Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The intelligence-gathering aspect of piracy

There have been some media musings about Somali pirate gangs using operatives in London, UK, to augment their sea-going operations. The Guardian entitles yesterday's article "This is London - the capital of Somali pirates' secret intelligence operation", while The Telegraph's piece says that "Somali pirates helped by intelligence gathered in London".

Sounds pretty scary, right?, this the idea that there are individuals aiding and abetting pirates from the comfort of the British capital. But this is old news to those of us who watch the shipping industry. Indeed, pirates are among the last to enter the cloaked world of maritime espionage.

For thousands of years, the shipping industry has been rife with spies, informants and keen observers intent on gleaning whatever information comes from the intended itineraries of vessels on the seas and oceans. Make no mistake, it is one of the most cutthroat businesses around, where any advantage is used against competitors. And London is one of the epicenters of global maritime commerce, so it's no surprise that Somali pirates would access the font of available knowledge there.

Yet London is but one of many places in which informants operate for pirate gangs. From Kenya, Tanzania and Egypt to the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia, there are individuals in ports who keep an eye on the movement of vessels and report back to leaders in Somalia. Anyone poking around into piracy in, say, Mombasa or Singapore, will be noted. (Based on personal experiences, it's a big issue.) Every port in the world is porous in terms of intelligence, which is one of the problems we're facing dealing with maritime crime.

But this also is a reflection of the dissipated nature of modern day piracy, in which the operations of gangs are spread across various nations. We're no longer talking of a group of guys all huddled together in a compound beside the Indian Ocean who could be taken out by commando strike. They have evolved into sophisticated entities with elements in a number of locations. There is likely someone, somewhere, being paid by a pirate gang in Somalia who has read this, just as he has read hundreds of other online posts.

We're dealing with an asymmetrical form of warfare here, against an enemy that has learned from its predecessors' mistakes. Just like pirates in Southeast Asia, Somali brigands have evolved far beyond some uncouth thugs and need to be combated with a greater degree of efficiency. And one way to do that is to locate, identify and undermine the support structures that allow pirates to stage their attacks.

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