March 31, 2012: The anti-piracy patrol off Somalia has found a new source of intelligence: the thousands of pirates who now have Internet access and use it enthusiastically. Although some are warned against discussing their work on their new smart phones (or less expensive "feature phones"), these guys are only dimly aware of how useful small bits of information on their operations can be. Western intelligence agencies constantly monitor pirates' activity on social networking sites and the Internet in general. Intel agencies are also able to eavesdrop on cell phone traffic, texting, and email. All this information provides a better picture of pirate plans and activities than anyone in the pirate community has. It's one reason the pirates are increasingly thwarted by anti-piracy patrol warships and aircraft. Some of the pirate leaders are aware of this weakness but have been unable to rein in their exuberant and newly prosperous subordinates.
Thus Somali pirates are facing a problem created by their own success. Several hundred million dollars has been received in ransoms over the last five years. The general rule is that half the ransom goes to the financiers, the gang leaders, and ransom negotiators. About a quarter of the money goes to the crew that took the ship, with a bonus for whoever got on board first. The pirates who guard the ship and look after the crew gets ten percent, and about ten percent goes to local clans and warlords, as protection money (or bribes). This has made dozens of gang leaders very rich and thousands of their followers affluent enough to buy cell phones and then smart phones. For the pirates who took the ship, then helped guard it for months until the money was paid, the take was still huge. Pirates who actually boarded the ship tend to receive at least $150,000 each, which is ten times what the average Somali man makes over his entire lifetime. Even the lowest ranking member of the pirate gang gets a few thousand dollars per ransom.
All this money has led to a building boom in the pirate ports and an influx of cars and consumer goods of all sorts. But one thing newly affluent pirates seek most of all are cell phones, especially smart phones. There follows use of the Internet and a growing literacy rate among the pirates. But best of all, the pirates exuberant use of their new gadgets insures that there will be fewer captured ships and much less ransom.