The Pirates Are Winning!

October 14, 2010

Jeffrey Gettleman

E-mail Single Page Print Share

Somalia: The New Barbary? Piracy and Islam in the Horn of Africa
by Martin N. Murphy
Columbia University Press, 179 pp., $26.50 (to be published on November 23)                                                  

Warriors: Life and Death Among the Somalis
by Gerald Hanley
London: Eland, 228 pp., $32.95 (distributed in the US by Dufour)                                                  


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 eagerly feed this bloodshed. Meanwhile the perfect conditions for piracy prevail: anarchy, a cold war legacy that has left Somalia armed to the teeth, and a 1,900-mile coastline abutting the Gulf of Aden, which 20,000 ships traverse each year.

Of course, there have been other weak or relatively weak states with strategic coastlines, such as Nigeria or Indonesia, where lawlessness has spawned piracy, and pirates have utilized many of the same tactics found in Somalia, like the grappling hooks, the speedy skiffs, and the so-called mother ships. But Somalia is different in an important way, which also explains why characters like Boyah have proved so hardy. The pirates of Somalia have an entire country nearly the size of Texas to use as a sanctuary. They hijack ships, sometimes as far out as one thousand miles from shore, and then steer them to well-known pirate dens where they dine on freshly slaughtered goat while conducting ransom negotiations.

For the hostages, it can be a long, hellish wait. Paul and Rachel Chandler, a retired British couple, have been held in a thorny, sweltering village a few miles from the Somali coast for almost a year, since their sailboat was seized in October 2009 during what was supposed to be their “trip of a lifetime.” In 2008, when more than a dozen hijacked ships, with more than three hundred hostages, were anchored off the coast of Somalia, Pottengal Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau in London, told me, “You can see the images of these ships on Google Earth. Nowhere else in the world would this be tolerated.”

More than thirty countries have dispatched gunboats to Somalia’s waters, but Mukundan doesn’t have much hope that they can dissuade the pirates, since there are more than two million square miles to patrol. Foreign countries have been reluctant to attack pirate dens on land, because it’s far less complicated and much cheaper to pay up. In each case, forking over the ransom may make sense. But when this becomes a common practice, it simply draws more young Somalis into the sea-jacking business and makes the pirates bolder and greedier.

Somali pirates will strike anything: one-thousand-foot-long oil tankers; tiny sailboats with three people on board; old-fashioned, crescent-sailed Arab dhows; freighters crammed with emergency food; freighters crammed with weapons; a tanker carrying extremely flammable benzene that American authorities worried could be converted into an enormous, floating bomb. The pirates have even attacked navy ships, apparently by mistake.

No one knows exactly how much they have netted in the past few years in ransoms but it is safe to assume at least $100 million. Often the booty makes them giddy. After a parachute packed with $3 million drifted down to the deck of the Sirius Star, a Saudi supertanker that a band of young Somali pirates hijacked in late 2008, the pirates divvied up the cash and impetuously sped away in their dinghies, in the middle of a squall. Several capsized and drowned. One dead pirate washed up on the beach with more than $150,000 in his pockets.

This excess has created a budding pirate culture. Pirate weddings are elaborate two- or three-day affairs, stretching deep into the night, with bands—and brides—flown in from outside Somalia and convoys of expensive 4x4 trucks. The prettiest young women in pirate towns dream of a pirate groom; little boys can hardly wait until they are old enough to sling an AK-47 over their shoulder and head out to sea. In these places, the entire local economy revolves around hijacking ships, with hundreds of men, women, and children employed as guards, scouts, cooks, deckhands, mechanics, skiff-builders, accountants, and tea-makers.

There’s no doubt that in Somalia, crime pays—it’s about the only industry that does. There is even a functioning pirate stock exchange in Xarardheere, where locals buy “shares” in seventy-two individual pirate “companies” and get a respectable return if the company is successful. Most of the money, though, is frittered away. Boyah, who personally has made hundreds of thousands of dollars if not millions, asked me for cigarettes when I met him. When I asked what happened to all his cash, he explained: “When someone who never had money suddenly gets money, it just goes.” He also said that because of the extended network of relatives and clansmen, “it’s not like three people split a million bucks. It’s more like three hundred.”

Over the past two years or so, some countries have tried to take a tougher line. There was a time, not so long ago, when merchant crews under attack would pelt pirates with tomatoes or squirt them with hoses. The Indian navy recently sank a pirate ship, killing several pirates and their hostages. In early September, US Marine commandos succeeded in capturing nine Somali pirates who had hijacked a German cargo ship off the coast of Yemen.Many merchant vessels now sail with privately hired armed guards. The pirates are learning that it is getting more difficult to hijack ships, and according to recent United Nations information, their success rate has slipped from 63 percent of attempted hijackings to 20 percent. Dozens of pirates have been captured and taken to Kenya, Paris, Amsterdam, and even New York for prosecution, though even more have simply been detained, disarmed, and sent back to the sea. Last year, Navy SEALS killed three pirates holding an American captive in a lifeboat. But the hijackings go on. As of mid-August, Somali pirates had commandeered thirty-one ships in 2010, which is roughly on track to match last year’s catch.

The Horn of Africa, that sharp lump of the African continent that juts into the Indian Ocean and nearly touches the Arabian peninsula, is one of the least democratic, most famine-prone, and most violent regions on the planet—as the past twenty years in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan have shown. The US and USSR perceived the Horn to be highly strategic territory and so it became a cold war battlefield. Enormous quantities of weapons flowed into deeply impoverished countries and the Horn’s dictators soon learned that they didn’t have to build institutions or develop a persuasive ideology to maintain power. They simply got in touch with Washington or Moscow and asked for more guns.

Somalia was about the worst example of cold war fickleness. First a pawn of the USSR, it was home to a sprawling Soviet guided-missile cruiser base, located in Berbera, along the Gulf of Aden. I visited the vast underground bunkers in which the Russians used to store ammunition and the cobwebbed workshops, now looted, where the Russian sailors once worked. At the time, the United States was supporting Somalia’s arch-rival, Ethiopia, as its client state.

But all that abruptly changed in the mid-1970s when Ethiopian army officers murdered their longtime king, Haile Selassie, and the country tilted to Marxist rule. The two superpowers switched, with the Soviets embracing Ethiopia and the United States moving into Somalia. More arms flooded in and the propped-up rulers in both places became all the more despotic. In 1991, as soon as the cold war was declared over, the regimes in both Somalia and Ethiopia quickly crumbled.

Somalia’s dictator, Siad Barre, had been living on borrowed time for years. Clan militias were chipping away at state authority throughout the 1980s and by the end of that decade, President Barre was derisively referred to as “the mayor of Mogadishu.” That was about all the territory he controlled.

Somalia has always been a difficult place to rule, despite the fact that it is one of the most homogeneous countries on the planet. Nearly all of its estimated seven million to eight million people share the same language (Somali), religion (Sunni Islam), culture, and ethnicity. But Somalis are divided into a dizzying number of clans, subclans, and sub-subclans. The Italians and the British colonized separate parts of the territory, but their efforts to impose Western laws never really worked. Disputes tended to be resolved by clan elders. “Kill me and you will suffer the wrath of my entire clan”—that, to many people, was law and order. The places where the local ways were disturbed the least, like British-ruled Somaliland, have fared much better in the long run than south-central Somalia, where an Italian-run colonial administration supplanted the role of traditional elders. South-central Somalia continues to fester as a source of bloodshed, Islamist radicalism, and piracy. Somaliland just held a peaceful election and—even rarer in Africa—a peaceful transfer of power.

Newsletter Sign Up
News of upcoming issues, contributors, special events, online features, more.