Intelligence Challenges in the 21st Century: Panel 2 on Current Intelligence Challenges

Join GSPIA’s Matthew B. Ridgway Center in presenting a conference on Intelligence Challenges in the 21st Century: Looking Back and Looking Forward. Panel 2 looks at the current challenges in dealing with strategic intelligence and security issues.

Erin Butkowski, GSPIA: The Unholy Trinity: An ACH on AQIM, Boko Haram, and al-Shabaab

Ted Masten, GSPIA: Shale Fracking, a catalyst for change in international security

Somali Pirates: The Anatomy of Attacks

Authors: Beatriz Binkley & Laura Smith

Somali Pirates

Somali Pirates © Veronique de Viguerie, via The Guardian

The past two decades have witnessed a significant increase in the level of worldwide maritime piracy. With more than 50 percent of all contemporary maritime attacks attributed to Somali pirates, no other region is capable of generating more piracy-related investigations and analysis. Unfortunately, as the proliferation and success of Somali pirates continues, the organizational sophistication of pirate gangs will also increase, and the problem will spread to other areas with similarly enabling factors. Somali pirates are models for other prospective pirates to emulate. Yet they also provide case studies into how shipping companies and the international community can work to address the piracy problem. Against this background, this analysis moves beyond discussing the root cause of Somali piracy and breaks down the anatomy of attacks, looking at the possible successes and failures at different stages of the process. However, with high rewards and low risks for the pirates, the struggle to reduce piracy may be an uphill battle. Continue reading

USMC Boards Pirate-Controlled Merchant Vessel

Update by Sean Hannan

On September 9, 2010, 24 Marines from USMC 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) force reconnaissance platoon boarded the Magellan Star after it had been taken over by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. In what is known as a visit-board-search-seizure, or VBSS, the Marine raiders boarded the pirate-controlled vessel and stormed the ship, taking the nine hijackers into custody without firing a single shot. According to Captain Alexander Martin, USMC “As soon as the first stack [of Marines] made our way into the bridge, their hands were up, their weapons were down, they moved to their knees, and were very compliant.”1 The Marines launched from the USS Dubuque which was operating under the control of Combined Task Force 151 (CTF 151).11 A Turkish frigate had been the first to respond to the Magellan Star’s distress signal, and the USS Dubuque and USS Princeton subsequently provided additional support. The eleven Magellan Star crewmembers retreated to a safe room onboard as the pirates boarded their ship3 and White House and Pentagon officials decided to launch the raid after it was confirmed the crew was out of harm’s way.4 The successful VBSS of the Magellan Star marks the first time US military forces have boarded a ship actively controlled by Somali pirates.5

This should be viewed as both an encouraging incident, and a precedent for direct military action against Somali pirates. Permission for the force reconnaissance operators to board and retake the pirate-controlled vessel is reported to have come directly from Defense Secretary Roberts Gates.6 Consent for the mission was also developed in conjunction with other top-level Pentagon and White House officials.7 This suggests that top-level officials are aware of the type of response needed to quell incidents of piracy and armed robbery in the Gulf of Aden. Indeed, the United States has been the lead military force in taking direct action against Somali pirates, as seen by the Magellan Star boarding, as well the rescuing of Captain Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama by Navy SEAL snipers in April 2009.8 The United States continues to bear the burden of applying military force, and the United States Marine Corps has increased training in VBSS tactics in hopes of promoting readiness to conduct counter-piracy operations.9 Even before the Magellan Star incident, such training had taken place at USMC bases nationwide.10 East Coast-based Marine MEUs have been training in the use of VBSS from the air by boarding vessels using helicopters and MV-22 Osprey aircraft for fast roping onto ship decks. West Coast-based MEUs have been perfecting the art of seaborne boarding – the tactic used in the Magellan Star VBSS – using rigid inflatable boats. Both methods operate in conjunction with the US Navy, with sailors also taking part in VBSSs.11 While it is reported that the increased training is not a direct response to the number of piracy attacks off the Horn of Africa, it is a sign that more military intervention is expected.

While the root causes of piracy, such as underdevelopment and lack of domestic governmental control within Somalia, cannot be ignored, direct military action that defeats and deters acts of piracy will continue to be pursued by the United States operating under the jurisdiction of CTF 151. Military interdiction is necessary to fill the gaps while development and governmental control take hold in Somali. Hopefully, Somalis will desist from piracy as a legitimate economy develops. That development will take some time, maybe even decades to establish. The United States is preparing for a long fight. It can only be hoped that the fight is as successful as the retaking of the Magellan Star.

  1. Martin, Alex. “Pirates Beware: Force Recon Really Does Have Your Number.” U.S. Naval Institute, August 2010. (accessed September 14, 2010).
  2. “U.S. forces board pirate-captured vessel, seize control.” (accessed September 14, 2010)
  3. Ibid.
  4. Lamothe, Dan. “Conway endorses force recon after pirate.” Marine Corps Times. (accessed September 14, 2010).
  5. “U.S. forces board pirate-captured vessel.”
  6. Ibid.
  7. Lamonthe, “Conway endorses force.”
  8. “Captain freed after snipers kill pirates.” (accessed September 14, 2010).
  9. Ewing, Philip. “Marines increase training for at-sea boardings.” Navy Times. (accessed September 14, 2010).
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.

This Month in Somali Piracy

August – September 2010

Updated by Sean Hannan

  • In the first quarter of 2010 (January 1, 2010 – March 31, 2010), there were 35 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships in the waters off East Africa, fourteen fewer than the first quarter of 2009.1 As of September 8th, 2010, there were an estimated 23 vessels and 141 crew members being held in Somalia.2
  • A group of Somali pirates stumbled into international custody when they mistook the USS Ashland for a merchant vessel and attempted an attack. On April 10th, 2010, the pirate skiff chased the USS Ashland and then opened fire on the warship. The USS Ashland is an amphibious landing ship accommodating up to 500 US Marines, and a number of amphibious landing craft and helicopters, as well as a crew of 300 sailors. US sailors returned fire, killing one Somali, and destroying the skiff. The remaining six pirates were taken into custody, and moved to Norfolk, Virginia, where the Ashland is home ported. On August 27, 2010 Jama Idle Ibrahim plead guilty to piracy-related charges – attacking with intent to plunder, engaging in an act of violence against people on a vessel, and using a firearm during a crime of violence. There had been some controversy over the charges since, it was argued that the pirates neither boarded nor took control of the vessel, and had thus not committed any act of piracy.3
  • Pirates seized control of a Malta-flagged cargo vessel Olib G on Wednesday, September 8th, 2010. The vessel is crewed by 15 Georgians and Turks and was traveling through the internationally-prescribed transit lanes off the coast of Somalia. The United States deployed a helicopter to attempt contact with the vessel, but it was unable to reach the vessel in time. The European Naval Force Somalia (EUNAVFOR) subsequently tracked the ship via radar as it transited south towards Somalia.4
  • reported that on September 9th, 2010, the United States Marines boarded and seized a merchant vessel that pirates had captured. The pirates had taken control of the Merchant Vessel (M/V) Magellan Star on Wednesday, September 8th, 2010 off the coast of Somalia. The 11 man Magellan Star crew locked themselves in a safe room onboard as the pirates boarded. At 5 a.m. local time, the United States Marine Corps 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit Maritime Raiders, a 24 man maritime special operations unit, stormed the vessel and took the nine pirates into custody without firing a single shot. The Maritime Raiders were stationed aboard the USS Dubuque (LPD-8) serving in the anti-piracy Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151). The nine pirates, according to the US Fifth Fleet, are in CTF-151’s custody and “pending further disposition.” This marks the first direct boarding action undertaken by US military forces in the anti-piracy mission off Somalia.5

  1. “REPORTS ON ACTS OF PIRACY AND ARMED ROBBERY AGAINST SHIPS: First quarterly report (January to, and including, March 2010)”. International Maritime Organization. June 9th, 2010. (accessed September 9, 2010).
  2. “Pirates seize ship with Georgian, Turkish crew off Somalia.” AFP. (accessed September 9, 2010).
  3. “Somali pirate admits attacking US warship.” BBC. (accessed September 9, 2010).
  4. “Pirates seize ship with Georgian, Turkish crew off Somalia.” AFP. (accessed September 9, 2010).
  5. “U.S. forces board pirate-captured vessel, seize control.” (accessed September 9, 2010).

Piracy off the Horn of Africa

Author: Sean Hannan


According to Article 101 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), piracy: consists of any of the following acts:

  1. any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed:
    1. on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft;
    2. against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;
  2. any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft;
  3. any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in subparagraph (a) or (b). Continue reading

Al Shabaab

Authors: Russell Moll and Tyler Livermore


Al Shabaab is a hardline Islamist Organization that controls large swathes of territory in south and central Somalia. Founded in 2004 as the youth militancy of the now defunct and splintered Islamic Courts Union, the group rose to prominence in 2006 as an insurgency opposing the US-backed Ethiopian intervention forces. Following the January 2009 withdrawal of Ethiopian troops, Al Shabaab seized control of portions of Southern Somalia, instituting its austere brand of Salafist Sharia , and relegating the control or the internationally backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG), to “a few city blocks” in Mogadishu. Since May 2009 Al Shabaab has waged a brutal campaign against the TFG. Skirmishes between the 4,300-member African Union protectorate force and Al Shabaab became an almost daily occurrence. The later part of 2009 saw even more forceful attacks by Al Shabaab against civilian, military, and TFG targets. While Al Shabaab has pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda since 2007, its relations with regional Al Qaeda groups as well as placement of key Al Qaeda figures within its leadership have stoked western fears that Somalia could turn into a, “significant Al-Qaeda safe-haven“. Continue reading