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The Curious Case of the Phantom Hijacking

February 3rd 2016
On January 27th, CSO Alliance was contacted by the IMB, who were seeking verification and further details on a reported hijacking off Somalia. The details at that stage were extremely vague, just that a third party had reported a vessel hijacked by Somali pirates.


Naturally, given the urgency of the situation, we immediately reached out to our contacts in the military, sources within Somalia and others who may have had an insight into the situation. Thanks to our good relationships with both UKMTO and EUNAVFOR, we were able to speak with them at a high level and confirm that neither body had received a report of an incident and were therefore unable to verify that anything had taken place.


By midday, the report had become more widespread and new details began to emerge, which suggested there was something going on. We received names for the alleged pirate commander in charge of the hijackers and the man who had financially backed the operation. These names matched those which a source suggested the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS) had been given in New York.


One of our sources in Puntland, Somalia, then contacted us to ask if we had anything further. He informed us that the ship was heading to Qandala, Puntland and that the pirates had launched from a town in the Bari region.


We had a high level of detail – far more than is normal in such cases – but we still had no verification of an incident. This meant that in all good conscience, we were unable to add anything to the platform regarding a possible attack.


All we knew by then was that an EU-flagged cargo ship had allegedly been hijacked by a team of pirates led by a man called Aw-koonbe, in an operation funded by a man called Gooni, and that the ship would head for Qandala.


We shared all of these details with UKMTO, EUNAVFOR, IMB and BIMCO to ensure the military were able to react should the information prove correct. But still… no confirmation of an incident.  By this time, sources in the Seychelles confirmed they had heard a similar story.


The following day, Thursday 28th, our source made contact with Aw-koonbe’s family, who informed him that Aw-koonbe was in Yemen and not involved. He then approached a pirate gang in Bari who confirmed that they had invented the story “to do some misleading”. We passed this news on to IMB, EUNAVFOR, UKMTO and BIMCO and the incident was downgraded here at CSO Alliance as a result.


However, the question remains: why would pirates do that? The story was extremely involved with a lot of detail. Far more than we would normally expect in the opening hours of a hijacking.


We suspect that the pirates were actually hoping to test the response times of the naval coalition. By providing a final destination for the phantom ship, they would be able to monitor the time between news being received to action taken, perhaps with a view to honing their own methods. We may never know the truth, but it’s also unlikely that they spread the story just for fun. Pirates read the news, look at the web and monitor naval movements in their waters. They know that there are fewer warships in the region than in previous years. They know that ships are now transiting without armed security teams. Perhaps they were hoping to exploit that.


The incident did, however, prove how well all NGOs and military bodies can work together. By cooperating closely with EUNAVFOR, IMB, UKMTO, BIMCO and latterly, the Combined Maritime Forces, CSO Alliance was able to bring clarity to the situation thanks to our contacts in the region.


Our source in Somalia told us last week that he believed pirates had left Bari to go hunting. We hope that this was just a rumour, too.