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 begins 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.