Western security firms have now discovered piracy as a new business sector -- one worth millions. Their portfolio of services includes making contact and negotiating with pirates, supporting relatives and preparing and delivering ransoms. Occasionally things go wrong, such as when Somalian officials recently arrested three Britons, two Kenyans and an American at the airport in Mogadishu. When they searched through the group's luggage, they found $3.6 million in cash meant as ransom for two ships seized by pirates last year.
Among those sitting in the new jail in Hargeisa is Ahmed Muhammed Adam, from the port city of Bosaso in Puntland. He was arrested on April 17, 2010 along with six others.
Like almost all the other suspected pirates incarcerated in Hargeisa, Adam claims to be just a hard-working fisherman with no connections to piracy. The motor of his boat broke down and Adam says they then drifted westward from the coast of Somaliland. Then, he says, a foreign frigate spotted his boat and relayed its coordinates to the coast guard. Adam was given a 15-year sentence.
Despite his denials, Adam went on to provide some astonishing insights into the piracy trade. "Anyone who goes out is assuming a risk," he says, "and most of them suffer a defeat." He adds that, before becoming a lucrative business, piracy was a way to fight back against foreign ships. In fact, the business has gotten so lucrative that the high risks involved no longer frighten people off. He also says that it won't stop, either, because people like him view the ransoms "as a type of tax."
These days, lots of people are dying off the coasts of Somalia, and only a fraction of the victims are ever identified. In mid-May, helicopter-borne American soldiers shot dead four Somali pirates as they were trying to board the Artemis Glory, a German supertanker. The ship's crew had already repelled a number of attacks before the helicopter took off from the USS Bulkeley, an American destroyer, and came to their rescue.
In recent months, there have been a number of similar episodes. But they still haven't done anything to reduce the number of pirate attacks. On the contrary, as the pirate Adam puts it: "Whenever 20 die, there are always 20 more to replace them."
Adam also says that the pirates have devoted some of their profits to obtaining better equipment. "They now have speedboats that can escape from any warship," he says. He adds that the prestige that pirates gain from a successful seizure is enormous. "Whoever brings back a ransom is untouchable."
As such, it is no wonder that pirates who have successfully seized a ship enjoy so much support on land. "The major clans and families are also involved," Adam says, "all of them." He adds that the state no longer has any influence in Hobyo, a large pirate nest on Somalia's eastern coastline. "A minister recently wanted to talk with the clans," Adam recounts. "But he encountered serious difficulties already on his way to Hobyo."
Adam is also convinced that the state is powerless to stop piracy. "In the 1990s," he explains, "you could have still pulled it off. But that's no longer the case. It's too late now; the ransoms are too high."