Mysterious cargo on Iranian tanker kills Somali pirates

Somali pirates who hijacked an Iranian shipping vessel said to be carrying either "minerals" or "small arms and chemical weapons" have, en masse, fallen ill with a mysterious disease. The head of the East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme has been threatened with a lawsuit by the Iranian government for issuing spooky statements to the press to the effect that there was some kind of evil "chemicals" on the ship.
He told one news publication, The Long War Journal, that during the six days he had negotiated with the pirates, a number of them had become sick and died.

“That ship is unusual,” he was quoted as saying. “It is not carrying a normal shipment.”

The pirates did reveal that they had tried to inspect the ship’s cargo containers when some of them fell sick – but the containers were locked.

Osman’s delegation spoke to the ship’s captain and its engineer by cellphone, demanding to know more about the cargo.

Initially it was claimed the cargo contained “crude oil”; later it was said to be “minerals”.

And Mwangura has added: “Our sources say it contains chemicals, dangerous chemicals.”

But IRISL has denied that – and threatened legal action against Mwangura. The company has reportedly paid the pirates 200000 – the first of several “ransom instalments”, but that, too, has been denied.

Pirates die strangely after taking Iranian ship (Thanks, Bill!)


  1. Radioactive ore?

    After all the Iranians are working on a nuke program, and need minerals to purify. A few day exposure to some high level stuff would probably screw them all up pretty badly.

  2. “Somali pirates suffered skin burns, lost hair and fell gravely ill “within days” of boarding the MV Iran Deyanat. Some of them died.”

    It does sound a bit like radiation poisoning…but of course i could be something else altogether. In reference to #6, lead poisoning also leads to hair loss.

    Wikipedia has a table on the effects of radiation poisoning (here) and also an example of how this could happen to careless people (here)

  3. i give this one day – two, maybe three tops. yeah, three days before it somehow becomes presidential election ‘issue’.

    as a supplementary prediction, no-one will come out it very well.

  4. This just in: Eyl quarantined by Ministry of Supernatural Defence. Witnesses report [REDACTED BY MINISTRY OF SUPERNATURAL DEFENCE] slime [REDACTED BY MINISTRY OF SUPERNATURAL DEFENCE] dragged into the see by rugose [REDACTED BY MINISTRY OF SUPERNATURAL DEFENCE] never see black budgies before, least with two heads,” said [REDACTED BY MINISTRY OF SUPERNATURAL DEFENCE][REDACTED BY MINISTRY OF SUPERNATURAL DEFENCE].

  5. lead poisoning also leads to hair loss.

    Is it possible for lead poisoning to happen that quickly? How high would levels of lead have to be for that to happen?

    In fact, how high would levels of radiation have to be for that to happen? If they were enough to kill people who came in contact with them briefly, wouldn’t they be enough to kill the ship’s crew?

    (I haven’t taken science classes in years, I am asking these questions quite genuinely, as I have no idea about how anything works except iambic pentameter and character development.)

  6. @9 Anon,

    ‘Round here, groundhogs get something we call “rapid onset lead poisoning.” It’s nearly instantaneous, and can be quite lethal in very small doses. Just how rapid is it? Well, certainly above the speed of sound…. ;)

  7. As the usenet saying goes “People who do stupid things with hazardous materials often die.” which in this case goes well with “Never attribute to malice what can just as easily be attributed to stupidity.”

    Pirates aren’t necessarily the brightest bunch in the world, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the Iranian equivalent of the EPA probably doesn’t have the strictest enforcement of hazardous materials labeling standards. There are lots of nasty chemicals in the world, looks like these winners got exposed. Good for them.

    Per wikipedia, mercury poisoning can cause skin discoloration and hair loss. Sodium Cyanide isn’t much fun to be around either. Both of which have heavy industrial uses.

  8. High seas piracy has been getting a lot of play on NPR lately. Recently there was a Russian freighter loaded with weapons, tanks and parts that got nabbed–headed for an African country, forget which one.

    One thing’s for sure, though: The world needs more ninjas.

  9. I wish I could find it, but yesterday I read a comment by a guy who said he used to be a Nuclear Safety Officer (or something like that) and said he thinks it’s much more likely a chemical agent. I wish I could find the link.

    His arguments were compelling. He said *if* it were radiation poisoning, it would most likely be Beta radiation due to the fact they are still walking around. Gamma can produce the same symptoms but severity of their symptoms means that such an emission of radiation would light up the spy satellites. However, for it to be Beta poisoning they would have to actually be in very close proximity (a matter of feet if I remember my college physics correctly) which the pirates deny (I think they claimed they tried to open the containers but were unsuccessful).

    He seemed to think it was something that seeped through the containers (lacking any other information). Whatever it is, it sounds pretty heinous.

    Aha, Google is my friend. Here’s the link. And guy was a member of the DOE’s Radiological Assistance Program. His email is in the update.

    Probably Just Scurvy

  10. So let me get this straight… you can be a pirate, take over a ship that doesn’t belong to you (with all associated murder and mayhem), get sick and STILL sue the country the ship came from??

    And its IRAN??

    The world is even weirder than I thought.

  11. I blame the recent spate of piracy on Disney for shamelessly glorifying the lifestyle. It’s not all fighting monsters and making out with Keira Knightley, people!

  12. Pretty sad that my cynicism causes me to be automatically suspicious and actually consider “false flag” operations, etc.

    I’m sorry for the people who’ve gotten hurt. If they wanted to, they could freakin’ put the kibosh on pirating. PERIOD.

    I’m also glad if actually they were shipping radioactive minerals, ore, etc. – and it winds up being interdicted.

    Can I afford to not question What’s up?

  13. I can’t find any reputable news sources reporting on the ‘mysterious deaths’.

    While it can be radioactive material, this sounds unlikely. Iran has plenty of Uranium, there’s no need for them to import it. If they are exporting it, to whom? I doubt any rouge African states are on the verge of developing their own nuclear programme.

    If it is nuclear weapons, the pirates wouldn’t get a lethal dose from just hanging around them, and I doubt that even Somali pirates are dense enough to try to crack open the casing of a nuclear bomb.

    It’s possible that this is just unfounded rumour, perhaps started by someone who wants to deter further pirate attacks against military cargo.

    Or maybe the captured crew has found some way to deliberately poison their captors.

    If I was to speculate wildly, I’d say some military is testing some sort of new crowd-control weapon which does not leave any obvious wounds. Microwaves, gamma-ray lasers, perhaps?

    If there was any truth to the rumours that an Iranian ship was smuggling nuclear material through international waters, you can bet your sweet ass that the US navy would be there in an heartbeat, as is the case with the tank-laden ship.

  14. Okay,
    Lead takes time.

    Radiation is the only thing that can fit the bill of
    1- Fast acting
    2- Skin burns w/out sun or direct heat contact.

    As for the “what about the crew?” question- I’m willing to bet that it was an unofficial order or understanding of the crew that they didn’t load or unload the containers AND that they stayed the hell out of the cargo hold.

    Sounds like NATO would be will within rights to send out an unmanned underwater drone with a radiation sensor to check out the situation.

    Poor bastards. Pirates are nasty, but no one deserves to die like that.

  15. Basically what would work in that region, decoys made to be five-finger discount desirable filled with toxic materials. A few yachts and freighters with desirable contraband riddled with deadly slow working contact poision would be a good start. The Iranians probably got tired of the piracy and put such a plan into action.

  16. Gollux – I was thinking rations that say “Do Not Eat” (not written in the local language) would do that trick. Any number of heavy metals could manage the distasteful job. Myself, I’d have slipped them some laxatives in the food.

  17. All this piracy in a limited area is a great opportunity: why not get some vulnerable-looking old cargo ship and crew it with Navy Seals? Then just drop a few rumors of a fabulous cargo in some Somali waterfront tavern-equivalents and wait for the pirates to show up. A nice live-fire exercise for the Seals….

  18. The only good pirate is a dead pirate.

    #39 I am not certain that this is a good idea in this case because as of now, most of the crews make it out alive. If this was not the case, then sure. But until then, it is probably best to go after them with ships that say “Navy” on them.

  19. Heh. I just read in one of the links winstonsmith85 posted that the US is offering $7 million to inspect the ship.

    This is what I think happened:
    Pirate #1: “Captain, we have seized a ship full of useless iron ore.”
    Pirate Captain: “Don’t worry, we’ll spread a rumour that a number of our crew has died mysteriously in a way that is consistent with radiation poisoning”

    A few days pass…
    US Navy Captain: “We’d like to inspect the ship you have captured, please.”
    Pirate Captain: “Certainly, sir. That will be $7 million. Cash is fine.”
    US Navy Captain: “…”

    A few more days pass…
    US Navy Captain: “OK, I have authorization for the $7 million. But before I can pay you, my ship’s doctor must examine one of the men that died mysteriously.”
    Pirate Captain: (Thinking: Oh shit.)
    Pirate Captain: “So sorry, sir, but they have all been buried already.”
    US Navy Captain: “We don’t mind exhuming them.”
    Pirate Captain: “They have been cremated, I’m afraid.”
    US Navy Captain: “I was not aware that cremation was customary in this part of Somalia?”
    Pirate Captain: “For safety reasons, sir.”
    US Navy Captain: “No matter, we’ll just unearth the ashes and check them for traces of radioactive contamination.”
    Pirate Captain: “Did I say ‘buried’? I must have misspoken – I meant to say ‘their ashes were scattered across the sea’.”
    US Navy Captain: “Deal’s off.”

  20. Guys according to the article linked to, this ship set sail from China and the cargo is for the Netherlands. Iran owns the ship but might not have anything to do with its current contents. What did China put there? And what plans does the Netherlands have for it? And if it is radioactive, how come the ship’s legitimate crew didn’t get this and die early in the journey?

    It looks as if it isn’t the same ship that is carrying the tanks etc for Kenya. More than one ship has been hijacked recently.

    Take care re drawing conclusions on a little bit of information – or disinformation. This one could escalate faster than the speed of thought.

  21. I note above someone speculating what could the cargo be if not radioactive, what else causes hair loss and rapid symptoms?

    Chemotherapy for cancer can and does. Not that the ship was carrying chemo drugs, my point is there are a significant number of refined substances that are lethal in that exact way, so radiation should be only one of the suspected explanations.

    If, indeed, it turns out the pirates didn’t come down with some exotic tropical disease that causes rapid onset male pattern baldness. Now THAT would be a terror weapon.

  22. At #24 about spy sats, and everyone who asked why the crew wasn’t hurt before:

    Suppose there were containers of something radioactive, with lots of lead shielding around them, and the crew was told not to go near the hold.

    From the article: “The pirates did reveal that they had tried to inspect the ship’s cargo containers when some of them fell sick — but the containers were locked.”

    It doesn’t say if anything was removed before they found the locks – maybe the ones who are sick removed the shielding and stood effectively right next to a radioactive source for a few hours while they failed to break a lock.

  23. Osman. Nice touch. Mr Bin Laden’s codename was Tim Osman when he was working for the CIA.

    But i digress. your cargo of anti-iran propaganda has arrived, sir.

  24. Sure we all laugh when it happens to African pirates but just wait until it happens to music or movie pirates. Then you’ll all be up in arms.

  25. @42 And if it is radioactive, how come the ship’s legitimate crew didn’t get this and die early in the journey?

    Maybe because the crew was told to avoid the holds?

    Really, radioactive particles do not travel any great distance through matter, but if you stand next to them, or break open the containment containers bucause u r a noob, then you might get sick.

    That said, my vote is still metal poisoned rations. Think D-Con mouse baits, for people.

  26. This sounds like an awesome set up for a thriller. Some priates happen to hijack a seemingly dilapitated old shipping vessel that is in reality transporting dangerous super weapons for some shadowy illuminati government working behind the scenes. The shadow government can’t act becuase of they fear their secret could get out but they can’t let them get away with the weapons. Or seomthing like that…. I’m starting my rough draft.

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