April 17, 2009 -- With rusted AK-47 rifles slung across their backs, the emaciated, barefoot pirates cruise the vast waters off the coast of Puntland, Somalia, into the Gulf of Aden in decayed motorboats, like sharks hunting their next meal.
These small bands have captivated the world's recent headlines and news cycles, with at least 79 attacks on boats in the past year, collecting an estimated $150 million in ransom money.
Today there's joy and anticipation for the family of cargo ship captain Richard Phillips. He's headed home to Vermont after being held hostage for five days by the Somali pirates.
These men, some teenagers, have managed to hold the world's most powerful navies at bay in a sophisticated operation far surpassing the outward, antique appearance of their tools.
They have also made one of the most essential shipping lanes in the region arguably the most dangerous route of passage on Earth.
Little is known about the pirates of Somalia, except that any ship worth a ransom seems to be fair game. In November, pirates hijacked the Saudi-owned Sirius Star, a super tanker three times the size of an aircraft carrier. They attacked the relatively small French luxury yacht, Le Ponant, with a crew of 30, last April. The pirates hold more than 280 sailors captive on an esitmated 15 ships. One thing is certain, as seen this past week with the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, these pirates aren't intimidated by a naval battle cruiser, and their actions can lead to deadly consequences.
Meeting the Pirates
To try to understand who these pirates are, why they started, and what motivates them, Finnish documentarian John Hakalax, along with cameraman Jussi Arhimaki, gained unprecedented access into the war and poverty-ravaged Somalia. With limited ability to get into the country, Arhimaki traveled alone deep into the dragon's den, to meet these pirates face to face.
"I made this documentary because I'm interested in people," Hakalax said in an interview with ABC News. "When I heard we had the possibility to do a documentary on the pirates of Somalia, I was curious what kind of people they are."
With the protection of a childhood friend and guide, a Finnish-Somalian with family connections to the pirates, and guarded daily by a small army of hired guns, Arhimaki was well aware of the danger involved.
"You have to have proper security, otherwise you will be in the back of a truck quite fast." Arhimaki said. "You really don't want to go anywhere without proper protection."
In a country where white men with expensive cameras symbolize money, Arhimaki traveled through the Puntland region with an especially big target on his back. The danger was not only the pirates he was going to meet, but the warlords, gun runners and even the military manning checkpoints on the roads.
"At the checkpoints, you never really knew, are these honest soldiers? Or is somebody else paying them, or are you their payday? There's always the constant threat to get shot at," he said. "You can hear gunfire going off daily."
Even his friend was approached at times with a scary request.
"I was probably the only white guy for hundreds and hundreds of kilometers," Arhimaki said. "People were all the time asking my friend, 'Can you keep that white guy for us? We want to kidnap him.' In a poor country, I'm referred to as money."
Somali Pirates Living in Poverty, Desperation
The poverty, evident in the slumped mud huts, dirt roads and sunken fly-specked faces of the Somalian people, seems to be a driving force behind the chaos gripping the country. Arhimaki would meet and interview pirates, faces shrouded by scarves to hide their full identities as hunted men. For these pirates, poverty and desperation were repeating themes.
"It felt like the whole world was attacking us," said Hassan Ali Mohammed, the so-called pirate chief of Somalia. "By sending boats to rob our fish, and make our sea a dumping ground."
Mohammed, 40, said he was the mastermind behind two major hijackings, netting hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransom.
He said that the first pirates were fisherman, their jobs and livelihood taken from them by hoards of foreign boats passing through their waters, breaking through their fishing nets, taking their fish and dumping pollutants into the sea.
"Every week we can find barrels drifted to the shore," he said. "No one knows what's inside them. We've got lots of new diseases. A lot of people and animals have been infected. Everything indicates that the diseases have come from the sea along with the pollution.
'Now I Have to Risk Everything'
"The reason I chose this work is because my livelihood was destroyed and I could not provide bread for my family."
Meanwhile, Ali Isman, who also claimed to one of the founders of the pirates, told cameraman Arhimaki, "We wanted to raise awareness of the situation we were in. We wanted to show that we can do something,"
Isman said he was an educated man, coming to the coast to fish for a living. He found a lost industry when he arrived, presenting him with few options: Leave or become a pirate.
"It was a difficult situation for me," he said. "I had come from the city and had a good education. Now I have to risk everything, maybe harm someone or get harmed."
Isman also said he was part of the first hijacking several years ago. "A ship that belonged to the Iranians was hijacked, and the way it happened that night was, there were two boats, I was very scared," he said. "At that time our purpose was just to show that we can harm people the way they harm us, by taking our resources and poisoning the ocean, but not to make any money or to get any wealth or get in anybody's way."
The Pirates' Code
The pirates said they followed a code in the beginning, three major rules for how they would operate.
"When we started we had three major rules," Isman said. "First, we hijack boats without harming anybody. Second, don't go into situations where you can get harmed yourself. Third, a hijacked boat can't be hijacked again."
They also set up a system of payments, those who took greater risks in the hijack would receive more of the cut.
"The man who jumps into the [hijacked] boat first gets paid, double," Isman said. "The first one is usually the one who gets killed or shot at.
"Everybody gets their stake of the ransom money," another man, Farah Hassan, told Arhimaki.
"Even the girl who cooks for the hostages gets $1,200. For sure, there are some rich pirates. Some have built big houses, some have bought a lot of cars or even transportation companies," said Hassan, the weapons dealer and equipment supplier for the pirates.
The money also helps the pirates operate within Somalia; some is used to pay off the warlords in the region, some is also said to pay off men stationed at various ports who tip the pirates off on what boats are passing through.
Celebrity Status for Successful Pirates
"In a country where the average per capita income is something like $600," piracy expert Dan Sekulich said. "When you're talking about a $2 million ransom for a vessel, once its split off, you're talking about tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars which can be made in a single year."
Sekulich examined the rise in piracy on a global scale in his new book debuting next month, "Terror on the Seas: True Tales of Modern Pirates." The pirates' wealth has given them celebrity-like status in their hometowns, he said.
"Pirates have become in Somalia, you almost would call them a Hollywood echelon of stars because of the income that they garner," Sekulich said. "That means that could then build homes, buy cars, they can spread money around. It's almost a variation on the classic mobster movie tale where the man comes into the restaurant and spreads some money around because he's the big man in town. They have created their own lifestyle, but it's a criminal lifestyle, let's make no bones about it.".
But, according to the pirates who talked to Arhimaki, the money they've earned comes with its own problems.
"My occupation is not as pleasant as implied," Isman said. "We are in so much trouble that we don't even have a place to use our money. Because there's always someone hunting you. Just like pirates hunt boats, the highway robbers hunt pirates. They are waiting for us with their guns. The biggest fear I have is when I'm traveling in the city with money. When everybody gets greedy, it leads to a situation where you lose your life."
But other men say they have nothing to lose. "I'm not afraid of death," Hassan said. "They can do whatever they wish, the famine would have killed me anyway."
A Way to End Piracy?
Sekulich has little sympathy for the plight of the pirates, and he doesn't exactly buy their tale of losing the fishing industry or their claims about rampant pollution from outside ships.
"Over-fishing and the dumping of waste goes back to the early 1990s and, while that is certainly something that would anger any Somali, whether they work at sea or at shore, it doesn't justify the actions that are being taken today," Sekulich said. "Why does that give you permission to go off and attack a super-tanker, or an aid-ship carrying food to your own people?
"In the course of piracy going on in Somalia, in the last year and a half, there's been no rebuilding going on in Somalia. In fact, the opposite has happened," he said. "Somali pirates are nothing more than thugs."
But the filmmakers came away with some sympathy for the pirates and for the people of Somalia, in general.
"They felt like somebody was attacking their livelihood, they were taking the fish out in a sense," cameraman Arhimaki said. "They said that if they could, they would go back to fishing and normal jobs they would do it instantly and piracy would stop. Again it's the poverty thing that really keeps piracy going.
"You really have to look at the root problem. So I would say today if poverty would be on some stage so that people could eat, and would have normal jobs the piracy would end," he said.
Pirate Attacks Grow More Violent
But there's no end in sight to the poverty and, as the ransom amounts increase and the stakes rise, Arhimaki said the piracy ranks have grown from a few hundred to thousands. Many young men, lost without a chance for an education, are searching for an opportunity.
"I think the people who join the pirates come from everywhere," Arhimaki said. "That could be your golden lottery ticket. I met this guy named Mohammed who wanted to join the pirates and basically you could tell he was a young, smart intellectual kid with no money who wanted an education but the only way you get an education or the money for it is through piracy. If you have nothing to lose, you go for it."
Such an influx of young, testosterone-filled and rather inexperienced pirates, Arhimaki said, might explain why the pirate attacks of late have become more brazen, and more violent. The three pirates shot to death by Navy snipers last week while holding Capt. Richard Phillips were said to be teenagers themselves.
"I think it's more or less there are more teenagers and, as we know, teenagers don't, maybe, think through all they are doing," Arhimaki said.
The pirates themselves admit their actions are not justified, but they also have no regrets.
"We don't see piracy as justified but, like I said, we want to raise awareness of our struggle," Isman said.
Pirate Motivations: Famine, Tragedy
"But if the conditions don't improve, I will have to continue as a pirate," he said.
"I'm defending myself from troublemakers and that's why I don't regret anything," Mohammad said. "God willing, we will stop when we get a government that really works on the peace."
Although documentarian Hakalax admited that it's impossible to uncover what fully motivates the pirates, he began to understand what drives them a little better.
"There seems to be certain bitterness about where they are with their country, the famine and tragedy of Somalia," he said.
Whether through military might or a worldwide effort to supply much-needed food, education and infrastructure to Somalia, one thing is clear: While Somalia smolders and descends deeper into poverty and violence on land, and unarmed ships worth millions pass by its shores, the pirates of Somalia will continue to roam the sea, ready for their next hijacking, prepared to die.