Follow the Khat: Tracking Piracy’s Financial Flows

It is high season for reports and studies relating to piracy. The latest World Bank report, Pirate Trails, which follows the recent IMB annual report on the number of piracy incidents as well as the UNSG situation report on piracy in Somalia, is dedicated to the largely unchartered topic of the illicit financial flows of Somali piracy. So far, apart for the disappointing report of the UK sponsored International Piracy Ransom Task Force, little public attention has been paid to tracking and disrupting the financial flows generated by piracy through the payment of ransoms for ships, crew and their cargos. Pirates, defined in the report as hostis humani generi (but wrongly attributing this definition to Cicero) have been capable of modernizing their actives and developing specific business models that adapt to the situation in which they operate. In Somalia, alongside pirates who attack and board ships crossing the Gulf of Aden, a sophisticated network of investors, local and foreign financiers and shareholders, but also negotiators, interpreters, guards, cooks and drivers, flourished and profited from piracy.

The report estimates that US$339 million to US$413 million was claimed in ransoms between April 2005 and December 2012 for pirate acts off the Horn of Africa. With low level pirates typically netting a pre-agreed fee between US$30,000 and US$75,000 (about 0.01–0.025 percent of an average ransom payment), the pirate financiers who invested in the piracy operations receive the bulk of the ransom, estimated at 30–75 percent of the total ransom.

Ransom payments can be invested locally, generally by low level pirates but increasingly also by financers, or moved by financial transfer, particularly to Djibouti, Kenya, and the United Arab Emirates. Most of the money is moved by cross-border cash smuggling, made easy by the porosity of the borders in the region and trade-based money laundering. Money transfer services are also exploited to move money outside Somalia.

Depending on the profit made, ransom money may be used to fuel other illicit activities in the region. Some pirate financiers are engaging in human trafficking, including migrant smuggling, and investing in militias and military capacities in Somalia. To launder their proceeds, pirate financiers can also buy into legitimate business interests, particularly the real estate market. Allegations that ransoms payments fueled the real estate prices in the region are not new, although any definitive evidence has yet to be shown. Other legitimate businesses in trade (for example, trade in petroleum), transportation, and the services industry (for example, restaurants, hotels, shops), also offer viable opportunities for the pirates to invest the proceeds from piracy, depending on the profit originally made.

Khat (also commonly referenced to as qat, qaad, gat, jaad, tchat, and miraa) is a small leafy plant. Among communities in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, the chewing of khat is a social custom dating back many thousands of years.

Khat (also commonly referenced to as qat, qaad, gat, jaad, tchat, and miraa) is a small leafy plant. Among communities in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, the chewing of khat is a social custom dating back many thousands of years.

Interestingly, the report sheds light of the role played by the trade of Khat, a mild stimulant popular in Somalia and very popular among pirates, in the financial flows generated by piracy. Khat is provided on credit to low level pirates throughout highjack operations. Its use is recorded. When ransoms are finally paid, the debt accumulated by the pirates during the captivity period is paid back by subtracting it from their share of the profit. In light of the potential profit to be generated, pirates are ready to pay their khat’s provisions at a price well above the market price. There is more. Given the lucrative nature of the trade, which predominantly cash-based, the traditional culture of khat chewing in Somalia, and Somalis’ control over the distribution network, pirates are also investing their profit and increasingly buying into this multi-million dollar business. Khat trade with northern Kenya, in particular, is largely unregulated and is becoming fertile ground for the pirates’ business interests in this sector. An estimate of nine tons of khat is flown daily from Kenya to Mogadishu. The report recommends the regulation of the khat trade as one of the means to disrupt piracy financial flows in the region. Considering the pirates involvement in the  growth, distribution and consumption of khat, however, the khat trade may already be an effective indicator of the pirates financial and laundering activities. Monitoring this business can therefore add to the efforts to track the pirates network upwards to their financiers within and outside Somalia.

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2 Responses to Follow the Khat: Tracking Piracy’s Financial Flows

  1. David Rider says:

    Re your mention of the IMB, I have just asked Cyrus Mody of the IMB about their incident reports for West Africa. According to their website:

    Nigeria related incidents 2013: 30 reported incidents including two hijacking.

    According to my data, there have been more than 80 incidents of piracy in the region and in excess of 10 hijackings. The disparity is because the IMB do not log incidents not reported directly to them: “If the incident is not reported to us by the Master or the owners we cannot add it to our statistics even if it is in open source.”

    Therefore, it is virtually impossible to get a true indication of piracy without using multiple agencies and private intelligence sources.

  2. David Rider says:

    I should add that their official report lists ‘more than 40 incidents’ and seven vessels hijacked, still well below the independent figures I have.

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