As brigands hold the Sirius Star supertanker to ransom, we go inside the Somali pirates’ lair
After a gruelling ten-hour drive along a potholed desert track, we finally make out the hazy silhouettes of massive ships anchored off the dusty port village of Hobyo, 250 miles north of Mogadishu. All around is an unrelenting no-man’s land of sand and rocks, populated only by camels and small groups of armed men.
The Greek, Japanese and Ukrainian ships we can see are being held for ransom by the Somali pirates we have trekked overland to meet on a deserted beach a few miles along the coast.
Shortly after we arrive, a pick-up truck bristling with armed men pulls up alongside us. Everyone on the truck carries a machine gun. All are festooned with ammunition.
A small white boat with seven men aboard approaches across the calm, blue Indian Ocean. After a brief exchange via satellite phone, the pirate chief heads for the beach. An old sweatshirt is wrapped around his head like a turban, and a rusty rocket-propelled grenade launcher rests against his bony shoulder.
Abdullah Hassan, nicknamed ‘the one who never sleeps’, tells us he is 39 years old. For three years he has been in charge of a gang of 350 men; a mix of former fishermen and disenchanted militiamen calling themselves ‘The Coast Guard’.
Under his command, they have carried out about 30 hijackings since the start of the year, including, in collaboration with another pirate group, the Ukrainian MV Faina, which is still the subject of a tense ransom stand-off because of its highly sensitive cargo of 33 Russian-built T-72 tanks, together with a large consignment of rocket-propelled grenades, anti-aircraft guns and ammunition.
Last weekend, the pirates claimed their biggest scalp so far: the Saudi supertanker Sirius Star with its £65million cargo of crude oil. The size of three football pitches and three times the weight of a US aircraft carrier, Sirius Star was seized nearly 500 miles out in the Indian Ocean.
Hassan blames the breathtaking surge in piracy in the region on the collapse of the rule of law and the resulting invasion of opportunistic trawler crews from all over the world who home in on the rich fishing grounds of the Gulf of Aden.
‘Before, I was an honest fisherman,’ he declares as he crouches on the scalding sand. ‘But since the commercial fishing boats emptied our seas, we have had to find a way to survive.’
Despite his ragged appearance, Abdullah is doing pretty well. Takings approaching £7million since the start of the year are easily enough to pay his men handsomely, reinvest in better weapons, buy faster boats imported from Kenya or Dubai and take care of his family.
‘Money is no longer a problem,’ he nods happily.
The pirate captain’s smile drops when we ask him about his combat techniques, which he initially refuses to discuss.
But with more than 90 pirate attacks in the past 12 months – some of them, like the capture of the Sirius Star, hundreds of miles out in the Indian Ocean – there are few secrets left.
Usually, the raiders operate from so-called ‘mother-ships’, often Russian-built trawlers, from which a series of fast, high-powered motorboats are launched at their victim.
Within minutes, the target ship is surrounded by a dozen or so gang members firing AK-47s into the air and threatening to shoot rocket-propelled grenades at the unarmed merchantmen.
A few seconds after the flurry of gunshots dies away, the pirates clamber aboard with the aid of grappling irons and rope ladders and take control of the ship.
‘The secret of a successful attack is the speed with which it is carried out,’ reveals Abdullah, whose team of pirates can identify, surround, board and take control of a ship in less than 15 minutes.
‘And without bloodshed,’ he insists, adding that the Somali pirates take pride in carrying out ‘clean’ attacks, where each man follows strict orders and the hostages remain safe.
Hassan says the captives are well fed and, to ensure their safety, they are confined to their own area on the ship. All contact with the pirates is through a designated translator.
It is clear that Somali piracy is a smooth-running system. The ex-fishermen, who have the nautical knowledge needed to stage these attacks, are regarded as the brains behind the enterprise, but they can’t operate without the former militiamen who learned how to use weapons in Somalia’s civil war.
They also need the young computer geeks who know how to operate the GPS systems and communications equipment used to track the targets, co-ordinate the attacks and carry out negotiations for ransoms which have so far ranged from £100,000 to £2million.
However, the pirates were badly rattled two months ago when President Sarkozy ordered French Navy commandos to free the luxury 53ft yacht Carre d’As, which was being taken to the pirate stronghold of Eyl in Somalia’s Puntland province.
One pirate was killed in the operation and six more captured and sent for trial in France. Despite Hassan’s blustering response – ‘The French scare no one’ – his troops now sleep out at sea.
The pinpointing of Eyl as the centre of pirate activity has pushed the brigands further south to Hen Daier, 20 miles south of Hobyo and 100 miles north of Haradhere, where the Sirius Star is being held.
The new stretch of pirate coast is in the self-proclaimed state of Galmudug, whose capital, Galcaio, has become a battleground for rival militias trying to control water wells and the main route towards Boosasso, a key port on the northern coast.
Galcaio is also the new operating base for those who supply the pirates with food and khat, the euphoria-producing plant that is chewed in vast quantities in the region.
Several times every week, lorries and trucks carrying supplies, arms or the familiar pirate speedboats can be seen heading from Galcaio to Hobyo, Eyl or Haradhere.
Behind his vast, immaculate desk in his office in Galcaio, Mohammad Warsame, president of Galmudug, shrugs his shoulders. Everyone knows the pirates are untouchable: with only about 40 policemen, each paid about £60 a month, the battle is lost before it even starts.
In addition, the pirates are attaining the status of folk heroes.
Although few actually take part in the hijackings, piracy is a tribal business, with relatives facilitating negotiations, dealing with foreign currency transactions and carrying out building or other work paid for by the vast sums of money flowing into the area that has suffered the ravages of civil war for almost 17 years.
This doesn’t stop Warsame criticising the authorities in the rival Puntland province for being ‘to blame for the pirates’, and condemning the international community as ‘a bunch of amateurs’ who fuel the pirate trade by paying millions of pounds in ransom.
His solution is as simple as it is brutal: bomb the MV Faina and its precious cargo of Russian armour. The crew on board are mere ‘collateral damage’ whose loss will help show the pirates the error of their ways.
But his views carry no weight with those aboard the Western warships currently surrounding the MV Faina.
They continue to trade words with the pirates’ negotiator, Sugule Ali, while also seeking to prevent the unloading of its deadly cargo into a country already shattered by the interminable civil war.
The size and nature of the Faina’s cargo – the ransom stands at £3million – is now creating tension between the pirates and the Islamic Court militia, which rules much of the south of Somalia.
‘We simply want the money so our families can live, but they want to recover the weapons to fight the government troops,’ says Hassan, who bristles at the idea that the Islamist militia helped train the pirates: ‘If anyone has lessons of war to learn, it is certainly not us.’
What is certainly true is that the millions of pounds paid in ransom to the pirates hasn’t turned the impoverished fishing villages along the Somali coast into opulent dens of luxury.
Some of the pirate chiefs have built themselves lavish walled compounds and drive round in Toyota 4x4s, while others in the clan are paid to provide Western food to the estimated 230 seamen currently held captive by the pirates. Much of the money, though, has been spirited away either to the home villages of the pirate crew – which can be hundreds of miles inland – or to overseas bank accounts.
One journalist who travelled to Eyl in search of a pirate Eldorado said dejectedly: ‘There are only Kalashnikovs, goats and khat here.’
There are few signs of opulence in Hobyo either, or indeed in any of the dusty little towns and villages along the Somali coast.
Pirate Ali Ahmad, 27, has had a vast residence built in Galcaio from his £70,000 share of the £1million ransom for the French yacht Le Ponant last April – an operation in which six of his collaborators were captured by the French military.
In addition, he bought a 4×4 truck, a second wife and kilos of khat, together with guns and a new speedboat which were rented out to a group who carried out a raid on a Japanese ship last month. His profit margin on this was a further £20,000. ‘A good transaction.’ he says.
Meanwhile, Mohammad, a 40-year-old father of six who has spent the past 20 years living in a crumbling ruin in Galcaio, last week received money from ‘friends of friends’ to fund his journey to Hobyo, where he is expecting to take part in the next attack.
‘Everyone knows that piracy is the only activity round here that pays well,’ he says.
Membership of ‘the Coast Guards’ family is regarded as a prestigious badge of honour among many in Somalia.
It provides instant credit with traders and free access past checkpoints. The pirates have even become the heroes of a popular cartoon strip in which beautiful women snub the militiamen in favour of these new lords of the sea.
However, the hijacking of food-aid shipments, which 40 per cent of the country depends on, is beginning to hit the pirates’ status, as is the impact that the huge influx of US dollars is having on a region of so many have-nots.
The authorities in Puntland have now instituted a clampdown and proudly display a hundred or so pirates in the packed prison in Boosasso.
Among them, there are nine men apprehended last month by the French army during a patrol in Somali waters, and who are now facing ‘between 15 years’ jail and the death penalty’, according to Bile Qabowsade, spokesman for the Puntland authorities.
The pirates, however, are unrepentant, seizing nine ships in the past two weeks alone and demanding an extraordinary £15million ransom for the Sirius Star.
In an area crossed by 30,000 ships every year and containing 2.5 million square miles of sea in which to hide, they know the odds are with them.
The major worry now is that piracy, like the opium trade in Afghanistan, has become so lucrative that it will further fuel the civil war that has raged in Somalia for a generation.
The question for the developed world is just how much military force it is prepared to deploy to prevent this happening.