Are the pirates getting tips?

The United States is scrambling this morning to save a hostaged captain from Somali pirates — calling in back up that includes FBI hostage negotiators, more warships, and just about every high-profile military and diplomatic figure who will reassure the American press. The drama is being scrupulously reported elsewhere (most recent update: the pirates want ...

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
586912_090410_navyship5.jpg
586912_090410_navyship5.jpg
090405-N-6814F-102 GULF OF ADEN (April 5, 2009) The amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4) receives a vertical replenishment from the Military Sealift Command fleet replenishment oiler USNS Walter S. Diehl (T-AO 193) in the Gulf of Aden. Boxer is deployed as the flagship for Combined Task Force (CTF) 151, a multinational task force conducting counter-piracy operations to detect and deter piracy in and around the Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and Red Sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Brian K. Fromal/Released)

The United States is scrambling this morning to save a hostaged captain from Somali pirates -- calling in back up that includes FBI hostage negotiators, more warships, and just about every high-profile military and diplomatic figure who will reassure the American press. The drama is being scrupulously reported elsewhere (most recent update: the pirates want booty), so I'll save you the repetition.

I'm interested in a different question: Just how exactly have pirates managed to out-scramble the world's top navy? If neither the U.S. Navy, nor the EU, NATO, Chinese, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, and Indian vessels were able to spot this pirate attacker coming on the vast seas... how do the Somali pirates find the ships they hijack? In theory, the sea is equally vast and equally sparsely populated on both sides of the looking glass.

The United States is scrambling this morning to save a hostaged captain from Somali pirates — calling in back up that includes FBI hostage negotiators, more warships, and just about every high-profile military and diplomatic figure who will reassure the American press. The drama is being scrupulously reported elsewhere (most recent update: the pirates want booty), so I’ll save you the repetition.

I’m interested in a different question: Just how exactly have pirates managed to out-scramble the world’s top navy? If neither the U.S. Navy, nor the EU, NATO, Chinese, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, and Indian vessels were able to spot this pirate attacker coming on the vast seas… how do the Somali pirates find the ships they hijack? In theory, the sea is equally vast and equally sparsely populated on both sides of the looking glass.

One interesting theory comes from NightWatch

Several commentators highlighted the changed tactics by which some Somali pirate groups manage to seize ships far from the coast. What they do not provide is the hypothesis that this proves the existence of a well organized criminal syndicate with modern communications that link pirates to agents in port authorities from Kenya to the Suez Canal. The business is too big and rich to fail simply because modern frigates are present.  

It makes good sense. Why? Pirates have money and they can pay for tips. Port authorities, particularly in Kenya, are likely paid irregularly and poorly (particularly in comparison to pirate rates). The pirates have also shown that they are willing and able to infiltrate government authorities — as they often do in their home in Puntland, Somalia.

No good news there. Cracking down on internal corruption among port authorities would be about as easy as, say, stopping a piracy epidemic in the Gulf of Aden. 

Photo: U.S. Navy

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

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