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.

Piracy Best Practices Adapt to West Africa’s Setting

The surge of piracy in West Africa prompted some of the main stakeholders in the maritime industry to develop interim guidelines for the protection against piracy in the region. The guidelines, endorsed by the IMO, aim to bridge the gap between the prevailing situation in West Africa and the advice currently available in the fight against piracy. They complement one another and are to be read in conjunction with the Best Management Practices (BMP4) originally adopted to address piracy in the Gulf of Aden.

Worthy of note is that the Guidelines identify the area off the coast of Nigeria, Togo and Benin as at major risk, although pirates are rather flexible in their operation and attacks have also occurred elsewhere. Significant is the absence in the region of regular patrolling missions by international navies, a designated group transit area or a specific information and coordination centre akin to the UKMTO or MSCHOA in the Gulf of Aden. In the event of a pirate attack, the main point of reference is currently the Regional Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, run by the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency in Lagos.

With regards to the pirates’ modus operandi, their activity is normally confined to armed robbery of valuables from the ship’s safe, IT equipment and personal effects while the ship is approaching or anchored off ports; and cargo theft, mainly directed at oil and chemical tankers and involving the ship’s hijack for several days until the cargo is transferred by well-organized and coordinated cartels. Pirates appear to possess intelligence-gathering and maritime skills. While kidnapping occurred on some occasions, generally in connection with cargo theft or in areas characterized by political instability, ransom does not appear to be among the pirates’ primary objectives. Although this is a significant difference with Somali pirates, the fact that a ship’s crew is not seen as a value might in turn heighten safety risks, which is consistent with the fact that West African pirates have shown a greater level of violence during attacks. Engaging in a fight with the pirates is therefore strongly discouraged.

Finally, while it is possible to obtain authorization to employ protective services such as military or  police as armed escorts, the use of private armed guards is problematic, given the diversity of the legal, security and administrative frameworks and particularly considering that attacks are likely to take place within the territorial waters of States in the region, which often do not allow the operation of private security companies.

The DC Circuit’s Ali Decision

DC Circuit Court of Appeals

DC Circuit Court of Appeals

On June 11, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia decided the case of United States of America v. Ali Mohamed Ali, a case about which I have written extensively. This post will provide a brief factual and procedural background of the case, briefly discuss the DC Circuit’s treatment of three of the four charges against Ali, and explain how and why the court rejected my argument about a high seas requirement for facilitators of piracy.

Background

Ali Mohamed Ali, the Minister of Education for the semi-autonomous Somali region of Somaliland, negotiated the release of eleven hostages aboard the Bahamian-flagged, Danish-owned merchant vessel CEC Future. Regrettably, in the era of piracy off the Horn of Africa, this is not an uncommon occurrence. What is interesting about Ali’s case, however, is that he negotiated the ransom from Somali territorial waters, never facilitating while on the high seas. Nonetheless, the United States government built a case against him, planned a fairly elaborate ruse to invite Ali to an education conference in North Carolina, and arrested him on the tarmac when his plane touched down in Washington, D.C. on April 20, 2011.

After a number of superseding indictments, a grand jury charged Ali with conspiracy to commit piracy, aiding and abetting piracy, conspiracy to commit hostage taking, and aiding and abetting hostage taking. Ali filed a motion to dismiss and was successful on a number of counts, with the lower court dismissing the conspiracy to commit piracy count, narrowing the aiding and abetting count to acts of facilitation that occurred on the high seas, and dismissing both hostage taking charges as a violation of due process.

On appeal, the DC Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the conspiracy to commit piracy charge, but reversed the dismissal of the hostage taking charges and held that the United States may assert universal jurisdiction over acts of facilitation that take place entirely within the territory of another state.

Conspiracy to Commit Piracy and Hostage Taking Charges

Of the four charges considered by the court, three were relatively uncontroversial. In affirming the lower court’s dismissal of the conspiracy to commit piracy charge, the court relied on the Charming Betsy canon, concluding that because “UNCLOS [art. 101]’s plain language does not include conspiracy to commit piracy,” the government cannot charge conspiracy to commit piracy “as defined by the law of nations.”

As for the hostage taking charges, Ali’s principle argument was that asserting universal jurisdiction over hostage taking – a non-UJ offense – the government violated Ali’s right to due process under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. constitution. However, the court concluded that the Hostage Taking Convention provided global notice that an alleged hostage taker could be haled into court. That, combined with the fact that 18 USC § 1203, the American hostage taking statute, asserts jurisdiction over all offenders “found in the United States,” was enough to sustain Ali’s hostage taking charges. This section contains some interesting discussion of the relationship between United States and international law, but it remains to the side of what I believe the most interesting aspect of the Ali case: whether universal jurisdiction exists over facilitators of piracy who never leave the territorial jurisdiction of a state.

Aiding and Abetting Piracy

In considering whether “piracy as defined by the law of nations” allows for universal jurisdiction prosecutions over territorial facilitators, the court considered the text of UNCLOS art. 101, the context provided by surrounding provisions, as well as the relevant drafting history. Though it did not consider the underlying policy implications of criminalizing piracy, the structure of the court’s argument closely mirrored that from my law review article. However, the similarities between our analyses went no further.

The court begins with a textual analysis of art. 101, which takes only three sentences and is re-printed in full here:

Explicit geographical limits – ‘on the high seas’ and ‘outside the jurisdiction of any state’ – govern piratical acts under article 101(a)(i) and (ii). Such language is absent, however, in article 101(c), strongly suggesting a facilitative act need not occur on the high seas so long as its predicate act has. So far, so good; Charming Betsy poses no problems.[1]

Although the court could have ended its analysis there, it turned to Ali’s contextual arguments concerning arts. 86 and 105, introducing the relevant Part in UNCLOS and describing states’ power to capture pirates, respectively. Regarding art. 86, the court concluded that it was not meant to limit the provisions of the Part to high seas acts, but rather to explicate the meaning of “high seas” for the purposes of the Part. As for art. 105, the court explained that “the provision’s reference to the high seas highlights the broad authority of nations to apprehend pirates even in international waters.” The court further asserted that Ali’s argument that art. 105 limits universal jurisdiction captures to the high seas “proves too much, leaving nations incapable of prosecuting even those undisputed pirates they discover within their own borders.”

Finally, the court considered UNCLOS’s drafting history, or, as it phrased the inquiry, the “drafting history’s drafting history.”  The court traced UNCLOS back to the 1932 Harvard Draft Convention’s explicit pronouncement that acts of facilitation must take place on the high seas to be subject to universal jurisdiction. The court found this evidence unpersuasive, stating that, “[e]ffectively, Ali would have us ignore UNCLOS’s plain meaning in favor of eighty-year-old scholarship that may have influenced a treaty that includes language similar to UNCLOS art. 101. This is a bridge too far.”  Indeed, the court stated that it would not completely address the drafting history, as the plain meaning of UNCLOS art. 101(c) was clear.

The court concluded that UNCLOS art. 101, and by extension 18 USC § 1651, and by further extension 18 USC § 2, all allow for universal jurisdiction prosecutions for acts of piratical facilitation which take place entirely with another state’s borders.

In the end, the D.C. Circuit’s analysis and my own departed ways at the very beginning, perhaps even before.  In conceptualizing piratical facilitation as a form of liability distinct from piracy rather than piracy in and of itself, the court was able to resolve the textual argument in one short paragraph. From there, the court sought independent justifications for the limitation in the context and drafting history, where I looked to the context, drafting history, and underlying policy rationale to resolve the ambiguous language.


[1] Omitting the internal citation to the general proposition that inclusion of language in one section of a statute and exclusion in another should be taken as purposeful.

Chinese Drones and Mekong Piracy

Naw Kham (first from right) and members of his gang hear the verdict of the first trial at the Kunming Intermediate People’s Court in Yunnan Province on November 6, 2012. Photo: CFP

There have been some interesting revelations in the case of Naw Kham, the so-called Mekong Pirate who presided over a transnational criminal network in the Golden Triangle of the Mekong river basin. (prior coverage here). Although Naw Kham was convicted of murder, drug trafficking, kidnapping and hijacking across international borders, this does not constitute piracy under UNCLOS as it did not occur on the high seas. Nonetheless, the case provides a fascinating case study in transnational organized crime and has important analogies to piracy on the high seas. Chinese media have focused on the operation to capture Naw Kham, whereas Western media have focused on the fact that China considered using an unmanned drone to kill him.

First the Chinese government-published Global Times provides details on how Naw Kham avoided capture by the Chinese in the Golden Triangle for so long.

During the search, Naw Kham vanished at least three times just as the Chinese police were closing in. [Taskforce leader] Liu said that this was largely because the Chinese police were limited in what they could do overseas. They had to launch appeals before undertaking operations and cooperate with local police.

But Naw Kham had lived in the Golden Triangle for many years and sometimes locals would aid him.

At the end of 2011, Chinese police located Naw Kham at a village by the Mekong River in Boqiao Province in Laos, the hometown of one of Naw Kham’s mistresses.

Chinese and local police encircled the village, but some local officials and villagers obstructed them. “We hit a stalemate. Police were not allowed to enter the village. Even though the local police head was with us, provincial officials were on the other side,” Liu said.

“The deadlock lasted hours, and it was getting dark. According to local customs, the search would have to be suspended after sunset.”

Liu finally found a senior military officer to help break the deadlock; however, police were only able to search six houses in the village and arrest the mistress and some gang members, seizing guns and cash. At night, Naw Kham crossed into Myanmar with the help of locals.

This highlights the fact that transnational criminality, and piracy in particular, will thrive where three conditions coexist: (1) lack of naval/police enforcement; (2) existence of water-borne commerce of significant value; and (3) poverty – motivating foot-soldiers to take extraordinary risks. In this case, the geography and multiple borders provided cross-jurisdictional cover for Naw Kham. Without strong international cooperation, he would not have been captured.

China’s unmanned Yi Long drone on display at the airshow in Zhuhai

In contrast, the New York Times have seized on the mention in the Global Times article that China had considered using an unarmed drone to kill Naw Kham.

Dennis M. Gormley, an expert on unmanned aircraft at the University of Pittsburgh, said of the reported Chinese deliberations, “Separating fact from fiction here is difficult.” But he added, “Given the gruesome nature of the 2011 killings  [for which Naw Kham was convicted] and the Chinese public’s outcry for action, it’s not at all surprising to imagine China employing an armed drone over Myanmar’s territory.”

Mr. Gormley said the decision not to carry out a drone strike might reflect a lack of confidence in untested Chinese craft, control systems or drone pilots. “I think China’s still not ready for prime time using armed drones, but they surely will be with a few more years of determined practice,” he said. “And they surely will have America’s armed drone practice as a convenient cover for legitimating their own practice.”

Similarly, the United States had considered using unmanned drones against Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean, but that program suffered setbacks and U.S. drones were likely only used to surveil pirate-operations off the coast of Somalia. Ultimately, China decided not to use its new assets. Indeed, capturing Naw Kham with no reported casualties and without the need to launch a military strike in Thailand, Laos, or Myanmar was a much cleaner solution.

The Report of the International Piracy Ransoms Task Force is Available

The International Piracy  Ransoms Task Force, established at the London Conference on Somalia, issued its final Report on December 2012. The objective of the Task Force, composed of representatives of 14 States, was “to develop a greater understanding of the payment of ransoms in cases of piracy, in order to put forward policy recommendations to the international community as to how to avoid, reduce or prevent the payment of ransoms. The ultimate goal of this effort is to reach a point where pirates are no longer able to profit from ransom payments and thus abandon the practice of kidnapping for ransom.”

The conclusions and recommendations of the Task Force, included in the Report, build upon the following main options to reduce and avoid the risk of ransom payments to pirates:

  • strengthen the co-ordination between Flag States, the private sector and military responders to prepare for potential hostage situations, in order to shorten the decision-making process during the narrow window of opportunity for intervention after a piracy incident;
  • develop a new strategic partnership between Flag States, the private sector and law enforcement agencies that brings together those tackling piracy and those subjected to it in a united effort to break the piracy business model. In particular, this partnership should develop a more co-ordinated approach to information-sharing which would greatly enhance the quality and quantity of information exchange both to reduce ransom payments and to provide evidence to pursue and prosecute all involved in piracy, from those directly attacking ships to the kingpins who direct this organised crime;
  • encourage the implementation of anti-piracy measures, including still greater compliance with industry Best Management Practice, under the leadership of flag states and supported by the private sector, including insurance companies, in whose interests it is to mitigate risks.

Among the main practical recommendations put forward in the Report are the consolidation of various regional information-sharing frameworks to achieve a “one stop shop” mechanism for the diffusion of relevant information in the immediate post-hijack phase; the conduct of ransom negotiations with the knowledge of relevant national and international authorities in order to foster mutual assistance between these and the private sector; and the development of a mechanism maximising the evidence-gathering process immediately after the release of the vessel or its crew for subsequent prosecutions.

In line with the Task Force’s objective, the 15 page-long Report focuses mainly on the establishment of broad policies to improve communication and coordination to prevent hostage and ransom situations in the future. Several of these policies have been already under discussion for long time and by a number of institutions involved in the fight against piracy. Hopefully, the issuing of the Report will provide for a swift implementation of these policies. Regrettably, the Report does not contain an analysis and more practical recommendations directly relevant to actual hostage-taking, vessels’ hijacks and, more particularly, ransom situations. Given the wealth of knowledge and the technical resources available to the Task Force and its member states, as well as other participants from the private sector, it would have been preferable to expand on the Task Force’s mandate to immediately initiate an information sharing and lesson-learned process relevant to these aspects of piracy ransoms.

UPDATE: Convictions in First Italy Piracy Trial

The 9 month-long piracy trial for the 2011 hijack of the Italian bulk carrier MV Montecristo, the first in Italian modern history, concluded last week in Rome with the conviction of all 9 Somali accused to prison terms of 16 and 19 years. We previously reported about this trial and Italy piracy laws here.

The accused were found guilty of attempted kidnapping for extortion and illegal possession of firearms. As the crime of kidnapping was only attempted, the maximum penalty range of 25 to 30 years of prison foreseen by the Italian criminal code was reduced by one third. During the trial, the accused unsuccessfully sought to be tried in the UK, in light of having been initially apprehended by UK forces, and challenged their transfer to Italian authorities. In accordance with Italian laws, the motivations for the verdict will be published within 3 months. All accused are likely to appeal the sentence, with some indicating to be ready to take the matter up to the European Court of Justice.

Interestingly, the prosecutors’ claim of the pirates connections with Al-Shabaab and the attack on the Montecristo being aimed at financing its terrorist activities and foster a campaign of obstruction of the free maritime transit in the Indian Ocean was rejected. Once again, this confirms the very tenuous links between the pirates’ business model and terrorism. In its latest report, the Monitoring Group on Somalia also found no evidence suggesting a structural or organizational link between Al-Shabaab and Somali pirate networks.

Another piracy trial will start on 4 December 2012, concerning the attempted hijack of the Italian oil tanker MV Valdarno on January 2012, off the Omani coast. The 11 Somalis charged with this attempted hijack opted for a plea bargain and are likely to receive a substantially reduced prison sentence.

Update: Le Ponant Trial Judgement

Our readers might remember Valerie Gabard’s guest post on the recent trial for the 2008 hijack of the French luxury yacht Le Ponant and the kidnap of its crew. After four years of pre-trial detention, two of the six Somali accused were acquitted, while the four others were convicted and sentenced to four to ten years of imprisonment.

We have now obtained the trial judgement in the case, issued by the 2nd Section of the Court d’Assise of Paris. Contrary to initial speculations, it seems that the Prosecution have decided not to appeal the Court’s decision, which is therefore final. Unfortunately, the judgement won’t shed much light on the Court’s motivations. In keeping with French practice for criminal trials, the judgement, at least when looked at from the perspective of international justice standards, is scantily reasoned, containing little or no more than the accusations against the accused, a recall of the main trial procedural steps and the court’s verdict.

It has to be recalled that the accused were charged with kidnapping, illegal confinement and organized gang theft in pursuance of Articles 224-6 of the French Criminal Code but not with a specific offence of committing piracy due to the temporary absence, in 2008, of a specific definition of piracy in the French criminal system. In the meantime, a new Anti-Piracy legislation was introduced in January 2011.

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