Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Piracy: Inside a pirate network

Satellite image from UNOSAT of a suspected hijacked tanker at anchor off the Somali coast at Garacad, near Eyl, Puntland, September 2008

Hassan* and Mohamed* were fishermen in Bossaso, in the self-declared autonomous region of Puntland, northeastern Somalia, but turned to piracy out of desperation and lack of alternative livelihoods.

However, in August 2008, coastguards from the self-declared republic of Somaliland arrested them after they strayed into the region's waters. In September, they were each sentenced to 15 years in prison for their role in the piracy that has intensified off Somalia's waters in recent years.

Hassan and several others jailed on piracy charges spoke to IRIN between August and December from two prisons in Somaliland.

Hassan said: "I participated in two missions which we planned in Bossaso; the first in February [2008]. As part of a group of eight, we went to Ras Azayr area in Puntland in search of some foreign vessels. We did not find anything. We thought that since there were no foreign vessels operating in Puntland waters, we could go to Somaliland.

"I met up with a group of five men in Berbera and we agreed to operate in Somaliland waters. Unfortunately, Somaliland coastal guards captured us before we could do anything. I was later charged with organising piracy activities in Somaliland.

"I agreed to engage in piracy because we wanted to get back at the illegal foreign vessels that were fishing in our waters, denying us a livelihood. We targeted foreign cargo vessels for that reason."

Explaining how a pirate network works, Mohamed, who was sentenced in December, said: "I was captured in [Somaliland's] His District alongside four other men captured by coastguards on 13 December. I was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

"I, as do most pirates, consider myself as having been performing the duties of a coastguard. We usually work in groups of seven to 10 people. Often, our missions are financed by individuals and businessmen who collect half of the ransoms paid.

"Many people who opt to become pirates do so because authorities such as those in Puntland contribute to the degrading of the sea's environment by licensing foreign ships which use illegal fishing methods.”

Omar*, another of the jailed pirates, added: "Piracy has become booming business in Puntland territories; we receive the fuel and logistics from local business people. For example, when a kidnapped vessel pays ransom, 50 percent of it is taken by the people who invested their money; the pirates only get 50 percent."

In turn, the business people also give a certain percentage of the ransom to the influential people in the host area of operations, Omar said.

However, he was quick to point out that pirates did not attack any ship coming to Bossaso.

"No one will attack any ship toward Bossaso because the local people who support the pirates will not agree to the hosting of those kidnapped in their area, so the ships coming to Bossaso are safe from piracy."

The pirates consider the ransom they get to be retribution for the ships that fish illegally off Somali waters.

"The ransom they pay is somehow a punishment for their illegal activity in the Somali water, especially in the era without government," one of the pirates said.

*Not their real names

Disclaimer:This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
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