A Somali Pirate in Action Talks to AJ, Unraveling the Piracy Career Story

Somali pirates have captured world news’ headlines. They attack all types of vessels from small yachts to supertankers. The magnitude of Somali pirates’ attacks goes beyond the Somali waters to threaten the entire region around the Gulf of Aden.

Although international warships are patrolling the long Somali coast, Somali pirates continue their attacks threatening international trade.

Young uneducated pirates in the lawless, poor country of Somalia have gained nearly $200 million in ransoms since early 2008. An estimated 10 ships, with 236 crew members, remain at the hands of Somali pirates.

Pirates claim they are fighting against foreign vessels destroying Somalia’s natural resources by dumping toxic wastes. According to a UN report, the problem of overfishing and illegal fishing in Somali waters is a very serious one, and does affect the livelihoods of people inside Somalia. An estimated $200 million worth of seafood is stolen from the Somali coastline each year by foreign commercial fishing vessels.

IslamOnline.net interviewed a Somali pirate, nicknamed Saaid, based in Gar’ad coast village in Puntland through Abdulkarim Mohamed Jimale, freelance journalist. The pirate refused to be pictured out of security concerns.

AJ: How did you become a pirate?

I was an ordinary fisherman before I turned into a coast guard.

Saaid: I was a fisherman in Gar’ad, a coastal village in Somalia’s Mudug region, before I turned into a coast guard. We decided to counter illegal fishing along our coastlines ourselves, and to protect our resources from foreign looters who destroyed our fishing equipment.

Illegal foreign fishing vessels have taken all the fish, big and small. Nothing was left for us. They even fished about 2 to 3 miles near our coastlines. At that time, we only had AK-47, assault rifles, and other small weapons but we had more skiffs. We used to attack one foreign fishing ships by 200 skiffs, while each skiff carries onboard 3 pirates armed with AK-47. No one was supporting us financially at that time.

Also, we have seen foreign ships dumping toxic waste nearby our shore, resulting in the death of fish and affecting the health of many coastal villagers. Therefore, we decided to capture the vessels before they dump toxic waste in our sea.

AJ: What is the estimated number of fishing boats that have been destroyed by the foreign looters as you claim?

Saaid: Somalia is a big country and I don’t have the actual figures. But I can tell you my personal encounter with these destroyers. One night, we ventured into the sea with 61 fishing boats, each carrying three or four people. Some of us were asleep when a big ship passed in between our convoy.

It was disaster, it roughed up the waters and left some of us drown; of all the 61 boats, only nine survived the tragedy. So you can guess what our colleagues across the country are facing.

AJ: What are the tactics you use to hijack ships?

Saaid: A big boat (mother ship) and two small high-speed boats will go together. Each small boat carries five pirates armed with Rocket Propel Grenades (RPGs) and sophisticated GPS and AIS (Automated Information Systems).

When we receive a signal of a cargo ship transiting nearby, we set our perimeters and launch the attack from the two skiffs while the mother ship backs us.

We chase the target, firing weapons at the captain’s mast; some captains give up, while others speed off. Those we seize; we order the captain of the vessel to send signal informing the nearby forces that we are onboard. Then, the vessel changes its direction and sail towards Somali coast.

AJ: How do you deal with the hostages? Do you strip them of personal properties?

Saaid: We have a code of conduct that outlines how we will deal with the hostages, we respect the hostages. We don’t touch their personal properties or the cargo of the hijacked ship. We don’t rope them and ask them ransom but we deal with the owner of the seized ship. Our aim is to get money and we only deal with the ship owner.

AJ: How is the ransom delivered to you?

Saaid: The ransom money reaches us in two ways. First, we are not connected to any port; our station is where we operate. A warship from the country that owns the ship delivers the money if the money is more than $1.5 million. If the money is less than $ 1.5 million, we use other ways including money transfer systems locally known as Hawala.

AJ: And how is it divided?

Saaid: The gentle pirates who captured the vessel take 50%, and the groups which provided financial support take 40%, and the rest 10% is for the guards who stay with the hijacked ship at the coast and the people who work with us until we get the ransom.

AJ: What if a ship owner refused to pay ransom?

Saaid: We do two things if the owners refused to pay ransom for their seized ships. We move the ship’s crew to the shore including the captain until the owner pay the ransom which we demanded. If not, we use the ship to hijack other ships.

AJ: Who funds your piracy operations?

Saaid: Most of the pirates are young men; nobody really finances our operations; we have umbrella groups which do everything we need including financing our operations.

AJ: From where do you get your weapons?

Saaid: Somalia has weapons from all the world. We get weapons from inside and from outside the country; mostly we buy from our neighboring countries illegally.

AJ: Any country in particular?

Saaid: Yemeni illegal arm dealers supply us.

AJ: What is the most dangerous situation you have ever faced while in a piracy operation?

Saaid: We were nine of us on a boat seafaring more than a thousand miles off Somalia over a month and three days. We were unlucky and decided to return to shores but some 120 miles off the shorelines, we encountered one of the worst tragedies.

We saw a cloud of dust whirling and scores of high-tweeting birds flying over the waters. All over the sudden, the waters became so rough and the boat was half sunk. Only one of us, who was on the lower part of the boat, remained onboard. He was the one who could rescue us.

Later, we have discovered that the dust was caused by a toxic waste dumped by a ship that immediately fled the area. We flee in three different directions. The warship will go after one boat and the rest will escape.

AJ: How do pirates manage to deal with warships patrolling Somali waters?

Saaid: The warships are here to fight, so we are prepared all the time for it. Nevertheless, when we encounter them in the high seas, some of us send their weapons overboard and claim that they are illegal immigrants.

Others will decide to fight them and the mighty will prevail; while other groups will simply decide to flee.

If they were in three boats, they will divide themselves and start fleeing in three different directions. The forces will go after one boat and the rest will escape.

AJ: Do you have one leader or each group has its own leader? Is there a form of coordination between Somali pirates?

Saaid: The pirates belong to different groups, but we have umbrella groups. There are two main groups; one in Puntland and the other in south and central Somalia. I am a member of the one in Puntland.

We stay in contact and we respect each other. For example, when a group of pirates in Gar’ad takes ransom they will share it with their friends in south and central Somalia and vice versa. We reach secretly to the coasts of Yemen to buy high-speed boats and arms illegally.

AJ: Do pirates have a network of intelligence in ports around Somalia such as in Yemen or Kenya?

Saaid: No, we don’t have any link with the ports around Somalia. We reach only the border near Kenya and back to our positions in Somalia. But, we reach secretly to the coasts of Yemen to buy high-speed boats and arms illegally.

AJ: Do you think piracy will end here one day? And when?

Saaid: Piracy will end when the government of Somalia restores law and order; when the world really wants to protect the Somali waters and stops dumping toxic waste and leave the coast of Somalia.

I mean you can’t pretend to correct things on the land while you destroy the sea. Multinational warships must leave the Somali waters. Otherwise, piracy will remain forever.

Interviewed by Abdulkarim Jimale

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