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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Somali Pirates: An "intelligence network?" Maybe... but

Are you shocked by this headline? Somali pirates guided by London intelligence team, says report:
It says that pirate groups have "well-placed informers" in London who are in regular contact with control centres in Somalia where decisions on which vessels to attack are made. These London-based "consultants" help the pirates select targets, providing information on the ships' cargoes and courses.

In at least one case the pirates have remained in contact with their London informants from the hijacked ship, according to one targeted shipping company.

The pirates' information network extends to Yemen, Dubai and the Suez canal.
The intelligence report is understood to have been issued to European navies.
I would think any such information is of modest value to the pirates.

First, the courses may be of some use, but some shipping companies put their ship locations, even as they sail, on the web, and most sail very routine routes. The patterns of ship movement through the Gulf of Aden to or from the Red Sea is not all that hard to figure out. The map above comes from a Tamil Tiger friendly website. See the sea lanes?

Second, I have to question the importance of knowing cargoes to the Somali pirates. Since their business is ransom and release, the cargo being carried by the target ship (except for the crew and passengers) seems to play almost no role in deciding which ships to go after.

In my opinion, it is the characteristics of the ships themselves that matter most to the pirates. The pattern shows, as the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence has commented, that ships with low freeboard (easier to access the main deck), low speed, and not near any escorts (my addition) are at greater risk of capture.

As I commented over here:
As noted, there is lots of information on shipping available without conspirators selling it to their piratical co-conspirators, including the old standby methods of getting info from sailors in bars in departure ports or having “fishing boats” at choke points reporting on the passage of likely target ships.

Given the characteristics of the ships being taken (generally, slower, low freeboard, not part of a convoy) I tend to think that the Mark I eyeball, GPS and some comm gear are the biggest aids to the pirate ship selection.

Not that they may also be getting some info out of London, but …

In addition, it’s not like merchant shipping varies its routes very much. The fastest, shortest route is the cheapest route.

The sea lanes are pretty well known. As are the choke points to which the ships funnel themselves as they head to destination ports. Sit on a sea lane and wait for a good target.

If the pirates were in possession of great intel info, I don’t think they’d be attacking military oilers and frigates. Which, as we all know, some of them have done.
On that last point, see here and here.

Possible charges if you catch the perps?
Conspiracy to commit piracy, I suppose, would be one crime that could be charged … see here for a quick look at conspiracy law in the UK (and I defer to anyone with greater knowledge on the topic).
UPDATE: See here for a report on coordination in the pirate attacks.

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