Pirates, Inc.: Inside the booming Somali business
Meet the modern-day brigands behind the sometimes sophisticated, always risky operations that raked in an estimated $80 million in ransoms in 2008.
On a blazing morning in early May, Hassan Abdullahi and eight other men got into their small, wooden boat – each armed with a Kalashnikov rifle, a grenade, and outsized hope. They pushed out from a village near Bossasso, a large port in the Puntland region of Somalia, into the gentle waters of the Gulf of Aden to seek their fortune. They would make their way west 250 miles along the Somali coast before turning north toward Yemen, where busy shipping lanes narrow near the Red Sea.Skip to next paragraph
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Their goal, shared by a Somali businessman living abroad who funded their weapons and boat, was to attack commercial ships and hold them for ransom.
Neither Hassan, a fisherman, nor his crew mates – who like most men in a nation of goatherds had no seafaring experience – had ever worked as pirates before, and this was their maiden voyage. Their motive was simple: money. Their method was as elementary: Attack the first ship they saw.
"I was just doing fishing for the past eight years, and I was doing fine, but I [saw] friends doing piracy and getting rich," says Hassan, the 20-year-old leader of the group. "I thought I'd give it a try."
Meet the rank and file of Pirates, Inc. Legions of young men like these living in war-ravaged Somalia are the muscle behind piracy in the Indian Ocean. The brains behind this business – which raked in an estimated $80 million in ransoms in 2008 – can be as sophisticated as a CIA operation, with high-tech resources and highly placed personnel, or as haphazard as a Keystone Kops operation. Hassan's enterprise was more like the latter – and it didn't go well.
But that's just what was captured by cameras. Piracy is booming off the coast of Somalia. There were 111 attacks on ships here in 2008 (42 were hijacked successfully); more – 114 – were attacked just in the first four months of 2009 (29 were successful), reports the International Maritime Bureau's Piracy Reporting Centre.
World leaders recognize, to their chagrin, that the problem requires more than just a few warships and airdrops of food aid to a starving, well-armed, and desperate nation. Capturing men like Hassan does as much to solve piracy as arresting a drug dealer does to win the war on drugs. Hassan is the lowest rung in a criminal network that includes corrupt port officials, politicians, and investors from Europe, Asia, and America. The big bucks – with the average ransom now estimated at $2 million – never reach people like Hassan, say Somali piracy experts. At most, mere gunmen stand to earn $10,000 to $20,000 apiece. But in a country devastated by two decades of war, where the average income is $500 a year and 60,000 people are at immediate risk of starvation, $20,000 for a little dangerous work is a risk worth taking.
But while Puntland had a degree of security and stability missing in the rest of Somalia, government corruption allowed criminal enterprises to flourish, with arms smuggling and people-trafficking, counterfeiting and piracy. When pirates bring a ship to port for the protracted process of negotiating a ransom, they generally find safe harbor in Puntland's ports of Ayl and Bossasso.
Hassan says he was contacted by an investor "to attack foreign ships in exchange for ransom," but he refuses to name the man or say where he is based.