May 27, 2024
  • “Dead in the Water” is an expose of the corrupt inner-workings of international shipping, written by journalists Matthew Campbell and Kit Chellel. 
  • They describe the hijacking and burning of the Brillante Virtuoso tanker ship and its aftermath.
  • The following is an excerpt from the book, describing events of one week after the suspicious murder of David Mockett, the maritime expert who was investigating the hijacking.

When the Brillante Virtuoso supertanker was destroyed by armed raiders in 2011, maritime experts were confused. Why would Somali pirates board a ship then set it alight without demanding a ransom? Their puzzlement transformed into horror when David Mockett, a marine surveyor working for the Brillante’s insurers, was assassinated by a car bomb in Yemen, just a week after inspecting the wreck of the vessel. Clearly this was no ordinary piracy case.

In this excerpt from their upcoming book Dead in the Water, Bloomberg correspondents Matthew Campbell and Kit Chellel recount the aftermath of Mockett’s murder—and how suspicions about the fate of the Brillante began to mount.

The following is a book excerpt.

About a week after her husband’s death, Cynthia Mockett heard someone knock on the door of the Vicarage, their home in Devon.

It was a police sergeant in uniform, there to take a statement. She invited him into the living room, where David’s image remained constant in her life, thanks to the framed photographs of him all around: some as a handsome young sailor, others smiling with a glass of wine in the garden, or posing with an arm around their daughters.

The officer seemed apologetic that he couldn’t do more for Cynthia. The Devon and Cornwall Police obviously had no jurisdiction in Yemen, and the British government had decided it was too dangerous to send detectives there to conduct a proper investigation.

The police were doing their best in difficult circumstances, he explained, and they needed her help.

Cynthia was exhausted. She’d spent the week acting as a focal point for her entire family’s grief, receiving condolences

Dead in the Water

Penguin Random House

from all over the world. The bureaucracy of loss also fell to her. Retrieving David’s body had proved difficult.

Officials in Aden had been reluctant to facilitate the repatriation until a friend of the Mocketts’ persuaded the boss of a local shipping company to foot the bill. And there were so many financial matters to settle, including his life insurance policy. She wasn’t entirely confident that it covered death overseas by car bomb.

To add to the pressure on Cynthia, the British media had taken an interest in what happened to David, and reporters had been showing up at the house.

A Briton apparently blown up by terrorists made for a compelling tabloid story. One newspaper published a quote in Cynthia’s name, saying she feared the blast was so powerful that there would be no body to bury. Either the statement was fabricated, or the reporter had spoken to someone else: she never gave the interview and never said anything remotely to that effect.

But despite Cynthia’s weariness, she was keen to help the police if she could, so she gathered herself and offered the sergeant a cup of tea. She was under no illusions about how difficult it would be for the British police to tease the truth out of Yemen. As she’d learned in her years visiting Aden, it could be a confounding place.

“Yemen is a world of relationships, not institutions,” wrote Ginny Hill, an analyst and journalist who covered the country for more than a decade. Partly for reasons of self-preservation, “each version of events that is revealed to you depends on the speaker’s assessment of your connections and suspected affiliations.”

When it came to investigating Mockett’s death, the identity of the person making the inquiries would be critically important. Were they a Saleh loyalist, linked by shadowy financial ties to the president’s family? Or were they connected to another of the dynastic clans jostling for position in the aftermath of the Arab Spring? Perhaps the questioner was an honest local detective, or a jihadist double agent who’d fought allied forces in Iraq.

Matthew Campbell and Kit Chellel

Matthew Campbell and Kit Chellel

Matthew Campbell and Kit Chellel

The answer could be different each time. A Westerner ignorant of Yemen’s power structures might not get a meaningful response at all. “There are many versions of the same moment, and each of them is somehow valid,” Hill wrote.

After taking notes of Cynthia’s account of her last conversations with David, the sergeant asked about the details of his final job: the Brillante Virtuoso. The police wanted to explore any avenue that might have led him unwittingly into conflict. Cynthia explained that most of Mockett’s professional materials were held at his office in Aden, and agreed to call the young Sri Lankan surveyor that David had taken under his wing there.

When he answered the phone, Mockett’s protégé sounded terrified.

“Madam, the file has been stolen,” he said. In the days since Mockett’s murder, he told Cynthia, someone had slipped into the office and rifled through his things. Whoever it was had taken Mockett’s diary, as well as his entire dossier on the Brillante. The surveyor seemed worried about his phone being bugged. “I have got to be very, very careful what I say,” he said. “What do I do, madam?” Cynthia had met the man several times, and always thought he was an excellent choice as David’s understudy. She could think of only one thing to say. “Do what he’s taught you to do,” she said. “You have to do what you think is right.”

Matthew Campbell is a reporter and editor for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. Kit Chellel is a reporter at Bloomberg and a writer for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. This is an excerpt from their new book Dead in the Water.