Pirates find lucrative work stalking coasts
By Elizabeth A. Kennedy
NAIROBI, Kenya — The spoils of a career as a pirate off Somalia’s high seas were simply too good for Abdi Muse to pass up. He bought two Land Cruisers and a new home, then married two women in one passionate week.
"I was giving away money to everyone I met," said Muse, 38, who said he made $90,000 hijacking ships. "After two months, I had no money left. Can you believe it?"
For years, Somali pirates like Muse have found lucrative work stalking the country’s lawless coast, seizing boats and negotiating ransoms. But these brazen assailants could soon face more force as the United States and France muster international support for taking them on.
"This is a very important and serious signal that the nations of the world take (piracy) seriously," said Cmdr. Lydia Robertson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy.
The United States has been leading international patrols to combat piracy along Somalia’s unruly 1,880-mile coast, the longest in Africa and near key shipping routes. Now, the U.S. and France are drafting a U.N. resolution that would allow countries to chase and arrest pirates after a spate of recent attacks, including a Spanish tuna boat hijacked this week by pirates firing rocket-propelled grenades and a Dubai-flagged cargo ship seized while carrying food to the desperately poor country.
The cargo ship was rescued Tuesday by Somali forces, who arrested seven pirates, but the Spanish boat and its crew remain in the hands of hijackers.
French officials say they are pushing for a resolution that would make it easier for armies to swoop into other countries’ waters and nab pirates. The push comes after French commandos freed hostages on a French tourist yacht seized earlier this month off the coast of Somalia, and then chased the pirates on land and arrested them.
"The international community must respond and set up a rotating mechanism to control and keep watch with our naval forces so as to guarantee the security and protection of all those who fish or sail through that zone," Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said as his country awaited word on its hijacked tuna boat.
Many Somali pirates are trained fighters linked to politically powerful clans that have carved the country into armed fiefdoms; others are young thugs enlisted to do the dirty work for older, more powerful criminals, who turn a profit by taking a cut of the ransom money and selling the ship’s cargo.
Pirates often dress in military fatigues, using speedboats equipped with satellite phones and Global Positioning System equipment. They are typically armed with automatic weapons, anti-tank rocket launchers and grenades, according to the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia.
Somalia’s already overstretched government welcomed the initiative to involve international forces in patrolling its pirate-infested coastal waters. Wracked by more than a decade of violence and anarchy, Somalia does not have a navy, and the transitional government formed in 2004 with U.N. help has struggled to contain a deadly insurgency.
"These forces could come inside the country if it is needed," said government spokesman Abdi Hagi Gobdon.
To some pirates, however, the prospect of international force is not particularly daunting.
"We are not scared of the U.S. troops or any other troops stationed off our waters. Why should we be scared?" asked Siyad, a Somali pirate who asked that his full name not be used for fear of reprisals.
"They have weapons, but so do we. And we are the ones with the human shields," he said, noting that troops are loath to use force because it risks harming hostages.
The International Maritime Bureau says piracy worldwide is on the rise, with seafarers suffering 49 attacks between January and March — up 20 percent from the same period last year.
Nigeria ranked as the No. 1 trouble spot. India and the Gulf of Aden off Somalia’s northern coast tied for second, with each reporting five incidents. Somalia had 31 attacks involving pirates in 2007 alone, according to the International Maritime Bureau.
Noel Choong, head of the agency’s piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur, said simple economics can explain much of Somalia’s burgeoning piracy.
"At the end of the day, you hijack a ship, you get paid ransom," Choong said. "These pirates aren’t frightened because the returns are so big."
The pirates frequently travel in open skiffs with outboard motors, often working with larger mother ships that tow them far out to sea. With an intimate knowledge of local waters, they clamber aboard commercial vessels with ladders and grappling hooks.
The attackers generally treat their hostages well in anticipation of a big payday. Shipping companies and foreign governments rarely acknowledge paying ransom, but recent demands have soared into the millions of dollars.
"Our motivation is money, so it is not our plan to harm the hostages we take," Siyad said. "We never agree to release the hostages or the ship before the ransom is paid in cash."
Andrew Mwangura of the Kenya-based Seafarers Assistance Program estimates that Somali pirates have received more than $3 million in ransom this year alone, an astronomical sum even considering it would be split among dozens or even hundreds of criminals.
International terrorism, always a concern in the volatile Horn of Africa, and particularly in lawless Somalia, does not appear to have a role in the country’s piracy, according to several observers.
"I don’t know that there has been a tie. We’re not necessarily looking for one," said Robertson, the U.S. Navy spokeswoman.
Ali Abdi Aware, the foreign affairs minister in Somalia’s semiautonomous Puntland region, where many of the attacks take place, said he does not know of any links between piracy and foreign terrorists. But, he added, the pirates’ disregard for law and order in general "may encourage terrorism."
Siyad said his decision to become a pirate was a matter of survival. Impoverished and with no job prospects, he saw two options: risk his life by fleeing Somalia in a leaky boat to the more prosperous countries across the Gulf of Aden, or join up with pirates who were flush with cash.
Now, $35,000 richer after hijacking two vessels, including a Japanese tanker seized in December, Siyad said the best, most profitable choice was clear.
He plans to use his spoils to try to escape the poverty and instability of Somalia. "I want to go abroad using a safe route, using my money," he said.