Guns, drugs and terror: Somali pirates morph into poly-criminals

Sunday January 10 2010

Marines from NATO's Turkish frigate Gediz arrest suspected pirates on their skiff in the Gulf of Aden July 31, 2009.

Piracy in the international waters of Somalia is likely to escalate in the foreseeable future. Latest statistics are indicative of this: Last year there were 211 attempted boarding’s of maritime vessels, compared to 111 in 2008, and 45 vessels were successfully seized by pirates, compared with 42 in 2008.

Sadly, it is happening under the watchful eyes of the international community who are represented by the naval forces of 18 countries off the Somali coast. But more alarming is the fact that the nature of their activities is no longer confined to maritime piracy.

From simple buccaneers, narrowly focused on capturing fishing vessels in local waters in exchange for a few thousands US dollars in ransom, Somali pirates have become more sophisticated — they are now super-pirates who capture dozens of vessels far out at sea indiscriminately, including two supertankers taken several hundreds of kilometres off the Somali coast, and receive millions of dollars in exchange.

Investigations have revealed that these super-pirates have turned into transnational poly-criminals. They circumvent and adapt to the naval presence, and in their continued quest to expand their avenues for making money, the pirates are now engaging in vast criminal activities including money laundering, arms and human trafficking, paying bribing, extortion, training terrorist organisations such as the Al-Shabaab and more recently, protecting international drug cartels.

The failed attempt to hijack a plane in Bossaso (Puntland) on November 2 last year clearly points to this. One of the hijackers has been identified as a member of a pirate group operating in Las Qorey, a coastal town west of Bossaso. Unfortunately, the international community, through the European Union’s Operation Atlanta, for instance, has failed to acknowledge the larger picture of criminal activities by focusing only on the acts of maritime piracy.

But to remain viable, this more enhanced stage of evolution of Somali pirate activities demands better organisation, co-ordination and cooperation, different skills and talents of a variety of people and groups, as well as a more sophisticated logistical supply network.


Already, Somali pirates are forming decentralised and loose confederation groups with whom they have developed symbiotic relationships with.

They are also inter-connected with other criminal groups for specific expertise and logistical support, additional money making activities and protection.

For instance, arms smugglers from the Middle East use the services of the pirates, who know how to evade international naval forces, to bring shipments into the arms market in Mogadishu, thus contravening the United Nation’s arms embargo. The pirate groups are rewarded with money or a portion of the shipment. More recently, the pirate groups began to provide protection to cartels that use Somalia as a transit point for drugs such as heroin from Asia to Europe.

Some of the groups they have formed alliances with include terrorist organisations such as the Al-Shabaab. The pirate groups started to train a maritime component of the Al-Shabaab to engage in piracy and the smuggling of foreign fighters into Somalia. The Al-Shabaab on the other hand provides military training and arms to pirate groups. Between 10 and 50 per cent of the ransom (depending on the nature of the relationship) is paid to the Al-Shabaab.

Due to their continued acts of maritime piracy and involvement in other criminal activities, the pirates have generated large sums of money. The need has thus arisen for sophisticated and clandestine techniques to collect their loot.

Estimates of how much revenue was generated from piracy alone in 2008 varies from $18 million to $100 million, depending on the source.
Pirates use the pay off to buy expensive vehicles, set up businesses in Africa, the Middle East and Asia as well as purchase properties in Somalia, other parts of Africa and Europe and marry more wives.

To carry out the purchases, the pirates hire the services of other professional Somalis such as lawyers, who have been trained abroad to set up front companies often operated by blood relatives and family members, in order to give the impression of legitimate business activities. The companies then use the laundered money to buy properties. There is evidence of these activities in Europe.

In Kenya and some parts of Africa, it is believed ransom has been used to routinely purchase selected properties above their market value.

In order to curb acts of piracy and prevent Somali pirates from expanding into other criminal activities, the international community must move away from simply reacting and watching and implement a co-ordinated, systematic and proactive programme to deal conclusively with a problem that is no longer confined to the Horn of Africa.

This is true not only because of the impact it has on international trade, but more so, because of the developing relationship between the pirates and the Somali insurgent group, Al-Shabaab, whose operations against the Somali Transitional Federal Government are financed by ransom money.

Bruno Schiemsky is an independent security consultant who served as the Chairman of the Somalia Monitoring Group between 2004 and 2008.