MASINT in Counter Piracy Operations

Along the eastern coast of Africa, piracy is still alive. Rather than buried treasure, however, pirates are capturing ships and tankers then holding them for ransom. The cargo of these ships is often worth millions if not billions of dollars. The pirates can make a sizable profit with a ransom of only 10% of the cargo’s value. Those of you who keep up with such things may recall the hijacking of the Sirius Star, an oil tanker carrying 2 million barrels of oil, in November of 2008. The US and several other navies have sent ships to the area to secure maritime stability in the region and conduct counter-piracy operations.

The way the pirates operate is basically as storm troopers. A fire team to squad (4-12 men) sized element will approach quickly and board a heavy laden vessel which is too slow to escape and too cumbersome to evade the bandits. The crew, consisting of less people than the pirates have bullets, isn’t difficult to overtake. The Sirius Star carried a crew of 25 while each pirate carried a weapon. The smallest weapon I’ve heard of these guys using is the AK-47. There are also reports of them using RPGs and I’ve seen pictures of them with M203-style grenade launchers and M-240 Machine guns. We’re talking about a crew of regular people and none are going to get a medal of honor for getting shot up and dumped overboard while trying to be a hero by fighting for cargo where they probably don’t even get a cut of the profits. Research has indicated that the pirates seem to be launching small speed boats from “mother ships” that prowl an area and deploy the smaller crafts when a target ship is close enough. Once a foothold is established ideally in less than 15 minutes (De Capua 2009), reinforcements can be sent to the captured ship. It’s reported that “dozens” of Somali pirates left the Sirius Star after the Ransom was paid.

Let’s take this time to ask a few questions:

1) How do the pirates know where these ships are?

2) How do the pirates know what ships are carrying?

3) How do the pirates choose their targets?

4) How do the speedboats navigate to the target ships once deployed from the mother ship?

5) How does the assault team communicate with the mother ship?


This is purely hypothetical, but let’s entertain it. If you know more about the situation, by all means, please post a comment.


1. Logically the pirate mother ships are using some sort of radar or GPS which requires that they send out a signal and wait for it to bounce back to them. Knowing what frequencies they use will serve as an indicator that they are in the area and your ship may be in their sights.

2. Having an inside man or hacking into customs manifests are possible ways of discovering a ship’s cargo, but let’s say for the sake of this assignment that they are playing the SIGINT game and intercepting signals such as radio communications or emails emitted by the target ship. This is where OPSEC would come into play.

3. Let’s chalk this one up to SIGINT too. Just by listening to the radio, one can tell how many people are aboard based on conversations. Or if one wanted to be really technical, everyone would have a different “presence” on the radio whether it be waiting a half-second to speak after depressing the Push-To-Talk (PTT) button; or perhaps talking in bursts of 5-7 seconds. Everyone has their own idiosyncrasies that give them away. So anticipated crew strength and resistance as well as cargo value are likely factors in target choice.

4. Common sense dictates that if one is going to attack, they should strike quickly with little warning and seize the initiative before the opposition can effectively react. The most ideal time for this would be at night since under ideal weather conditions, daytime visibility at sea can range from 15-25 miles or so. The next best options are to attack are from the east at dawn or from the west at dusk (the sun and glare will blind observers). Navigating to or from the objective under complete darkness while practicing light discipline to prevent detection can be a challenge and the antiquated sextant and compass are unlikely to be the preferred methods of navigation on a speedboat being bucked on the waves. Likely the small craft will have some sort of GPS system that will have to broadcast and receive data from satellites to determine its position. Again the frequency used could indicate the presence of something unusual. For example a handheld GPS unit made for hikers uses different frequencies than a ship would. Furthermore navigating to a moving target that they can’t see, it’s possible that they may radio back to the mother ship for updates on the target’s coordinates. This frequency can be intercepted also. This brings us to question number 5.

5. Satellite phones are common in the region and picking up satellite communications that appear to be coming from a spot in the middle of nowhere would indicate a small craft and if it’s moving towards your position or in any direction for that matter, especially if it’s moving fast, you may be due for visitors. Even if it’s just a regular radio, it would have to be on a different frequency to prevent the targets from hearing attack plans as they are formulated or otherwise compromising the operation.

This pirate is armed with an M-240 Machine gun
This pirate is armed with an M-240 Machine gun
This pirate is equipped with an M-203 grenade launcher and a PTT radio
This pirate is equipped with an M-203 grenade launcher and a PTT radio

OK, let’s review. We’ve got enemy radar emissions, frequency scanners and signal interception, navigation tracking, and satellite phones. Any of these things out of place would indicate a need for heightened security aboard a cargo ship. UAVs can probably be launched from Aircraft Carriers to patrol the area with SIGINT packages or even armament to take out pirates before they get to thier targets. Currently there is an international counter-piracy force in the area. If a UAV were to pick up on these things, they could dispatch an MV-22 Osprey with a squad of Marines from an MEU to land on and protect the ship and possibly capture the pirates for questioning (HUMINT exploitation) when they try to board.

As an aside, more related to tactics than to intelligence, I’m pretty impressed with these guys and disappointed that I didn’t hear about them sooner because I could have made a killing if I’d just spent a year over there training them. And then I could spend the following year training everyone else to counter them. Below is an excerpt from De Capua.

Describing a Somali pirate attack, he says, "They come up fast and they'll do one of two things. Either they'll throw a grappling hook over (and) climb up. Or…they'll start shooting at you. Now, a lot of sailors will simply stop when they're confronted with pirates wielding AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs)."

"The pirates are getting increasingly vicious," he says, no longer just firing warning shots into the air. "I understand now that from naval sources and also security risk management sources that the pirates are now approaching vessels…targeting the bridges…deliberately shooting out the windows in an attempt to intimidate the crew. And they've now taken to the habit of firing rocket propelled grenades…directly into the accommodation bloc (crew quarters). The idea there is to start a fire. If a fire is started on board a ship it's exceptionally dangerous for the crew. So they have to stop the defense of the ship, which means deploying fire hoses…and put the fire out. When they do that, the pirates come on board."

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