Somali Pirates Go High Tech

Somali pirates are turning to increasingly sophisticated methods such as satellite phones, custom-made GPS systems, and even monitoring the Internet to hunt down targets.

Somali pirates aren't content just floating around in their fishing boats, looking for victims. These days, pirates off the Horn of Africa are turning to a sophisticated mix of weaponry, jerry-rigged GPS devices, and ingenious hacks of shipping-industry databases to hunt down prey. The resulting technology isn't just fascinating--it also has a real impact on foreign militaries who are fighting piracy.

In addition to random attacks on cargo and passenger ships, Somali pirates are increasingly relying on the use of GPS systems, satellite phones, and open-source intelligence such as shipping industry blogs in order to figure out the location of ships. Much of the technological infrastructure used by the pirates is allegedly located in the Somalian city of Eyl, which has been described as the “piracy capital of the world.”

In an interview with Abdullahi Jamaa of Egyptian web publication onislam.net, Andrew Mwangura of the East African Seafarers Assistance Program detailed the methods used by the pirates:

The most important thing for Somali pirates is getting relevant information regarding merchant vessels that they wish to hijack. But this does not come easily without the use of certain technologies […] What they must know includes information on the value of vessels, the value of the goods and the number of crew members […] They use navigational technologies in their daily operation. This involves a combination of technologies, most important[ly] they use satellite cell phones for long range communications.

Satellite phones are easily attainable in the chaos of Mogadishu; foreign importers earn a hefty premium bringing the expensive phones into the beleaguered country. However, the most interesting weapon in the Somalian arsenal to western observers is the use of pirate-operated radar to locate targets at sea. Pirate “mother ships” with radar and advanced weapons capabilities have strayed far beyond the Horn of Africa to locales as far-flung as Madagascar, India, and the Persian Gulf.

According to the Christian Science Monitor's Ben Arnoldy, the “mother ships” use surprisingly modern tech, including radar and caches of equipment for breaking into fortified cargo ships.

Jamaa also notes that the pirates are turning to the use of open-source intelligence:

They have translators who interpret the bulk of information that filters in through the automatic tracking devices. These men, though not involved in the actual hijacking, decipher and break down information for the team. The ‘foot soldiers’ are given instructions that most often turn out to be successful. The men who call themselves Somali Coast Guards also invest time on the World Wide Web tracking and gathering vital information. For example, the pirate financiers visit the Maritime Bureau Website to check what strategies have been put in place to curtail their activities. They, in turn, feed the gang.

According to the European Union, a sharp uprise in Somali pirate attacks is expected in 2011, including the use of machine guns as an everyday weapon. Western governments are, in turn, stepping up their game--Britain is taking steps to provide merchant ships with weapons, which would be the first time since World War II that this has happened.

[Image: Flickr user Rubygoes]

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here.

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