Somalia’s Sea Wolves
I have arranged to meet our pirate, somewhat incongruously, in the desert. I board a 1960s prop airplane that smells of goat and is piloted by four portly Russians. After a series of short hops across Somalia’s northern wastes, we touch down on a red-dirt strip outside the town of Galcayo. The government in the capital, Mogadishu, doesn’t control even half that city, let alone the hinterland, and the day before we arrive, seven people die in a gunfight in Galcayo. So at the airport, I hire eight men with AK-47s at $15 a day each, then drive across town to the high-walled aid-group compound where I’m staying. I am here to talk to a pirate king called Mohamed Noor, better known to his shipmates as Farayere, or Fingers. I want to ask Fingers why, when Somalia’s pirates face an international armada at sea, when some 1,000 pirates have been arrested and scores more have died, piracy is still rocketing.
Fingers arrives alone. He is skinny and sun-creased for his 32 years. We introduce ourselves, tea is poured, and Fingers indicates I should start. How do you organize a pirate attack? I ask. There are no fixed pirate crews, Fingers replies. Instead, a few investors pool the money to hire two skiffs with fast outboards, employ five to 10 young men with guns — whoever shows up — and buy them enough food, water and fuel for a month. The investors then send their pirates out with orders not to return until they have captured a ship. That’s it. Hundreds of pirates never return at all, says Fingers. Some drown at sea. Many more run out of food, water or fuel and die, starved and parched, adrift on the ocean.
“One time there was this group I knew that ran out of food and a guy died — and the other guys ate him,” Fingers says, speaking in Somali through an interpreter.
“They ate their friend?” I ask.
Fingers laughs. “It’s not a crime if you’re about to die,” he explains.
Fingers says he has invested in scores of pirate crews. I want to know about the ships he has captured and ransomed himself. In five years, he says, there have been two. The first earned him a split of $75,000, the second $280,000. Of that $355,000, he invested $50,000 in a money-lending business in Nairobi, the capital of neighboring Kenya. That still leaves more than $300,000, a sizable haul anywhere but a fortune in Somalia, the world’s most failed state, a place that has been at war with itself for 20 years and where annual incomes are normally measured in the hundreds of dollars. Yet when I examine Fingers, I see no signs of wealth. He is squatting on the floor and is dressed like any East African deckhand: cheap thongs, a thin shirt and an old kikoi.
“Fingers,” I ask, “where did all the money go?”
“Gone,” he laughs.
“You spent it all?”
“I bought houses and cars. I bought a couple of Land Cruisers. I spent the money on friends. I enjoyed it. Now it’s gone. That’s why I’m still a pirate. I need the money. Besides, it’s fun.” Then Fingers shrugs and gives me a look that says: What did you expect from a pirate? Responsibility?
The Somalia Syndrome
straddling the trade route between East and West, the Indian Ocean has been a favored haunt for pirates for centuries, as pirate graveyards on Réunion and the Seychelles attest. But Somali pirates are a relatively recent phenomenon. When Ibn Battuta visited Mogadishu in the 14th century, it was the pre-eminent city of the Berbers and noted for its merchants and clothmakers — and Somalis would have been more prey than predator.
That’s all changed now. Somalia hasn’t had a central government since 1991. In some 20 years of civil conflict, the fighting has morphed from battles among local warlords and Islamist militias to war on the U.N. and the U.S. to, today, the African Union against al-Shabab, an affiliate of al-Qaeda. The chaos and lawlessness such a history implies inevitably reduce the chances of earning a legitimate wage and turn illicit trades like arms dealing, drug smuggling and piracy into industries.
According to the Kuala Lumpur — based International Maritime Bureau, Somali pirates attacked 117 ships in the first three months of 2011. That’s an all-time high, more than double the figure for the same period last year, raising the number of ships held in Somalia to 28 and sailors to 600. (The totals for the past decade are 160 ships and 4,000 sailors.) The pirates are increasing not just the frequency of their attacks but also their range. They now take ships across the Indian Ocean as far south as Mozambique, as far north as the United Arab Emirates and as far east as India. An area that large is all but impossible to police. And just as they always did, the pirates are targeting an artery of world trade: 40% of global seaborne trade, or 300 cargo ships a day, makes the passage between East and West through the Indian Ocean. That means the ransoms paid to the pirates by shipowners and their insurers are a mere fraction of piracy’s true cost. Risk consultancy Geopolicity said in May that higher insurance premiums, extra security, longer routes taken to avoid attacks and the consequent rise in prices of goods transported added up to anywhere from $4.9 billion to $8.3 billion.
Increasingly, there is a price to be paid in blood as well. Whereas Somali pirates once rarely used violence, from January to March they killed seven sailors. Shippers also report frequent beatings and torture of sailors, even a few instances of keelhauling. The rise in bloodshed is explained partly by the pirates’ discovery that it speeds and raises ransoms and partly by the increasingly lethal nature of contacts between pirates and foreign warships belonging to a 25-nation antipiracy armada. In January, South Korean commandos killed eight pirates while rescuing 21 hostages from a hijacked freighter. In February, as U.S. forces closed in, pirates shot dead four American hostages who had been on an around-the-world sailing trip. When forces from Puntland, a semiautonomous region of northern Somalia, tried to free a Danish yachting couple, their three children ages 13 to 17 and two other adults in March, another group of pirates killed five of the soldiers. In May, a Taiwanese skipper was killed in a shoot-out between pirates and the U.S.S. Stephen W. Groves, a frigate that is part of the antipiracy patrol.
A few days before I meet Fingers, I hear a firsthand account of the pirates’ growing industriousness in a Kenyan café on the edge of Mombasa’s old town. Last year, Joseck Amere was one of 39 Kenyans crewing for a South Korean captain on the Golden Wave, a 300-ton, 85-m trawler fishing for tuna, crab, lobster and prawns off Kenya’s northern coast. Just after dawn on Sept. 9, Amere saw two skiffs skid across the horizon. He fetched some binoculars. “I can see five or six guys, and they have weapons,” he says. “Two RPGs, two heavy machine guns, six AK-47s. They start firing. They signal us to stop. The captain tries to escape, but the pirates put a ladder over the side, climb aboard, run to the wheelhouse and punch the captain. ‘If you want your lives, cooperate or we will kill you all,’ they say. ‘We are not scared of anything. We know we can die any minute, but we’ll kill you all first.'”
The pirates sailed for Haradheere, a pirate base a day’s drive from Galcayo. There a group of town elders boarded the ship, denounced the crew for stealing Somali fish and told the captain he had three choices: “Cooperate and use your ship to hijack a tanker. Pay us $6 million. Or we’ll behead you and sink your boat.” The captain chose to hijack a tanker.
Which is how the Golden Wave became a pirate mother ship. For the next six months, using Amere and his crewmates as human shields, the pirates roamed the Indian Ocean. First to fall, on Oct. 24, was a Singapore-flagged, 5,076-ton liquid-natural-gas tanker, the York, boarded at anchor off Mombasa. The Golden Wave then moved to the Seychelles, where, after attempting 17 ambushes in 21 days — all of which failed — the pirates captured a German cargo vessel, the Beluga Nomination, on Jan. 22. The hijack turned violent when the Seychelles coast guard opened fire: one pirate and two crewmen were killed. Two days later, the pirates hijacked an Iranian fishing boat. Then they boarded a Pakistani fishing boat and stole its radio, laptops and fuel. Finally, running low on fuel again, they ambushed a third boat. By this time, Amere said, he was a member of the boarding team, albeit one with a gun to his head.
In early February, the pirates returned to Haradheere. Amid celebratory drinking, dancing, gunfire and chewing of khat (a stimulant), one pirate took pity on the Kenyan crew. Amere says the pirate gave him a satellite phone and enough fuel for a day, and at 4 a.m. the Golden Wave slipped out of Haradheere. Once at sea, the crew picked up an escort from a Finnish warship, and they finally returned home to Mombasa on Feb. 17, six months after they set out.
The pirates’ ability to act seemingly with impunity illustrates an uncomfortable realization now dawning on the navies of the world: that even in the 21st century, when warships can fire cruise missiles through a window in downtown Tripoli, controlling piracy is beyond them. Peter Hinchliffe, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping and the International Shipping Federation, says that while the warships created a small secure corridor through the Gulf of Aden, “no one asked, If we do this, what will the pirates do? And, of course, they simply moved elsewhere.”
Even if the world’s navies agree on a plan — Hinchliffe suggests targeting mother ships — it’s not certain that military muscle alone can end piracy. When the international armada began arresting pirates, Kenya initially volunteered to imprison them, then balked when it realized how many there would be: 1,007 by May 2011, according to the U.N. Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC). In an attempt to meet the size of the problem, the UNODC has rehabilitated a jail in Hargeysa, Somalia, that can hold 460 inmates. Small numbers of pirates are also working their way through the justice systems of 20 countries from the U.S. to Japan. But piracy is potentially limitless. While the UNODC reckons there are currently some 2,500 Somali pirates, the number of unemployed Somali men available to replace any who are detained runs to hundreds of thousands.
The biggest single obstacle to ending piracy is that it pays so well. Not so long ago, a few hundred thousand dollars would free a ship. Today a tanker goes for $5 million to $10 million. Hinchliffe estimates total ransoms paid in 2010 at anywhere from $75 million to $238 million and the return for a pirate investor at around 10,000%. With no other way of freeing sailors, shipowners or their insurers continue to pay. Says Alan Cole, a Nairobi-based piracy specialist at the UNODC: “The shipowners say, ‘There’s no way we can get people back apart from paying ransoms.’ And the governments say, ‘If you keep paying ransoms, there is no way we’re going to be able to stop this.'”
One recent development might put a spanner in this flourishing industry: consistent reports that al-Shabab is now taxing pirates and funding its own hijackings. “All the guys who have been arrested recently came out of Kismayo,” says a Nairobi-based piracy expert. (Kismayo is a southern Somali port under al-Shabab’s control.) Anyone paying ransom to a group allied with al-Qaeda — especially one that became an international terror group in its own right when it killed 76 people in a bomb attack last year in Kampala, Uganda — would be liable for prosecution in the West. But while al-Shabab’s involvement may dampen the ransom business, it will not end it. Many northern Somali pirates have no relationship with al-Shabab. The nightmare scenarios are bleak. Hinchliffe speculates about an environmental disaster involving a hijacked oil tanker. Cole warns of the possibility of a humanitarian catastrophe on a pirated cruise ship. Andrew Mwangura, an independent Mombasa-based piracy monitor, sketches out a scenario in which terrorists use hijacked ships to block the Gulf of Aden at its narrowest point, the 30-km Bab-el-Mandeb.
There is a bay on the northern shore of Madagascar in whose thick forests, legend has it, lie the ruins of Libertalia. Some 300 years ago, the Indian Ocean was a favorite for European brigands who made their living on the high seas. But as Captain Charles Johnson recounts in his 1724 General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, piracy wasn’t all rum and yo-ho-ho. Johnson portrays Libertalia’s founders — James Misson, a former French navy officer, and Signor Caraccioli, a lapsed Italian priest who sailed with him — as revolutionaries. Caraccioli was something of a radical, and he convinced Misson and his crew “that every Man was born free, and had as much Right to what would support him as to the Air he respired … The vast Difference betwixt Man and Man, the one wallowing in Luxury, and the other in the most pinching Necessity, was owing only to Avarice and Ambition on the one Hand, and a pusillanimous Subjection on the other.” Caraccioli persuaded the men to use robbery to punish the wealthy and buy their freedom. With their takings, they built a utopia on Madagascar in which a rotating leadership replaced kings and captains, religion had no hierarchy and private wealth was banned. Misson’s crewmen, Caraccioli declared, “were no Pyrates, but Men who were resolved to assert that Liberty which God and Nature gave them [and] were Barriers against the Rich and Powerful.”
Libertalia is most likely a myth. Its ruins have never been found, Misson himself may not have existed, and Charles Johnson is a pseudonym, perhaps Daniel Defoe’s. But the legend contains elements of truth. In the 17th century, a band of English dissidents did establish a settlement in Ranter’s Bay, on Madagascar, where they rejected organized religion and lived off piracy. Libertalia’s founding ideals would also have been familiar to any 17th century rebel.
Libertalia holds lessons for those trying to end piracy today. To Misson’s men, piracy was a means to an end — fighting oppression and building a future of fairness and prosperity. Likewise, Somali pirates will often claim, as Fingers does, to be former fishermen who first attacked Asian fishing trawlers that were devastating Somali fish stocks. If that was once true, it isn’t now: kidnapped crewmen report that many pirates can’t swim, let alone sail, while the recovery in fish stocks engendered by piracy’s deterrent effect has not been accompanied by a revival in the Somali fishing industry. Nevertheless, the notion that the world has dealt Somalis a cruel hand and that piracy will never be fixed unless some genuine Somali grievances are addressed is widely supported. “The only real solution is on land,” says Graham Westgarth, chairman of the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners, a trade body.
It wouldn’t take utopia. A more modest vision — a little less lawlessness, a little more development — has brought Omar Mohamoud Omarsuuri, a onetime IT teacher in Birmingham, in the U.K., back to the land of his birth. “The root cause of piracy is lack of strong authority onshore,” says Omar. Despairing of a functioning national government, he and a selection of clan leaders have formed a regional one in a new state they have founded in central Somalia, Galmudug, at whose core is a new police force of 400 men. Omar hopes they will be the foundation of a state-level normalization that will lead eventually to legitimate businesses and legal jobs. Their initiative finds strong support from Somalis, even those linked to piracy. Adar Abdirahman, 40, is mother of Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, who was sentenced to 33 years in jail in New York City in February for piracy. Adar says her son was just 15 — “a child soldier” — when he became a pirate and 16 when he was arrested by a U.S. Special Operations team. “If you’re going to tackle piracy, do it properly,” she says, “not by arresting children but attacking the root cause: a failed state with no government, schools or jobs.”
It’s a brave project. But standing in its way, I can’t help but feel, is Fingers. When I ask him if he’s happy, he replies, “I am. I don’t depend on anyone. When I want a woman, I give her money and she becomes my mistress. When I need a ship, I go out and take one. No one can stop me. The sea is as big as Somalia. No one can control Somalia. And no one controls the sea.” Ending piracy will require building a better Somalia for tomorrow. Trouble is, Fingers and thousands like him are already living their Libertalia today.