Intelligence in the Fight Against Piracy

With one of Africa’s longest coastlines stretching for 3300 kilometres, Somalia enjoys a strategic location in the Horn of Africa. Vital world trade flows around this failed state, torn from within by belligerent clans, warlords and Islamist jihadists. Despite this strategic location, Somalia is a fast changing entity whose unfolding events upset the international community. Getting reliable intelligence is difficult, but it is a crucial component to understanding Somalia’s security issues.

Following developments in Somalia is not an easy task. The internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has control of certain central areas and, as the Ethiopian forces started withdrawing in late 2008, the opposition fought to fill the vacuum, turning the country into a patchwork of conflicting interests. To date, it appears that while piracy syndicates freely roam the central east coast of Somalia, the Al Shabaab group has gained important footholds, but are being challenged by a reinvigorated TFG in a newly formed coalition with parts of the former Islamic Courts in the southern areas of Somalia. At the same time the de facto state of Somaliland enjoys relative peace and stability, while the semi-autonomous Puntland lingers in between.

This centrifugal chaos underscores the need for effective intelligence gathering within Somalia for those who are affected or would want to interact with the country from the outside. It is commonly said that truth is the first victim in war, but after almost 20 years of civil strife, this is a reality in the country. Consequently, the bulk of open source intelligence (OSINT) coming out of Somalia is compromised by misinformation and biased views pending on clan affiliation; therefore, the need to access the grey area intelligence as well as human intelligence (HUMINT) becomes all the more vital.

Piracy in Somalia

Maritime security in waters surrounding Somalia is fully correlated with the internal situation. With Risk Intelligence’s focus being primarily on maritime security, our experts have been examining Somalia’s security issues for a number of years and has closely followed the major developments both on dry land and at sea. Besides the economic decline and the political chaos, the lack of effective control over the coast is the primary reason for the surge in piracy. From the days of the illegal fishing campaigns (2000-2004), to the attack on the Sea Bourne Spirit (2005), to the formation of the Union of Islamic Courts and failure of the Transitional Federal Government (2006-2007), to today’s piracy crisis, the developments have been connected to dynamics inside the country.

In general, there is no such thing as stability and peace in Somalia. Today on the heels of a withdrawing Ethiopian army, the TFG was at first severely weakened and exposed to the insurgency, but new alliances has improved its position again. Lasting coalitions in Somalia are difficult to establish given that the country is split consistently on clan lines. In addition to a severe history of corruption, Somalia also faces a radical Islamic insurgency that controls much of the south.

Piracy syndicates in Somalia operate purely for financial gain by conducting hijackings and, thereafter, engaging in ransom processes. Although some of the syndicates also undertake other illegal activities such as smuggling, the bulk of the syndicates are purely focused on piracy as a tactic. In fact, piracy proved to be so successful that is has become one of the main revenue sources in the Northern autonomous area Puntland and its communities on the coast and inshore are profiting from the business it generates. The primary industry has traditionally been exporting goats, which is still believed to be ahead of the income created by the highly lucrative hijackings.

Piracy tactics

Somali hijackings have become a truly unique criminal tactic. In late 2008 Risk Intelligence produced the comprehensive Somalia Hijacking Report, a complete analysis of the different stages of a hijacking, using specific case studies and first hand interviews with shipowners and other stakeholders. The report sheds light on this specific modus operandi. When boarding vessels, pirates prefer to overwhelm and intimidate the crew. During the attack phase, they tend to be violent and aggressive in order to suppress the crew and exhibit dominance over the hostages – yet the actual number of injuries and casualties has been rather low. As time passes, however, the relationship sometimes becomes more amicable and the crew is treated relatively well. At times the pirates have even played monopoly with their hostages, as during the Danica White hijacking. Despite the initial violent approach, the pirates are well aware that the crew in general is their main asset, compared to vessel and cargo, and must be well cared for in order to be ransomed accordingly.

The costs of piracy are quite high. The total direct cost of a hijacking can range from USD $4-7 million including the costs of negotiations, media experts, insurance, legal counsel, consultants and more. On top of this, there are also indirect specific costs to be added, such as the loss of revenue during captivity, crew retention and replacements, and potential loss of reputation. The costs, however, are not only incurred should a vessel be hijacked, but the overall risks have led to increased security measures, insurance premiums, and possible convoys, which have resulted in a significant increase in security-related overhead costs for shipowners. Overall, costs involving the transit of the Gulf of Aden have risen dramatically and the actual financial loss of a hijacked vessel can be quite grievous for a ship owners.


With respect to Somalia, little emphasis can be put on Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) given that local newsprint is either heavily censored or biased. When pertaining to piracy, news reports are often repetitive or rumours, and some frequently quoted organisations have a history of inaccurate information, subject to the broken telephone syndrome. As this happens, information becomes increasingly inaccurate as it moves up the OSINT channels. This is exacerbated by the fact that there are so few “expert” sources for public comment and the media is eager to publish any information without proper verification. Professor Fred Halliday has defined the term “Corkscrew journalism” related to that form of self-referring journalism in which unsubstantiated claims are repeated without local sources, to the point that, in the end, these claims turn into truths. Recent examples are the reports that indicates a connection between the radical Al Shabaab group and piracy. These claim were based on unsupported news article based on loose statements from Kenyan sources.


The use of satellite imagery (IMINT)  has become increasingly helpful with respect to maritime security issues around the Horn of Africa. Satellite imagery can pinpoint and identify hijacked vessels off the coast.In addition, the use of other forms of imagery such as photographs has become increasingly important in the past four years. For example prior to 2005, there was little photographic evidence of Somali piracy incidents and even less of the syndicates themselves. Analyzing photographs deriving both from OSINT and confidential sources can have a twofold purpose of both providing and verifying small details that contribute to the overall assessment. Types of weapons, crew numbers, characteristics of the attack boats, and even familiar faces can be extracted from photographs.


Some believe that the Somali Diaspora can be a credible source of intelligence with respect to piracy and other security issues in Somalia. After all, it has been confirmed that piracy syndicates are cooperating with Somalis abroad. For example, when the Danish crew of the Danica White was hijacked in June 2007, it was believed that members within the Somali Diasporas had leaked information back to Somalia on the reaction of the local population and on the level of media coverage. However, Risk Intelligence is very cautious with respect to using Somali immigrants as intelligence sources since migrant circuits tend to suffer from the same inaccuracies as the media or are biased due to clan-relationships. Incoming intelligence should therefore be screened, retaining cleared sources such as existing HUMINT sources on the ground in Somalia rather than exogenous ones.

The outlook for Somalia

Despite the morbid state of affairs currently  enmeshing Somalia, the election of the new Presidents in Puntland and in Somalia may help develop the necessary stability on land. President Farole of Puntland has expressed his desire to combat piracy and, since his election victory, he has overseen two successful indigenous counter-piracy operations, in which Puntland had claimed to have arrested more than 60 pirates. His greatest challenge will be providing those engaged in piracy with an alternate source of income and developing the economy to create long-term stability. Within Somali-proper, the election of President Sharif Ahmed, leader of the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS-Djibouti wing), there may be hopes of negotiating with the radical Al Shabaab militia. The coalition between the ARS-D and the TFG will be tested within the upcoming months, as Sharif Ahmed must first secure a ceasefire between Al Shabaab and the administrative government.

At sea, efforts to contain piracy are well underway. They are, however, only suppressing the problem and not solving it. International coalition efforts first began with Coalition Task Force 150’s counter terrorism patrols doubling as an anti-piracy operation plus some ad hoc national operations. A new task force has been formed (Task Force 151), to patrol the Gulf of Aden and providing escorts for merchant shipping. In addition the EU operation ATALANTA is providing security in the Gulf of Aden and escorting World Food Programme vessels, while NATO has had one of its standing naval groups in the area in late 2008 and will deploy the SNMG1 again during 2009. The naval coalition has deterred pirate attacks particularly with their rapid aerial support in response to distress calls. In March 2009, there were only four confirmed hijacking while Risk Intelligence’s maritime security risk monitoring system, MaRisk has recorded 23 failed attacks, and 9 suspicious activities, and anti-piracy operations.

Despite these encouraging numbers, the Gulf of Aden is a very large body of water and patrols do not cover the Indian Ocean where the super tanker Sirius Star was attacked 430 miles from the mainland. Furthermore, the weather conditions have affected the effectiveness of the pirates. Coalition efforts are important but they should only be viewed as a temporary solution while the internal situation in Somalia improves.

The private sector is also considerably involved. Numerous private security and consulting companies are engaged in improving security with both armed and non-lethal guarding, while private intelligence companies are also cooperating with coalition efforts.

Somalia is a unique example given its status as a failed state and therefore requires a different approach for intelligence gathering. Bearing in mind the special conditions of this environment and an established practice, the private sectorcan be a key player when trying to deal with the increasing defiance of piracy.

Hans Tino Hansen Managing Director & CEO and Karsten von Hoesslin, Senior Analyst, Risk Intelligence.