The Pirate-Kenya Connection

December 22, 2008

mombasa-dec-15-2008.JPG

Mombasa, southern Kenya’s sweltering port town is,
in many ways, the center of gravity of the piracy war. While pirates
themselves are based mostly in northern Somalia, hundreds of miles from
here, the repercussions of piracy — and many of the higher-order
command functions on both sides — play out in Mombasa.

Many of the ships most threatened by pirates —
fishing boats and coastal freighters — are home-ported in Mombasa. And
as this is the major port in East Africa, many large vessels coming
from or to Europe via the Suez Canal, braving pirate waters en route,
call here. When a ship is released from pirates’ captivity after ransom
is paid, it comes here first. In Mombasa is extensive infrastructure
(ship’s agents, mariners’ unions, courts) to handle the aftermath of an
act of piracy.

Equally, many of the most important leaders on
both sides of the piracy fight, plus their intelligence networks, are
anchored here. Mombasa ship’s agents, unions reps and shipping
executives, representing tens of thousands of maritime professionals
and billions of dollars in trade, have been powerful voices advocating
for international intervention to thwart piracy.

Take Karim Kudrati, owner of Motaku Shipping, with
four freighters. He was a leading proponent of bringing maritime patrol
aircraft into the piracy fight. “Unfortunately, the coast is so huge
that we don’t have a [military] vessel every time [we need one],” he
told me last week. More convoys — that is, warships gathering up large
groups of commercial vessels for mutual protection — “is possible,” he
said, but barring that, he asked for patrol planes. “I have been
recommending … surveillance aircraft,” he said, to extend warships’
eyes and decrease their response time. Sure enough, the E.U. has
included a number of patrol planes in its force package as it beings
replacing NATO on the piracy front lines.

The bad guys have strong Mombasa ties, too. Kenya
has a fast-growing Somali population, fed by legal and illegal
immigration. Indeed, some of my Somali journalist friends who have fled
their own country are now in hiding in Kenya. While pirate
foot-soldiers all operate out of Somalia proper, many of their bosses
and financiers are living in Mombasa, according to some of my Kenyan
sources.

It makes sense, considering that pirates have
spies working for Kenyan maritime offices. Any ship departing Mombasa
harbor must file paperwork stating its cargo and destination. According
to my sources here, pirate spies read the forms and forward the details
to pirate bands, so they know which ships to target. I was told of one
Western couple, laying over in Mombasa while on a pleasure cruise
around the world, that sensed they might be targeted, so actually
filled out their departure forms with misleading information. That
caused all sorts of problems at their actual destination, but it was
better than being nabbed by pirates.

What Kenyan authorities is doing about this is
hard to say. The pirate networks lie in shadows. Everyone knows about
them but nobody can really prove anything. And with so many people,
Kenyans and Somalis alike, profiting big from sea crime, there’s strong
incentive for those supporting piracy to keep right on doing it.

Read my piracy series here.

(Photo: me)