Eyes In The Sky: Up Close As The German Navy Tracks Down Somali Pirates

German naval forces are using multi-million-dollar reconnaissance planes to track pirates, part of an international effort to protect shipping in the Gulf of Aden. Will Germany’s government continue to support the operation?

EU soldiers participating in Operation Atalanta
EU soldiers participating in Operation Atalanta
Philip Hedemann

The ‘Amal" plows along at seven knots across the glassy sea, 300 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia. But this fishing boat isn't looking for tuna or sea bream – it is controlled by pirates who have their eyes on cold hard cash.

The vessel and its crew were hijacked by Somali pirates on March 30, 2010. Since then, the pirates have been using the fishermen as human shields and the Amal (not the vessel's real name) as a mothership for their raids. What they don't know is that their actions are being monitored from the air by the flying eye of the German Navy.

The time is 0530 hours at the French Air Force base in Djibouti, and the temperature is already 31 degrees Celsius (88 Fahrenheit). Commander Thomas Krey and his 12-man crew from the Marine Air Wing 3 Graf Zeppelin in Lower Saxony are meeting onboard the P-3C maritime patrol aircraft for a last briefing before their mission.

"We've been tracking the Amal for quite some time now. We'll observe them from about 4,000 feet. If they shoot at us, we'll just fly higher. Happy Hunting!" wishes the tactical officer on board the 40-million-euro (58-million-dollar) high-tech aircraft.

On the way to takeoff, the plane rolls past French Mirage fighter planes, American Hercules transport planes, and French Puma helicopters. It reaches the runway at 0607 hours. The sun is beginning to rise over the Gulf of Aden, an area where one of the world's most vulnerable shipping lanes crosses some of the waters most frequented by pirates.

Today's mission is to locate and shadow the Amal. In charge of the operation is Alberto Manuel Silvestre Correia, the Portuguese commander of the European anti-piracy mission Atalanta.

Something suspicious on the radar

Having stocked up on weapons, ammunition, food, drinking water and several thousand liters of diesel and gasoline in Somalia, the pirates took to sea with the captured ship three days earlier and headed northeast. Now they are estimated to be 1,450 kilometers (900 miles) from the French airbase where the German aircraft are stationed.

At 10:05 a.m, a crewmember discovers a suspicious item on his radar screen. Immediately, the high-performance camera under the nose of the aircraft zooms in from a distance of 60 kilometers (37 miles). Monitors onboard the aircraft display a razor-sharp image of a traditional Arab boat, a dhow.

A man is moving around on deck, next to two speedboats covered by a tarpaulin. "Bingo! We have the Amal." There are no disagreements, and the tactical officer passes the information on to the rest of the crew.

The wheels of the international anti-piracy mission are finally turning. Alongside Germany, 21 EU member states as well as four non-EU countries have donated either troops or funds to the effort. The radio warns other ships in the area of the pirates' location and gives the coordinates of the hijacked ship to the Turkish frigate ‘Giresun," which is fighting pirates on behalf of NATO some 90 miles away.

The Turkish ship immediately sets course for the hijacked ship. An hour later, a helicopter rises from aboard the Giresun and asks the pirates via radio to throw their weapons overboard. But the pirates do not respond. Because they have hostages onboard, storming the dhow is out of the question. The Turkish warship is left with no other choice than to shadow the pirates to prevent further incursions.

"Even though they have refused to throw their weapons overboard, these pirates no longer pose a direct threat, as they are now under observation," says Commander Krey from a height of 7,000 meters (23,000 feet). His reconnaissance plane flies out every other day; this won't be the last he sees of the Amal pirates.

"The problem can't be solved exclusively from the air and sea," explains Commander William Tobias Abry. "But as long as there are no state security structures in place in Somalia, we cannot neglect the fight against piracy at sea."

The captain and his frigate are currently accompanying a vessel belonging to the UN World Food Programme (WFP) that is shipping grain to war-torn Somalia. The protection of the WFP ships in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia is one of the main tasks of Operation Atalanta, which has been running since December 2008.

Germany's armed forces have been involved since the start of the operation. A total of 219 servicemen and women from the German Marine Air Wing, as well as 50 men and women from the German Army, are currently stationed onboard the frigate ‘Niedersachsen." They are supported by a 34-strong logistics team stationed in Djibouti.

It is likely that the German government will continue to support this operation when it comes up for vote again in December. However, the high costs of continued involvement and the frequency of pirate raids have made the subject controversial among Germans.

According to the International Maritime Bureau, 211 ships have already been attacked by pirates this year. Roughly two thirds of them have been off the coast of Somalia; 26 ships and 522 crew are currently in the hands of pirates.

"Atalanta monitors a huge area, 10 times the size of Germany. Of course we cannot be everywhere at once," says Commander Abry. "But since the start of our operation, not a single world hunger relief ship has been attacked, and the overall number of attacks has dropped dramatically in the controlled areas. With a humanitarian mission like this, you can't do a simple cost-benefit analysis."

Liberating the ‘Taipan"

The men onboard the reconnaissance aircraft are convinced of the usefulness of their mission. The crew recorded one of their biggest successes on Easter Monday last year. At 1330, the plane received an emergency call while patrolling off of the Somali coast. "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. Two pirate ships are moving at high speed towards our ship," said the message.

The call was coming from the captain of the Hamburger freighter ship ‘Taipan." As soon as the P-3C received the call for help, it changed its course and flew at top speed towards the distressed ship. It alerted the Dutch frigate ‘Tromp," which was patrolling approximately 50 nautical miles away.

With its high-resolution cameras, the German pilots observed that the crew was able to escape into their ship's security room before 10 pirates hijacked the Taipan. "We told the Dutch that the pirates were probably armed with Kalashnikovs, but that they had no hostages in their power," recalls the then-tactical duty officer. Armed with information from the German reconnaissance aircraft, the Dutch then flew a helicopter of elite soldiers to rescue the Taipan.

The pirates surrendered, and all 13 hostages were freed unharmed. The Somali pirates will now face the courts in Hamburg, and the film from the P-3C's cameras will be used as evidence. "It makes us proud that we foiled the pirates' plans, and that we saved Easter. But it also makes me angry that the pirates will now be represented by lawyers funded by German taxpayers," added the officer.

Sometimes, though, the German crew feels helpless in its unarmed reconnaissance aircraft. "We don't actively attack the pirates, but we play an active role in the fight against piracy. With our air reconnaissance missions, we are able to provide critical data for the capture and prosecution of pirates," says Krey.

His tactical officer adds, "I am glad that we are not armed. Violence can provoke violence, and for us, the protection of hostages is paramount."

Read the original article in German

Photo - Bundeswehr-Fotos

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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