You wouldn’t know it from the pictures of scrawny, hungry-looking men chasing after mammoth commercial ships in faded-white speedboats with outboard motors, but Somali pirates operate what experts believe to be a sophisticated international network, complete with its own intelligence apparatus and PR flacks. Piracy is a multi-million dollar business, after all, taking in an estimated $150 million in 2008 alone, and is the only growth industry in Somalia, offering starved fisherman a taste of the good life. It’s doubtful, however, that so many pirates would driving around Somalia’s dusty roads in luxury cars without their coterie of undercover operatives in some of the world’s busiest commercial ports.
That they have eyes and ears in key locations is not a new revelation, but a European military intelligence report, obtained by the Spanish radio station Cadena SER, lays bare the current thinking on the network’s structure and function. Pirate “consultants” based in London, says the report, coordinate intelligence on ships bound for the Suez Canal by satellite phone, allowing the pirates to strategize individual hijackings long before ships enter the attack zone.
From the Guardian:
This enables the more organised pirate groups to study their targets in advance, even spending several days training teams for specific hijacks. Senior pirates then join the vessel once it has been sailed close to Somalia.
Captains of attacked ships have found that pirates know everything from the layout of the vessel to its ports of call. Vessels targeted as a result of this kind of intelligence included the Greek cargo ship Titan, the Turkish merchant ship Karagol and the Spanish trawler Felipe Ruano.
In each case, says the document, the pirates had full knowledge of the cargo, nationality and course of the vessel.
The national flag of a ship is also taken into account when choosing a target, with British vessels being increasingly avoided, according to the report. It was not clear whether this was because pirates did not want to draw the attention of British police to their information sources in London.