Pirates backed by international criminal networks, claims author

By Asad Cabdullahi Mataan

DUBAI — An intricate web of criminal gangs, tribal clans and international finance networks that help Somali piracy survive is the subject of a new book written by a Dubai-based consultant.

First-time author Andrew Palmer says in The New Pirates that it would be a mistake to write off pirates as a spent force.

“Piracy is an international criminal activity and needs to be considered in the same way as drug smuggling or human trafficking and involves a complex international network of financiers,” he said.

“Somali piracy could reactivate itself. It wouldn’t take very much for it to become an increasing force again. If we saw a change in the circumstances in Somalia that would be the case for a resurgence in Somali piracy.”

Extensively researched, the book delves into the history of piracy, examines the causes, explores possible solutions, details hijacking cases and their impact on families.

The International Maritime Bureau recorded 217 attacks from Somali pirates in 2009.

But recent IMB numbers show a decline, with nine incidents reported until August this year, 15 cases last year and 75 in 2012. Deadly attacks continue off West Africa with South-East Asia and the South China Sea also identified as hotspots.

Mr Palmer said not all cases were reported.

“Shipowners are reluctant to advise insurers of problems where no claim is made due to the perception that attacks are bad publicity.”

The book outlines strong support systems from clan leaders and investors that give pirates access to weapons and GPS equipment. He explains how locals are subcontracted to guard and feed captives, negotiators speak foreign languages and financial backers move and invest ransom money.

While there are no “one-shot solutions”, he believes studying criminal networks could impact piracy.

“This isn’t really a book about people in small boats hijacking ships, that is just what people read in the newspapers,” Mr Palmer said. “International criminality and the way in which the governments administer people in failed and near-failed states, how they operate; that’s what I find very interesting. Piracy is ultimately an expression of international criminal behaviour and not merely in Somalia.

“Underneath it all is a complex interaction of systems and networks that I’ve tried to get to grips with. The problem is international criminal networks are large and extraordinarily powerful.

“It will be unlikely we can eradicate them but we need to understand their operations, how they function and work out systems that will at least reduce their influence.”

The book also mentions the suffering of sailors on a vessel held longest by pirates, MV Iceberg, which was bound for Jebel Ali but hijacked in March 2010, and the MV Albedo, which was hijacked in the Gulf of Aden in November 2010 after leaving Jebel Ali Port.

“UAE shipping unfortunately has suffered along with the shipping of many other countries. It has been extremely difficult for the crew as so many suffered at the hands of the Somali pirates,” he said.

Mr Palmer is the chief executive of Idarat Maritime Ltd, a consultancy that provides solutions to shipping lines, operators of oil rigs and installations, to safeguard assets. He lives and works in Dubai and London and conducted much of his research in the UK where he met Somali and other politicians.

Advising continued vigilance, Mr Palmer believes the world will continue to face challenges posed by piracy. No amount of high-tech armaments can banish piracy, he said.

“I think we are, unfortunately, going to see a general increase … the South China Sea could well see a rise in piracy again. Historically this was the worst pirate centre and it still happens today that tugs are taken and crews killed.”

Earlier this year, merchant ship-owners were warned against complacency in believing Somali pirates had been defeated, amid growing attacks and skirmishes at sea.

The most recent incident occurred in August, when two skiffs approached a tanker headed for Fujairah. The attempted attack in the Gulf of Aden was foiled by the ship’s armed guards. It was one of several pirate sightings this year in the Arabian Gulf region.

“It would require only one successful attack to encourage others to revert to this activity,” said P Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau.

“The threat from Somali piracy has not gone away. There are reports received by the IMB which indicate that pirates are still operating, although in smaller numbers. It is therefore important that all vessels continue to remain vigilant.”