Page last updated at 09:16 GMT, Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Somali pirates living the high life

Somali pirates in a speedboat in the Indian Ocean

By Robyn Hunter
BBC News

"No information today. No comment," a Somali pirate shouts over the sound of breaking waves, before abruptly ending the satellite telephone call.

They wed the most beautiful girls; they are building big houses; they have new cars; new guns
Garowe resident Abdi Farah Juha

He sounds uptight - anxious to see if a multi-million dollar ransom demand will be met.

He is on board the hijacked Ukrainian vessel, MV Faina - the ship laden with 33 Russian battle tanks that has highlighted the problem of piracy off the Somali coast since it was captured almost a month ago.

But who are these modern-day pirates?

According to residents in the Somali region of Puntland where most of the pirates come from, they live a lavish life.


"They have money; they have power and they are getting stronger by the day," says Abdi Farah Juha who lives in the regional capital, Garowe.

Pirates guard the crew on the MV Faina
The crew on MV Faina are reportedly being well-looked after

"They wed the most beautiful girls; they are building big houses; they have new cars; new guns," he says.

"Piracy in many ways is socially acceptable. They have become fashionable."

Most of them are aged between 20 and 35 years - in it for the money.

And the rewards they receive are rich in a country where almost half the population need food aid after 17 years of non-stop conflict.

Most vessels captured in the busy shipping lanes of the Gulf of Aden fetch on average a ransom of $2m.

This is why their hostages are well looked after.

The BBC's reporter in Puntland, Ahmed Mohamed Ali, says it also explains the tight operation the pirates run.

They are never seen fighting because the promise of money keeps them together.

Wounded pirates are seldom seen and our reporter says he has never heard of residents along Puntland's coast finding a body washed ashore.

Given Somalia's history of clan warfare, this is quite a feat.

It probably explains why a report of a deadly shoot-out amongst the pirates onboard the MV Faina was denied by the vessel's hijackers.

Pirate spokesman Sugule Ali told the BBC Somali Service at the time: "Everybody is happy. We were firing guns to celebrate Eid."

Brains, muscle and geeks

The MV Faina was initially attacked by a gang of 62 men.

BBC Somalia analyst Mohamed Mohamed says such pirate gangs are usually made up of three different types:


  • Ex-fishermen, who are considered the brains of the operation because they know the sea
  • Ex-militiamen, who are considered the muscle - having fought for various Somali clan warlords
  • The technical experts, who are the computer geeks and know how to operate the hi-tech equipment needed to operate as a pirate - satellite phones, GPS and military hardware.

The three groups share the ever-increasing illicit profits - ransoms paid in cash by the shipping companies.

A report by UK think-tank Chatham House says piracy off the coast of Somalia has cost up to $30m (£17m) in ransoms so far this year.

The study also notes that the pirates are becoming more aggressive and assertive - something the initial $22m ransom demanded for MV Faina proves. The asking price has apparently since fallen to $8m.

Calling the shots

Yemen, across the Gulf of Aden, is reportedly where the pirates get most of their weapons from.

A significant number are also bought directly from the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

Observers say Mogadishu weapon dealers receive deposits for orders via a "hawala" company - an informal money transfer system based on honour.

Militiamen then drive the arms north to the pirates in Puntland, where they are paid the balance on delivery.

It has been reported in the past that wealthy businessmen in Dubai were financing the pirates.

But the BBC's Somali Service says these days it is the businessmen asking the pirates for loans.

Such success is a great attraction for Puntland's youngsters, who have little hope of alternative careers in the war-torn country.

Once a pirate makes his fortune, he tends to take on a second and third wife - often very young women from poor nomadic clans, who are renowned for their beauty.

But not everyone is smitten by Somalia's new elite.

"This piracy has a negative impact on several aspects of our life in Garowe," resident Mohamed Hassan laments.

He cites an escalating lack of security because "hundreds of armed men" are coming to join the pirates.

Somali pirate
They don't call themselves pirates. They call themselves coastguards
Garowe resident Abdulkadil Mohamed

They have made life more expensive for ordinary people because they "pump huge amounts of US dollars" into the local economy which results in fluctuations in the exchange rate, he says.

Their lifestyle also makes some unhappy.

"They promote the use of drugs - chewing khat [a stimulant which keeps one alert] and smoking hashish - and alcohol," Mr Hassan says.

The trappings of success may be new, but piracy has been a problem in Somali waters for at least 10 years - when Somali fishermen began losing their livelihoods.

Their traditional fishing methods were no match for the illegal trawlers that were raiding their waters.

Piracy initially started along Somalia's southern coast but began shifting north in 2007 - and as a result, the pirate gangs in the Gulf of Aden are now multi-clan operations.

But Garowe resident Abdulkadil Mohamed says, they do not see themselves as pirates.

"Illegal fishing is the root cause of the piracy problem," he says.

"They call themselves coastguards."

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