The Pirates Are Winning!

Jehad Nga/The New York Times/Redux
Pirate militiamen at a port in Hobyo, Somalia, August 20, 2010

Abshir Boyah is one of Somalia’s pirate chieftains. Last spring, he took me to lunch at a small restaurant directly across the street from the presidential palace of the Puntland semiautonomous regional government. Boyah has hijacked dozens of ships and is a member of a secretive council of pirates called “The Corporation.” He is six foot four, very thin, with a long, handsome face, brilliant white teeth, and a booming, supremely confident laugh.

The minute we walked into the restaurant, he was surrounded by admirers. Before we sat down at a plastic table for our meal of spaghetti and camel meat, Boyah must have shaken half a dozen hands. He seemed to have excellent relations with high-ranking officials in the Puntland “government”—a limited, clan-based authority in northern Somalia—including a police commander who sat next to him and called him “cousin.” Boyah joked that his eating with white men was like “the cat eating with the mice.” It was becoming clear that Boyah was not simply operating in the open. In this part of Somalia, he was a celebrity.

Boyah and his comrades (many, in true pirate spirit, have distinctive nicknames: Big Mouth, White Butt, Small Butt, Silver Tooth, Red Teeth, Abdi the Liar) are brash, candid, and surprisingly accessible—most Somali pirate gangs even have an official pirate spokesman. By their own admission, they are driven by one thing only: cash. But the flourishing criminal enterprise they have built along some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes has had a wider effect. Nothing in recent years has grabbed international attention and focused it squarely on Somalia—not famines, relentless civil war, or even the first American suicide bomber, who blew himself up in Somalia last year—more than the true-life tales of twenty-first-century buccaneers who swing grappling hooks over the sides of the largest ships in the sea, climb on board dripping wet and heavily armed, and hold crews hostage for months, until millions of dollars in ransom are literally dropped from the sky.

For the past twenty years, since its central government collapsed, Somalia has become one of the prime examples in modern history of a country without a state. Nothing seems to work. Not American soldiers storming ashore in 1992 to take on the warlords (they left two years later, deeply humiliated by the “Black Hawk Down” fiasco). Not the seven thousand African Union peacekeepers who fight in the ruined streets of Mogadishu today. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost to starvation and war. And the violence keeps mounting, most recently in what is ostensibly a religious war between a moderate Islamist government that gets millions of dollars of Western aid but controls almost no territory and a radical Islamist insurgency egged on by al-Qaeda. Deep-seated clan rivalries and war profiteers…

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