Inside the hi-tech hub that's tracking the bandits

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The Independent Online

Pointing to a red dot on an electronic map deep within a building adjacent to the Royal Courts of Justice, Ruari Dowds highlights the latest intelligence about the movements of a gang of pirates who set sail hours earlier, some 4,300 miles away in Somalia.

The dot represents the departure point last Tuesday of the Prantalay 14, one of three large Thai fishing trawlers seized by pirates in the Indian Ocean earlier this year which are now being used as "mother ships". The departure of the Prantalay 14, which, according to surveillance reports, was carrying enough equipment to run three piracy crews complete with lightweight skiffs and ladders to scale the hulls of larger ships, signals the start of a new, post-monsoon "raiding season" for Somalia's most lucrative growth industry.

From this hi-tech control room, Mr Dowds and his employers, Maritime & Underwater Security Consultants (MUSC), are part of a network of consultants, lawyers, insurers and troubleshooters which has made London the global hub for efforts to counter what one seafarers' representative called "a bunch of AK47-toting bandits who are holding world trade to ransom".

From experts versed in the minutiae of English maritime law to former members of the special forces called up to co-ordinate the dropping of millions of dollars on to the hull of a hijacked ship, it is estimated revenues generated in London from piracy-related work exceed £140m a year.

With its real-time satellite feeds and maps indicating pirate hotspots, MUSC provides its shipping company clients with live updates on the gangs.

Mr Dowds, a maritime security analyst, said: "We are in a situation where there are fewer successful attacks because of the international naval presence and the counter-measures that ships themselves are taking such as surrounding the hull with razor wire."

But such is the sophistication of the piracy operation that some gang overlords have introduced performance-related pay for their crews with extra payments, for example, to the first raider to get on board. The result is a particular headache for the maritime insurance industry. The increase in demand for kidnapping and ransom ("K&R") policies from ship owners has generated a new premiums market worth at least £60m a year. One K&R broker said: "Some people are probably making money from this but as a whole I would say the industry is currently paying more in ransoms than it makes in premiums."

Figures obtained by The Independent show that ransoms, which started at around £300,000 in 2008, have doubled in the past year to an average of £2.5m. The average amount of time a vessel is held has also increased to 117 days.

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