The media’s coverage of maritime piracy has changed markedly as of late. In 2010, stories characterized piracy as a ballooning problem with pirates’ changing tactics outpacing those of international navies. The result was a marked increase in attacks and hijackings. Today, however, stories are more likely to focus on diminished profits in the insurance industry, languishing pirate villages, or out-of work prostitutes. This change is not unwarranted. Reported incidents of piracy have seen a steady decline from 2010 to 2012, with only 70 incidents attributed to Somalia this year, less than half the number reported during the same period in 2011.
Though industry best management practices and steady international naval support have undoubtedly played a role in piracy’s reported decline, the phenomenon is best explained through the increased use of private maritime security companies (PMSCs) aboard merchant vessels transiting pirate infested waters. These guards are used on anywhere between 30% and 60% of all ships, and over half of 2012’s attempted attacks were carried out on ships with private armed guards. To date, not one pirate attack has been successfully conducted on a ship with armed guards on board.
Yet the picture is not all rosy. These guards operate in a legal grey area where incident reporting is considered to be a matter between the private security company and the shipping company who hired it. Neither of these entities have an incentive to report attacks, as reporting increases potential legal liability and insurance costs. Accordingly, those who believe that all incidents of piracy get reported are few and far between.
From all this, a central themes emerges. It is clear that these guards have had a real impact on piracy, but the full extent and nature of that impact remains obscure. The secrecy inherent in a purely private security scheme devoid of outside political pressure has left the public in the dark as to the true extent of piracy in the Indian Ocean, not to mention the extent to which innocent fishermen are caught in the crossfire.
Considering the identifying characteristics, tactics, and interests of the parties involved suggests some similarities between the way private armed guards report piracy attacks and the way the United States government reports signature drone strikes.
The first thing to know is that it is extremely difficult to distinguish coastal fishermen from pirates. This is true for several discrete and mutually reinforcing reasons. Chief among them is the simple fact that pirates steal fishermen’s boats to use them as pirate skiffs, making the two crafts literally impossible to distinguish. Moreover, Somalia is a country with 870,000 guns, only 1.6% of which are registered. In Somalia, possession of an AK-47 alone does not make someone a pirate. It would not be unusual to find such a weapon aboard a bona fide fishing vessel. Finally, local fishermen have been known to approach large shipping vessels either to catch the fish that are stirred up in the larger vessel’s wake or to protect their nets from being destroyed by the large ships travelling increasingly close to the coastline. Between the similarities in appearance and tactics among pirates and fishermen, distinguishing the two is no small feat.
This possibility of confusion does not change the laws of physics that put the AK-47’s operational range at 300-350 meters. Nor does it change the laws of economics that have led to the AK-47’s ubiquity in the region. These operational realities have led to the reported practice of warning shots being fired when an unidentified skiff is over 500m away from the tanker and more direct fire as the skiff approaches the 300 meter mark.
Taken together, the apparent similarities between fishermen and pirates and the range at which PMSCs engage an approaching skiff creates a significant (but currently un-knowable) possibility of false positives. False positives that look something like this: private armed guards fire at a skiff belonging to fishermen, assuming those fishermen to be pirates. The fishermen then decide that the net they are trying to save or the fish they are trying to catch is not worth risking their lives. The fishermen leave the vicinity of the tanker before a positive identification can be made, and the PMSC either reports the encounter as a pirate attack or does not report it at all.
In this way, PMSC reporting practice resembles that applied to the now infamous “signature drone strikes.” As reported in the New York Times, the Obama administration has taken to “count[ing] all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants . . . unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent. Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.”
This dubious reporting practice has led to wild discrepancies in the reported number of civilians killed by drones. Officially, the number of civilians killed in Pakistan is either “in the single digits” or around 30 in a yearlong stretch, depending on which official you ask. Unofficially, the New America Foundation thinks that the number could be as low as 152 and Pakistanbodycount.org says that it could be as high as 2,412.
As with civilians killed by drone strikes, the proportion of incidents attributable to pirates as opposed to fishermen is anyone’s guess. This is because in both areas, the security provider agrees on a tactic and then interprets the outcome in the light most favorable to the provider in the absence of effective outside pressure to use a more rigorous method.
This is not to say that the percentage of false positives is necessarily high – either in the case of pirate attacks or signature strikes. It is just to say that nobody knows what the real numbers are, be they high or low. It is presently impossible to make a credible assumption either way.
Chances are high, however, that the number of times PMSCs have fired upon fishermen in the last two years is more than zero, which is the officially reported statistic. Unless some accountability is brought to bear on the reporting process, it is a safe bet that “probably up to no good” is the standard to which pirates, fishermen, terrorists, and civilians alike will be held.
Jon Bellish is a Project Officer at the Oceans Beyond Piracy Project just outside Denver, CO. All the views expressed are his own. You can follow him on Twitter.