Somalia's Godfathers: Ransom-Rich Pirates

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 20, 2009

NAIROBI -- The young Somali couple had plans. Ilka Ase Mohamed and the love of his life, tall, bright-eyed Fatima Mukhtar, were going to leave their little fishing town of Harardhere, attend university and, when Mohamed had enough cows for a dowry, get married.

But a little over a year ago, the woman Mohamed still calls "my beloved girl" was betrothed to a Somali pirate who wears a black cowboy hat, drives a Land Cruiser and paid $50,000 cash in what Mohamed described as a soulless deal with her mother.

"This man was like a small king who came to Harardhere," said Mohamed, 23. "He was dressed like a president. So many people attended him. I got so angry -- I said, 'Why do they accept this situation? You know this is pirate money!' "

The story of Mohamed, Fatima and the brazen Somali pirate -- based on an interview with Mohamed after he moved to Kenya -- underscores how entrenched piracy and its flashy new-money culture have become in the tiny, worn-out fishing villages that dot Somalia's coast.

As the world's most powerful navies patrol the vast shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, Somali pirates are commanding millions in ransom for the massive cargo vessels they seize. Even since a U.S. show of force last week, when Navy snipers killed three pirates and freed an American captain being held hostage, pirates have seized several more ships with dozens of hostages.

Given the challenge of patrolling more than a million square miles of ocean, attention is turning toward fighting piracy from the Somali shore, where ransoms that totaled about $50 million last year are pouring into fishing villages such as Harardhere, and well-armed pirates are overwhelming what little local authority exists in a country that has been without a functioning central government since 1991.

"Without help from the outside, they do not dare point their fingers at the pirates," said Ali Said Omar, who heads the Center for Peace and Democracy, a Somali think tank. "The pirates will overpower them if they do something against them."

In Harardhere, the pirates have become like so many Godfathers, building lavish homes, starting fly-by-night businesses, and launching operations involving well-organized networks of people who handle their food, weapons and other supplies. Analysts say the pirates, who operate from high-seas bases called "motherships" -- usually fishing trawlers they have captured -- receive help from people abroad who feed information about cargo ships' schedules in exchange for a cut of ransom.

The more famous pirates also employ entourages of locals, for whom piracy is part blessing, part curse. While pirate businesses have stifled local merchants and thwarted deliveries of food aid to the anarchic Horn of Africa nation, the pirates have also spread their millions around.

Locals say that onshore, the pirates are attended to by prostitutes, nurses, bodyguards and men who procure and deliver their precious khat, a mildly narcotic leaf chewed for its stimulant effects.

The pirate who married Fatima sent an advance team to her house after striking a deal with her mother, who is from the same clan, Mohamed said. They laid down carpets, prepared goats for slaughter, and strung lights across the family's stick-and-iron-sheet house. Mohamed said he tried to stay away that day but could not.

"I was not supposed to come because it was such an indignity, but I sneaked out and had a view of him from a window in the next house. It is a moment I do not like to remember," Mohamed said of the pirate, whose name he was too afraid to reveal.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company