A tense standoff is underway in northeastern Somalia between pirates,
Somali authorities, and Iran over a suspicious merchant vessel and its
mysterious cargo. Hijacked late last month in the Gulf of Aden, the MV
Iran Deyanat remains moored offshore in Somali waters and inaccessible
for inspection. Its declared cargo consists of minerals and industrial
products, however, Somali and regional officials directly involved in
the negotiations over the ship and who spoke to The Long War Journal
are convinced that it was heading to Eritrea to deliver small arms and
chemical weapons to Somalia's Islamist insurgents.
It was business as usual when speedboats surrounded the MV Iran
Deyanat on August 21. The 44468 dead weight tonnage bulk carrier was
pushing towards the Suez and had just entered the Gulf of Aden -
dangerous waters where instability, greed and no-questions-asked
ransom payments have led to a recent surge in piracy. Steaming past
the Horn of Africa, 82 nautical miles southeast of al-Makalla in
Yemen, the ship was a prize for the taking. It would bring hundreds of
thousands of dollars - possibly millions - to the Somalia-based crime
syndicate. The captain was defenseless against the 40 pirates armed
with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades blocking his passage. He had
little choice other than to turn his ship over to them. What the
pirates were not banking on, however, was that this was no ordinary
The MV Iran Deyanat is owned and operated by the Islamic Republic of
Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) - a state-owned company run by the Iranian
military that was sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury on
September 10, shortly after the ship's hijacking. According to the
U.S. Government, the company regularly falsifies shipping documents in
order to hide the identity of end users, uses generic terms to
describe shipments to avoid the attention of shipping authorities, and
employs the use of cover entities to circumvent United Nations
sanctions to facilitate weapons proliferation for the Iranian Ministry
The MV Iran Deyanat set sail from Nanjing, China, at the end of July
and, according to its manifest, planned to travel to Rotterdam, where
it would unload 42,500 tons of iron ore and "industrial products"
purchased by a German client. Its arrival in the Gulf of Aden, Somali
officials tell The Long War Journal, was suspiciously early. According
to a publicly available status report on the IRISL Web site, the ship
reached the Gulf on August 20 and was scheduled to reach the Suez
Canal on August 27 - a seven day journey. "Depending on the speed of
the ship," Puntland Minister of Ports Ahmed Siad Nur said in a phone
interview on Saturday, "it should take between 4 and 5 days to reach
A hijacked bulk carrier looms in the horizon of the beach in Eyl.
Photo from Garowe Online.
Suspicion has also been cast on the ship's crew, half of which is
almost entirely staffed by Iranians - a large percentage of Iranian
nationals for a standard merchant vessel. Somali officials say that
the ship has a crew of 29 men, including a Pakistani captain, an
Iranian engineer, 13 other Iranians, 3 Indians, 2 Filipinos, and 10
Eastern Europeans, possibly Croatian.
The MV Iran Deyanat was brought to Eyl, a sleepy fishing village in
northeastern Somalia, and was secured by a larger gang of pirates - 50
onboard and 50 onshore. Within days, pirates who had boarded the ship
developed strange health complications, skin burns and loss of hair.
Independent sources tell The Long War Journal that a number of pirates
have also died. "Yes, some of them have died. I do not know exactly
how many but the information that I am getting is that some of them
have died," Andrew Mwangura, Director of the East African Seafarers'
Assistance Program, said Friday when reached by phone in Mombasa.
News about the illness and the toxic cargo quickly reached Garowe,
seat of the government for the autonomous region of Puntland. Angered
over the wave of piracy and suspicious about the Iranian ship,
authorities dispatched a delegation led by Minister of Minerals and
Oil Hassan Allore Osman to investigate the situation on September 4.
Osman also confirmed to The Long War Journal that during the six days
he negotiated with the pirates members of the syndicate had become
sick and died. "That ship is unusual," he said. "It is not carrying a
The delegation faced a tense situation in Eyl, Osman recounts. The
syndicate had demanded a $9 million ransom for 10 ships that were in
its possession and refused permission to inspect the Iranian vessel.
At one point, he said, the pirates threatened to "blow up" the MV Iran
Deyanat if authorities tried to inspect it with force. A committee of
delegate members and Eyl city officials was formed to negotiate
directly with the pirates in order to defuse the situation.
Once in direct contact, the pirates told Osman that they had attempted
to inspect the ship's seven cargo containers after they developed
health complications but the containers were locked. The crew claimed
that they did not have the "access codes" and could not open them. The
delegation secured contact with the captain and the engineer by cell
phone and demanded to know the nature of the cargo, however, Osman
says that "they were saying different things to different people."
Initially they said that the cargo contained "crude oil" but then
claimed it contained "minerals."
"The secrecy is not clear to us," Mwangura said about the cargo. "Our
sources say it contains chemicals, dangerous chemicals." IRISL has
flatly denied the ship is carrying a "dangerous consignment" and has
threatened legal action against Mwangura.
The syndicate set the ship's ransom at $2 million and the Iranian
government provided $200,000 to a local broker "to facilitate the
exchange." Iran refutes that it agreed to the price and has paid any
money to the pirates. Nevertheless, after sanctions were applied to
IRISL on September 10, Osman says, the Iranians told the pirates that
the deal was off. "They told the pirates that they could not come
because of the presence of the U.S. Navy." The region is patrolled by
the multinational Combined Taskforce 150, which includes ships from
the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet.
In a strange twist, the Iranian press claims that the U.S. has offered
to pay a $7 million bribe to the pirates to "receive entry permission
and search the vessel." Officials in the Pentagon and the Department
of State approached for this story refused to comment on the
situation. Somali officials would also not comment on any direct U.S.
involvement but one high-level official in the Puntland government
told The Long War Journal "I can say the ship is of interest to a lot
of people, including Puntland."
The exact nature of the cargo remains a mystery but officials in
Puntland and Baidoa are convinced the ship was carrying weapons to
Eritrea for Islamist insurgents. "We cannot inspect the cargo yet,"
Osman said, "but we are sure that it is weapons."
"Puntland requested the pirates two weeks ago to hand over this
Iranian ship, saying that it is carrying weapons to Eritrea," Puntland
Fisheries Minister Abdulqadir Muse Yusuf told Reuters. "I have seen
food and other odd items on the ship but I do not know what is hidden
Iran's involvement in the conflict in Somalia on behalf of Islamist
insurgents is well documented. In 2006, Iran flouted arms embargos and
provided sophisticated anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons to the
Islamic Courts Union (ICU), intelligence sources told The Long War
Journal, including SA-7 Strella and SA-18 Igla MANPADS - shoulder
fired surface-to-air missiles - as well as AT-3 Sagger antitank
A report issued by the United Nations in 2006 states that weapons were
transferred to Somalia through Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which also
absorbed a contingent of 700 Islamist fighters from Somalia during
Hezbollah's war with Israel. The report also states that Iran provided
support for Islamist training camps inside Somalia and had sent two
emissaries to negotiate with the ICU for access to Somalia's uranium