Maritime Security Industry Tackles Piracy on the Seas

Any new venture requires risk and gumption — but consider one that seeks to tackle piracy on the high seas. Now that’s taking “risky business” to a whole new level.

Former U.S. Marine Capt. Jonathan McConnell, 32, led troops during two tours in Iraq, which puts the perils of starting a company in perspective — even a business that protects ships from modern-day Blackbeards.

When his active service ended, McConnell launched Mobile-based Meridian Global Consulting in 2009, in response to the container ship Maersk Alabama being hijacked that year by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. The incident not only impelled McConnell to start a maritime security company but also inspired the 2013 film “Captain Phillips” starring Tom Hanks.

Talking with a Marine buddy after the hijacking, McConnell mentioned his disdain for complex international practices that left Americans open to kidnapping. Defending commercial ships, he told himself, should be feasible, if not necessary. “It was so clear.  I thought, ‘Why can’t you arm a ship?’ So I went to the (Mobile) courthouse and filed an LLC.”

Undeterred by the complexities of global maritime security, he sketched out a cost basis on a napkin. It was all just based on a mix of facts and guesswork. “I knew what my breakeven point was on a particular day of each transit, but didn’t really know what to expect long term.”

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The private maritime security industry didn’t exist until after the Maersk Alabama hijacking, and now it’s a $7 billion industry, says McConnell, who got in on the ground floor.

“All the big security players like Blackwater stayed out initially, because of the high risk and compliance, and because understanding the maritime industry is very hard. In 2011 when pirate attacks were occurring almost daily, companies were popping up right and left, but most have come and gone.”

Today, Meridian works out of more than 35 ports worldwide and employs 45 to 50 Marine infantry veterans on several overseas operations at any given time. Many served with McConnell in Iraq.

“Marine infantrymen are a different breed. At Meridian, we’re selling the service of operators willing to die to prevent harm to our clients and their assets, but have the skills necessary to prevent either of those from happening.”

McConnell proudly points out that the Marine veterans he employs have never had to fire a single shot onboard a ship.

“There’s always a chance a pirate will get a lucky shot, but to those attempting to hijack a ship: ‘You’ll be met with decisive force, and we aren’t afraid to put two bullets into your chest.’”

Though ready to kill if necessary, McConnell has no use for those he calls cowboy types and hotheads with a shoot-’em-up attitude. Along with the psychological toll, having to shoot is bad for business. The consequence is a lengthy investigation, which ties up operations.

Most Meridian jobs involve putting three or four veterans onboard a vessel before it enters high-risk waters off the coast of Somalia or Nigeria. The team sets up a 24-hour watch rotation looking for unauthorized boarders or pirates.

“We’re big on notifying these guys before we shoot them. Most pirates, if they know an armed security team is onboard, will not take the vessel. Our mere presence prevents it.”

Because of a strict non-disclosure agreement, McConnell is tight-lipped about incidents, clients and protection methods. He mentions one case in which they observed a pirate looking through his binocular observing the ship as he and his band of pirates sped toward it. Spotting McConnell’s security team, they attacked, instead, a nearby and probably unarmed ship.

On a more recent job, seven pirate-filled skiffs approached a ship until they caught sight of his ex-Marines with aimed rifles.

McConnell says merchant sailors are already overly taxed with vessel responsibilities, so he’s against arming the crew, although he would like to see a person permanently onboard trained in security and defense tactics.

Steven Jones, maritime director of the London-based Security Association for the Maritime Industry, says international unions, professional bodies and most seafarers are against carrying weapons, both from a liability and duty of care standpoint.

“Merchant seafarers see themselves as maritime professionals, not soldiers or Marines, ” Jones notes. “From the perspective of the United Nations and International Maritime Organization – even with the rising tide of piracy – arming seafarers was not on the agenda.”

But providing contracted armed protection for commercial vessels was seen as viable, and many ship owners wanted this option, says Jones.

“As such, the private maritime security industry was born, ” Jones says. “Standards were developed and rules for the use of force. No merchant vessel with armed guards onboard has ever been hijacked by pirates, a 100 percent success rate and safety record.”

Having weapons on ships trading internationally is extremely complicated, adds Jones, and there are many requirements for companies like McConnell’s that provide privately contracted armed security personnel.

McConnell’s law degree, coupled with his expertise in international law and export compliance, comes in handy when navigating complicated international maritime regulations. Before joining the Marines, McConnell graduated with a business degree from Auburn University and, after active service, returned to school on the GI bill to earn a law degree from the University of Alabama.

As CEO of his maritime security company, McConnell says he earns more than he would as a partner at a Mobile law firm. The veterans he employees can make six figures, which, he observes, isn’t bad for not having beyond a high school diploma. Many are continuing their education and alternate attending school for a semester and going to sea on a job.

Meridian also offers its clients intelligence briefs and corporate consulting.

Though 95 percent of McConnell’s time is spent on running the company, once a year he goes out to sea on a job. Most jobs are in the Indian Ocean and off West Africa, which he says are the most dangerous waters in the world.

Work-play balance is tricky when he works as many as 100 hours a week and flies to Africa on a moment’s notice, but he’s close to his parents in Mobile and his sister, who lives in Montgomery and has three daughters. McConnell says his world revolves around his nieces and around his fellow veterans.

“These guys gave all for this country and now they want to be part of something bigger than themselves by serving the merchant marine protecting America’s fleet. They are what make Meridian great.”

Jessica Armstrong is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Auburn.

text by Jessica Armstrong • photo by Matthew Coughlin

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