Terror on the High Seas Somali Pirates Form Unholy Alliance with Islamists

Warships have done little to deter Somalia's pirates. But following the latest spate of hijackings, the West plans to take a more robust approach to protecting shipping. Intelligence agencies are alarmed at the pirates' increasingly close ties to Islamist groups.
Von SPIEGEL Staff

A sack filled with $1 million (€770,000) in $100 bills weighs just under 15 kilos (33 pounds). Occasionally $3 million in ransom money is paid to Somali pirates  for a hijacked freighter and its crew. That's nearly 45 kilos.

Delivering millions of dollars to the pirates is a hell of a job, says Jack Cloonan , a security expert from New York. "Remember, they're sitting there and they're all armed to the teeth," he says. "And you're sitting there in your rubber raft: 'Here's one for you, and one for you ... '"

Throughout his career, Cloonan has dealt with his fair share of nasty characters. As a FBI special agent, he tracked down Warsaw Pact spies and, in the wake of 9/11, al-Qaida terrorists. But transferring the money to Somalia's often drug-addled pirates is "an extremely difficult" maneuver, he says. "It would be nice if the Somali pirates would accept a wire transfer -- but they don't."

Cloonan has quit his government job and joined a booming industry. Shipping companies call on him for help when the pirates off the Horn of Africa have hijacked one of their ships.

He and his team organize negotiations -- and they know all the traps and tricks. They figure out a way to get the ransom money to Africa and ensure that the crew and freighter reach their home port safe and sound. Cloonan has liberated a number of ships over the past few months -- and there's plenty of potential for growth in his line of work.

Ever since the weather improved in early March, Somalia's barefoot pirates have seized seven vessels, including Germany's Hansa Stavanger, a container ship with five German officers and 19 sailors on board.

With their small fiberglass boats, the pirates are making fools of the world's most powerful countries. No less than four international fleets of high-tech warships are patrolling the waters off Somalia's coasts, and there are frigates and destroyers from countries like China and Russia that are working independently. All of these ships have cannons or missiles, helicopters and satellite support; some could lay waste to entire cities. But this has done little to deter the pirates, with their bashed-up outboard boats and Kalashnikovs. It's a fight between David and Goliath -- except in this case, the bad guys are playing the role of David, and the good guys are Goliath.

But now Goliath is taking a harder line. Military officers are frustrated and their governments have had enough of coughing up for boats. Every million-dollar ransom bolsters the pirates. It's a dilemma: Countries that pay up will end up paying more and more.

The Americans and the French have changed course and started shooting at the pirates. Even the Germans considered freeing the Hansa Stavanger by force. Some of the strategies which experts in Washington, London and Berlin are developing resemble battle plans for a new military campaign -- and that in a war-torn country like Somalia, which has already been the site of a number of military debacles. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says: "We may be dealing with a 17th-century crime, but we need to bring 21st-century assets to bear."

And there's no time to waste, now that a new threat is emerging. Intelligence agencies have managed to deeply penetrate the pirate clans. They have inside information about the bosses, arms caches, alliances and arrangements. Experts also have reason to believe that the pirates are increasingly working hand-in-hand with Islamists, who are allies of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida. It's a terrifying alliance: The pirates supply money and arms, while the Islamists have troops and the power on land.

But it is also a highly unlikely alliance. Up until recently, the pirates and Islamists have been mortal enemies. When fighters loyal to the radical Council of Islamic Courts seized power in Somalia in 2006, they immediately put the pirates out of business because piracy violates Islamic Sharia law.

Half a year later, an invading army from US-backed neighboring Ethiopia swept aside the Islamists -- and the pirates quickly headed out to sea again in search of new booty.

The Ethiopians have meanwhile largely retreated, but the new government in Mogadishu, which was elected in January, controls only a fraction of the country. The rest is ruled by Islamist groups, like the al-Shabab militias and a new faction called Hizbul Islam (Party of Islam).

The pirates want money and the Islamists want power -- but these interests can overlap at times. In November of last year, conflict erupted once again after the pirates seized the Sirius Star. That wasn't particularly clever. The supertanker belongs to the Saudis, who are also Muslims, and the Islamists naturally objected to the raid. A few shots were fired.

However, that couldn't really shatter the alliance and, ironically, one reason for this is that the infidels are making inroads into Somalia's coastal waters. The enemy from the outside is welding together the old adversaries. The pirates are "mujahideen because they are at war with the Christian countries," says Sheikh Hassan Turki, the leader of Hizbul Islam. And Mukhtar Robow of the al-Shabab militias praises the pirates, saying that they are defending "the coast against Allah's enemies."

Ever since American snipers shot dead three pirates to rescue the captain of the US-registered freighter Maersk Alabama on Easter Sunday, the pirates have been calling for revenge -- and they suddenly sound very much like the Islamists. The US is now "our number one enemy," says Jamac Habeb, a pirate from Eyl. "We're now out to get Americans," says a pirate named Ismail from Harardhere. "And when we have them, we'll slaughter them."

If the "fragile alliance" between the pirates and the Islamists grows stronger, writes the intelligence journal Jane's Intelligence Review, this will "increase the threat from pirate groups." According to an analysis by the intelligence experts, the pirates are far better networked than was previously thought.

One example of this can be found in the pirate town of Harardhere, close to where the hijacked Hansa Stavanger was forced to drop anchor. The gang members in this stronghold include men from all the main clans along the coast, allowing the group to move freely everywhere. The Suleyman clan calls the shots in this region, but one of the Harardhere commanders -- whose main profession is selling charcoal -- is a Saleebaan.

The gang maintains two main bases of operations along the coast, and from here it sends raiding units, each one divided into four groups. The planners prepare the hunt -- and this group reportedly also includes Sudanese and Pakistanis. Former fishermen help out with their nautical experience, while young fighters go on board the ships. The fourth group consists of negotiators who haggle over the ransom with adversaries like Jack Cloonan.

Dealing with Pirates Inc.

For more lucrative hauls, the Harardhere pirates like to team up with gangs from other towns, primarily with their associates from Kismayo, 800 kilometers (500 miles) farther south. The Kismayo gang reportedly seized the Sirius Star, for instance. All negotiations were then conducted by the men from Harardhere.

It's a regular "Pirates Inc.," says Cloonan, who describes it as "organized crime" on the high seas. The ship owners and the pirates start out with widely diverging negotiating positions. The gangsters demand $15 million, the shipping company offers $1 million -- and the war of nerves begins.

The pirates often use the ship's satellite telephone to call the crew's relatives and threaten to execute the hostages. "We've had cases where they have threatened people on the phone, where they've certainly fired off guns and told us they've executed somebody."

Sometimes the pirates threaten to ram the ship at full speed against the coast. Or they let the sailors go hungry because food supplies have supposedly run out. Or they simply break off all contact for days. "This is where the shipping companies go crazy," says Cloonan.

Once Cloonan and the pirates have agreed on a sum after weeks or months of negotiations, it's time for the ex-agent to deliver. Initially, he chartered deep-sea tugs in Mombasa to bring the bags of money to the agreed coordinates. When the hijacked ship came into sight, an unarmed man would climb into a rubber dinghy to transfer the ransom money at the side of the vessel. "And then you hope that the pirates do the right thing." These days the bags are often dropped with a parachute from an airplane -- because the pirates even seize the tugboats.

Sometimes Cloonan's team also has to check on board if the crew is complete and in good health before paying for their release. On one occasion, they knew that a seaman on board was seriously ill. Before handing over the cash, they searched for him -- and found his body in the refrigerator of the hijacked ship. He had jumped to his death from the upper deck.

The pirates are not stupid, and they're fairly self-assured, says Cloonan. "They know that it's a successful business model. They know that they can operate in this wide swath of area almost with impunity."

Most groups have established their logistical operations in Garoowe and Gaalkacyo, two towns in the breakaway region of Puntland. This is where many bundles of dollars disappear into the Islamic hawala financial system, which is based on personal contacts.

But in April of last year the pirates were painfully reminded that, despite their excellent organization at sea, they are poorly equipped for fighting on land. They had just seized the French luxury yacht Le Ponant, and were about to make off with the $2 million ransom near the pirate stronghold of Eyl, when suddenly French helicopter gunships came roaring over the plain and elite units opened fire. Six pirates were taken into custody and are currently being held in France -- and at least a small portion of the ransom was recovered by the military.

Afterwards, the pirates asked the Islamists for help. Some pirate gangs now pay al-Shabab units 5 to 10 percent of the ransom in exchange for protection services on land. There's enough to go around for everyone. Last year alone, Somalia's swashbucklers took in $30 to $100 million in ransom money.

Other pirate gangs would rather defend their land bases themselves. Starting last July, al-Shabab militiamen reportedly put a group of pirates through a 45-day series of boot camp exercises near the town of Hobyo. The sea raiders received basic infantry training and practiced tactics and communications on land. Informants working for Jane's Intelligence Review estimate that the pirates paid $1 million for the training package.

The Islamists receive more than just money from the pirates. The pirates also smuggle weapons into the country for them -- and often bring along useful equipment for themselves. During a run last October, for instance, the pirates took in four ZU-23 anti-aircraft guns -- highly effective weapons that, wherever they are, could make life extremely difficult for Western helicopter pilots.

The freighters themselves are practically defenseless against the much better equipped pirates. They can sail full speed ahead or take evasive action, "but every speedboat is faster than we are," says an officer of a German container ship. He adds that the ships of the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom have actually created an additional problem. The Americans demand that commercial ships provide information over the radio on their origin, course and destination -- and the pirates hear every word.

An equally compromising situation is created by the Automatic Identification System (AIS), which was introduced in 2004 to prevent collisions by continuously broadcasting detailed information on one's own ship to all other ships in the same waters. Receivers can be purchased on the open market. German suppliers sell them starting at €360 apiece.

Since the beginning of the year, warships have been able to protect vessels that pass through a protected corridor in the Gulf of Aden. But the pirates have immediately reacted to this move. They are increasingly using mother ships to tow their small attack skiffs far out into the Indian Ocean. No navy in the world has enough ships to cover that area.

Nevertheless, last Wednesday Clinton unveiled a four-point plan to stop piracy. All four points concern conducting talks, in other words, only meetings. But she indicated that it may also be possible to "take action" against pirate bases on land.

US Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff, who commanded US naval forces in the Middle East until last year, has named two options. One is to "go ashore light," where US Marines would destroy the pirates' boats, fuel and bases. The other option is to "go ashore big" and conduct sustained land operations against the pirates and their clan leaders -- a tactic with incalculable risks, says the vice admiral.

A clever alternative might be what is known as "containment," which has been proposed by the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners. Pirates need ports and they have very few suitable locations in Somalia, mainly Harardhere, Hobyo, Eyl and Boosaaso. A warship stationed off each port could prevent armed boats from sailing. That would be much easier than monitoring an entire ocean.

MATTHIAS GEBAUER, JOHN GOETZ, CLEMENS HÖGES, HORAND KNAUP, MARCEL ROSENBACH, STEFAN SIMONS, ALEXANDER SZANDAR, ANDREAS ULRICH

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
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