The surging Somali piracy was variously termed this week “high-level organized crime,” a “quasi-war” and plain terrorism. The pirate bands preying on the world’s merchant shipping off Somalia, in the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea fit all three definitions – indeed they have grown into a major source of funding for al Qaeda and its Islamist associates who are terrorizing the Horn of Africa. And Adm. Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff admits they are well trained and highly organized.
But by any definition, the world powers are clearly stumped for a remedy. This was brought home painfully this week by the Somali pirates’ most audacious attack yet. The multinational maritime task force deployed to combat piracy failed to intervene Saturday, Nov. 11, when Somali pirates seized the fully-laden Saudi supertanker Sirius Star with its $100 million dollar cargo of crude and 25 crew, followed in quick succession by an Iranian wheat cargo ship and a Thai fishing boat.
Notable among the owners who will have to cough up multimillion ransoms is the Saudi Aramco company’s Vela international, which launched the brand new Sirius Star from South Korea in March.
Also threatened by piracy are US military supply routes to Gulf
Like 18 of its sister-tankers, the Sirius Star carries 2 million barrels. Never has a carrier of this size (319,430 dwt), been seized or any hijacked so far out to sea, 450 nautical miles southeast of Mombasa, Kenya. Neither have the marine predators ever targeted the world’s biggest oil exporter.
The Somali pirates, encouraged by their huge profits from the 63 vessels seized since January, are clearly spreading their wings to snare a larger share of the world’s merchant shipping. They are not deterred by the arrival this month of a fleet of European Union warships to join the naval task forces deployed by the US, NATO, India, Malaysia and Russia policing the Gulf of Aden, the vital highway to the Suez Canal.
In October, the hijackers struck further north, close to the Bab al Mandeb Straits, the main outlet for ships transiting the Suez Canal on their way to the Persian Gulf.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror sources report:
While only a few-hundred strong, the Somali pirate bands have not only moved in on the primary international oil lanes to the West and the merchant shipping routes between America and Europe and Asia, they are also in position to threaten America’s main military supplies to its forces in Iraq and the Persian Gulf. The bulk is carried by commercial freighters chartered by the US Navy.
Ill-gotten earnings could top $100 million in 2008
Using state of the art speed boats armed and equipped with top-line Global Positioning System navigational aids and satellite phones, the Somali bandits no longer hug home ground, but roam at will across a one-million square mile expanse of water, roughly the area of the Mediterranean Sea or 6 times that of the Black Sea. Marauding parties prowl for plunder without fear on three seas, the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.
They are still holding 12 hijacked vessels and 250 hostages of their multinational crews. For the ransomed vessels, the Somali pirates earned an average of $1.8 million each, a profit of between $45 and $50 million dollars this year alone. If they carry on at their present tempo of 8 hijackings in 12 days, the pirates could net a cool $100 million by Jan. 1, 2009 – more if they get the Saudis to fork out the $25 million ransom demanded for the Sirius Star.
Five months ago, our sources report, the US Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet intelligence received a rundown of the major changes in the Somali pirates’ methods of operation, logistical spread and financial arrangements.
An intelligence-financial structure had sprung up in Abu Dhabi operated by money changers earning a rake-off on ransom payments according to a system disclosed here for the first time.
A “back office” for negotiating ransoms in Abu Dhabi
Their spies collect information from shipping sources about vessels scheduled to depart Gulf ports for the Indian Ocean and Suez Canal, the freights in their holds, the security measures on board, guards and whether the crew are armed.
The pirates prize “special cargoes”, meaning smuggled goods or merchandise exported illegally or contrary to international law, such as clandestine weapons shipments. Such consignments, as in the case of the Ukrainian MV Faina, which carried a large unregistered cargo of 33 T-72 tanks and other armaments – and is still held – increase the ransom value of the vessel and are more worthwhile for the hijackers to seize than routine freights.
Abu Dhabi was also selected as the pirates’ “back office” because they prefer intermediaries to negotiate the ransoms and terms for releasing the hijacked vessels, rather than exposing themselves and their locations. The front men also go shopping for the latest word in speed boats, navigation equipment, GPS, communications gear, food, fuel and other supplies.
Free rein along 2,400 km Somali coastline
The Somali gangs have developed a seaborne courier service for contact with their Abu Dhabi agents. They have taken the place of coded transmissions by satellite phone exposed to US Navy eavesdropping.
As their watery terrain expands, the Somali pirates have added more land-based agencies to front their external transactions and gather intelligence.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources, the pirates are now using organized crime gangs in Mombasa, Kenya, in addition to their covert Abu Dhabi outfit.
On Nov. 12, the Somali Islamic militias linked to al Qaeda seized control of Merka, 90 kilometers from Mogadishu, the second important Somali port they captured after Kismayo in the south.
For the pirates, Merka is a high-value acquisition. Its fall from government hands means they can mount hijacking expeditions from any point along the entire 2,400 kilometers of the Somali coast, one of the longest in the world, with no police or coast guard to interfere. Anyway since 1991, Somalia, wracked by civil war, has had no central government.
Already responsible for more than one-third of all global piracy incidents this year, the Somalis have their sights set on broader fields of endeavor to the south as well as the east.