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The Pirates Are Winning!

Gettleman-SomaliaMap-101410.jpg
Mike King

In his new book Somalia: The New Barbary?, Martin Murphy, an adviser to the US Navy and a visiting fellow at the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies at King’s College, University of London, refers to some colonial records to show that pirates in the Gulf of Aden were striking dhows and fishing vessels back in the 1950s. Before that, it seems Somalis were content to pick through shipwrecks. According to Robert L. Hess, in Italian Colonialism in Somalia,1 the sultans of what is now Puntland ran a “well-organized industry of salvage operations” in the 1800s, stripping clean European ships that ran aground along the treacherous coast of Cape Guardafui, the horn of the Horn.

Somalia is a long, thin coastal state, but most Somalis are not seafaring people. Even when it was somewhat stable, Somalia never developed much of a fishing industry, despite the fact that the Somali seas are teeming with tuna, shark, lobster, deep-water shrimp, and whitefish. Traditional Somali culture is rooted in pastoralism and goats and camels and the nomadic quest of finding the next green pasture. “Fish eater” in Somali is a derogatory term. The most stunning scene in Warriors, Gerald Hanley’s classic book on Somalia, first published in 1971, describes a young man from the interior seeing the ocean for the first time:

When Mohamed got down off his truck he was paralysed, rooted there in the sand and trembling from head to foot as he watched and listened to the great tumult of the ocean rolling to him. He had never visualized anything like it and he could not speak. Even the askaris [local soldiers] were silent as they watched him study it all with his rolling, worried eyes….For me it was one of the strangest experiences I have ever had, seeing a desert savage shivering in front of the ocean for the first time, as if expecting the ground to melt and swallow him up at any moment. We must all have been like that once, in a time of thunder or storm, a million years ago in innocence.

While Somalis may not have prized their seas, others do. During peak fishing seasons, trawlers from around the globe converge here. Many use dirty fishing tactics, like dynamiting reefs or employing giant, waterborne vacuums to suck up everything from the ocean floor—the fish, the coral, the rocks, the plants—decimating not just that year’s catch but future generations as well.

Many pirates I have interviewed spoke of their humiliation as fishermen after their run-ins with foreign fishing boats. They say the bigger boats cut their nets and boxed out their skiffs. They say the foreign fishing boats, years ago, before the pirates were pirates and they were simply poor fishermen, even fired guns at them. The pirates also complain about barrels of toxic waste washing ashore, illegally dumped a few miles out by foreign companies exploiting the fact that Somalia has no government to chase down the dumpers or file claims in international court. Maritime organizations in East Africa have corroborated these accounts.

Boyah, who is known throughout Somalia as a pioneer pirate, was born in the coastal town of Eyl, around 1966, according to documents from the US Treasury Department, which recently froze his assets. He told me that his family had been relocated to the coast from the hinterland as part of a government program to help drought victims. He dropped out of school when he was around eight and worked as a cook on a fishing boat. Then he became a fisherman. He hijacked his first ship in 1993, a fishing trawler that had illegally entered Somalia’s waters.

Boyah said that Somalia’s piracy trade began when fishermen like him armed themselves and forcefully boarded illegal trawlers to charge a “fine,” usually no more than a few thousand dollars. But the fishermen soon realized that the fishing fine was more lucrative than the fish. An effort by the Puntland government in 1999 to team up with a British company, Hart Security, to crack down on illegal fishing seems to have backfired and simply put more armed men on the seas. By the mid-2000s, many part-time fishermen had graduated to full-time piracy. Thanks to Boyah, his hometown of Eyl was emerging as the world’s new piracy capital.

The pirates soon organized themselves into gangs or “companies.” They took names like “Somali Marines,” “Central Somali Coast Guard,” “Defenders of Somali Territorial Waters,” and even the “Ocean Salvation Corps.” In the past, the pirates have tried to present themselves as guardians of Somalia’s coastline, a claim that seems increasingly ridiculous since they venture hundreds of miles out, now attacking ships closer to India than Africa. The truth is they are simply an offshore version of Somalia’s chaos-bred thuggery. For the past twenty years, in the vacuum of central authority, charismatic men who have learned to exploit clan connections, easy access to weapons, and a large pool of unemployed and uneducated youth have risen to dominate Somalia’s economy and its poisonous politics. They are the gun smugglers, the drug runners, the human traffickers, the importers of expired baby formula, the squatter landlords who expropriate former government buildings and lease them to displaced families.

One of Somalia’s biggest problems is this deeply entrenched and quite powerful class of war profiteers. They have been feeding off anarchy for so long that they refuse to let go. They will fight against any attempt to reestablish a government, no matter what that government is. “Taxes are annoying,” explained one olive oil exporter in Mogadishu about why he was buying missiles for insurgents.2

The pirates have figured out a way to graft their criminally driven local economy onto the global one. Initially, they simply positioned their skiffs in the congested Gulf of Aden and waited. One of the pirates who hijacked the MV Faina, a Ukrainian freighter carrying thirty-three T-72 Soviet-made battle tanks, told me that his crew was just bobbing along a busy shipping channel when they spotted a big, lumbering, blue and white ship, with ropes dangling down the side. Nowadays, though, with the increased naval presence in the Gulf of Aden, the pirates are moving farther south and farther east, using mother ships (usually hijacked trawlers) as floating bases to extend their range. The area between the Seychelles Islands and Tanzania is now a prime hunting ground.

Once on board, the pirates go directly to the bridge, hold the crew at gunpoint, and typically lock them up in the steamy crew quarters. But Somali pirates almost never intentionally hurt their hostages. Many are governed by a strict code of conduct that fines gunmen for abusing captives. Boyah said that there was even a printed copy of these rules, a so-called “Pirate’s Handbook.” The pirates seem to realize that the minute they start harming or killing captives they give Western powers the rationale to attack their onshore bases. Until then, the world is content to play an increasingly expensive game of cat and mouse. Some people, though, are losing patience. Last April, Nicolas Sarkozy ordered French commandos to storm a hijacked sailing yacht with a French family on board. The commandos shot dead two pirates, captured three more, and freed the ship, but they also killed the father.

Foreign navies have nabbed countless young Somali men cruising around in skiffs with heavy weapons and no fishing tackle. But that’s usually not enough evidence to charge them. They were arrested too early. But once the pirates have boarded a vessel it’s too late to try to arrest them, because of the risks. Under international conventions that go back hundreds of years, just about any country can try a suspected pirate caught on the high seas. Western navies have delivered more than one hundred suspects to Kenya, which initially agreed to prosecute them. But Kenya complained that the Western nations had not provided the promised funding, and many of those cases have stalled.

Martin Murphy seems convincing when he writes that despite a lot of hype, Somali piracy remains a homegrown, rudimentary, low-tech, and somewhat wild business. There have been many rumors about clean-cut executives in Nairobi, Dubai, and even London running the pirate rings, but I’ve found no evidence of this. There was talk of the pirates shrewdly investing their ransom profits in Nairobi’s real estate market and using night vision goggles and even a special paint to make their skiffs invisible to radar. When I asked another pirate boss, Mohamed Abdi, also known as Af Weyne, or Big Mouth, about the invisible paint, he looked hard at me. My translator had to repeat the question. Twice. And then Big Mouth threw his head back and laughed. “Total BS,” he said. He found it equally hilarious when I mentioned that the UN was considering freezing pirate assets. “What assets?” he said.

Murphy’s relatively short book—179 pages, without footnotes—provides a serviceable version of recent Somali history and how it has given rise to piracy. He tells some little-known stories, like how an Islamist sheikh was amputating hands in Mogadishu as far back as 1994. He makes a central point when he writes that the pirates

prey in the main on the weak, lame, inattentive or unlucky…. Valuable ships with motivated crews more often than not took the precautions that kept them out of danger.

There’s absolutely no reason, Murphy points out, to have sophisticated warships that cost hundreds of millions of dollars running piracy patrols. Why not find some private security outfit to take this over? Isn’t Blackwater, now called Xe, still in business?

Still, Somalia: The New Barbary? feels thin. You almost get the sense reading it that Murphy has never set foot in Somalia. Some chapters draw closely on wire service reports and newspaper stories (some of them mine). He fails to supply new information on Puntland, where at least some government officials seem to be in cahoots with the pirates, though no one, including UN investigators, has turned up anything solid.

Yet he is right that the “parallels between Somali piracy and the Barbary corsairs are pale at best.” The Barbary pirates were Muslims from a messy patch of Africa, harassing and eluding the world’s greatest powers. But they were extensions of official policy, not expressions of anarchy. Tripoli, for instance, had an ambassador stationed in London—who met with Jefferson and Adams, no less. The pirates worked for a government; the Barbary rulers who commissioned them to rob, pillage, and kidnap got a cut. The Western nations’ response was to pay “tribute,” a fancy word for blackmail. Yet one lesson from the Barbary days that shouldn’t be dismissed is how the piracy was finally stopped: the young American navy bombarded Tripoli and the French invaded Algiers. The solution was on land. The ocean is just too big.

There’s very little hope, in the near future, of the transitional government in Mogadishu becoming strong enough to wipe out the pirates’ bases. The government is simply trying to stay alive. The hard-line Islamist insurgents who control much of Somalia have flirted with dismantling the piracy business, but the money is too good. One group, Hizbul Islam, recently moved into Xarardheere and now gets $40,000 from each ransom. The more powerful insurgent group al-Shabab made a deal with the pirates in which they will not interfere with the pirates’ business in exchange for 5 percent of the ransoms. This seems to be the beginning of the West’s worst Somali nightmare. The country’s two top exports—piracy and Islamist radicalism—are at last joining hands.

Under growing international pressure and increased grumbling from Islamist sheikhs who say piracy is haram, or forbidden, security forces in Puntland arrested Boyah in May. But he hasn’t been charged yet. Many people believe he never will be. Among other things, Boyah and Puntland’s president are said to hail from the same sub-subclan. In Somalia, that is often what counts.

—September 14, 2010

  1. 1

    University of Chicago Press, 1967.

  2. 2

    See a story I wrote on this problem, “In Somalia, Those Who Feed Off Anarchy Fuel It,” The New York Times, April 25, 2007.

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