STUTTGART, Germany — Although they attract less attention than their counterparts operating off the coast of Somalia, pirates continue to be a scourge on the opposite side of Africa, where the U.S. military is engaged in an evolving maritime security training mission.
U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Phillip Heyl, a special adviser on maritime security operations and logistics for U.S. Africa Command, has been leading an effort to stretch the reach of African law enforcement.
Indeed, piracy has long been a problem around the Gulf of Guinea, particularly off the coast of oil rich Nigeria. "We’ve see nan increase of (piracy) cases in Cameroon" too, Heyl said.
"Cameroon is an example of a country that needs to build that (security) capacity," Heyl added.
While AFRICOM is yet to field a training request from Cameroon for its latest maritime training initiative, other nations have started to show interest after the success of a large-scale operation last year with the Cape Verdean coast guard, Heyl said.
That mission, conducted in June and October, involved placing Cape Verdean coast guard members aboard U.S. Coast Guard and Navy ships for hands on instruction. It was a new approach that hadn’t been done before.
The Cape Verdean law enforcement teams, working alongside U.S. trainers, learned how to make stealth approaches at night, board suspicious vessels for inspection and interrogate crews.
"That’s a big first step. And now Senegal wants to do the same thing. Sierra Leone wants to do the same thing," Heyl said.
Training with Senegal’s coast guard will start this summer and Sierra Leone will follow shortly thereafter. Heyl suspects their counterparts in Nigeria and Cameroon will be watching with interest.
The threats don’t just come from pirates, but also the need to combat drug traffickers and a $1 billion illegal fishing industry which features international vessels operating off Africa’s coast.
"The long-term solution to that problem is the focus of AFRICOM," Heyl said. "Having capable, professional maritime forces in Africa is the long-term solution. That’s what we’re building towards. We’re not into doing law enforcement. We’re into building capacity so they can do it."
For some countries, that also involves getting maritime laws established so that coast guards have something to enforce. Last year’s training mission in Cape Verde highlighted the need for such laws. On one nighttime patrol, the Cape Verdean crew spotted a suspicious Japanese trawler — a 400,000 gross ton vessel with a hold full of tuna.
The Cape Verdean team boarded the boat, found the fish and interrogated the crew, but couldn’t seize the booty since there was no law on the books to authorize such action. "They’re working on that now," Heyl said.