Somalia's Piracy Problem: Robbery on the High Seas Too Lucrative to Refuse

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Another prisoner in Hargeisa is Ahmad Muhamad Jama. The 30-year-old also claims to have been a simple fisherman and says his boat had also merely drifted off course. Though he claims to have never encountered any pirates, Jama says he supports them "morally." He also seems surprisingly familiar with the piracy business. "It's very hard to stop," he explains. "People are forced to avenge their brother or father whenever they are killed at sea." He also compares the riches that can come from piracy to "brainwashing for the young."

Indeed, the pirates have become heroes for many young Somalis. One of the prisoners in Hargeisa is 18-year-old Muhammed Yussuf Abdia, who was sentenced to a year in jail for attacking his father with a machete. The young man has no compunction about saying that he wants to become a pirate -- the "commander of a unit," no less -- once he is released. His role model is Farah Ismail Ilie, one of the unofficial bigwigs in the Hargeisa prison.

Discussions with prisoners at Hargeisa reveal the degree to which the situation has escalated. There are often no witnesses to the encounters between naval ships, pirates and the vessels they prey upon. Jama claims to have lost three relatives himself. He says they headed out to sea to go fishing. "We never saw them again," he says, "only the wreckage of their boat washed up on shore." No one knows if the boat was the victim of an accident or an attack by a foreign warship. "Many never come back," says Adam, Jama's fellow prisoner.

Hargeisa prisoners also provide a clearer picture of how the foreign fleets operate. Naval crews from around the world prefer to take as few pirates into custody as possible. Instead, they stop the suspected pirate boats and, if the pirates haven't already thrown them overboard themselves, they confiscate weapons, scaling ladders and GPS devices. Sometimes they destroy the outboard motors; sometimes they give the pirates food and water.

One notorious case involves the Russian destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov. In May 2010, the vessel arrested 10 Somalis after they attacked a Russian oil tanker. The Russians seized their weapons and navigation instruments and then gave them a little food and water. Then they were left to their own devices 600 kilometers (373 miles) from shore. The pirates were never seen again.

Fishermen Profiting from Piracy

Another pirate in Hargeisa tells the story of a Russian naval vessel that stopped his boat, tagged it with paint, removed its outboard motor and reported its coordinates to the Somaliland coast guard, which merely had to pick them up.

The pirates aren't the only ones to profit from their thriving trade; the fishermen do as well. Yussuf Muhammed Ahmed, the 39-year-old head of the local consortium of 500 fishermen, stands on the pier at Berbera. "When it comes to our earnings," he says, "the pirates are a boon. Otherwise we'd have nothing." He explains that pirates have forced the fishing fleets from Spain, India and Italy to go elsewhere. Catches, he said, are much higher now than they were five years ago. Only deep-sea fish have yet to recover.

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