Piracy off the coast of Somalia triggers a significant risk to ships sailing between the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. Officially, this phenomenon escapes all control and the Great Powers have been forced to dispatch their war navies into the zone to escort their trading ships. However, in some Somali ports, we can see captured boats, waiting obediently for the arrival of the ransom requested by the pirates, without pirates fearing war ships crossing at large. At the end of a lengthy investigation, Thierry Meyssan unmasks the sponsors of this new business.
Today piracy at sea is centred in three regions in the world: the Strait of Malacca, the Gulf of Guinea and the Horn of Africa. However, each presents a very different situation.
30% of global maritime traffic passes through the Strait of Malacca where the impoverished people of Indonesia and Malaysia are confronted by the arrogant opulence of the city-State of Singapore. The pirates are bandits organized in gangs, moving quickly with only bladed weapons. Most often, they are simply satisfied with boarding ships to rob the crew. Since 2006, the three coastal states, at the friendly request of Japan and driven by the fear of seeing the US armada disembark, have put in place a system for air and sea surveillance - a fruitful exercise (operation Eyes in the Sky). For now, the situation seems stabilized.
The Gulf of Guinea is not a zone of commercial transit but an area to exploit oil and gas reserves. The maritime platforms and resupply ships have become targets for gangs and insurgents of the Movement to liberate the Delta of Niger. We are talking of groups that are extremely violent, that make demands through taking hostages, sometimes murdering them. They are occasionally supported by the Ijaw, whose lands were pillaged by oil companies and whose revolt in 1999 was crushed, with blood shed, by Chevron-Texaco troops. More often, these gangs are feared by the people they also terrorize. They drive attacks at sea and on land, against foreigners and natives alike. Nigeria is not winning the battle to contain this criminality, which is spilling over into the Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. Faced with growing danger, certain multinationals such as Shell have decided to abandon the area. Nigerian production of hydrocarbons has dropped by 25%, with consequences on State finances that are easy to imagine.
The situation in the Horn of Africa is the only one to have become a global strategic issue. First because the strait of Bab el-Mandeb (“the door of mournings”), between Yemen and Djibouti, is a mandatory stage between the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal, the Red Sea at the North, and the Indian Ocean at the South. 3.5 million barrels of oil cross each day. Then because the zone of piracy has gradually extended from the Gulf of Anden to the Somali coast, so that it is no longer a question simply of a bottleneck in which the coastal states should re-establish a maritime police, but a very vast zone, principally in the High Sea, in international waters. What was at beginning — and still is in a number of cases— an opportunistic activity of starved fishermen, has now given rise to a highly lucrative business. Some ships have been captured with their crew whilst intermediaries have requested heavy ransoms from the ship owners. This huge crime has developed as political-military developments in Somalia and has served to justify the deployment of a Western armada with neo-colonial claims.
- In “Black Hawk Down”, the producer, Ridley Scott, captures on film how the United States was defeated by a Somali war leader during operation “Restore Hope”.
The Somali Chaos
The reader remembers the very long civil war which has ravaged the Horn of Africa since 1974. In final analysis, while Ethiopia and Erythrea have stabilized, Somalia is still prey to disorder. Somalia country is divided among tribes. The former British colony of Somaliland and Puntland form two quasi-States, with fluctuating borders, which occasionally wage war against each other, although both are supported by Ethiopia . The UN encouraged their formation; thus the UN thinking was to reconstruct Somalia bit by bit. AMISOM, the peace-keeping force deployed by the African Union thanks to contingents from Uganda and Burundi, defends the interim government, the only authority recognized by international community. But President Sharif Ahmed succeeded in being obeyed in some areas of Mogadishu. In the capital, fighting continues. The militia of Ahlu Sunna wal Jama’a protects the Sufi brotherhood , whilst the Al-Shabaab (the military outfit of the “Islamic Courts”) seeks to impose a rigorous interpretation of Sharia . Thus hundreds- perhaps thousands - of small, armed groups are set up, allied and disbanded in accordance with the turn of events. The UN has imposed an arms embargo, that no-one respects and tries to come to help the people, despite frequent diversions of global food aid.
It is in this inferno that piracy resurfaces in 2000. At the time, the regional tensions forced Ethiopians to focus their maritime trade at Djibouti. Their ships were the first prey. Attacks only took place in the strait of Bab el-Mandeb. But the attackers – who considered themselves belligerents not pirates— were driven away by the US, Israeli and French forces stationed at Djibouti.
To meet the deterioration of the situation to Puntland, other pirates attacked the resupply boats crossing their coasts. In 2005-06, the phenomenon was considerably curtailed for two reasons. First, because the Tsunami on 26 December 2004 ravaged coasts and destroyed ports (an event which was looked upon with indifference by the international community who only had eyes for the tourist beaches of Thailand). And second, because the Islamic Courts, briefly in power at Mogadishu, declared piracy illegal under the Sharia.
It is only from 2007 that things took a particularly serious turn. In supporting a heterogeneous coalition of war chiefs against Islamic Courts, the CIA and Ethiopia reactivated tribal conflicts that were beginning to simmer. Promoting the disorder into which the country was collapsing once again, two centres, quickly structured as criminal organizations, specialised in piracy. The first appeared in the Gulf of Aden; the second, in international waters, very far from Mogadishu .
It is clear that these two groups have nothing to do with pirates of former times. At the beginning of the millennium, and still today, in certain cases, the boardings were either at-sea extensions of a conflict on land or raids carried out by starving fishermen. Nowadays they are organized crime with international ramifications.
- For the first time in modern times, the Chinese navy is deployed off the coast of Africa.
The day following 9/11 attacks, the United States mobilized their allies, independently of NATO, to seize Afghanistan. Operation Infinite Justice, renamed Enduring Freedom, included – in addition to the occupation of Afghanistan – a phase in the Philippines, another off the coast of the Horn of Africa and a third in the Sahara.
Regarding the region of interest to us, the Combined Task Force 150 has gathered in the alternative about fifteen foreign contingencies supporting the Fifth US fleet. Using the pretext of fighting terrorism, the real aim was to secure a route for oil: the Persian Gulf/Strait of Ormuz/Gulf of Aden/Strait of Bal el-Mandeb/the Red Sea/the Suez Canal. Evolving in the same waters, Force 150 was occasionally confronted by pirates, but fighting them was not part of its mission.
In 2007, France provides an escort to ships of the World Food Programme and AMISOM ships. As is well known, Paris publicly announced the protection of humanitarian provisions but was silent on those providing military cargo of the African Union.
In 2008, this mission was extended by the European Union in what is its first naval action: Operation Atalanta. This time the instructions were extended to defend European interests – in the broad sense of the word - against pirates .
Alarmed at seeing Europeans organizing themselves militarily, the Pentagon took back control by proposing Nato action, dedicated to absorbing the European defence. It is operation Allied Provider, renamed Allied Protector. In internal documents, Nato analysts note that the fight against piracy is in no way a military necessity; however, it presents an excellent occasion to showcase Nato to the public .
This influx of US, European and Atlantic forces pushed Russia (September 2008), India (October 2008), China (October 2009) and Japan (January 2009) to dispatch their own war ships to the region. This concentration of naval forces entails serious risks. Also a Contact Group on Piracy on Coastal Somalia (CGPCS) was set up in New York under the auspices of the UN. It aims at clarifying the legal rules for fighting piracy. Furthermore, at the Pentagon’s initiative, meetings called “Shared Experiences and Dispute Prevention” (SHADE) have been organized at Bahrain between liaison officials of the different navies involved in order to avoid lack of knowledge of mutual interests triggering disputes.
The reader will note in passing that the presence of the Chinese military navy so far from its ports of origin is a novelty. Washington encouraged this at the beginning of global financial crisis to enable the creation of a G2 and to share the world with Peking. But at the end, its presence could with time play a role in SINO – American rivalry in Africa .
In any event, and despite a Chinese attempt during the piracy of De Xin Hai (October 2009), Peking and Moscow do not wish to integrate their fleets into a multinational force to fight piracy. This is because historically, the United Kingdom and the United States have pursued a project of Universal Maritime Empire, for which they have prepared the ground by signing the Atlantic Charter (1941). More recently, the Pentagon with its security against proliferation initiative (PSI, 2003), then with its Global Maritime Partnership (GMP, 2006), had proposed making all States members that wish for a vast plan to secure the maritime routes. Naturally, the US would be the lead manager.
Given the current measure, there is a slim chance that ships of small countries will be protected by the large navies The most prudent ship owners have installed on board a system of optical detection Sea on Line, which is much more effective than radars. Infrared cameras survey the approach to the ships at a 4 or 5 kilometre radius and alerts the crew if there is an approaching vessel, even if it is a small, low vessel .
Others have recourse to private guards that they place on their boats to defend them. This practise worries the big syndicates of shipowners because it triggers an escalade of violence by pirates.
Still others hire private armies. Thus in 2007 the company Blackwater, (now Xe), acquired MV McArthur a former ship of the US coastal guard. It is equipped with two helicopters Boeing MH6 Little Bird, with three ultra-rapid connected vessels, and takes on board 35 mercenaries. It escorts, on request, civil “sensitive” ships.
On its side, the French company Secopex had acquired 11 escort ships, 24, 36 and 50 meters long. Each can take on board a command of nine persons: two expert shooters and seven men equipped with automatic machine guns .
- How to judge the pirates arrested?
Crimes without punishment
For that matter, although the Somali puppet government had “called for the help of the international community” and although the UN Security Council has adopted four resolutions (1816, 1831, 1846 and 1851) to justify the military option against pirates and to authorise foreign navies to pursue them in territorial waters and up to Somali territory, the legal rules are blurred.
What do you do with pirates do once they have been arrested? Let’s turn to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (known as the Montego Bay Conference) that entered into force in 1994. Under this Convention, the boarding and searching of pirate ships is an action for police, even if it is carried out with military means. The arrest has to take place in the presence of police officers that carry out investigations. The detainees must then be taken before a competent court where they will be judged fairly.
But this is the problem: noone know which is the competent court. The domestic legislation of many countries prohibits asserting jurisdiction over foreigners when they have not committed a crime on national territory. In practice, it is often necessary to release them, or to transfer them to a state with which an ad hoc agreement has been concluded
Thus, Westerners often handover incarcerated pirates to Kenya, which condemns the underlings and abstains from looking for the sponsors.
This is why the Kremlin proposed establishing an international court for crimes committed at High Sea. This time, it is the Anglo Saxons who do not want it, once again due to their imperial maritime project.
- Pistris: the US privateer commandos
The US President’s Privateers
In 1826, Simon Bolivar tried to establish peaceful relations between Latin American nations and prohibit the “war of plunder” that is, the ability of states to have recourse to private ship owners to defend their interests at the sea, indeed, to lead wars. The Liberator was not heard.
It was necessary to wait for Westerners and the Ottomans to conquer the troops of Tsar Nicolas The First in Crimea for the Déclaration de Paris (1856) to establish the Law of the Sea. The “Letters of Marque” had been abolished – that is States renounced from authorizing private armed groups; a system which the Ottoman protectorates of Northern Africa had widely used and before which Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had victoriously led two wars against the Berber pirates (1801-05, 1815).
However, the United States, Spain and Mexico refused to sign this declaration, because under liberal capitalist doctrine, war can also be privatised. All the more because at this time, the fledgling United States did still not see itself as capable of maintaining a military fleet capable of being a rival to the great powers.
Reactivating this old practice, Ron Paul, a representative, tried three times to make Congress adopt the September-11 Marque and Reprisal Act of 2001. This was not necessary for Congress had already voted for the war against terrorism and relying on art 1, section 8 of the US Constitution, the State Department delivered letters of marque to private military companies to chase “terrorists” in the Indian Ocean. And, as we know, Washington considers any pirate is a terrorist in the making 
According to a publication of the French Minister of Defence, the first of these letters of marque was granted in 2007 to the company Pistris Inc. “It has been empowered to arm two ships, 65 metres long which are linked to military satellites for observation. Each is equipped with an armed helicopter, ultra-rapid connected small boats, capable of reaching a speed of 50 knots and accommodating a crew of 50 men which include commandos. Pistris has its own military training camp, notably for commando operations, in Massachusetts” . Some barges have been positioned on an artificial lake where fights are simulated, whilst an enormous machine agitates the waters to recreate conditions of sea waves.
Pirates of the Coast
Before describing pirate organizations, it is necessary to clear away some confusion. When the Somali state collapsed, French, Spanish and Japanese fishermen profited from it to empty its banks of tuna and prawns in Somali territorial waters. Occasionally, they bought so-called “authorizations” from warring heads and later from the so-called interim government.
Conscious that the indiscriminate use of tunny nets depletes the sea of its resources, Somali fishermen boarded the intruder ships and emptied them for compensation. In the context of the political chaos in Somalia and in the absence of national coastguards, these actions are characterized as a form of self – defense. Legally, they do not fall under the definition of piracy because they occurred in Somalian territorial waters and not at High Sea.
What interests us here is criminal activity conducted at High Sea. For this you need ships adapted to venture out far from the coast. So at the beginning, pirates would board a big boat crossing close to them. Then they used it to reach the High Sea and to attack an enormous target. Today, they have their own fleet.
The choice of targets depends predominantly on the height of the ship in water, its speed and its size. The lower, slower and bigger the boat is, the more vulnerable it is. Container ships cannot be defended because the crew cannot see all the accesses from the tower. The same is also true of tuna boats because they have a rear ramp of access and cannot be deployed when their tunny nets are in use.
“Once the boat is captured, the sponsor indicates to the head of the pirates where to go to dock; the translator then climbs on board to conduct negotiations. On average, the seizure of the vessel lasts about 60 days. The atmosphere on board is fairly tense but except for perhaps one occasion, there have never been deaths.
The pirates are well aware that if they start eliminating hostages, the situation will take on new dimensions and that they risk the population and religious authorities rising against them.
Thus we know that the pirates apply a sort of code of honour: the roles are clearly marked out and the head pirate always notes the costs involved. The practice of credit is current and debts are honoured. When the ransom is paid, each recovers their due. There is even a system of fines to respect how social life is organized on board the ships.
The pirates set up temporary camps near the zones where pirated ships anchor. Because these are not necessarily pitched in the villages, you may think that they are not always accepted by the local people, especially if the tribal context is not favourable. After the attack comes the challenge of maintaining and feeding the hostages. This creates a mini-economy fuelled by increasing amounts of ransoms. Piracy creates jobs: the coastal populations urge their relatives and friends from the centre of the country to help them first to attack and then to safeguard the ships and hostages.
Ransom is generally paid in cash, counted on board and then divided between the different parties involved and all participants to the operation. The division of the ransom is quite similar to fishing: 50% for the “work force”, that is, for the men that led the action (which can be as many as 80), 30% for the sponsor, 15% for the interpreter, the traders and more generally for the intermediaries and 5% reserved for the families of the dead pirates. 
- The Presidents of the State of Puntland (not recognized). Adde Muse to the left (2005-08), and Faroole to the right (since 2009). The Puntland government receives 30% of the ransoms paid to local pirates.
Puntland: The New Island of Tortue
In the seventeenth century, the Caribbean was the theatre of a conflict between Christian empires that were in favour of pirates. The latter organized themselves as a secret society, which was at once violent and egalitarian. The pirates called it “Brothers of the Coasts”, and they took control of territories, their “13 havens”. Their capital was the Island of Tortue, where they were flourishing under the discreet protection of the King of France. The same structure exists today in Somalia. The UN Group of Experts mentions nine concurrent criminal organisations, three of which dominate .
The most famous was led by Abshir Abdillahi, known as “Boyah”. He is a relative of the President of Puntland, Abdirahman Mohamed (known as “Faroole”). Aged 44, Boyah is originally from the port of Eyl, which he made his principal base. He claims to have a militia of more than 500 men and to have captured 25 – 60 vessels at High Sea. Among those taken are: the Japanese chemical transporter Golden Nori (28 October 2007, ransom: 1.5 million dollars) and a French luxury yacht Le Ponant (4 April 2008, ransom: 2 million dollars). The ransoms obtained represent astronomical sums in relation to the average annual revenue of the population of Somalia — among the poorest in the world— evaluated at 282 dollars per year.
The independent state of Puntland is the modern version of the Island of Tortue. The Bossaso government (the name of Puntland’s capital) boasts about maintaining relations with Germany, Djibouti, the Emirates, Spain, the United States, Ethiopia, Kenya and the World Bank . It publishes an annual budget of 30 million dollars, which is fairly low compared to the revenues of the pirate organizations. Not at all astonishing that “Boyah” had benefited from the protection of the government of Puntland, specifically from President “Faroole”, the Interior Minister, General Abdullahi Ahmed Jama (known as “Ilkajiir”), and the Minister of Internal Security, General Abdillah Sa’iid Samatar. According to “Boyah’s” declarations to Garowe Online (August 2008), he had paid to the persons mentioned above, 30% of the ransoms reserved to the sponsors.
In May 2009, “Boyah” announced that he was retiring from business with 180 of his men. It seems that one of his relatives, Mohammed Abdi Garaad, had taken his place. Today, his militia consists of 800 men divided into 13 groups. It is notably responsible for capturing the Japanese freighter Stella Maris (20 July 2008, ransom 2 million dollars), and the Malaysian trading ships Bunga Melati Dua (18 August 2008, ransom 2 million dollars), the German BBC Trinidad, (ransom 1 million dollars 21 August 2008) and the Iranian Iran Deyanat (21 August 2008). He has also committed a major error by attacking the US container vessel Maersk Alabama (8 April 2009), triggering the aggressive intervention of the US Fifth Fleet.
Another gang is set up in the disputed province of Sanaag. The person in charge is Fu’aad Warsame Seed, alias “Hanaano”. It is a small militia of around 60 men, providing important military equipment. It is noteworthy that it captured the German yacht Rockall (23 June 2008, ransom 1 million dollars), the Turkish chemical carrier Karagol (12 November 2008), two Egyptian fishing ships Mumtaz 1 and Samara Ahmed (10 April 2009) and the Italian tug Buccaneer (11 April 2009).
“Hanaano” is protected by the Interior Minister “Ikaljiir” whose political activities he finances. Unfortunately, on 15 October 2009, the Yemenites arrested him when he was trying a new operation in their territorial waters. The government of Puntland is negotiating his freedom.
- Localisation of pirate actions during the first quarter of 2010 (source: International Maritime Bureau).
The Haven of Xaradheere and Hobyo
In the centre of Somalia, there is another organization created by Mohamed Hassan Abdi, alias “Afweyne.” It seems that today his son, Abdiqaadir, is leading it. It is based in the ports of Xaradheere and Hobyo; to give itself legitimacy, it proclaims to be “Coast Guard of the Central Region”.
Its published results are impressive: it has captured Semlow (26 June 2005), the Chinese gas carrier Feisty Gas (10 April 2005, ransom 315,000 dollars), Rosen (25 February 2007), the Danish cargo Danica White (2 June 2007, ransom 1.5 millions of dollars), the Spanish tuna boat Playa de Baskio (20 April 2008, ransom 770,000 euro), the Malaysian chemical carrier Bunga Melati (18 August 2008, ransom 2 million dollars), the Greek freighter Centauri (17 September 2008), the Greek cargo Captain Stefanos (21 September 2008), the Ukrainian cargo Faina (25 September 2008, ransom 3 million dollars), the Philippine chemical carrier, Stolt Strength (10 November 2008), the Chinese tuna boat Tian Yo no 8 (15 November 2008), the Saudi super tanker Sirius Star (15 November 2008, ransom 15 millions dollars!), the liner Indian Ocean Explorer (2 April 2009), the German container vessel Hansa Stavanger (4 April 2009, ransom 2 million dollars), the Belgian dredger Pompei (18 April 2009, ransom 2.8 million euros), the Greek freighter Ariana (2 May 2009, ransom 3 million dollars), the Spanish fishing ship Alakrana (2 October 2009, ransom 2.3 millions euros), the Singaporean container vessel Kota Wajar (15 October 2009, ransom 4 million dollars), the Chinese freighter Xin Hai (19 October 2009, ransom 4 millions dollars), and finally… the Russian tanker Moscow University (5 April 2010, no ransom).
- 23 September 2009: Colonel Gaddafi defends his friend “Afweyne” from the UN General Assembly rostrum.
- © Marco Castro, UN Press Service
Pirates or Filibusters?
If we return to the historical precedents of the Brothers of the Coast in the Caribbean in the 17th century, the pirates had been able to be set themselves up in “13 havens” because they rendered discreet services to the States. They were in fact filibusters, that is, they were occasionally instructed by political authorities with shameful missions. Evidently it cannot be otherwise today.
The Russian Chief of Staff envisaged a multinational operation to clean the Puntland and the ports of the Xaradheere and Hobyo. The Anglo-Saxons have fiercely rejected this brutal proposition. And with reason: the political leaders of these territories are allies of the CIA, the MI6 and Mossad against the Islamists of Al-Shabaab. To give it an African colouring, the massive support of the Anglo Saxons passes through Addis-Ababa (Ethiopia) where the State Department is in the process of building its biggest embassy in the world, after the one in Bagdad (Iraq).
According to the British weekly, The Spectator, the chief pirates of Puntland have been received as friends on board US warships to have a coffee. .
In their “ dealings” with the pirates of Xaradheere and Hobyo who do not have access to the services of a quasi State such as Puntland, the Anglo-Saxons have resorted to a very different cover.
The diplomats that were listening to the interminable speech of Mouamar Gaddafi at the UN General Assembly (23 September 2009) tended to yawn, many preferring to leave, talking, heading for the bar while waiting for him to finish. They were wrong. During his harangue criticizing the way the UN works, the Libyan Head of State made multiple digressions. One of them consisted in defending Somali pirates by likening the current criminal organizations to the ruined fishermen – which is false – as we have already seen . Colonel Gaddafi has mentioned the grandiose welcome that he had reserved to “Afweyne” and to his lieutenants, at Tripoli from 1- 4 September 2009.
Libya intends to play a role in Africa but it can only make a legitimate claim to that after it has publicly reconciled with the United States (which brought Colonel Gaddafi to power). As it happens, Africa has become a closed field where the United States is competing with China. The former sub-contracting its secret action to Israel, the latter appealing to Iranian services.
- Hello, it’s Ehud Olmert.
According to Ali Abdullah Saleh, the irrevocable President of Yemen, the pirate chiefs of Puntland arrested in Yemen’s territorial waters received their orders by telephone satellite from the office of the former Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert. These allegations, while widely published in the Arab press, were ignored by the “international community”.
As good filibusters, Somali pirates know how to provide the services required and steal for personal gain the rest of the time. Suddenly one is no longer astonished that they continue these acts, oblivious to being in the milieu of the multiple war navies. One can even ask if the information gleaned during the meetings of SHADE organized at Bahrain by the Pentagon are not transmitted to the pirates to avoid their fatal meetings.
This investigation was carried out for the Russian weekly Odnako following the boarding of the Russian tanker Moscow University (i.e. before the case of the flotilla of liberty, which is not addressed in the article). It is the central dossier and the centrepiece of issue 23. The notes have been added by the author for the internet version.