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NEWS | March 17, 2023

Trawling, Trafficking, Smuggling and Spoilage: East Africa’s war on illicit maritime trade, and how exercise Cutlass Express 2023 is changing the narrative

By Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Cameron C. Edy

On the far-western edge of the Indian Ocean, a fisherman hauls in his net and is disappointed by the catch. He tosses the smallest back, moves his boat, and throws the net again. Every day, he’s seen the stock dwindle as foreign ships flying African flags, yet hailing from the Far West and Far East, drop trawling nets – thin meshed and massive, to catch everything from the smallest guppy to the largest sailfish. The fisherman suspects his stock is being siphoned away, but he can only watch as his livelihood is stolen by those with more power and more money, hailing from countries he will never see. The daily theft by these unregistered commercial trawlers is illegal, but it’s a gamble they’re willing to take. 

At stake is a billion-dollar resource, and the illicit vessels are banking on a few things. Can African coast guards and navies find them before they flee to distant markets? If they do, can the rogues escape across a maritime border and count on a lack of communication between nations to make an escape? Worse – even if caught, will the suspect fisherman eventually go free because evidence or witness testimony was contaminated during the search and seizure? 

Every day, this high stakes game is played out in the territorial waters of nations sharing the West Indian Ocean.

To Build a Coast Guard: Kenya’s Response to IUU

“Before 2018, they would fish our waters, maybe process [the fish], and then take it back to their nation’s ports,” said Timothy Wamalwa, an operator in the Kenyan Coast Guard. “We’d lose a lot of revenue, and it had become almost normal for anyone to come into our territorial waters, fish them, and then go… For the local fisherman, they rely on the same resource. They had this feeling that they were being deprived of what was theirs. It was illegal, but there was no security organ that could enforce that law.”

It’s not just fish, either. Foreign actors would smuggle goods from resource-rich but infrastructure-poor East African nations, skirting tax and tariff charges to sell at an astronomical profit in foreign markets. More insidious, criminal organizations would smuggle drugs into a country, and people out of them, crippling the communities and condemning the trafficked to difficult lives. 

This changed, for Kenya at least, with the creation of their coast guard in 2018. Wamalwa, a former Corporal in the Kenyan Navy, was an initial recruit to the fledgling service – still so new that it hasn’t yet finalized ranks. But, according to Wamalwa, after only five years of existence, the newly instituted, trained, and equipped force has already reduced illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing of their territorial waters by almost 70%.

“It comes down to law enforcement and capacity building,” Wamalwa said, explaining how the Kenyan Coast Guard spun up its operations so quickly. “A good example is a couple of weeks ago – we just had training with the U.S. Coast Guard on small boat operations… It was a plus to our knowledge and handling of boats at sea.”

Kenya’s Coast Guard, and their 70% IUU reduction, is the beginning of a maritime-success story. But it’s only one country in East Africa. While others are advancing their maritime security as well, the challenge is in advancing together – it doesn’t matter how effective Kenya’s Coast Guard is if a vessel can flee their territorial waters to a safer and less regulated area. Hence why exercises like Cutlass Express 2023 exist.

A Comprehensive Approach: MDA, MOC, VBSS, and COC

Across Africa, partner nations have joined to train and work alongside each other to combat the laundry list of maritime crime on the continent. Over the past week and a half of the exercise, the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy, in concert with an international team of military services and organizations, has conducted a comprehensive approach to combating these issues.

One of the gambits illicit vessels rely on is avoiding detection – to combat this, the U.S. Navy conducted training on a Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) program called SeaVision, bringing partners up-to-speed on the latest capabilities the program offers in flagging, tracking, and documenting suspect vessels, in-and-beyond their territorial waters.

But what happens when the tracked vessel jumps between territorial waters? Most nations have some form of what the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard call a Maritime Operations Center (MOC). The MOC does everything from tracking weather and ships to deploying units for interventions, but their ability to communicate with other MOCs is what makes them special. To facilitate this communication, the U.S. Navy sent two technique trainers to each nation. Even better, the U.S. Coast Guard sent specialized trainers to Mauritius and Kenya to show how a law enforcement perspective is utilized in the MOC.

But when the vessel is tracked, and the nations are working in tandem, someone still has to get in a boat and confront the suspects – what’s known in the military and law enforcement community as Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS). To build this capability, the multi-national, and multi-service teams worked with exercise partners on a slew of techniques: guns, boat-handling, hand-to-hand techniques, medical, room clearing, and boarding measures, to name a few. Everything that happens during a search and seizure - from the moment a VBSS operator first steps onto a boarding boat, to when the final suspect is arrested, was broken down and analyzed by specialists, and then discussed by the multinational team to bring real-world practicalities to bear. 

This year, there’s added nuance. Traditionally, military organizations specializing in military operations conduct battlefield-style VBSS training. But combating illicit maritime activity isn’t a military operation, it’s law enforcement engagement – something most navies aren’t trained in. In recognition of this, the U.S. Coast Guard responded in force. For the exercise, they’ve deployed a Maritime Security Response Team (MSRT) to Djibouti; a Tactical Law Enforcement (TACLET) team to Mauritius; a TACLET team, alongside a Canadian Coast Guard team, to Seychelles; and a Boat Forces team to Kenya, alongside Tunisian Commando Marines, Royal Navy operators, U.S. Marines, and a reinforcement tactical division from the Georgian Coast Guard.

Additionally, the exercise has brought in representatives from the Navy Criminal Intelligence Service and the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), teaching partners how to search for evidence without contaminating the scene, and ensuring a proper chain-of-custody (COC) is observed for the eventual legal trial. 

“It is a very positive engagement – the exercise has cut across all aspects of security, safety, and the legal sphere as well,” Wamalwa emphasized. “It really helps when we’re out there conducting operations. Now we know what to do, who to report to, how to share information, and with exercises like this in place we’ll definitely continue to build the capacity of the [East African] states, in-as-much as how to deal with illicit activity at-sea. It’s an eye opener to the participants, and going forward, I’m sure we’re going to execute our missions better than we have in the past.”

Law Enforcement Vs Military Engagement: The Difference Matters

U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Traci Alvarez, U.S. Africa Command’s (AFRICOM) Maritime Law Enforcement branch chief, was the lead coordinating effort behind the Coast Guard’s presence during the exercise. That presence was critical, because while previous iterations of the exercise included the U.S. Coast Guard, training was primarily approached with a U.S. Navy mindset. The problem in that mindset is a matter of legal authority. It’s also one of the acute differences between the U.S. and African navies: while African militaries – when delegated by their government – have the authority to make arrests, the U.S. Navy does not. Further, because of the difference in mandate, a U.S. Coast Guardsman may see discrepancies indicative of illicit activity that a U.S. Navy sailor might not.

Alvarez has worked with African partner nations, first in North Africa and later in East Africa, for the last two years. Unsurprisingly, she is incredibly passionate about how critical the law enforcement perspective is within the theater, and how an unregulated Western Indian Ocean directly involves the U.S.

“This does involve us,” Alvarez said. “Maritime security around the world is a concern of the U.S. Coast Guard. There are commercial vessels that come this way [through the West Indian Ocean], and we don’t want a spike again in piracy. Additionally, there are some terrorist pockets in these countries – we don’t want people to be desperate and turn to extremist organizations… If you can’t feed your [family], you’ll become desperate.”

But she stressed that problems like piracy, terrorism, and food instability couldn’t be solved by any single nation – it would require a team effort. In recognition of this, the U.S. Coast Guard is working with partners to help find a permanent, and perpetual, solution.

“Our goal is for African nations to patrol their own waters, and to have to the tools to do so,” she explained. “But I don’t think there’s ever going to be a day when the U.S. isn’t partners with these nations. We should always have some sort of presence to assist when needed, but yes – it’s African problems solved by African nations. I think that’s the ultimate goal, and these exercises are a great way to show African partners that the U.S. does care about the stability of Africa. I know it’s cliché, but we do care.”

And the caring goes both ways. Cutlass Express is an annual exercise, in its thirteenth year. Each year, more partners join, and better, more partners buy-in to the law enforcement perspective. 

“Just this week, I saw partner nations more engaged, because we were speaking and training about things that they truly want to understand. I think they enjoyed the search and rescue scenarios, they were thinking outside the box during the drug enforcement scenarios. The enthusiasm was phenomenal… The African nations work really well with the U.S. Military and the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Beyond the Exercise: Success in Seychelles

Above Mozambique and east of Kenya’s southern border sits the archipelagic-nation of Seychelles. It’s mid-Western Indian Ocean setting and location as an entry point to Africa has made this relatively small nation a prime target for IUU fishing, drug smuggling and human trafficking for years. Accordingly, it’s been the focal point for regional training in MDA, MOC, and VBSS processes; and since its inclusion in Cutlass Express, its maritime capabilities have exponentially increased. In tandem with this, for the last three years the Canadian Coast Guard, partnering with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s Global Maritime Crime Program, has deployed personnel to the archipelago to work with the nation’s coast guard and military for each iteration of Cutlass Express. 

“The Seychelles has a small but professional defence force,” said Canadian Coast Guard Cmdr. Stephan King, the service’s delegation lead and senior planner. “They are excellent partners, who bring their regional expertise while also incorporating best practices from other like-minded organizations. Their commitment to their own development and those of their neighbors is more than laudable – the willingness to evolve their capabilities within a collaborative, interregional framework sets an example for other states.”

Now, Seychelles is a regional leader in maritime domain awareness, hosting the multi-national and multi-agency Regional Coordination and Operations Center – the overarching MOC that coordinates efforts beyond the borders of individual countries, and brings isolated maritime efforts onto a regional scale. They’re conducting joint operations outside the framework of exercises with nations like Mauritius, where the two created a Regional Maritime Information Fusion Centre in Madagascar. Equally important, but far less flashy, is the creation of checklists and standard operating procedures for their own forces and partner nations when conducting VBSS. They’ve benefited from the training, and are now shifting from a trainee role to being a key trainer on countering illicit maritime activity in East Africa.

“The Seychelles already do a lot well,” said King “But they are, like most nations, limited in their ability to monitor, detect, and respond to maritime incidents… [Yet] if we can learn anything from working together, it is that there is strength in numbers, and when enough like-minded folks work together, success is inevitable… The big blue marble we inhabit is the only world we have. Exercises like Cutlass Express are outstanding opportunities for developing international relationships, building regional capacity, and deterring malign actors from using the ocean commons for illicit purposes.”

Seychelles is a proof of concept: that law enforcement works, and that exercises like Cutlass Express can create change in the region. When participants believe in the training, work with partners, and dedicate themselves to protecting their “Blue Economies,” they become more than a participant in a yearly exercise. They become an African leader, solving African problems, and making the world a better place in the process.