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Pirates, Inc.: Inside the booming Somali business

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Meet the rank and file of Pirates, Inc. Legions of young men like these living in war-ravaged Somalia are the muscle behind piracy in the Indian Ocean. The brains behind this business – which raked in an estimated $80 million in ransoms in 2008 – can be as sophisticated as a CIA operation, with high-tech resources and highly placed personnel, or as haphazard as a Keystone Kops operation. Hassan's enterprise was more like the latter – and it didn't go well.

But that's just what was captured by cameras. Piracy is booming off the coast of Somalia. There were 111 attacks on ships here in 2008 (42 were hijacked successfully); more – 114 – were attacked just in the first four months of 2009 (29 were successful), reports the International Maritime Bureau's Piracy Reporting Centre.

World leaders recognize, to their chagrin, that the problem requires more than just a few warships and airdrops of food aid to a starving, well-armed, and desperate nation. Capturing men like Hassan does as much to solve piracy as arresting a drug dealer does to win the war on drugs. Hassan is the lowest rung in a criminal network that includes corrupt port officials, politicians, and investors from Europe, Asia, and America. The big bucks – with the average ransom now estimated at $2 million – never reach people like Hassan, say Somali piracy experts. At most, mere gunmen stand to earn $10,000 to $20,000 apiece. But in a country devastated by two decades of war, where the average income is $500 a year and 60,000 people are at immediate risk of starvation, $20,000 for a little dangerous work is a risk worth taking.

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