May 22, 2009

Piracy spreads tentacles as attacks rise tenfold

International community struggle to cope; criminals get organised

Mumbai, May 15: In developments that the maritime industry will undoubtedly find alarming, a Fairplay Shipping news items says that some acts of Somali piracy have links to big businessmen in Somalia and even to law enforcement and monitoring agencies and the judiciary. UPI picked up on the report, which was then carried by many Western publications, including USA Today. Another unrelated but equally worrisome report carried by a Spanish radio station quotes European military intelligence saying that London based highly placed ‘consultants’ divulge, to the pirates, details of ships, cargoes, nationalities of crew, and even the layout of vessels scheduled to transit the Gulf of Aden and the coast of Somalia. The network of informants allegedly extends to Yemen, Dubai and the Suez Canal. At least some ships have already been hit by pirates based on this network’s information.

The two independent reports have come as no surprise to many who have long suspected that piracy off Somalia is well organised, with UAE connections for finance. logistics and money laundering. The links to Somali businessmen and officials have also been long suspected. However, the reported involvement of officials in London, along with the depth to which the network extends and the resources it can draw on, have taken many observers completely by surprise. That many of the Western and Middle Eastern businesses are legitimate is an additional cause for concern.

"The International Maritime Bureau links slicker operations and their gaining bigger boats to the spike in attacks in recent months. The improved operations have been funded by the Somali businessmen who, together with some law enforcement, hide behind the pirates," the Fairplay report says, pointing out that even the judiciary is sometimes involved. Many of these ‘financiers’ have links to legitimate businesses in the UAE. Pirates in Somalia are also hiring bodyguards and paying off police officials and judges with their ransoms.

Interestingly, Fairplay quotes Roger Middleton, Chatham House consultant at London’s Royal Institute of International Affairs, obliquely confirming that other expenses incurred by shipowners match the ransoms paid. Middleton says that around $80M was paid in ransoms last year, with the same amount was paid to lawyers, insurance and ‘kidnap and ransom’ specialists. Typically, a third of a ransom is paid to the pirates on board and a tenth to local officials on the pirate payroll. Part of the rest is laundered or used to finance better equipment for future raids. Obviously, a part of this is also used to pay informants as far afield as London.

Meanwhile, in other developments, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has mooted the establishment of an international court to bring captured pirates to justice. Coalition and other navies have long struggled with the issue of where to try these criminals, and the Russian navy’s recent capture of around thirty pirates on board a mother vessel has undoubtedly precipitated Medvedev’s statement. Other organisations are pondering this question too; US Admiral Gary Roughead believes that the solution lies on land. “Pirates don’t live at sea. They live ashore. They move their money ashore. You can’t have a discussion about eradicating piracy without having a discussion about the shore dimension,” he told journalists.

The US Navy estimates that the coastal areas of Somalia are four times the size of Texas, and that arming crews is not a solution. It says that shipowners are unwilling to pay for security. In addition, Admiral Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been quoted in Lloyd’s List admitting that combating piracy is not his top priority, as less than one percent of the ships passing the Gulf of Aden fall prey to hijackers. Many believe that it will be therefore likely that ships will have to arrange more anti piracy measures in future on their own. In any case, with the theatre of operations widening into the Indian Ocean, there is only so much that coalition navies can do; a fact made obvious by the fact that this year’s pirate attacks have gone up to ten times as compared to the same period last year, according to the IMB.

Others have asked for international cooperation under UN control, coupled with a ‘user charge’ paid by shipowners. Among the proponents of this course of action is the chairman of the Nippon Foundation Mr. Yohei Sasakawa. His “Ocean peacekeeping initiative”, somewhat along the lines of UN peacekeeping initiatives on land, envisages monitoring pirate areas from air, sea and land, and more extensive communications to combat the menace. “While it is critical for the international community to co-operate in dealing with piracy, I think the time has come to expect the private sector to also make various contributions,” he said.