The Piracy Business: All The Headaches, But No Suits

Pirates in Somalia say their work is all about business. And the business includes training new pirates, testing ransom money, and even drawing investors. NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

While she was covering the seizure of ships off the coast of Somalia, NPR's Gwen Thompkins became acquainted with a few pirates. She discovered that they don't reveal their secrets, but under the right conditions, pirates can get a little chatty about their trade.

GWEN THOMPKINS: In piracy, death is almost always bad for business. And yet, last year, there were two murders reported on board the MV Faina cargo ship, hijacked off the coast of Somalia. A Somali pirate from a Habr Gedir clan shot and killed two other pirates from a Majarteen clan. Those clans don't normally get along. But in the unspoken code of Somali piracy, clan rivalries have no place in an operation.

Abdul Rashid Osman is a pirate and a Habr Gedir. He says piracy isn't supposed to get personal - it's business.

Mr. ABDUL RASHID OSMAN (Pirate): (Through translator) People forget about their differences when there is so much money at the stake. There is nothing to fight about.

THOMPKINS: Abdul Rashid Osman, a.k.a. Milksucker, would know. He made a fortune as a pirate off the coast of southern Somalia and now lives in neighboring Kenya. He would only speak from a rented hotel room in Nairobi. From a young age, Milksucker says he worked his way up from the guy who ferries pirates between ship and shore to the guy who drives the lead attack boat in a hijacking.

Milksucker says life and death depend on following the simple rules of piracy. He says the pirates who boarded the Maersk Alabama cargo ship last month died because they broke the rules.

Mr. OSMAN: (Through translator) These are small boys, you know, and it was their first attack. Four hundred kilometers they get inside the deep sea and they don't have the compass. They don't have other equipment. They don't have the technology to place the ship (unintelligible). So they were putting risk to their lives. So, you know, this was not well planned. This was just play this way.

THOMPKINS: On the telephone from the Puntland region of Somalia, a pirate who goes by the nickname Boyah agrees. Boyah said he doesn't condone the U.S. Navy SEALs killing three of the pirates who took the Alabama's captain hostage. But he also says he doesn't have any hard feelings toward the Americans either.

BOYAH (Pirate): (Through translator) We and the Americans were in good terms before, so let this mistake not happen again. And we're not going to revenge from that.

THOMPKINS: Milksucker says that any pirate worth his cut knows that a job that big takes a sandwich - that's at least three boats. And the lead boat fires at the bridge of the ship to divert the crew.

Mr. OSMAN: (Through translator) While the ship crew are busy with the fire, these two boats will make the sandwich attack.

THOMPKINS: The pirates in the other two boats sidle up to either side of the ship and climb aboard.

Mr. OSMAN: (Through translator) Yeah, and also it's dangerous job to do. The sandwiching is the most difficult job to do because, you know, when you go there you don't know if the people inside the ship are armed. Sometimes they could shoot you.

THOMPKINS: Many of the pirates train by climbing up the sides of already hijacked vessels along the Somali coastline. Most of the ships drop anchor somewhere between the Port of Eyl on the Indian Ocean and Harardera, farther south. The pirates train alongside local Somali fishermen who supply them with the essentials for about $100 a day. Milksucker says he started that way, but the first time he drove the attack boat, he says, he made $35,000.

Mr. OSMAN: (Through Translator) It was small money for me, because I was expecting a lot - a lot of money. But, you know, I was hungry, you know. I was - I wanted the money, so I took it.

THOMPKINS: When there's a dispute between pirates over money, Milksucker says, you can only argue so much before somebody gets a gun. Besides, he says, he was luckier than a lot of pirates. Take Farah Ismail, for instance. Ismail is a fisherman from the northern reaches of Somaliland on the Gulf of Aden. He says pirating is a little like wildcatting - nobody wants to invest in your work until you score.

Mr. FARAD ISMAIL (Fisherman, Pirate): (Through translator) In the beginning, nobody will give a cent. But when you capture the ship and you are on the ship and you have the ship, you will get whatever you want.

THOMPKINS: Ismail is now marking time in Mandera Prison in Somaliland. He had planned a hijacking last October, but the authorities got suspicious when he bought a fancy new engine for his boat. Police in the port city of Berbera said Ismail's boat looked too fancy for fishing.

Mr. ISMAIL: (Through translator) They asked, they start interrogating and asking me, why do you need this kind of boat? And then I'm going to - I'm a fisherman so I need to collect fish in the sea. Long last, they took everything.

THOMPKINS: Scratch a pirate and you're likely to find an out of work fisherman underneath. Most say illegal fishing and wasting dumping by industrialized nations along the Somali coast drove them to crime. But Rashid Abdi Sheik of International Crisis Group in Nairobi, says that fish or no fish, pirates pursue all manner of criminal activities.

Mr. RASHID ABDI SHEIK (International Crisis Group): But my own feeling is that groups that have been dealing in other forms of crime, like people smuggling, like the kidnap for ransom gangs, have all joined the piracy gangs because now it is the most lucrative industry. Now we are talking about criminal enterprise, well-organized, sophisticated, with international and local networks.

THOMPKINS: And he says that's how the ultimate marriage of convenience takes place. Normally pirates and Islamists don't mix. Theft is after all, anti-Muslim. But even al-Shabab, the Islamist who the U.S. says has ties to al-Qaida, trades with the pirates. Al-Shabab is fighting Somalia's new president for control of the country.

Mr. SHEIK: Now, does al-Shabab need guns? Yes, he does need guns. Most of the guns, as the U.N. study has shown, comes from Yemen. And who are the smugglers along those routes? The pirates. So, if an al-Shabab commander negotiates with a pirate commander to get these guns, that doesn't make him a supporter of piracy.

THOMPKINS: For a short while back in 2006, the Islamists who briefly controlled Mogadishu put a stop to piracy. But when they left power, the pirates came back. Western donor nations now support a moderate Islamist president. And they have recently committed more than $200 million to building up an indigenous police force in Somalia and bolstering the African Union peacekeepers there.

But Rashid Abdi says pirates will only give up when better moneymaking opportunities present themselves. So the west will have to think more creatively if they want to avoid the old sea sandwich. Or they'll have to get used to it, as a nuisance tax for sailing off the coast of East Africa. Just remember, when the pirates scramble over the sides of the ship it's so not personal. It's business.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Hargeisa, Somaliland.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.