Amid Steps to Protect Shipping Lanes, Crime Lords Find Costs to Operate Prohibitive
Tuesday, November 05, 2013
Piracy off Somalia's coast has plunged as aggressive military and intelligence steps have made it too costly for seafaring bandits to operate.
Piracy off the coast of Somalia, one of the world’s crucial shipping
lanes, has plunged this year because of aggressive military and
intelligence steps that have made it too costly for seafaring bandits to
operate, regional diplomats and naval officials said.
The success, however, has had an unintended consequence: The Somali
crime lords behind the pirate networks have shifted to other illicit
trade, sometimes in partnership with al Qaeda-linked militant groups
like al-Shabaab, aiding terrorism in the Horn of Africa, diplomats and
intelligence officials said.
“None of these operations exists in a vacuum,” said a regional
intelligence official who traces terrorism financing across Gulf states.
Al Qaeda and smugglers “trade off the same connections, the same sea
routes and the same protection rackets.”
In 2011, there were 237 piracy-related events in the waters off
Somalia, according to the International Maritime Bureau, which monitors
piracy and the effect on commercial shipping. In 2012, the figure
dropped to 75. This year, as of Oct. 14 there were 10 incidents—only two
of them hijackings.
The United Nations reports similar figures. U.N. Secretary-General
Ban Ki-moon said last week there had been 17 attacks in the first nine
months of 2013 in the Arabian Sea, compared with 99 in the same period
Most of the piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the adjacent Arabian Sea
and Indian Ocean has been controlled by Somali organized crime lords
whose business networks stretch between their homeland and Gulf Arab
nations including Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and
Iran, according to U.N. and regional diplomats who follow crime and
The Somalis have helped finance pirate ships and have laundered an
estimated $400 million in ransom paid by shipping companies between
April 2005 and December 2012, regional diplomats and U.N. investigators
Their profits began to slip in 2012 when navies and shipping companies began beefing up military defenses.
The international naval force known as Task Force 151 stepped up its
use of drones and other intelligence gathering resources, allowing them
to better position warships to intercept pirates, said Commodore Jeremy
Blunden, the British naval officer currently in charge of the fleet.
Meanwhile, the commercial shipping industry has standardized the use
of armed guards on vessels carrying oil and valuable products through
the waterways. The practice had been controversial because it
contravened common seafaring ways. But it proved cost-effective, say
shipping company executives who are reaping the advantages of lower
insurance rates as a result.
Countries have also stepped up legal prosecution of pirates in recent
years, adding risk for Somali pirate financiers, who face loss of crews
and ships. On Wednesday, a Spanish court handed multiple-year sentences
to six Somalis convicted of piracy and arms possession, according to
the Associated Press.
The only surviving pirate who attacked the Maersk Alabama merchant
vessel in 2009—the story on which the Hollywood movie “Captain Phillips”
is based—is serving a 33-year sentence in a U.S. prison.
The aggressive military response changed the risk-reward ratio for
Somali piracy financiers, who must pay upward of 80% of their earnings
to corrupt Somali officials, local warlords and other middlemen,
military officials and diplomats said.
In 2012, Somali pirates only managed to rake in $37 million in
payments, or about three quarters of the annual average received since
2005, according to a World Bank report.
“We’ve put a fire blanket over the problem,” said Capt. William
Nault, the chief of staff for the international naval force taking the
lead on counterpiracy patrols in the area. “We’ve raised the cost
[analysis] for them.”
Somali piracy bosses, however, have proven nimble businessmen. As
piracy profits decreased, they refocused resources on other
long-standing illicit operations, including arms smuggling and region’s
lucrative trade in charcoal made from Acacia trees, according to
diplomats and law-enforcement officials in the region who monitor
In a report issued to the U.N. Security Council this summer,
diplomats watching violations of U.N. sanctions in Somalia provide
evidence of alleged links between the Somali businessmen suspected of
running the pirate networks and smuggling rings and al-Shabaab. The
militant group is battling Somali government forces and African
peacekeepers to try to establish a fundamentalist Islamic government.
The U.N. report presents telephone records and other surveillance
that links alleged Somali financiers of piracy with business partners in
Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the charcoal
The report also alleges similar business links between these same
actors and weapons smuggling into Somalia. Most weapons sales to Somalia
are prohibited under U.N. sanctions, as is the charcoal trade there.
Counterterrorism officials say that the charcoal trade is one of the
main avenues that al-Shabaab finances its terrorism operations and pays
for the weapons they use to fight the Somali government and African
peacekeepers. The business has grown from roughly $30 million a year in
the late 2000s to a business now worth an estimated $340 million-$380
million a year, according to the U.N.
The White House slapped a trade ban on Somali-sourced charcoal in 2012 because of the alleged trade links to al-Shabaab.
The U.N. investigators complain that while regional governments
understand the threat of terrorism financing, there has been no
political will to arrest the men at the top of the Somali crime
The majority of recent pirate trials involve men at the midrange of
these organizations or foot soldiers suborned into piracy for their
sailing knowledge, a regional counterterrorism official said.
U.N. investigators have recommended adding these Somalis to an
international sanctions list, and some diplomats argue that they should
be prosecuted for sanctions violations or terrorism ties.