Defeating Somali Pirates on Land: The Kenya Connection

Several merchant ships and their crews are still being held in pirate enclaves, but others have been ransomed back to their owners for an average price of $1 million. In January, the owners of the MV Sirius Star , a brand-new tanker with a load of crude oil valued at $100 million, paid $3 million to secure the release of the tanker and her 25 crew members. And in early February, the owners of the MV Faina , laden with armored vehicles and other weapons, shelled out an estimated $3.2 million for the release of the ship and her crew. The United Nations estimates that pirates raked in around $20 million last year, this in a country where 25 cents can buy dinner.

The world's navies have mobilized in an attempt to defeat piracy at sea. Around two dozen warships from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, India, China, and other countries, organized in several distinct task forces, patrol the roughly million square miles of ocean where pirates are operating. In January, the U.S. Navy reorganized its own counter-piracy efforts, establishing a new combined task force, CTF-151, dedicated solely to combating pirates. And at press time, Turkey had committed to sending a frigate to the Gulf of Aden for that purpose. At-sea interception is the most obvious countermeasure for piracy and where the world has focused its resources.

Hitting Them Where They Live

But a permanent solution to the piracy problem requires "something happening on land," according to Martin Murphy, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, in Washington, D.C. With Somalia's 18-year-old civil war still raging, some say even escalating, there is little hope of resolving the piracy crisis at its source. But pirate networks have another land-based weakness, one that's perhaps being neglected: in Kenya, where pirate chiefs base important parts of their operations. As long as Somalia itself remains inaccessible to law-enforcement efforts, Kenya is where the world must begin rolling back the land-based organizations that support pirates.

While small gangs of armed men riding in fast skiffs are the dramatic face of piracy, these men are just the foot soldiers of sophisticated criminal enterprises in which major infrastructure is land-based. The most successful pirates—those with the weapons and intelligence to pull off attacks on supertankers hundreds of miles from land—are employed by wealthy criminal bosses, many of them expatriates, and draw on information provided by paid sources inside key Kenyan maritime agencies.

"From what I can see, this has become a business," Abubaker Omar said of pirates. Omar is the head of Kenya's large seafaring union, based in Mombasa, the country's major port. His constituents include thousands of seafarers, many of whom have had encounters with pirates during their careers, and some of whom have even been kidnapped by pirates and eventually freed.

Organized Crime

Omar described pirate networks as something akin to the West's mafia. Resources are concentrated in the hands of a few senior bosses, each employing "capos" commanding bands of low-ranking pirates. The capos, Omar said, are former Somali army soldiers from before the civil war, when Somali troops trained in the Soviet Union. The capos and their subordinates operate from pirate enclaves in northern Somalia, especially in the town of Eyl.

The pirate bosses, for their part, do not necessarily live in Somalia, which lacks reliable services, is mostly devoid of luxury goods and alcohol, and—with the rise of hard-line Islamic groups—is less and less amenable to the kind of hard partying that wealthy pirates enjoy. Murphy advocated following pirates' ransom money to bosses living outside of Somalia. "Where does money go to?" Murphy asked. "It can't all be spent on wine and women in Mogadishu. It's got to be going somewhere, either being invested abroad or spent abroad."

With their shares of millions of dollars in ransoms, some pirate bosses allegedly have put down roots in stable, democratic and relatively prosperous Kenya, especially in and around Mombasa, with its vibrant maritime economy. Kenya's borders are highly porous, and with Somalia's escalating chaos, hundreds of thousands of Somalis have entered Kenya legally or illegally in recent decades. Omar pointed out tracts of new home construction on Mombasa's shore that he said had been paid for by pirate bosses, in cash. To avoid any probing questions about the money's origins, "if you ask for $2 million, they give you 2.5," Omar said. 

Kenyan Spies

The pirate bosses have practical reasons to live in Kenya, according to members of Mombasa's business community. Pirates recruit employees of Kenyan maritime agencies to act as spies. Much of the shipping that passes across the Indian Ocean stops over in Mombasa. Before a ship can leave the port, it must file papers detailing cargo and itinerary. Using this information, leaked to them by the paid informants, pirates know which ships are worth targeting, and where to look for them in a million-square-mile expanse of ocean.

Habib Hakem, a Mombasa entrepreneur with interests in shipping, fishing, and other industries, said he has advised associates to file false paperwork to Kenyan authorities when sailing from Mombasa harbor. This is the only way to ensure pirates don't get their hands on a ship's itinerary, he said.

It is not clear how deeply pirates have wormed their way into Kenyan agencies. But Andrew Mwangura, head of a small seafarer's advocacy group in Mombasa, told The Scotsman newspaper that "the government doesn't like what we do and there are lots of people making money from piracy who would like us out of business."

Counter-piracy efforts on land in Kenya would require delicate cooperation between Nairobi and other governments. But a precedent was set in 2006, when U.S. Navy experts helped Kenyan authorities build a case against pirates being tried in Kenyan court. In December 2008, Kenyan military chief General Jeremiah Kianga said he welcomed international cooperation in combating piracy, and a few weeks later, in late January, Kenya and the U.S. State Department signed an agreement for the U.S. Navy to deliver captured pirates into the Kenyan legal system.

In the past, such efforts have been stymied by unreliable Kenyan courts. Still, it's a good start. As naval missions against piracy gain momentum, there should be a parallel effort to dismantle pirate networks ashore. Those wheels may begin turning when suspected pirates captured in February by the USS Vella Gulf (CG-72) are turned over to the Kenyan legal system. We'll then see whether pirates' spies, senior leaders, and financiers are prosecuted.

Mr. Axe is a military correspondent living in Columbia, South Carolina. Since 2005 he has reported from the United Kingdom, Iraq, Lebanon, Japan, East Timor, Afghanistan, Somalia, Chad, Nicaragua, and Kenya.


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