For a Somali pirate, it's all about skill, contacts and luck

The booming piracy industry, which is centred in the Horn of Africa, has gone far beyond the ragtag days of three or four years ago. Sophistication has replaced improvisation.

Ahmed Mohammed Adan, convicted pirate, at the Hargeisa prison in Somalia.
Powered by automated translation

HARGEISA, Somalia // Ahmed Mohammed Adan knows that every Somali pirate who sets out to sea is taking a big gamble.

An attempt to hijack one of the giant cargo ships or oil tankers passing through the Indian Ocean or Arabian Sea could end in capture, death - or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Adan, six feet tall, broad-shouldered, and 23 years old, speaks with some authority on the subject, having been convicted of piracy in a local court more than a year ago. He is now in a prison in Hargeisa in northern Somalia.

Though he denies ever hijacking a ship, or even trying to, he is still able to detail the life of a pirate. Despite its great risks, piracy continues to lure thousands of young Somali men like him because of the prospect of great rewards.

"There's a lot of people who are actually interested," he said, sitting in a prison office in his crisp yellow uniform. "But you have to be well-connected."

Adan grew up with his parents and 11 siblings in the town of Galkayo in Puntland, the central region of Somalia, where piracy has flourished.

After finishing secondary school he worked for three years as a driver delivering the narcotic plant khat. He earned US$700 (Dh2,571) a day, he said, with much of it going to reimburse his crew and to pay for the fuel and maintenance for his four-wheel drive vehicle after the axle-rattling 250km daily trek over potholed roads.

A crash destroyed the vehicle and his livelihood, and turned him to the sea. His family owned a boat and he became a fisherman, hiring a crew and hunting sharks. That brought in $1,000 a month, he said, which also had to cover his expenses.

However, the skills he perfected at handling a boat and navigating at sea were just the kind that the many pirate recruiters covet, he said.

The booming piracy industry, which is centred in the Horn of Africa, has gone far beyond the ragtag days of three or four years ago. Sophistication has replaced improvisation, with successful pirates required to know how to fire a rocket-propelled grenade and an AK-47, as well as use a satellite telephone and read a GPS system, an official with the United Nations counter-piracy programme said.

Equally important, an accomplished pirate must also belong to the right clan, the critical circle of trust in Somali society.

These prerequisites are no guarantee of success, Adan said. Weapons break. Engines fail. Navies stand more prepared than ever to protect the sea lanes with force.

It was the last pitfall that ensnared Adan. Along with six others, he was arrested in Somaliland by the regional coast guard, tried by a local court and sentenced to 15 years in jail. The sentence was reduced to two years on appeal.

Despite the risks, however, for an impoverished young Somali whose prospects are dim, the lure of piracy can be irresistible.

According to Adan, a team of pirates typically includes a veteran leader and fresh recruits. A group of investors, usually about five, supply the team with a boat, fuel, ladders and weapons. A deal is struck, sometimes in writing. The investors usually get half the profits and the negotiator a quarter. The crew splits the rest.

A typical piracy operation in the Indian Ocean lasts two weeks and costs $3,000, Adan said. If the team fails to seize a ship in that time, they return to port, refuel and set sail again, he said. When they succeed in capturing a ship, they dock it, keep the kidnapped crew alive and wait for their negotiator to secure a ransom.

Commander Stein Olav Hagalid, a Nato representative, said pirates succeed about every one in four attacks. While ransom negotiations are more arduous now, lasting an average of about seven months, ransoms are rising, too. The average payment now tops $5 million, Commander Hagalid said.

Even with their relatively small split of the profits, that means that after just one, two or perhaps three successful missions, a pirate can become an investor, recruit others to carry out the dangerous work and relax, Adan said.

"Once they get some money, they don't want to take chances - they send another crew to go," he said.

With tens of millions of dollars in ransoms streaming in, Adan's hometown of Galkayo is thriving. More of its residents are opening small businesses, driving big cars and building homes.

For now, in prison, he receives weekly visits from his mother, who is staying with relatives to be near him. The rest of the time he talks with the other six men arrested with him.

To prevent recruiting, he and some 50 other jailed pirates are kept separate from the other 250 inmates, said Abdirashid Osman, a prison official.

Adan said that after completing his jail term next year, he will go to South Africa, where his brothers run two small shops. They earn enough to each send $200 back home to Somalia each month.

But even if Adan switches careers and settles for a modest income, many more like him will be drawn to the sea and the life of a pirate. From the Gulf of Aden to the Indian Ocean, thousands of pirates now roam for targets, the UN says.

"I don't see in the near future it will stop," Adan said. "It's not a war you can win."