Crime waves – the Somali pirates

Published in Esquire Magazine on 1 October 2007

There is nothing romantic about modern, seafaring piracy. Heavily armed and ruthless, today’s ocean-going bandits terrorise cargo ships, luxury yachts and even passenger liners. Audrey Gillan writes about Somali pirates

All was calm aboard the Kaz II as it idled in neutral, 80 nautical miles off the Queensland coast. In the galley, three places were set neatly for dinner; a laptop computer was sleeping and a newspaper was spread out on the table. Laundry was pegged out on deck and a fishing line hung limply from the catamaran’s stern. There was no sign of a hurried exit but there was no trace of the skipper or two-man crew from Perth, Western Australia, either.

Five months on, the fate of those aboard “the ghost yacht”, as the media christened it, remains a mystery. Theories range from their being swept overboard by a freak wave to the absurd (that they were killed by a giant squid). Others speculate that they were involved in a drug-trafficking deal that went badly wrong.

Arguably the most disturbing possibility is that they were kidnapped by pirates. Although otherwise untouched, the abandoned Kaz II’s headsail had been shredded, maybe as a result of a warning shot being fired over the catamaran’s bow — a favourite tactic of buccaneers.

Hope Himing, the niece of the craft’s skipper, Derek Batten, is still weighing up all the possibilities. She is convinced that her uncle was not involved in illegal activity, but has not ruled out the idea that he and his two neighbours, brothers Jim and Peter Tunstead, were taken.

The police may have good reasons for discounting piracy (after all, the trio’s phones and wallets were still on the table), yet there are pointers that suggest another boat may have been present. “There were fenders out,” says Himing, “which suggests that another vessel came and the Kaz II was boarded. There are so many contradictions in what we can piece together, but I truly think that there are suspicious circumstances.”

This particular puzzle may never be solved but what is clear is that piracy is on the rise. Reported attacks worldwide increased by 168 per cent from 1993 to 2005. Between April and June this year, 85 assaults were reported. And over the first half of 2007, in just the waters around Nigeria, Thailand and Somalia, 193 people were taken hostage, 20 assaulted, 19 injured and three killed. Indeed, Lloyd’s List, the shipping bible, has already blacklisted the Somali coast for insurance purposes, placing it on an equal footing with Iraq.

Today’s corsairs do not adhere to a quaint pirate “code”. They are ruthless, often armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and AK-47s, and use a network of intelligence gatherers, GPS navigation systems and satellite communications to target their prey.

A professional yachtsman for 30 years, Gunnar “Gurra” Krantz is a veteran of round-the-world yacht races and the America’s Cup. In 1981, he recalls, he was at the helm of Swedish-owned Midnight Sun, which was running between the Mediterranean and Florida. To save time he chose a route near Cuba, shrugging off warnings and advice to equip with arms — a decision he now admits was naïve.

One morning Krantz spotted an old steel fishing boat, which he describes as looking “like the African Queen”. Through his binoculars he could make out five men with rifles. With no wind to speak of, escape was out of the question; on the spur of the moment, they resolved to fight.

“There were six of us and most went below to make Molotov cocktails out of WD-40, rags and wine bottles,” he says. “We were shocked how quickly we were ready to defend ourselves to the point that we could have killed another human being.”

A cat-and-mouse race ensued with the pirates for more than an hour — Krantz recalls how one man wielded a hook and line “like you see in Errol Flynn movies”
— before a nearby cargo vessel responded to their Mayday. The rescue crew was, however, scathing. “They shouted, ‘You idiots. How could you come here without weapons?’ Thankfully they came to help and the pirates turned away, waving and smiling, as if to say, ‘See you next time’.”

The FBI later informed Krantz that 168 boats had disappeared in the area in the previous 10 years. These days he always takes a rifle on his voyages. As he says: “These people have a totally different approach to life and the value of life.”

The international maritime bureau’s piracy reporting centre is in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The UK branch resides in slightly more sombre surroundings — Maritime House, an ugly high-rise in Barking. From its top floor I can make out the Thames. Inside, however, the attention of the organisation’s director, Captain Pottengal Mukundan, is focused on waters far away. Poring over the latest statistics he pauses and shakes his head. “Criminals always exploit a weak law enforcement regime,” he says with resignation. “Piracy will reduce only when there is a robust law enforcement response. This is as true today as it was centuries ago.”

A recent report by the Parliamentary Select Committee on Transport railed against the increasing incidence of maritime kidnapping, theft, rape and murder. Its observation that “there
is nothing remotely ‘romantic’ about the perpetrators of these appalling crimes or their detestable activity” reiterated a remark made by Lord Burghley, principal adviser to Elizabeth I nearly 450 years ago. “The exercise of pyrecy,” he declared, “is detestable, and cannot last.”

Burghley’s resolution was to lay the foundations of Britain’s naval supremacy, but whether the present Government
is doing anything more than registering its indignation is a moot point.

In July, the heads of the International Maritime Organisation and the World Food Programme called upon the United Nations Security Council to co-ordinate international action against pirate attacks. Mukundan believes that many leaders still fail to grasp the impact of piracy, which costs an estimated £8bn a year.

“Many countries view piracy as a crime against a foreign seaman, on board a foreign ship, which just happens to be passing through national waters. Piracy affects all those connected to the sea, including merchant marine sailors, yachtsmen and fishermen. And it does not attract adequate resources from law enforcement agencies.”

Around 95 per cent of the world’s cargo travels by sea, yet the maritime environment is the least policed in the world. Andrew Linington, spokesman for the seafarers’ union, Nautilus UK, believes a major disaster is imminent.

“We have had fully laden oil tankers going down the Malacca Straits [the main shipping passageway between the Indian and Pacific Oceans] with no one at the controls because they are being attacked by pirates. If this happened to aircraft there would be absolute outrage. If the phenomenon carries on unchecked, there’s a sickening inevitability of an incident involving a massive environmental disaster or a massive loss of life.”

An attack on a luxury liner just off the Horn of Africa two years ago showed how real the threat is to British holidaymakers. One of the world’s most dangerous areas, it’s here that crucial shipping lanes pass through Somali waters, and skippers of ships carrying cargo from the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea have a tough decision to make — whether or not they’re prepared to run the gauntlet of “Pirate Alley”.

The cruise ship Seabourn Spirit was on its way to the Seychelles when two boats were spotted racing towards it through the early-morning gloom. Michael Groves, the ship’s security officer, had barely emerged on deck before he came under fire. “A rocket grenade blew me off my feet,” he later reported. “The next thing I remember is rolling around and looking for shrapnel.”

Groves’ subsequent reaction bore testament to both his courage and his training. Braving automatic gunfire, the former police sergeant retaliated, first with a high-pressure hose, then a sonic boom gun: a weapon developed by the United States in the wake of the 2000 al-Qaeda attack on the USS Cole.

After half an hour, the pirates retreated but not before injuring both Groves and the ship’s master-at-arms (both received medals for gallantry) and hitting the ship’s side with three rocket-propelled grenades, one of which narrowly missed the passenger cabins.

Just three months ago, President George W Bush’s office issued a statement saying that the United States would “engage states and international and regional organisations to develop greater resources, capacity and authorities to repress piracy and maximise inclusion of coalition assets in piracy repression operations”.

This was to include diplomatic, military, intelligence, economic, law enforcement and judicial actions, and the purpose was to send out an important deterrent message.

The rhetoric was consistent from the commander of the world’s top police force but, in practice, maritime law frustrates efforts to expunge piracy. In the same month as the edict, pirates took the Danish bulk carrier Danica White. The USS Carter Hall moved to the rescue but could not follow them into Somali territorial waters.

Even in situations when pirates are apprehended, countries are often reluctant to prosecute them. “The navies can come to your assistance, but at the end of the day they are not law enforcement,” explains Mukundan. “What do you do with the people that you catch? Unless the flag state of the target vessel exercises jurisdiction, then it becomes a problem.”

In January 2006, the USS Winston Churchill tracked a pirate ship after an attack. It discovered that it was a hijacked Indian vessel whose crew was being forced to serve the pirates.

“The men had been missing for months,” says Mukundan. “Eventually Kenya agreed to take action and the pirates were jailed for seven years, but this is very rare.”

Piracy is a lucrative business and its perpetrators know that their victims will rarely have the means or the willpower to defend themselves. Aggressors frequently flout laws and outmanoeuvre those that attempt to enforce them.

Occasionally, though, they are unfortunate enough to encounter someone such as Rodney J Nowlin. In 2005, the retired US Navy officer, his wife Becky and niece Jamee were sailing towards Israel aboard their yacht, Mahdi, when they entered the Gulf of Aden. Beside them sailed the Gandalf, captained by Jay Barry, a former Porsche mechanic, and his partner Carol Martini, a doctor.

The two crews were hoping for safety in numbers — they knew they were taking a big risk passing through Pirate Alley, 30 miles off the coast of Yemen. On the morning of 8 March, the holidaymakers were alerted to potential danger when a couple of longboats — clearly not out fishing — cruised by, sizing up the yachts.

Later that afternoon, two larger 30ft launches approached at speed from the west, out of the glare of the setting sun. As the yachts drew together defensively, both came under a hail of automatic gunfire.

Standing on top of the seating area inside the Mahdi’s cabin, where he had dashed for protection, Nowlin began peppering the nearest pirate boat with buckshot from his 12-gauge shotgun. “After firing three shots at the first boat, its engine started to smoke, so I swung around to shoot at the boat ahead,”
says Nowlin in his report of the incident.

Almost immediately he saw the Gandalf cripple the other pirate vessel, ramming through its fibreglass hull.

Veering away from the Mahdi, the smoking boat was now preparing to board the Gandalf. Two pirates stood up, preparing to clamber onto the deck. “That was a serious and probably fatal error on their part,” Nowlin continued. “I shot both of them. That boat then veered away and I shot the driver.”

Increasingly, a weapon is as essential a part of a yachtsman’s kit as a compass. And, for the proud owners of superyachts, a handful of ex-SAS soldiers are as crucial as a Michelin-starred chef.

“There are upwards of a thousand really big yachts, with wealthy owners wanting to get out of the Med and the Caribbean,” says John Twist of maritime security company Yacht-Secure, which sometimes arranges the employment of armed guards. “Pirates have not really hit one of them yet, but it is a massive issue. Roman Abramovich has armed security on all of his vessels, and the top 100 yachts all have former special forces servicemen on board.”

Others are more circumspect. “Nobody can pay me enough money to sit in a Third World country on a manslaughter charge,” says Rhidian Bridge, a risk management consultant working in maritime security. “The bottom line is if you kill somebody, you have to answer for it, even if it is a pirate. I think you would find it quite shocking if your hired security fired at a local fishing boat that came too close. Do you leave a bunch of dead bodies floating around at sea? People don’t think about that when they take arms on board.”

As it sits in the dry dock in Mombasa’s harbour, the MV Rozen looks like any other dilapidated cargo ship undergoing a regular refit — the bullet holes that pepper the thick metal walls of the bridge tell a different story.

As the workmen weave around us with their paintbrushes and blowtorches, Captain Priayantha Perera, dressed in blue engineer’s overalls for the refit, puts his finger through one of the ship’s many perforations. His face twinkles but his voice trembles as he tells me about the 41 terrifying days he and his 11 crewmen were held hostage.

“We had just discharged our cargo and were heading home when I was called to the bridge,” says the Sri Lankan, a seafarer for more than 30 years. “I could see two vessels travelling at high speed; the men in them were holding RPGs, AK-47s and machine guns.”

Perera sounded the emergency alarm. He knew what was coming. The year before, he had narrowly escaped a similar attack in terrible weather: “It was choppy. The pirates got into trouble. It was a great relief that we were able to outrun them.”

This time though he was not so lucky. “When the pirates got close I could see that we were surrounded,” he explains. “I had no choice but to stop. We couldn’t outrun them and I could not allow them to start firing at my crew, many of whom have very young children.”

It was then that the pirates began strafing the bridge. “I was laughing because me and the chief engineer were lying on the floor and he was saying, ‘Captain, what is happening to us?’ I was saying, ‘Shut up. If we’re going to fucking die, we’re going to fucking die.’”

As the Somali pirates threw a pipe ladder onto the deck and boarded the 1,000-tonne ship, Perera passed around his satellite phone so the crew could call their families. He called his wife and told her that he thought he was about to die. Then he faced his adversaries.

What followed was like the script of an old Hollywood movie. The pirates struck him in the belly with an AK-47, then frogmarched him to his tiny, airless cabin, where they robbed him of the few thousand dollars he kept in his safe.

This was small beer for the gunmen. Their real aim was to negotiate a $1m ransom for the crew’s release.

“I told them, ‘Go to hell, forget about it. The ship’s owners don’t have that kind of money. You can go on and kill us one by one,’” says Perera, with a shrug. Although the seaman calls his captors “animals”, on a certain level he also sympathises with them. Many of the pirates he came across were barely children, driven by poverty and the desperate chaos that is life in Somalia, a country that has had no effective government since 1991. “They have no schooling. They have no job. From a very small age, what they see is the gun — their toy is a gun. When they draw a picture, it is of a gun. At the age of five they can take an AK-47 down part by part
and reassemble it. We call them ‘skinnies’ because they are so thin.”

His expression then changes as he relives the horror of being taken hostage by pirates. “When they come and try to push you, you have to give in. If I pushed him back, my colleagues would have died because of my stupidity. This is what kept me going, I prayed night and day,” he says, slipping his thumb and his index finger over his rosary beads.

Once in control of the MV Rozen, the pirates forced the captain to take the ship further north. They headed into the lawless waters near the coastal town of Eyl, where they could not be followed. Here, among the rubble and war-ravaged buildings, where tsunami-shifted sand still makes everyday life difficult, the sea is the only source of income.

Moving up and down the coast every few days, the ship was running out of fuel and food supplies were dangerously low. “We caught some fish and all we had was that and some rice,” says Perera. “It was kingfish. I will never eat that fish again. We boiled it, we fried it, we curried it — kingfish was my favourite, but not now.”

The pirates moved back and forth between land and sea, replenishing stocks of cigarettes and khat, the natural amphetamine. Finally, they anchored near the village of Dhinowda, all the while negotiating for the release of the hostages with Karim Kudrati, the Rozen’s manager.

Kudrati knew what to expect. Three other vessels owned by his company, the Motaku Shipping Agency, have been attacked by pirates. One crew was held for 100 days before being released.

“The ransom negotiations are done in total secrecy,” he says cautiously. “No names or any receipts are given and everything is done in Somalia, with the help of local elders and contractors that we work with.”

Captain Perera and his crew were eventually released by the pirates in April after a ransom (believed to be around £50,000) was delivered. You might expect Perera to be a relieved man, but he fears that worse is to come.

“The lion’s share of the ransom money goes to local militias,” he says. “Unless they clear the area of them, they will not be able to stop these pirates.

“The ones who took us told me they were no longer interested in small ships. Their main aim is to get tankers and big container ships. They are aiming for British, American, Japanese and Korean vessels because they know that’s where the real money is.”

Local warlords funding their private armies are a large enough problem in this part of the world, but experts are growing increasingly worried that in the future piracy will be orchestrated to either finance international terrorism or be part of an act of terrorism. Captain Perera believes the situation is already critical.

“We had American intelligence guys come and talk to us,” he says. “I said, ‘If you don’t do something about Somalia very soon, the whole of Africa will be on fire. Then the whole world.’”

In the meantime, the search continues for the Kaz II’s crew. Hope Himing has yet to discover the fate that befell her uncle, Derek Batten.