions for months with two medium sized shipping companies with European headquarters. One of them specializes in transporting nearly all the vehicles from one of the major Japanese car manufacturers from Japan to the U.S. They have told me flat-out that they are simply not interested in having armed guards aboard to even counter an attack, to date they have been attacked twice although the pirates were unsuccessful. So your proposal for offensive action ashore will, as you know, fall on deaf, and I would contend dumb, ears.

In today's political climate the only ones who can ruin the pirate's party are the pirates themselves through greed or sensational acts violence. The current levels of piracy can go on indefinitely, as long as they continue to detain less than 1% of commercial traffic and are in the habit of returning the ships, cargo and crew intact even after months of detainment.

If, on the other hand they start doing real material damage to ships, cargo or crew they will be met with a more resolute response.


Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

It was on-line for a few minutes before you responded, Jake. So, “hot off the press” is an apt description.

You are quite correct re their business model and more will no doubt follow suit as it is very easy and relatively risk-free. As I mentioned, the attitude that “it is acceptable as long as we are not attacked” holds true and for that reason, people are hesitant –even scared - to take action.

Again, by doing nothing everyone is simply condoning it.

Of course my suggestion of taking on-shore action will fall on deaf ears. It seems to me that in a world of weak backs, the spineless rule. The 1% the pirates interdict amounts to millions of dollars in ransom, lost business, damaged cargo, interrupted business contracts, to say nothing of the trauma of the hostages and their families.

It seems to me that in a global melt-down, even that is preferable to taking hard action against piracy. I certainly find it mind-boggling to say the least. But that equation probably holds true in terms of bank robbers – they probably don’t even hit 1% of the banks yet governments and law enforcement agencies are keen to stop that. Don’t you find that somewhat hypocritical?



bulletbunny said...

a very thought-provoking posting indeed. i would like to think of myself as a humanitarian and thus i am always quite keen to see human rights preserved in both war and crime fighting. still, i can see justification for barlow's point of view: armed actions invite armed counter measures and, unlike the palestinians, the pirates are quite able to defend themselves. considering the impunity with which the pirates have terrorised ships and crews from countries right across the world, they deserve to be taught a lesson by barlow's boys. if he was able to stop wars that no-one else could end, then he can certainly bring the pirates to their knees. i certainly hope somebody will put his courage to good use.

He of difficult days said...

What would you do that would allow victory through a ground assault in Somalia without another 1993 US Army Ranger fiasco?

simon said...

I agree whole heartedly with the analysis on how to end it. deprive them of their safe havens.

I do believe the American military has stayed out of it because it seems that often in that part of the world when an opportunity to say ' hey look what terrorists will do to you' the Govt. lets it happen for awhile. Will be interesting what solution will be implemented. Its a shame that a military who has all the tools to eradicate this mess in a matter of days, wont because of politics.

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Courage is a quality politicians lack, Bulletbunny. Pirates are criminals and all the tea in the world will not change that. I believe action should be taken – the sooner the better. Presidents and politicians alike promise to fight crime but when it happens, they are quick to avoid the issue. Instead, they look for something else to “fight”.



Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

The fiasco we witnessed was caused largely by poor planning, inadequate intelligence, a disregard for the intelligence that there was and so forth, HODD. I might also add that there was a large amount of arrogance involved and an over-estimation of ability. After all, this is Africa and they can't be better than we are...

How will it be done without causing another fiasco? As we did things in the wars we fought. Intelligence, reconnaissance, training, discipline and action at the correct time and place.



Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

It is not only the US government, Simon. Governments in the West are all unwilling and unable to make decisions that may appear to be politically incorrect. It goes back to the governance by the spineless.

Nothing will be done as Jake rightfully pointed out in his comment until people start being killed and massive damage done to ships. Even then, noting much will be done. But while everyone dithers around and does nothing, the pirates have funds to buy more sophisticated weapons and equipment.

A sad situation.



Aethyr said...

I too think that as long as the cost-benefit calculations of the attacked shipping companies don't show anything different than one ore two attacks, nothing will be done.

On the other hand - as I mentioned before in a previous post of mine - a friend of mine is the associate of a little PSC based in Mombasa. Their office is literally overrun by people asking for security guards onboard their ships.
The only problem is that they aren't allowed to carry any weapons - yet.

Regarding an involvement of the US Forces: I would not say they are unwilling, in fact I think the notion of attacking an opponent internationally increased since 9/11 as we all have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. But those wars have left the US Forces terrible overstreched. I don't think they can spare Men, the Equipment or the money. Let alone the political costs.

The EU would have the potential but is somehow not willing to accept that. It wouldn't be the first time that I read an article about the missed opportunity of the EU to make a change.

The consequences of disunity...

At last I would like to toy with a thought...

I would not say that governments are spineless. Isn't it more likely that since world war two we all have been socialised to think that war is wrong and has to be condemned?

So in my opinion it is not a "physical" problem but rather a "psychological".

It just that we need to get rid of that conditioning since the west is the only one who suffers from it.

my (long) two cents

Grumbleguts said...

Good idea, Eeben, but although I have little military experience, too risky and too expensive. There is also the chance that it might escalate into a full scale African war, eventually involving East and West. My cheap solution would be to put 2 marksmen on a ship, who will hit their outboard motors. Simple. If I can hit a matchbox at 150metres on open sights, it's little problem to hit an outboard motor with a sniper's rifle at the same distance. Perhaps the maritime law on arming merchant ships need to be updated.

Sonny Cox said...

Eben, if the pays all right, I will tag along in my flying wheelchair....

I thought the Chinese Navy had things under control?

E Richard said...

Hey Eeben,
There will be no way that any country will justify going on land in Somalia. Even if the job could get done effectively the story is ripe for criticism. The difference between fisherman and pirate?
Baiting them on the water will be the closest to engaging the pirate as we will muster. What a great live fire training opportunity for maritime special forces.
From your military black and white perspective the act of piracy is bad, stopping it good. The political risks takers must first sign on to Somalia being a failed state, and 2nd, attach their name to the fix-it plan of going in with only one objective, stop the pirates.
Even after the loss of life of the pirates after getting their ransom, the media ate it up, pictures of pirates everywhere.
Stealing a loaf of bread from a street vendor, or cargo ships on the high seas, as long as the purpose of feeding ones family at all costs is invoked, it will be allowed.
The Gaza issue being mentioned, someone on your shores is launching rockets across your border, what are you going to do. Not addressing any pre-existing conditions, taking sides or the like, but looking at the military response that was exercised, man what a mess.
Somalia can and will deteriorate into something like this.

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

An important 2-cents worth, David. But you are correct that it all revolves around money. Added to that is the restriction of having weapons in a country’s territorial waters. This is a legal problem that assists the pirates as they know this.

It is not only a matter of US forces being overstretched but there is so much anti-US sentiment in Africa that it would probably be best if the US does not involve itself in this. One can imagine the headlines…I do not entirely agree with you on the costs. What costs more – preparing and equipping a team or keeping a naval task force afloat off the coast? I would think the latter is much more costly.

I don’t have much faith in the EU…

Maybe you are correct in your conclusion that governments are caught up with a psychological problem. I still however see it as spineless. They are quick to take on “terrorists” but not criminals – who themselves may be funding terror. But you are right in the sense that it is conditioning…



Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Ironically, it is less risky than exposing the ships to pirates and much cheaper than having entire naval task forces floating out there, Grumbleguts. As it is nothing other than crime, and given that they pirates will be taken on in their safe havens with no occupation forces, it cannot be construed as a declaration of war.

Also ironically, the international maritime law is in this instance aiding the pirates and disadvantaging the shippers.



Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Ha-Ha, Sonny! Can you mount any weapons on your flying wheelchair?

The Chinese are not there to protect Western shipping interests – they are there to protect their own. But, I am sure that they will rush to aid whoever asks for help. But, that still does not resolve the problem.



Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

You are correct ER – no one will dare do it.

The politicians will continue to waffle – as they usually do – and get nothing done anyway.

Some in the media even took pity on the pirates who drowned with their ransom. It is indeed a sad day when we start pitying the criminals. But that is what the West has become – so politically correct that it is now incorrect.

As for Gaza – we are VERY far away from there. No one from our shores launched anything at anyone…



graycladunits said...

Dear Eeben:

If anyone goes on the offensive, the bleeding-heart liberals in the US and elsewhere will wine about the collateral damage...Has anyone tried nullifying their complaints by arguing that...to live among pirates for any reason is the same as aiding and abetting them; perhaps, in no other way than to give them a larger populous to blend into to avoid justice or load magazines for their weapons? In other words, the potential collateral damage is really just a sort of "logistical support pirate" as opposed to a "front line pirate" who does the actual fighting. This is my own analyis of what it means to willingly live among pirates, but it might help you to convince a gov't to let you create a proposal and carry it out. I don't know if you thought of it or if it will help, but feel free to use my idea.

For the record, the actual captive workers or sex slaves would be the only truly innocent folks that might be hurt. If news reports are true, then these folks are few in number.

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

The verbal fall-out will not only come from the US, GCU. The entire Western world will complain and be upset about it. At the end of the day, this is a problem that can be easily solved – in a variety of ways – but no single government has the backbone or really wants to resolve it.

As long as we continue to be so politically correct that we become politically incorrect, these things will happen unchallenged.
As with any criminal organisation, use is made of their own support structures. But often these structures work through coercion and fear. The aim should never be to harm those who are coerced of living under threat. Thanks for offering your idea but it is something we appreciated a time ago.



Lukeisaduke said...

Hit the pirate blighters and hit them hard. That's the only way to stop them in my view. It is only going to escalate if nothing is done.


Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

There are several options available Luke but as no one has either the courage or desire to stop it, I believe this is now the only course of action left. The longer it is allowed to continue, the more brazen the pirates get and the more we silently give our nod of approval to crime.



Unknown said...

Hi Eeben, I believe the West will no aggressively act against the pirates, as the situation gives them the opportunity to maneuver their fleets closer to Iran and Pakistan, under the pretence of patrolling those waters against these criminals.
There is no reason for these criminals to be able to do what they are doing with basic immunity from the West, unless the West is using the situation for strategic reasons.

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

You certainly raise an interesting point, John. It is true that the pirates have a tacit immunity and permission to operate. With several navies in the area – granted, it is a large patch of water – they are still unable to resolve the problem. I am sure the costs for keeping one of these large naval vessels in the area would adequately pay for someone to take decisive action. But, as usual, everyone will bemoan their fate and do nothing.



userdude said...

"But, it seems, no one likes a simple plan. The more complicated it is, the more people like it."

"Beware geeks bearing formulas."

The enemy of diplomacy is simplicity. To negotiate a compromise from a compromise is to breed bureaucracy, which only enables job security, not effectiveness.

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Well said, Userdude. And as far as those in government are concerned, job security (their job security) is all that really matters.