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.
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Hassan's investor was a relatively small player. Some pirate crews are given satellite phones to get real-time intelligence on the location and crew of a target. Some rent out "mother ships" to carry them far out to sea, giving the pirates enough cover to draw close to a targeted ship before launching their attack with smaller skiffs. Those who have mother ships even bring their own caterers to feed them for weeks at sea, says Professor Pham.Skip to next paragraph
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Early pirate crews headed to sea at the first sign of a ship on the horizon. Hassan's strategy wasn't much more evolved. But many of today's successful pirates track ships from port to port, often relying on inside information – the British newspaper The Guardian reported that pirates have "consultants" in the close-knit ship-brokerage and insurance industries of London to help target ships.
But shipping schedules are easily obtainable on the Web and in the local business press. Seeking ransom, the pirates are more interested in the crew than the cargo, Pham says.
"The pirates who planned the attack on the Maersk Alabama ... knew who was on that ship," says Pham. "When the ship [carrying food aid to Mombasa, Kenya] left Djibouti, everyone in port knew who the crew was and that it was due to arrive in Mombasa within a week. It didn't require a genius to plot a course to find the Maersk Alabama."
The capture of the ship brought Somali piracy to the attention of many Americans, as much for its violent resolution – with US Navy Seal snipers killing three of the pirates, and the fourth sent to the US to face trial – as for the hijacking itself. But had the pirates been successful, the owners of the Alabama would almost certainly have paid a ransom. Experts estimate that $80 million in ransom was paid by dozens of shipowners in 2008. The average ransom has risen sharply from $1 million to $2 million in the past six months. (The majority of the 42 hijackings in 2008 ended without harm to crews, a stark contrast to the more violent piracy now coming under control in the Strait of Malacca between Indonesia and Malaysia.)
"Generally, roughly 30 percent of the ransom goes to the investors, 20 percent goes to the government officials and port officials or even Islamists who guard the boat while negotiations are going on," says Pham, who has interviewed former hijackers and knowledgeable Somali and Puntland government officials. The remaining 50 percent goes to the pirates themselves, often on the deck of the hijacked ship, from the teenager who takes night guard duty ($1,000) to the actual pirates who board the ship ($10,000 to $20,000).