May 28, 2009, Updated September 13, 2012

As pirate attacks on ships sailing the high seas rise, Israeli security teams are finding themselves in increasing demand. Meet the new pirate busters.



A recent pirate attack on the Italian cruise ship MSC Melody with more than 1,500 on board saw Israeli security guards in action. About 500 miles off the coast of Somalia, the African pirates got a surprise when the Israeli guards — on the command of their captain — grabbed their pistols and started firing back. 

While the Israeli company Mano International Security remains tight-lipped about its team on board the Melody, Israeli security teams are becoming the world’s most notorious pirate busters. Captain Hook, Bluebeard and Jack Sparrow — look out. 

Isaac Azar, the general director of Spike International based in Granot, Israel, is running a company that teaches and trains ships’ crews how to think like pirates. It’s not uncommon for Israeli security guards to be operating under a double identity on board, he says. When dangers calls, the Israeli guards spring into action, protecting the boat and its passengers. 

The story with Israelis protecting ships at sea goes back already 30 years, says Azar, whose company was founded in 1978 by past Israeli Navy commander Micha Ram. “We kept security forces on ships that were passing through the Gulf of Eden, with rifles and everything,” he tells ISRAEL21c. “Already back then, as a young guy it was great to be able to go away for three or four months.”

A double identity on board

“Today, normally we do it in a way that nobody knows there are guards on the ship, and they act on standby, like as a lifeguard at the swimming pool,” Azar tells ISRAEL21c. This is because pirates are getting smarter all the time. “The pirates are collecting intelligence,” he explains. “If they know a ship is protected they can count how many guards are there to plan their attack. If they don’t know who the guards are they will think twice.

“Pirates have money now,” he adds. “They can talk to the captain of a ship on a radio. It’s not like pirates of the movies. And not like before when they would climb on the boat with a knife between their teeth. Now they are going near the ship with an RPG rocket and calling the captain to stop the ship. If the captain doesn’t, they start shooting over the bridge.”

While Mano International’s team on board Melody, which is owned by the Mediterranean Shipping Company, fought back against pirates recently, Azar says that he tries to avoid such encounters from ever happening. He studies the route a ship will take, to include “surprises” that pirates following the ship from reports at port, will never be able to follow.

Taking ships off course for safety

One tactic Spike takes to trip up pirates at sea is to study the cruise map. “I will study it and change it. Maybe I won’t make big changes, but I will change the course and navigation, so if they are waiting for me, they won’t find me,” says Azar. 

High tech optic systems to identify pirate boats from afar are also deployed as part of the defense, he says. 

Spike gathers intelligence to see when large shipments of new monitoring equipment are being brought into east African countries by pirates. Spike’s client list includes private yachts and oilrigs. 

Today, pirates are becoming more of a problem, says Azar.  They can live for up to a month on a fishing boat, waiting for a ship to pass by. At that point, they’ll pull out a smaller high-speed boat, sail up to the ship, and radio the captain to stop. If the captain doesn’t comply, they start firing rockets at the ship, so the captain has no choice. 

Israelis fighting war against piracy

In the recent attack on the Italian ship Melody, the ship’s commander Ciro Pinto said that the pirates attempted to climb aboard with a ladder, and even opened fire lightly damaging the hull.  Pinto then instructed the Israeli security guards to remove their pistols from the safe and to fire towards the pirates. “It felt like we were in a war,” Pinto told reporters. 

The head of MSC Cruises, the company that owns Melody, said that the cruise line hired Israelis because they were the best trained. 

But MSC has a tragic past. One of its ships the Achille Lauro became “famous” when it was hijacked by the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985. Palestinian terrorists shot and wounded a disabled American tourist, 69-year-old Leon Klinghoffer, and then tossed him overboard in his wheelchair; some reports say he was not dead when thrown overboard. 

U.S. Navy F-14 fighters intercepted forcing the ship to land in Sicily, where Israeli security personnel from Mano helped extract the remaining hostages off the ship.  

At an investigation after the attack on Melody, Nik Mano from Mano International said about his Israeli team: “The guys acted exactly according to the regulations and I’m proud of them. The company has been working for 22 years covertly, and has no interest in exposure.”

Training, experience and reputation

Today, the most dangerous shipping lanes are in West Africa off Nigeria, the Malacca Straits in Southeast Asia, and off the coasts of Somalia and Yemen.  According to reports, Israeli security guards are in high demand, due to experience, military training and reputation. They are often called on to be team leaders on large cruise lines. 

About 400 pirate attacks have happened at sea over the last year. 

“Our expertise is to build the system and the security profile for the boats,” says Azar. “We not only train but give the client a full service… we invest a lot of work in intelligence. We study the area – to study the enemy — when you know a lot about your enemy, it helps you protect a ship.” 

Yigal Palmor, from the Israeli Foreign Ministry says that the Israeli government is not involved in fighting piracy at sea. The companies involved are “private companies contracting security guards for their private shipping lines. That has nothing to do with us,” says Palmor. 

There are currently thousands of Israeli security guards working in maritime security all over the world. Next time you’re sipping a margarita poolside and notice your lifeguard has an Israeli accent, you can feel safe from Bluebeard and keep on enjoying the cruise and the sunshine.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director