x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

In it purely for the money, pirates are professionals

Somali pirates who have been seizing ships and collecting millions in ransom dollars are highly organised criminal gangs with no apparent connection to any international terrorist group, a researcher says.

RIYADH // Somali pirates who have been seizing ships and collecting millions in ransom dollars are highly organised criminal gangs with no apparent connection to any international terrorist group, a researcher at the Gulf Research Center (GRC) in Dubai says. Mustafa Alani, director of the Centre for Counterterrorism at GRC, said his organisation had found no evidence of any terrorist group helping the pirates.

The centre also had found no instance of pirates deliberately killing their hostages, Mr Alani said. The "one or two" deaths known about were "accidental". In a telephone interview, Mr Alani said that since the start of this year, the centre had been collecting information on the piracy that has plagued the vital sea lanes through which much of the world's crude oil is carried. The centre plans to issue a report on the subject within weeks.

He called the pirates "organised criminal groups with political protection", noting that officials in the breakaway part of northern Somalia called Puntland were "taxing" the high seas bandits in return for giving them a safe haven. Puntland authorities deny involvement with the pirates, Mr Alani said. The pirates "are not Islamists", he said. On the contrary, when Somalia was controlled by Islamists, including "pro-al Qa'eda groups", they had moved to prevent piracy.

Mr Alani said about 100 pirates were operating in the crucial oil shipping area in 2005. So far this year, his researchers had counted "an estimated 1,000 at least". At the start, the pirates chased fishing boats and dhows. But Saturday's seizure of the Sirius Star, a supertanker belonging to the state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco, demonstrates how far they have come. Also, at first, their ransom demands were in the "hundreds of thousands, and now they're talking five to six million", Mr Alani said. "They are making a good income."

He said the pirates "reinvest part of the money in new equipment". Right now, "they have the latest in satellite communications, they have the fastest speedboats, and they even have mother-ships? for launching the speedboats". They board ships with satellite phones and laptops, which they use for communications, Mr Alani said. The pirates also have "people on the ground to relay messages". The ransoms, which have come from families, insurance companies and governments, are delivered either in cash - in one case it was delivered in a bag "in an African country" - or electronically, to front companies which then disappear.

"They have become real artists and professionals in their job," Mr Alani said. "They are highly organised? highly professional." Kidnapped crew members are usually well looked after, especially if they are considered likely to attract high ransoms. In such cases, they are moved off the ships and hidden on land. But in most cases, crews have been kept on board the ships. Generally, he said, the pirates "cared for the well-being of the hostages because they think the hostages are a great asset for them".

Asked how they could board such a huge ship as the Sirius Star, Mr Alani said the gangs, often armed with heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, generally gained access "from all sides, not just one side. If a ship is not armed, it will not be able to fend them off." They tend to catch a ship when for some reason it has to slow down, he said. A spokesman for Saudi Aramco referred a reporter to the website of Vela International in Dubai, a wholly owned shipping subsidiary. Reached by phone, a Vela spokesman read out the press release on the company's website, but declined to elaborate.

cmurphy@thenational.ae