RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In the waters off Somalia, rarely a week passes without pirates attacking or seizing a ship. Something like 2,000 pirates operate from Somalia's shores, and the ransoms keep going up. They now average between four and five million dollars.

NPR's Frank Langfitt recently visited an autonomous region in northwest Somalia called Somaliland, and he concludes his series with this rare view of the pirate business.

FRANK LANGFITT: Last year, the coast guard in the Indian island nation of the Seychelles made a big find. They seized a Somali pirate skiff. Inside was an 11-page, handwritten pirate contract. Like many business ventures, the contract outlined everything from division of profits to an employee code of conduct. There were even incentive bonuses.

Wayne Miller is a former police officer from Australia. He spent last year teaching the Seychelles' police how to interrogate pirates. Miller has seen the contract and describes how it worked.

Mr. WAYNE MILLER (Former Police Officer): The people who were investing in this, if they provided AK-47s or RPGs...

LANGFITT: That's rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

Mr. MILLER: ...or fuel, and even the skiffs and mother ship themselves, they were given a certain share, which was quite high. And that ensured that whatever monies were made, the bulk would come back to them.

LANGFITT: I spoke to Miller in an outdoor restaurant in Somaliland. He said ransom shares for pirate workers were divided between those who did the more dangerous jobs - hijacking on the sea - and those who did the safer ones on land.

Mr. MILLER: Shares on land would relate to taking care of hostages once they were taken ashore. We noticed that the biggest share went to one particular person, and my assumption is that would be the negotiator.

LANGFITT: Miller says the contract even outlined a pirate code of conduct.

Mr. MILLER: They weren't allowed to fight unnecessarily. They had to obey the orders of the person who was the designated captain. It was basically behavioral code, and the penalties were usually financial.

LANGFITT: And what were the penalties?

Mr. MILLER: Certain amount of shares would be taken away from them if they didn't abide by the code.

LANGFITT: The contract was not all stick.

Mr. MILLER: What was striking were bonuses for being first to board another ship.

LANGFITT: In fact, pirate researchers say the first on board can sometimes win a Toyota Land Cruiser.

Piracy thrives in Somalia for two reasons. First, Somalia is one of the world's most-failed states. In practice, that means pirates can work in areas where there are no police - or at least police are easily bribed. Second, Somalia is a desperately poor country. The money in piracy is comparatively huge and hard to resist.

Just ask Moha. Moha works as a security officer in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. Because of the risks associated with his story, he asked only his first name be used. Several years ago, Moha visited the neighboring pirate hotbed of Puntland. He says a friend hooked him up with a pirate, who tried to recruit him.

MOHA (Security Officer): He was a very simple guy, did not have any fancy clothing or anything, and he had an AK-47 machine gun. And he had this plastic paper bag, and there was some money in it.

LANGFITT: As an enticement, the pirate asked Moha to count the money.

MOHA: It took me around two-and-a-half hours.

LANGFITT: Moha, who spoke with me along the Somali coast overlooking the Gulf of Aden, says it amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Knowing Moha was fluent in English, the man offered him a job translating hostage negotiations. Moha wondered why the pirate couldn't find someone local. He says the pirate explained it like this...

MOHA: The problem we have here, we don't have translators. They have to bring them all the way from Dubai, which takes a lot of time to get our money. I was really tempted.

LANGFITT: Moha says he couldn't sleep at night. Somalis typically make two or $300 a month. The translating work would provide a lifetime's worth of wages and pay for a new house, an SUV. But Moha was wary. As an outsider, he had no clan to protect him in Puntland, and Moha feared as soon as his translation job was finished, he would be, too.

MOHA: Once we come on land, he will just tell one of his cousins who doesn't have money, that guy is from Hargeisa. Shoot him in the head and take the money. It will just be simply like that.

LANGFITT: Moha says he never contacted the pirate again and slipped out of town.

Stig J. Hansen is an expert on Somali piracy. He teaches international relations at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and has interviewed more than 30 pirates. Hansen says a successful hijacking can net an ordinary pirate 35 to $50,000, even more.

But he says the pirates' purchasing power is not as strong as you'd think. The flow of ransom money into local Somali economies drives up prices, and pirates' relatives nag them for cash. Hansen spoke by Skype from his home in Norway.

Professor STIG J. HANSEN (International Relations, Norwegian University of Life Sciences): One of the men, he told us that he didn't know that his family was so big before he went into piracy, because now, suddenly, he had all these dependents who were running after him to get money.

LANGFITT: Hansen says many pirates try to retire after a hijacking or two. They find the working conditions too risky and worry about swamping skiffs in high seas.

Mr. HANSEN: Most of them said that they wanted to establish some kind of import/export business.

LANGFITT: Hansen says the big pirate syndicates are becoming more professional, but some smaller operators are surprisingly incompetent.

Mr. HANSEN: Some of the habits of these pirates are very strange. I encountered older pirates who were big failures, forgetting to tank enough fuel, doing rough things to their engines. You know, they're not good at maintaining their skiffs at all.

LANGFITT: Shirwac - he only wanted his first name used - is a pirate spokesman. He works in the Somali town of Hobyo, a pirate lair on the Indian Ocean. Shirwac says pirates' biggest challenges today are foreign naval warships that he says are increasingly resorting to force. Speaking by cell phone, Shirwac cited a case this month in which Dutch Marines killed two of his fellow pirates in a shootout to free an Iranian fishing boat.

SHIRWAC (Pirate Spokesman): (Through translator) We were talking to them on the phone. This was our own pirate militia. They told us two of them were killed, four sustained injures and the remaining 12 were OK. They told us the Marines had jumped onto their boat, and that's the last thing we heard.

LANGFITT: Somali pirates are hip to the Western media. Eager to spin a sympathetic tale, Shirwac claims pirates are really just an informal coast guard that cracks down on illegal fishing and levies, quote, "taxes."

SHIRWAC: (Through translator) We are not pirates. We are the people guarding our coastline. The pirates are the people who invaded. They have come from over 5,000 miles away with warships and planes.

LANGFITT: But experts say the idea that pirates are environmental Robin Hoods is ridiculous. Illegal fishing is a big problem off Somalia, but most of the hijackings occur hundreds of miles offshore, and most targets are cargo ships -even oil tankers - which have huge ransom values and nothing to do with fishing.

In the end, experts says Somali piracy is what it is: a high-stakes, high-risk business.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And you can find out more about piracy from our series. The stories are at our website: npr.org.

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