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Somalia’s Godfathers: Ransom-Rich Pirates

Ilka Ase Mohamed says he lost the tall, bright-eyed love of his life to a Somali pirate who paid a $50,000 cash dowry to her mother. (Miguel Juarez - For The Washington Post)

Ilka Ase Mohamed says he lost the tall, bright-eyed love of his life to a Somali pirate who paid a $50,000 cash dowry to her mother. (Miguel Juarez - For The Washington Post)

By Stephanie McCrummen Washington Post — (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.

The pirate was probably in his late 20s or early 30s, a former fisherman from the area who once cast old nets into the ocean but now was pulling up in a shiny Land Cruiser. Mohamed said he watched in horror as the pirate sat on a carpet without taking off his shoes, a sign of disrespect. In the following weeks, Fatima married him and was whisked off to Europe. Mohamed, who then decided to leave Harardhere for the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, said he still communicates with her by e-mail from time to time.

Meanwhile, Fatima’s family in Harardhere, where the pirate also has a home, is doing well. They have a new stone house, he said. Although they used to earn money farming, they now have a business transporting fuel and rice, serving Mogadishu, the capital, and other regions.

Piracy has become an attractive option to young Somali men who have grown up without schooling or a government, often knowing little aside from the ways of the AK-47. The transitional government is struggling to contain an Islamist insurgency that is also recruiting young men to its cause, which has mostly remained separate from the pirate business farther north.

“These young men can’t get work and have no education, so they look for a way to handle their life, and this is the easiest way to make money,” said Salim Saeed, a journalist who works in the northern Puntland region, where most pirate operations are launched. “It is easy for a young person to become a pirate.”

Piracy began as a violent reaction to rampant illegal fishing by commercial fishing companies, mostly from European and Asian countries, according to U.N. officials, who say the fishermen often operate with fake licenses.

A Somali man who gave his name only as Ali said he became a pirate in 2004 after several confrontations with commercial fishing vessels operating in Somali waters.

“We used to put our nets at night in the sea and go back in the morning to see our catch, but we’d just see a big ship taking our nets out of the water,” said Ali, 25, now a shopkeeper in Nairobi.

When he and his colleagues steered their boat close to the vessel, he said, the crew sprayed them with hot water, and one of them fired bullets. Ali said his friend was injured, their boat was sunk and they had to swim to shore. The next time they went out to sea, he said, they were hauling AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

“Our plan was to attack the illegal fishing boats,” he said. “We took ransoms to cover our wounded people . . . in all, we took 16 ships.”

At that time, they targeted ships by spotting their lights at night. Later, he said, they began using satellite phones. Soon, they had investors who supplied them with food and fuel for their missions. The money was good, Ali said, but he quit “because it became dirty.”

“The policy was to stop illegal fishing,” he said. “But they started catching ships carrying food and other commercial ships and even ones from our own country. It is not wise for them to do that.”

Mohamed shares that unease, saying that pirate money has corrupted life in Harardhere and that the party can’t last forever.

For now, he’s still holding out for Fatima.

“I will wait for her,” he said. “I think the money will end, and one day I will get her.”

Special correspondent Mohamed Ibrahim contributed to this story.



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