Somali pirates living the high life

By Robyn Hunter
BBC News

"No information today. No comment," a Somali pirate shouts over the sound of 
breaking waves, before abruptly ending the satellite telephone call.

    They wed the most beautiful girls; they are building big houses; they have 
new cars; new guns
Garowe resident Abdi Farah Juha

He sounds uptight - anxious to see if a multi-million dollar ransom demand will 
be met.

He is on board the hijacked Ukrainian vessel, MV Faina - the ship laden with 33 
Russian battle tanks that has highlighted the problem of piracy off the Somali 
coast since it was captured almost a month ago.

But who are these modern-day pirates?

According to residents in the Somali region of Puntland where most of the 
pirates come from, they live a lavish life.


"They have money; they have power and they are getting stronger by the day," 
says Abdi Farah Juha who lives in the regional capital, Garowe.

"They wed the most beautiful girls; they are building big houses; they have new 
cars; new guns," he says.

"Piracy in many ways is socially acceptable. They have become fashionable."

Most of them are aged between 20 and 35 years - in it for the money.

And the rewards they receive are rich in a country where almost half the 
population need food aid after 17 years of non-stop conflict.

Most vessels captured in the busy shipping lanes of the Gulf of Aden fetch on 
average a ransom of $2m.

This is why their hostages are well looked after.

The BBC's reporter in Puntland, Ahmed Mohamed Ali, says it also explains the 
tight operation the pirates run.

They are never seen fighting because the promise of money keeps them together.

Wounded pirates are seldom seen and our reporter says he has never heard of 
residents along Puntland's coast finding a body washed ashore.

Given Somalia's history of clan warfare, this is quite a feat.

It probably explains why a report of a deadly shoot-out amongst the pirates 
onboard the MV Faina was denied by the vessel's hijackers.

Pirate spokesman Sugule Ali told the BBC Somali Service at the time: "Everybody 
is happy. We were firing guns to celebrate Eid."

Brains, muscle and geeks

The MV Faina was initially attacked by a gang of 62 men.

BBC Somalia analyst Mohamed Mohamed says such pirate gangs are usually made up 
of three different types:

    * Ex-fishermen, who are considered the brains of the operation because they 
know the sea
    * Ex-militiamen, who are considered the muscle - having fought for various 
Somali clan warlords
    * The technical experts, who are the computer geeks and know how to operate 
the hi-tech equipment needed to operate as a pirate - satellite phones, GPS and 
military hardware.

The three groups share the ever-increasing illicit profits - ransoms paid in 
cash by the shipping companies.

A report by UK think-tank Chatham House says piracy off the coast of Somalia 
has cost up to $30m (£17m) in ransoms so far this year.

The study also notes that the pirates are becoming more aggressive and 
assertive - something the initial $22m ransom demanded for MV Faina proves. The 
asking price has apparently since fallen to $8m.

Calling the shots

Yemen, across the Gulf of Aden, is reportedly where the pirates get most of 
their weapons from.

A significant number are also bought directly from the Somali capital, 

Observers say Mogadishu weapon dealers receive deposits for orders via a 
"hawala" company - an informal money transfer system based on honour.

Militiamen then drive the arms north to the pirates in Puntland, where they are 
paid the balance on delivery.

It has been reported in the past that wealthy businessmen in Dubai were 
financing the pirates.

But the BBC's Somali Service says these days it is the businessmen asking the 
pirates for loans.

Such success is a great attraction for Puntland's youngsters, who have little 
hope of alternative careers in the war-torn country.

Once a pirate makes his fortune, he tends to take on a second and third wife - 
often very young women from poor nomadic clans, who are renowned for their 

But not everyone is smitten by Somalia's new elite.

"This piracy has a negative impact on several aspects of our life in Garowe," 
resident Mohamed Hassan laments.

He cites an escalating lack of security because "hundreds of armed men" are 
coming to join the pirates.

    They don't call themselves pirates. They call themselves coastguards
Garowe resident Abdulkadil Mohamed

They have made life more expensive for ordinary people because they "pump huge 
amounts of US dollars" into the local economy which results in fluctuations in 
the exchange rate, he says.

Their lifestyle also makes some unhappy.

"They promote the use of drugs - chewing khat [a stimulant which keeps one 
alert] and smoking hashish - and alcohol," Mr Hassan says.

The trappings of success may be new, but piracy has been a problem in Somali 
waters for at least 10 years - when Somali fishermen began losing their 

Their traditional fishing methods were no match for the illegal trawlers that 
were raiding their waters.

Piracy initially started along Somalia's southern coast but began shifting 
north in 2007 - and as a result, the pirate gangs in the Gulf of Aden are now 
multi-clan operations.

But Garowe resident Abdulkadil Mohamed says, they do not see themselves as 

"Illegal fishing is the root cause of the piracy problem," he says.

"They call themselves coastguards."
Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2008/10/28 09:16:13 GMT


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