Somali Pirates Tap into Sophisticated Navigation

By Abdullahi Jamaa, OnIslam Correspondent

The nerve center of piracy is somewhere in southern Somalia in the remote port of Eyl on the shores of the Indian Ocean
European Union Naval Force (EU NAVFOR)

Over the past few years, Somali pirates have been hijacking merchant vessels off the coast of Somalia in deep and dreadful waters, where risky and complicated operations left them significantly damaging international sea routes.

Their mode of operation has not been a simple venture without them tapping into a formidable technical and maritime sophistication that forms the foundation of the rash of hijackings witnessed in the Indian Ocean as well as along the Arabian Peninsula.

“The most important thing for Somali pirates is getting relevant information regarding merchant vessels that they wish to hijack. But this does not come easily without the use of certain technologies,” Andrew Mwangura, coordinator of the East African Seafarers Assistance Program told OnIslam.net.

“What they must know includes information on the value of vessels, the value of the goods and the number of crew members.”

A very good source of information is crucial to maneuver the cavernous coast and a reliable means of gathering facts and figures constitute a big portion of the process that results in a successful attack.

But this flow of useful information that boosts the booming piracy business usually does not come easily and at the right time. The remedy, however, maritime experts say, is using a complex combination of old communication systems, modern navigational technologies and pirates-styled Somali encryption techniques.

To intercept a merchant vessel, maritime officials say one needs a coordinated attack where information is processed from a central point before it is disbursed for action into the subterranean sea.

Investment in Technology

The nerve center of piracy is somewhere in southern Somalia, along the shore of the Indian Ocean. The remote port of Eyl has been an important control center for the first few years of piracy.

These days’ pirates have setup satellite centers since they are escaping from western warships. Their command center is as mobile as their ‘nomadic’ lifestyle.

The gangs, who pursue vessels in the sea, usually work on a tip-off from a strategic point where top comrades relay messages to their ranks and files.

It is undeniable that Somali pirates are getting more sophisticated. (Image credit: Abdullahi Jamaa. The operation room of EUNAVFOR Portuguese flagship NPR VASCO DA GAMA)

“They use navigational technologies in their daily operation. This involves a combination of technologies, most important they use satellite cell phones for long range communications,” says Mwangura who is also a maritime editor with Somalia Report, an online portal for Somalia news.

Back to the pirates’ dens in volatile south of troubled Somalia, ex-fishermen, ex-militias and computer wizards are tapping into contemporary technologies as increasing annual ransom means more piracy investments.

It is from these informal centers in Somalia’s parched and bare coast, where satellite phones, Global Positioning System (GPS), and VHF radios are used as navigational aids to spot and identify potential preys.

Peter Lehr, a lecturer in terrorism studies at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, recently stated that, “It is undeniable that Somali pirates are getting more sophisticated. In previous years they mainly preyed on local fishing inshore vessels not far off the coast, attacking them and robbing their crew rather at ‘knife point’ than at gun point.”

“The returns obviously have been invested into more sophisticated equipment, that is automatic weapons including RPGs, satellite phones, navigation gear, and fast fiberglass boats nicknamed Volvos because of their high powered engines.”

Recent studies have proved that the technology in use by the Somali buccaneers is one that matches many of genuine coastguards over the world.

On November 15, 2008, Somali pirates conducted one of their brazen attacks against merchant vessels sailing through the massive international waters off the Somali Coast.

They attacked a 330-meter crude oil carrier, a Saudi supertanker which is capable of carrying a quarter of the kingdom’s vast daily oil output and is by far one of the few large ships ever to be hijacked.

During the successful raid, a group of Somali pirates boarded the Sirius Star supertanker from a position approximately 420 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia.

The raid against the supertanker was coordinated from an anchorage off Eyl, a northeastern Somali port town that is considered the hub of Somali pirates.

“This was an attack that for the first time stunned the world; it was a testimony to the growing piracy business,” said one maritime expert who declined to be named because he is not authorized to talk to the press.

“The Sirius Star hijack then yielded one of the biggest ransoms for the pirates who got US$4 million for a job well coordinated. It is not right to say that Somali pirates lack necessary communication skills; it obviously needs a modern technology to seize vessels like this type.”

In 2010, after a successful attack, pirates received their highest ransom payment yet - US$9.5 million for the release of Samho Dream, a South Korean oil supertanker they hijacked in the Indian Ocean in early April of that year.

Millions of US dollars paid in ransom have helped gangs to invest in high-tech equipment for higher level of operations which gradually enables pirates to widen their range of targets from small fishing vessels to international merchant ships sailing in far-away waters off the coast of Somalia.

Ransoms and Progress

The most likely means by which they are tracking their targets is the Automated Identification System (AIS). Since 2004 AIS has been mandatory for vessels over 300 tons. (Image credit: Abdullahi Jamaa)

Over the past few years, pirates invested in speedboats with long range radios and satellite navigation systems.

According to the European Union Naval Force (EU NAVFOR), an anti-piracy initiative launched in 2008, Somali pirates have started operating from seized mother ships to conduct more bold raids.

“The new tactics pirates have adopted is the use of mother ships to carryout sophisticated attacks from far away places,” said Commodore Silvestre Correia, EU NAVFOR force Commander.

In recent months the use of mother ships, which have access to radar facilities, have tremendously improved intelligence gathering of the pirates.

“It is through these mother ships that successful pirates receive intelligence information regarding vessel direction, capacity, cargo, crew and defenses mechanisms,” says Mwangura.

According to Idarat Maritime Limited, an international company established to provide systemic and resilient solutions to the problems faced by shipping lines, Somali pirates now have the capability to track and locate big trading ships at sea.

“The most likely means by which they are tracking their targets is the Automated Identification System (AIS).  Since 2004 AIS has been mandatory for vessels over 300 tons,” Idarat says in a report posted on the company’s website entitled” New Tactics & Equipment in the Somali Pirates’ Campaign.”

“AIS broadcasts information about each ship, including its name, position, course, speed and destination. Ships in the area receive this information and can track each vessel in their vicinity.”

Idarat understands that the investment in piracy operations is more than enough to put a number of mother ships into the sea, approximately 40 nautical miles apart. “Any vessel crossing this line would then be identified and followed, and the track ship would be unaware of the threat.”

As pirates face the ongoing war against western warships stationed particularly in the Gulf of Aden, their coping strategies have changed to allow them to use automatic tracking devices to spot and trail targets.

Somali pirates have also invested in manpower. They have translators who interpret the bulk of information that filters in through the automatic tracking devices. These men though not involved in the actual hijacking, decipher and break down information for the team. The ‘foot soldiers’ are given instructions that most often turn out to be successful.

The men who call themselves Somali Coast guards also invest time on the World Wide Web tracking and gathering vital information. For example, the pirate financiers visit the Maritime Bureau Website to check what strategies have been put in place to curtail their activities. They in turn feed the gang.

“We have read and came up with solutions to the Best Management Practices that are meant for ship masters to escape our trap. Whatever they come up with we will have a solution. It’s just like Medicine, when a disease crops up, doctors come up with a solution and we are the doctors in this case,” said Mohamed Hassan Abdi “Afweyne”, the founder of the Somali Piracy Network.

According to the International Maritime Bureau’s global piracy report, 97 attacks were recorded in the first quarter of 2011, up from 35 in the same period last year. This in part is due to the fact the pirates are well equipped and more coordinated in their operations.

A recent report by the London-based think tank Chatham House says that sea piracy costs the global economy between US$7 and 12 billion annually of which the Somali pirates are responsible for 95 percent.

Maritime officials believe that piracy is not only problematic for the carriers, but it’s also becoming a geopolitical problem. Ecoterra International, a group that monitors piracy attacks, says at least 43 foreign vessels and 698 hostages are currently in the hands of Somali pirates.
Related Links:
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UN Somali Pirates Resolution Stirs Fears
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US Wants to Hunt Pirates Inside Somalia
Who are the Real Pirates in Somali Waters?

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