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Rear-Admiral Canova: piracy down, ransoms up, offensive action

CA Canova against B2 (copyright NGV / B2)

(BRUSSELS2, exclusive) Rear Admiral Christian Canova, deputy head of the EU's anti-piracy operation, leaves his post these days. He agreed to answer a few questions from B2 during one of his visits to Brussels one morning in December. An interview in the form of a retrospective and prospective assessment. It has been three years since the Eunavfor Atalanta operation was launched now. Delayed at the start, then criticized, the European operation made their mark and proved their effectiveness. The advantage for me is that CA Canova does not have his tongue in his pocket and does not dodge subjects. Difficulties exist - in particular an "air pocket" in the generation of force in December-January when only 2 or 3 boats will be on duty. But the announcements made for the next generation of force are reassuring. The difficulties today are essentially financial and not political. And Europeans are looking for all the means to reduce costs, in particular by implementing a desalination unit in Djibouti. The results are in. With all the measures taken (better applied best practices, better coordinated anti-piracy forces, use of armed guards...), and the inclement weather, the number of successful attacks dropped drastically from 1 in 4 to 1 out of 14. But if these figures are reassuring, we must remain cautious, very careful... The mission used its offensive powers for the first time by forcibly saving a hostage (in the Tribal kat). On the other hand, on the ransom side, the pirates win the jackpot! The amount explodes by boat. And it's still hard to trace the ransom money.

Figures vary, depending on the source, on the number of hostage boats. Where we are ? Where do you get your numbers from?

Our figures are checked every day, in real time. Every day, our planes fly over the detained boats and identify where they are. Today, with the recent releases of Mv Rosalia from Amato and Mv Gemini, there are still 8 ships and 200 hostages in the hands of the pirates. On dhows, it's more complex. We do not automatically know the number. And we sometimes wonder about their possible degree of complicity or charter. It's not clear. Often, their crews are not treated like those of merchant ships, where the crews are totally hostage and have their freedom restricted.

This figure is relatively low?

Yes. We have never been so low. At the same time of the year, there were 30 ships in the hands of Somali pirates. Today there are 8. This does not mean a decrease in attacks. On the contrary, they increased by about 15% compared to last year. But they are not as successful. A year ago, we had 1 out of 4 successful attacks; today we are at 1 in 14…

… You attribute this decline to what cause?

The reasons for this decrease are multiple. There is the presence of private guards or soldiers on board merchant ships that comes into play. And the good coordination between all the forces present, which is better than in the past. There is also a weather phenomenon: the monsoon was weak – and in the inter-monsoon, the sea was rougher. This did not prevent the boats from going to sea but made boarding more difficult (NB: the sea has not been very good for 15 days).

What about Kenya's intervention?

It has more of a side effect. Either some pirates joined the militias or saw their activity disrupted. But, indeed, there is a problem on land. We are still wondering about the reasons.

However, we cannot say that piracy is eradicated?

No. Piracy is not eradicated. We contain it better than before, that's all. Until now, hackers were always one step ahead. Today, this is not the case. We regained the advantage. But it remains fragile, very fragile. You have to be careful, very careful.

When you say that, are you thinking of the means available?

I'm a little worried about the end of the year. We fell to 3 at the beginning of December and soon to 2 ships in the area. And on the two other multinational operations, it is no better; it is in fact the Americans who fill in the gaps with their permanently present boats, changing their boat from the national flag to that of the operation when necessary. Hackers aren't stupid. There are local media that pick up the news. They read. So they are aware. But luckily for next year, I'm quite optimistic.

Force generation for the next period?

The announcements made by the nations for next year are reassuring. We should have between 6 and 8 boats, for the generation of force for the first half of 2012 (from April to August) (Nb: another meeting will take place during 2012 for the end of the year period). Which is the level necessary to be able to contain piracy. The three major contributors - Spain, Germany, France - continue their commitment. And others, too, have indicated their will. Smaller countries, which we do not always talk about, such as Luxembourg (with its chartered aircraft based in the Seychelles) which has been there since the start of the operation, Malta and Estonia with on-board protection teams, continue their commitment. Belgium will put a boat and an EPE (Nb: on the French boat) next year.

To what do you attribute this "hole" of air?

There is no political problem. It is more and more, if not only, budgetary constraints that come into play. Greece - which was very involved since the start of the operation, with always a frigate engaged - has thus stopped sending a frigate since last August. Portugal is also reluctant to put a boat, again for cost reasons. The Portuguese are participating in the defense of the Baltic countries, with the F16s, and have no means to provide for Atalante. At our level, we are trying to see how to reduce costs, by studying all possible avenues. For example on the water. In Djibouti (where ships restock), a liter of water costs more than a liter of oil. The Germans had installed a desalination unit. We are studying the purchase of a desalination unit at the level of the European Union. This would lower costs.

And why not a contribution from shipowners?

It is not our role to propose it. But we can actually consider that it is quite incomprehensible that shipowners - like those in Greece - cannot give a little help to the navy which protects them at least for operating costs (gasoline, water …). Because that is what is expensive for the States, the soldiers are, in any case, paid. I spoke about it recently with the shipowners who are constantly complaining about the lack of means.

Are they willing to move?

No. They behave a bit like spoiled children waiting for an army of peacekeepers to protect them, at no cost to them.

On the ransom side, on the other hand, it's the jackpot!

Indeed, this year we broke all ransom records. Hackers raised $135 million in 2011 - and the year isn't over! Against $80 million last year. Since 2007, we have also witnessed an exponential rise in the amount of ransoms per boat. In 2007, the ransom averaged $600.000 per boat. In 2009, we reached $2 million; in 2010, $3 million; in 2011, $4,6 million. And the latest ransoms paid amount to $6 million! The number of ships does not automatically interest pirates. This is the amount obtained by coining them. We are here in a fairly classic stock management phenomenon with negotiations that accelerate with each period (NB: we could add, such as summer sales and winter sales at clothing merchants).

So the pirate is above all an industrialist?

We must indeed stop with the Epinal image of the poor Somali who becomes a pirate. This may have been true in 2006, when piracy started with illegal fishing, after the Tsunami revealed a lot of waste deposited. But piracy, today, is above all an SME of crime, with established groups that have one goal: money.

Piracy, an SME, so there are other industries?

Yes, because you have to compare it to drug trafficking, which is a multinational, with around $500 billion generated per year. This is also why it is very difficult to trace the money from piracy. Because the flows are relatively weaker. The big agencies (interpol) are mobilizing. But the way to recycle this money also plays a role. The money goes to the diasporas. It is also recycled regionally, in Somalia, in the Emirates (to buy engines or gasoline), in Djibouti (NB: we could add Kenya, Madagascar, etc.).

When ships are freed from pirates, how do you act? Nothing is foreseen in your mandate...

When they are released, they are given assistance if necessary. Sometimes they have nothing left: no oil, no water or supplies. When the company is serious, it provides a tug to ensure this supply. And, in that case, they don't need us. But sometimes that is not the case. Recently we thus intervened for the MV Blida (NB: where many Algerian sailors were). They were assisted in restarting the engine. But also ensure a presence on board. The crew was very marked by these long months of detention, and was traumatized at the idea of ​​going back on the road. Which is normal after almost a year as a hostage. We lent them psychological assistance in a way. It's our role too...

You served more in NATO. And in a few days you will end your mandate as number 2 in an EU operation, what lessons do you draw from this, on the spot?

I do have a NATO background. What is good in the European Union is the short chain of command. The fact that the head of the operation dialogues directly with the High Representative or the heads of the EEAS is important. Decisions are made quite quickly. We arrive at decisions in a rather quick timeframe, approximately 3 months. Which is short for politico-military. We have recently adopted more offensive modes of action. And, in September, we had the first operation to free hostages entirely under the European flag. I obtained France's agreement for another country to carry out this liberation operation. And my Spanish counterpart did the same to obtain the same authorization from his government. All this urgently. The French frigate had taken charge of the boat (Colombos, the Tribal Kat) but it was empty. And the hostage was spotted nearly eight miles off the coast. He was less than a...

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).

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