STEVE INSKEEP, host:
People in Somalia have lived through almost 20 years of bloodshed and chaos. An experience like that tends to sharpen people's practical thinking, and for many Somalis choosing a line of business is the most pragmatic decision they'll make. The choice often comes down to this: what does not work is wrong. What works is right. Which may explain the growth of a multi-million dollar Somali industry. NPR's Gwen Thompkins has the latest report in our series on piracy.
GWEN THOMPKINS: Roughly speaking, Somalia is shaped like the number seven, but the nation isn't half as lucky. On the top of the seven is Somaliland, which is on the Gulf of Aden. Somaliland calls itself an independent republic and steers clear of the commotion in the other regions.
On the corner of the seven is Puntland, which is located on both the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. Puntland means land of spices, but the region is better known for human trafficking, and of course piracy. Most hijacked ships are moored off Puntland.
And then at the bottom of the seven - and fully on the Indian Ocean - is an area called the South, which is where Mogadishu is and the Islamists who are fighting the current president. Somaliland, Puntland, and the South each have pirates.
But here at Mandhera Prison, on the Gulf of Aden, Farah Ismail can attest that some pirates are luckier than others.
Mr. FARAH ISMAIL (Prisoner): (Through translator) My aim was to go and capture the ships, but it was not successful. Both times I failed.
THOMPKINS: Farah Ismail may be the worst pirate in the whole wide world. He's a 38-year-old fisherman from Somaliland who decided to make the switch to piracy back in 2006. That's when he says he got mad at foreign vessels fishing illegally off the Somali coast. So Ismail got a crew together and lit out on his boat looking for a trawler to hijack. He says he wanted to teach the owners a lesson and make a little ransom money on the side. But Ismail says the ship got away.
Mr. ISMAIL: (Through translator) Yeah, because by that time we didn't know what we know today, so we were just trying to pursue them using our normal fishing boats, so theirs was faster.
THOMPKINS: So Ismail bought a better engine for his boat. He bought a satellite telephone. He bought an AK-47, pistols, and a retractable ladder. And he brought over some experienced pirates from Puntland to do the job right. By then he was less interested in illegal fishing and more interested in making a fantabulous ransom. He needed to catch a yacht, or better yet a cruise ship.
Mr. ISMAIL: (Through translator) And I could love if I got one with tourists, with many people on board.
THOMPKINS: But before Ismail could get his boat into the water, his neighbors ratted him out to the Somaliland authorities. That was last October. He's been sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Mr. ISMAIL: (Through translator) They caught me red-handed, with everything — the weapons, the boat, everything.
THOMPKINS: Somaliland has had fewer problems with pirates in part because there's peace here in Somaliland. They also have a little coast guard. Officers on this boat recently nabbed nine pirates who tried to hijack a Yemeni fishing boat.
Now the men are in Berbera prison, but only the birds here are singing. These guys don't even like saying their names.
Unidentified Men: (Foreign language spoken)
THOMPKINS: The fellas say they don't know nothing about pirates. Ahmed Mohammed Mohamood(ph) says all nine of them just got into a boat one day to go fishing. He also says they're all from Somaliland, but that is apparently a lie. With the exception of Mohamood, none of them has a Somalilander accent. They apparently talk like a Puntland pirate who goes by the name Abshir Abdullahi Abdi and the nickname Boya. In a recent telephone conversation from Puntland, Boya said he's a pirate all the way.
Mr. ABSHIR ABDULLAHI ABDI (Pirate): (Through translator) I will be a pirate until I die. We're not animals. We are human. We are normal people. We share with the people.
THOMPKINS: Puntland and Somaliland are pretty far different. Many in Puntland's government are said to be in league with the pirates. And with more than a dozen hijacked ships off the Puntland coast, piracy clearly has local support. Fishing villages there have been devastated by illegal trawlers and waste dumping from industrialized nations. Coral reefs are reportedly dead. Lobster and tuna have vanished. Malnutrition is high. Boya says he knows piracy is tearing at the seams of traditional Somali values, but he says he values the money and the mouths it can feed more.
Mr. ABDI: (Through translator) We understand what we're doing is wrong. But hunger is more important than any other thing.
THOMPKINS: Sometimes doing a bad thing is the only way to get you and the people you love into a better situation. Say hello to Milk Sucker, who goes by the name Abdul Rashid Osman. Milk Sucker's nickname suggests he became a pirate at a very young age, and it paid off. Pirate money got his siblings out of southern Somalia and gave him a different life in neighboring Kenya.
Mr. ABDUL RASHID OSMAN (Pirate): (Through translator) Never, never, I will not go back to pirate at all. I got my share.
THOMPKINS: Sequestered in a Nairobi hotel room for fear of being discovered by the police or by fellow pirates, Milk Sucker says he worked his way up from indigent lobster fisherman to driving the attack boat in hijackings. Now, he says, he wants to move to the West and maybe work in a chicken processing plant.
Mr. OSMAN: (Through translator) If I were educated when I was in Somalia, then you know, I could work at offices. If I cannot do this job, I cannot start education. What I can do now is to cut the chicken. This is my way.
THOMPKINS: Chickens - there's no pragmatism like Somali pragmatism. Rashid Abdi Sheik is a Somalia analyst for International Crisis Group in Nairobi. He's also Somali. He offers a pragmatic remedy for piracy off Somalia. He says it takes a pirate to stop a pirate, the same way it takes a computer hacker to stop a hacker. He recommends deputizing former pirates from Puntland.
Mr. RASHID ABDI SHEIK (International Crisis Group): These are people who know the sea, you know. And as we have seen, they are bright, successful, smart, and courageous as well. This is the right material for making a coast guard. And so why should we not do it?
THOMPKINS: But the pirates in this story say they have little incentive to work against their brothers on the high seas. That is, unless the price is right.
Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Hargeisa, Somaliland.
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INSKEEP: In spite of all the challenges, it is possible to cut down on piracy. Five years ago, the Malacca Strait in Southeast Asia was teaming with pirates.
Unidentified Man: (Through translator) Sometimes we get as much as 5,000 euros from one ship and we use the money to have a good time. We go to a beach city and spend it on happy-happy.
INSKEEP: That was then. Now piracy in the Strait of Malacca is way down, with just two attacks last year and a lot less happy-happy. You'll find out why when our series continues tomorrow.
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INSKEEP: This is NPR News.
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