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International Maritime Security Today: Interview with Hellenic Navy Commander Ioannis Chapsos

By Chris Deliso in Thessaloniki

An international conference on the role of NATO, UN and the EU in meeting global security challenges, organized on 10-11 February in Thessaloniki by Strategy International, brought together a number of Greek military and naval officers, academic experts and diplomats from various countries, in addition to other expert speakers. Among the subjects discussed at the well-attended event were counter-terrorism methods, maritime security and the economic and social factors behind today’s pattern of instability. (Readers may also be interested in seeing NATO’s Somali Piracy Update page, which gives detailed accounts of pirate sightings and attacks, listed in reverse chronological order).

On 11 February, Director Chris Deliso met Hellenic Navy Commander Ioannis Chapsos during the conference to get the latter’s views on these issues, and Greece’s vital role in meeting security needs in the Mediterranean and beyond. The following interview details that conversation.

Commander Chapsos, an instructor in the security and strategy department at the Hellenic Supreme Joint War College, has served in Greek national defense planning with the Hellenic General Staff, and the human resources/education department of the Hellenic Navy General Staff. He also holds a master’s degree in terrorism, international crime and global security from Coventry University in the UK, and is a 2007 graduate of the Marshall Center’s Executive Program in Advanced Security Studies.

Since graduating from the Hellenic Naval Academy in 1989, much of Commander Chapsos’s distinguished naval career has been on fast patrol boats, giving him unique experience and a comprehensive understanding of the operative conditions affecting small craft, such as are used by both pirates and naval special forces teams.


Clear and Present Dangers

Chris Deliso: First of all, thank you for speaking with us today. I’d like to start by discussing what the current unrest in the Middle East and North Africa means for maritime security and global commerce, in terms of speculation that a future Egyptian government, or non-state maritime troublemakers, could in future close the Suez Canal or endanger commercial shipping there. What happens if they close this canal? And what would be result of this for Greece, with its important merchant fleet (as recently discussed by

Ioannis Chapsos: Greeks owns the majority of merchant fleets globally, and so of course any closure of the Suez Canal would affect the Greek economy. What keeps Greece capable of performing [economically] at the current level is its merchant fleet, and it would thus have a catastrophic effect if the canal was closed for any length of time.

But if this were to happen, there would be a far greater impact globally. For example, we talked about the capture of the Greek-flagged tanker Irene– this generated headlines in the media, not because it was Greek-flagged, but because it was carrying oil bound for the US. If the Suez Canal was closed it would have a huge impact on the US as well.

CD: So, what would actually be done if the canal was closed, for ship traffic, at least in the short-term?

Commander Ioannis Chapsos (second from right) speaking at the Strategy International Thessaloniki conference. To his right is Marios Efthymiopoulos, President of Strategy International.

IC: We would probably go back to the pre-WWII days, when the ships went the long way to the Atlantic and Mediterranean, following the southern African coastline. There are international conventions regarding canals, but in the short term the solution would probably be to divert traffic to the old routes.

CD: Another, perhaps bigger concern for European security at least is that of a potential mass influx of illegal immigrants attempting to escape the turbulence in North African coastal cities. What about this issue? Is there a European policy or action plan to deal with this issue?

IC: There are bilateral agreements between Spain and Morocco, Italy and Libya, and Greece and Turkey. But since our agreement with Turkey is harder to enforce, we have more problems. And there are signs of an increase in illegal immigration, even before the current unrest began.

For example, here in Thessaloniki, we have witnessed an increase of 20% in the number of illegal Somali immigrants over the past year. This means they are utilizing a new route from East Africa via Turkey to reach Greece.

Illegal immigration from Africa is the result of human trafficking, a lucrative form of organized crime with broad international connections. For example, this last year we had a case here in Thessaloniki involving one Nigerian immigrant. He had paid $5,000 to bring his niece into Greece illegally via Turkey, which she reached using a forged passport. When she arrived here, this man forced her into prostitution- the police only discovered this when the criminals were planning to resell her to an organized crime group in Italy.

An Increase in Piracy- and the Escalation of Violence

CD: Organized crime and its maritime security links is an important topic to which we will return. But I would like to get your views about piracy first. It’s remarkable to me how the phenomenon of piracy, especially in Somalia, seems to just keep getting bigger. Is this so? If so, how do we explain it? Why can’t anyone stop it?

IC: It is true- piracy is on the increase. There are a number of factor behind this. Part of it is the sheer size of the area in question and the number of commercial vessels that regularly cross through it. If you see the numbers of ships out there, you see how hard it to cover the whole area.

CD: Is there anything that the commercial ships are doing wrong that makes them more vulnerable?

IC: Yes. This is a very important aspect. Most ship captains who are caught by pirates are found to be traveling outside the known ‘safe’ corridors. The shipping companies do not oblige captains to follow the determined safe routes, if it means they will save money by getting to the destination faster. So companies’ irresponsibility is part of the problem.

Also, the more pirate attacks that occur, the more resources they have at their disposal- it’s remarkable how far from the coast of Somalia occurred one hijacking on 11 January. We are seeing this more often now, because when the pirates capture certain ships, they can use them to get much further out, and offload their attack skiffs from there.

Further, pirates are broadening their reach. For example, the day before yesterday [9 February], the Greek-flagged, 333m-long vessel Irene, carrying 260,000 tons of oil worth $230 million, was hijacked- almost 400 miles south of Oman. This is a worrying new development.

CD: At the same time, international navies have started making tougher responses to pirate attacks and seem to be more present. Will this increase?

IC: There is certainly an escalation of violence in piracy. The 21 January commando raid by the South Koreans, leaving 8 pirates dead, signaled a new era of violence. In that case, none of the crew were harmed. But in other actions, this has not been the case, as with the case of the German-owned vessel Beluga Nomination– a disaster, in which one member of the crew died. A later attack on a pirate-controlled ship saw two Filipino crewmembers dead, one in the action and one who drowned.

Still, piracy is being seen as a new source of revenue by some. Private security companies like the former Blackwater, which provides armed guards and consulting, see fighting piracy as a new field of business on the high seas- but here there are several difficult legal, moral and international issues.

In the final assessment, it is clear that the escalation of violence is not going to stop piracy and will not provide a long-term solution, however.

Money and Piracy

CD: You have said that the pirates are not interested in goods or cargo, but in the crew. Why is this so, considering how financially valuable the cargo many times is, compared to the lives of a few unknown sailors?

IC: The pirates are not interested in the cargo, but in the hostages- this is so because the crewmembers are the ones who are going to bring the ships back. The pirates don’t know how to pilot the larger ships. In cases like the Irene, which carried a cargo worth $230 million, it only cost $50 million to ransom it. In the view of a shipping company, it is better to spend the lesser amount than to risk losing it all.

CD: In your presentation, you noted that about $150 million is being paid annually in ransoms to pirates. So where do these huge sums go? Do the pirates ‘reinvest’ to make their capacities more expansive?

IC: The pirates don’t need to reinvest because, as I mentioned, they use some of the ships they capture as the “mother ships.” In this sense the smaller commercial ships out there are more suitable as they are easier to navigate, and more vulnerable, as they have less crew.

So, what do they do with this money? Part of the answer concerns the state. Somalia is non-governed, it has not been a state entity for practical purposes since 1994. So no one controls it- we can be sure that the money doesn’t go to the government. Instead, it is circulated through organized crime networks.

CD: Does this money find its way back into the banking system, or else is it made ‘legitimate’ in some other way?

IC: If it does go [into the banking system], this is not clearly known. But money laundering is very popular in Africa, and in different ways. West African organized crime is very strong, and extends all over the world- from Europe to Africa and South Asia. And the Somalia pirates are closely interrelated with, and interdependent with, such organized crime rings.

We should consider that the hawala system of exchange in West Africa is very popular; with this, money from piracy is recycled in a number of ways, for example, as goods. Cash can be turned into items that have a fixed value and that are traded for one other, such as weapons, diamonds, oil, etc. It therefore becomes very difficult to follow the money after a certain point. But it is clear, additionally, that piracy raises the insurance premiums on all kinds of ships.

Intelligence, Terrorist Groups and Piracy: Connections Still Unknown

CD: This is a very interesting topic- we occasionally hear cloudy rumors about insurance fraud allegedly being perpetrated from within the big firms, say, an insurer in the City of London or Dubai. The idea goes that corrupt white-collar workers in maritime shipping are secretly colluding with international organized crime bosses by giving foreknowledge of ship locations so they can be captured, in exchange for cash. Is there any truth to this?

IC: It is very difficult to know. But it is also very hard to understand how the pirates get intelligence on the locations of specific ships.

It is very hard to answer this question with evidence, but it is also clear that the capture of the Saudi oil tanker Sirius Star in 2008, for example, was not accidental. In my presentation, I showed a picture from that event- it showed a pirate in a skiff, talking on a wireless satellite phone. This means you have also someone at the other end of the line…

CD: Could terrorist groups also be involved with providing information to pirates?

IC: There is no clear evidence of links between piracy and terrorism, but on the other hand it’s certainly very difficult to prove that there are definitively none. It’s possible a terrorist group could share information with them – it would not be difficult to do.

CD: So leading countries like the US are not concerned about a possible relation between the two?

IC: The US is very aware of the general situation in East Africa, but is reticent to intervene again as it did [in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu disaster]. In the past couple of years there have been drone attacks against al Shabaab, the Islamist group controlling much of Somalia, but not against the pirates.

Basically, the US killed a few al Sabab leaders including homegrown US citizens, but did not target pirates specifically. They don’t seem to want to deploy additional forces on land. I don’t know if the US has the will to launch another state-building campaign, after having been so involved in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the case of US air attacks on al Shabaab, some have been launched from neighboring Ethiopia-

CD: From Ethiopia- why there specifically?

IC: Ethiopia is very hostile to Somalia. They also play a very important role in the overall situation there. I don’t know if Ethiopia can provide a solution, but for some they are a Western ally.

CD: You mentioned that the pirates are not interested in ships’ cargo, because they can’t drive the larger ones. In this light, I wonder why they don’t learn- after all, everyone knows about how the 9/11 plotters had previous gone to flight training schools to learn how to fly planes. Have security services detected any evidence of al Qaeda or other groups training potential terrorists in maritime activities, like how to pilot ships?

IC: There is not information about whether this is going on now with such groups. But the best known terrorist group in maritime affairs, the one who invented suicide bombings, in fact, was the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. They created what was practically their own navy, and had an underwater demolition team. They started all this 50 years ago. They had armed forces, and for many scholars are considered freedom fighters. But they did use a female suicide bomber to kill [former Indian PM Rajiv] Gandhi in 1991. So they were fighting for rights, but using terroristic methods.

CD: Nevertheless, there are modern examples, such as with the Mumbai attacks of 2008- people sometimes forget that the armed terrorists entered the city from the sea- traveling by boat from Karachi, they first hijacked an unassuming Indian fishing boat, and when closer to shore sped into docks in inflatable speedboats, avoiding detection by the Indian Navy.

IC: Yes, this is a good example. And indeed there are other examples of maritime terrorist attacks in the modern era- in East Africa, most infamously with the al Qaeda attack on the USS Cole in October 2000, in Yemen’s port of Aden, by suicide bombers. It was executed from a fishing boat, killing 17 US sailors and injuring many more. But so far at least, the number of land-based attacks is much greater.

CD: Why is this so, in your opinion?

IC: I think in part it is because the sense of occupation, which causes local resentment, is more visible and obvious with the presence of land forces than it is with naval forces. So the reactions against them differ too.

For example, there have been plenty of roadside bombs and other methods of attacking US troops in Iraq, but we don’t hear of any maritime attacks on US ships near Iraq. Similarly, there are US fleets off of Southeast Asia, but you don’t see fighters going from Afghanistan to target them. You simply can’t see ships from Afghanistan, whereas the ground forces are present. As in almost any armed conflict, a foreign troop presence doesn’t give the feeling of winning hearts and minds… this is also why more civil-military initiatives should be launched.

CD: It was mentioned today that only 3 percent of the world’s active container ships are properly inspected. This means that all kinds of dangerous goods can be easily transported around the world. Considering the huge global increase in monitoring airports in the post-9/11 era, why are the same precautions not being taken with maritime ports?

IC: It would be impossible to search all container ships- there are simply too many of them. Even if you could, there are too many goods to be inspected. You can’t search in such detail as would be necessary to find, say, a small bomb hidden under a case of tomatoes.

And even if pirates and terrorists work together to, say, steal materials necessary for building a nuclear device, they would still need facilities in which to put it together, and this is only available in a functioning state. Therefore, if terrorists manage to steal an already-finished WMD, it is the fault of whichever state is supposed to be keeping watch over such weapons.

Final Thoughts: The Role of the Hellenic Navy and Ending Piracy

CD: Let us talk for a minute about your experience at home. Are you happy with the role that Greece’s naval forces are playing in safeguarding maritime commerce and security today? How important is it to the country?

IC: The Hellenic Navy is present in the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, and wherever else it is needed, and has been ever since the time of Thucydides. Despite the difficult economic situation in Greece now, which affects everything, I believe that Greece is not only present but also effective. And in 2009, we had the honor of being given the first commanding officer position in the EU’s Atalanta mission, which began in 2008 to fight Somali piracy. This does say something.

This is not to mention the critical role the Hellenic Navy played in the evacuation of Lebanon, when hundreds of civilians were transferred safely to Cyprus.

Essentially, Greece is a maritime nation, and has always owed much of its independence and success to its navy. The Aegean is the soul of Greece, and the sea is a part of our mentality, our life and our soul. The sea is the biggest part of Greece, and our navy and commercial fleet will always be very important and prepared to assist.

CD: Finally, I know you are keen to discuss what you consider to be the root causes of piracy and how they can be addressed. You have argued that force alone will not end this problem. So what will?

IC: I have stressed, as Professor [Andrew] Lambert said in his presentation, that these people in Somalia are not pirates because they enjoy the lifestyle, but because it provides a living. Mostly poor fishermen, they see piracy as a means to survive, not to get rich.

The problem is largely caused by the illegal fishing of trawlers from wealthier countries, which abuse Somali territorial waters because there is no functioning state there to enforce this. This has greatly reduced the fish available to the local fishermen, thus turning them from their traditional livelihood to desperate measures like piracy.

Fish are also being killed there due to the illegal disposal of pollutants in Somali and other African waters. It is understood that to have one barrel of toxic chemicals illegally dumped, it costs only $4-

CD: Only $4! Why would the locals accept the risk to their fishing environment for so little return?

IC: With even such a small amount of money, they can live for two months. To understand all this, one has to be familiar with the living conditions in Africa- and especially in those parts of it such as Somalia, where people only care about surviving ‘til tomorrow.

CD: What could be done then, to address the problem overall?

IC: Human security is the biggest factor. The cost annually to shippers and insurance companies for Somalia alone is $530 million- imagine if this money was used to fight poverty and other root causes of piracy instead.

All in all, we spend $12 billion each year for maritime security, but it still does not provide the solutions we need. Piracy and similar security threats can only be eliminated once the root causes affecting human security in those populations are addressed.

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