Interview article

Commodore Brian Santarpia

Multinational Counter-Terrorism Efforts
TIM DUNNE  |  Jul 15, 2015

Security of the High Seas

For four months, from headquarters of the Combined Task Force (CTF) 150 in Bahrain, Royal Canadian Navy’s Commodore Brian Santarpia commanded the ships and aircraft of 30 nations that are participating in the multinational counter-terrorism task force.

CTF150 visits HMAS Toowoomba. Since his return to Canada, Commodore Santarpia has been appointed Chief of Staff to the VCDS.

“The average Canadian may say ‘Terrorism does not affect us’ but in fact, we’ve had a couple of close calls,” Cmdre Santarpia says in a FrontLine interview to explain the critical relevance of this naval task force.

Santarpia received command of CTF 150 from Pakistan’s Commodore Sajid Mahmood at a ceremony in Bahrain on 4 December 2014, and he passed along that command to Captain René-Jean Crignola of the French Navy on 6 April 2015. The area of responsibility is immense, comprising approximately 6.5 million square kilometres (2.5 million square miles).

“This is not our first time doing this work,” Santarpia notes about Canada’s involvement. “We’ve had some success last year with [HMCS] Toronto, so our reputation is pretty good. We’ve done this kind of work a lot.”  

In fact, Toronto put a significant dent in the international drug trade in heroin during her deployment to the area, cutting into a major source of funding of international terrorism.

“We have more evidence all the time that links al-Qaeda to the heroin trade coming out of Afghanistan” Santarpia asserts. “It goes from Afghanistan through Iran and Pakistan and is loaded onto dhows (small sailing vessels) which go from the Makran coast, off Iran and Pakistan, to various spots in the Indian Ocean, but primarily it goes to eastern Africa. Toronto had some great successes off the coast of east Africa in 2014, before she redeployed to Europe.

“We believe we are only seeing, at most, two percent of the heroin trade being transported by sea,” he continues. “It’s an area where the trade gets larger, but it’s a really difficult place to make a difference. The real opportunity isn’t the interdiction of heroin – that’s just a drop in the bucket. This work allows the United Nations to understand the heroin trade and trace its operations back to the Taliban. Companies and organizations that participate in this trade could eventually be put on a U.N. sanction list, which would eliminate their ability to do banking anywhere in the world, whether the other business they do is legitimate or illegitimate.”

Between 2013 and 2014, HMCS Toronto conducted 60 intercepts of vessels in the Indian Ocean, and made 9 major drug seizures (totalling 8,500 kilograms of drugs), which the crew captured and destroyed. This is an area of the world where drug revenues are internationally recognized as a major contributor to terrorism.

Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, visited Halifax to present the U.S. Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation to the crew of HMCS Toronto on 20 February. This award has been presented to non-U.S. units only five times in the past 45 years, and only twice to a warship.

Multinational Operations
Commanding a national naval operation differs significantly from coalition operations. Working with ships and personnel from other countries requires consistent negotiation, plus explanation and sharing of information to assure a common understanding of the task force’s roles, goals and objectives.

 “We have an integrated Canadian and Australian staff,” Santarpia explains. “My deputy commander for those four months was an Australian naval officer, Captain Nick Stoker, and 7 of the 31 staff were Australians. Right from the start we were integrated at that level and came in as a team. On top of that, we had to fold ourselves into the broader coalition of 30 nations and learn how to work every day with other countries. There are a lot of things they do the same because they are navies, but there are things they do differently because of language, culture and different operating procedures.”

Capt Stoker’s experience in the Royal Australian Navy includes a year serving on Canada’s west coast as a junior officer in HMCS Mackenzie (that warship was decommissioned in 1993). Stoker’s experience working with Canadians facilitated a seamless integration between Canadians and Australians in the command team.

Boarding team from USS Sirocco talks with crew members of a dhow being examined for drug or charcoal smuggling off the Makran Coast.

Making a Difference
What does Canada bring to the table when contributing a Commander to the Task Force? “It’s all about burden-sharing and doing your fair share when the time comes.” Santarpia replies. “Canada has a really great reputation and a great history for this. I think back, right after 9/11 when we sent out the first task groups as part of Operation Apollo. Those task groups proved exceptionally capable of adopting and adapting American leadership, American intelligence and American communications, and being able to get them out to wider groups of allied maritime nations. Canada’s officers and sailors have always been particularly skilled at that kind of coalition building.”

Cmdre Santarpia decided to take a slightly larger staff with him; 31 instead of the typical 25 for CTF150. The special skill sets incorporated into his command team allowed him to advance specific policy issues. “The idea that we would intercept cargo that is related to illegal substances like narcotics to support terrorist funding, was not a fully formed idea when we arrived. That is a concept we had to make effective, so we had a policy advisor and a legal advisor who helped develop those initiatives.”

One of the more surprising objectives was to interrupt the trade of illegal charcoal. “Almost nobody knows about that and when I mention it, some people start to laugh. But charcoal contributes about 40 to 60 percent of al-Shabaab’s funding.”

To battle this problem, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2036 of 22 February 2012 imposed a ban on the direct or indirect import of charcoal from Somalia, whether it originated in Somalia or not. The Security Council has authorized vessel inspections in territorial waters as well as on the high seas if there are “reasonable grounds” to believe the vessel is carrying charcoal from Somalia, in violation of the ban.

The Security Council’s intention is to intercept this charcoal so the profits would not get back to al-Shabaab. “This required the deployment of more intellectual power, so the larger staff really helped with CMF in the permanent headquarters here in Bahrain,” Santarpia elaborates.

Al-Shabaab, the Arabic word for “The Youth”, leaped onto the world’s attention with a 21 September 2013 attack on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping centre, killing almost 70 people. Allied with al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab is suspected of grenade attacks throughout Kenya, and the 2 April 2015 massacre at Garissa University, near the Somali border, killed about 150 in a dawn attack of the university that specifically targeted Christian students.

“Each nation normally has a couple of officers in the permanent staff of the headquarters in Bahrain but those officers arrive and leave in 6 to 12 month rotations,” notes Cmdre Santarpia. “Because they are from such a wide range of nations they have a hard time taking hold of these issues and really driving them through to the end, whereas our staff was pretty cohesive. We came with all the right skill sets and when we took up the question of how do we operationalize the issue of illegal charcoal, given the limited resources we have – we could really put our minds to it and come up with some original thinking.”

The Commodore underscores this effort with evident pride: “That was one of the really big successes of the mission, coming up with a plan to allow the CTF to do this. The entire area is 2.5 million square miles. So trying to find anything in that much water is a challenge. You need a good plan.”

The larger staff included additional dedicated intelligence officers. Typically, the staff from another country may only bring a couple and then rely on other maritime forces to provide direct intelligence.

“We have proven expertise in Canada, so we brought a team of five intelligence analysts so each watch would have a dedicated person. Whenever we had information, we would dig in to find any intel on issues like weapons smuggling and charcoal smuggling. Having a dedicated team allowed us to conduct more focused research.”

HMS Kent awaits as her boarding team examines a dhow in the Indian Ocean and Lynx helicopter circles overhead. (Image taken by: LA(Phot) Simmo Simpson, Royal Navy)

Joint Preparation
Santarpia directed the staff to learn about charcoal, because only a very small number of people who work for the UN really understand how charcoal is harvested and shipped, and how this money gets into al-Shabaab’s hands. “We call it joint preparation of the battlefield.”

Charcoal smuggling starts with the acacia tree that grows in the Juba Valley of Somalia and Kenya. Al-Shabaab arrives and cuts these trees down, paying local workers very little. They build kilns on-site by digging big pits in the ground to slow burn the logs until they become charcoal, and bag it in 25 kg sacks to be trucked to the coast.

Santarpia explains that “al-Shabaab owns some of the production and they make money that way. But they also tax other producers because they still control large parts of southern Somalia. They set up roadblocks and checkpoints all along Somalia on all of the roads that lead to the beaches where it’s loaded onto the dhows.  

“Al-Shabaab militia stops and inspects trucks and charge a ‘tax’ per bag and perhaps another toll for the whole truck. They give the drivers an Al-Shabaab receipt that allows them to pass other checkpoints without making additional payments. Based on the United Nations Somalia Monitoring Group, we estimate that they make between $35 and $70 million annually from the trade of charcoal.

“Once we learned that, we could really understand the complexity of the problem. We inventory our resources and we explore how can we really stop the flow of funding back to al-Shabaab. So we white-boarded all sorts of ideas and slimmed that list down to several courses of action. We use assets and intel to locate these vessels and track them as they sail to their destinations. Then, we let the United Nations know where these vessels are going so the destination ports can be alerted. If [the Port] knows this actual charcoal originates in Somalia, they are legally obligated to take action and seize the cargo.

“The killing of 147 students killed in north-eastern Kenya is directly related to the funding that al-Shabaab receives from charcoal. It is phenomenal to me how many ways these terrorist groups find to raise funds,” Santarpia intones.

With only a limited number of ships and aircraft, and a limited amount of intelligence, the staff quickly focused their planning abilities. Officers and sailors build these skills over years of training and experience to be able to contribute to a planning process like that. Canada, he says, does that very effectively.

The planning staffs exploited all opportunities to impede the Taliban’s and al-Qaeda’s ability to make money by eliminating anybody’s willingness to be involved in the drug and charcoal trades. The risk of being placed on a United Nations sanction list is simply too great for many.

Cmdre Santarpia pointed to his integrated command team for special recognition. “You’d be hard-pressed to find two countries more alike than Canada and Australia, and perhaps New Zealand. In terms of attitude, work ethic and sense of humour, a lot of the things are the same, so it’s a lot easier to work together than I would have imagined. Of all the nations in this counter terrorism mission, Canada and Australia have the best reputations and have a long history of working well together, and we share a wealth of experience with counter terrorism operations.”

CTF150 visits U.S. Coast Guard Patrol Forces Southwest Asia (PATFORSWA was commissioned in 2004 as a permanent duty training station. The standard tour length here is one year.

Reflecting on the importance of commanding Combined Task Force 150, he says: “Our ability to seamlessly integrate with the Australian members of our team and then to work within the broader 30 nation coalition brought significant credit to Canada and burnished our reputation with our allies. It is the long-term commitment to security in the region, over multiple rotations and contributions, which brings the greatest effect [to Canada]. Our presence at sea and ashore – stretching back to the first Gulf War, through OP APOLLO after the events of 11 September 2001, to the ongoing operations against the threat of international terrorism – demonstrate to our allies that Canada can be relied upon to share in the burden of maintaining peace in this important strategic region. I look forward to success of future Canadian participants in CTF 150, whenever the Government of Canada calls upon us.”

Tim Dunne, FrontLine’s Maritime correspondent, is based in Dartmouth.
© FrontLine Defence 2015