Mohamed Olad Hassan and Elizabeth A. Kennedy, AP, December 10, 2008
Ahmed Dahir Suleyman is cagey as he talks about the global network that funds and supports piracy off the coast of Somalia.
“We have negotiators, translators and agents in many areas . . . let me say across the world,” said Suleyman, a pirate in the harbor town of Eyl, where scores of hijacked ships are docked.
“These people help us during exchanges of ransom and finding out the exact person to negotiate with,” he told The Associated Press. Before cutting off the cell phone call, Suleyman snapped: “It is not possible to ask anymore about our secrets.”
The dramatic spike in piracy in African waters this year is backed by an international network mostly of Somali expatriates from the Horn of Africa to as far as North America, who offer funds, equipment and information in exchange for a cut of the ransoms, according to researchers, officials and members of the racket. With help from the network, Somali pirates have brought in at least $30 million in ransom so far this year.
“The Somali diaspora all around the world now have taken to this business enterprise,” said Michael Weinstein, a Somalia expert at Purdue University in Indiana. He likened the racket to “syndicates where you buy shares, so to speak, and you get a cut of the ransom.”
Weinstein said his interviews with ransom negotiators and Somalis indicate the piracy phenomenon has reached Canada, which is home to 200,000 Somalis.
The pirates acknowledge using foreign help.
Aden Yusuf, another pirate in Eyl, told The AP that foreigners in Dubai, Nairobi, Djibouti and elsewhere help pirates get sophisticated equipment, such as money-counting machines seen at foreign exchange bureaus, in exchange for a cut of the ransom.
Roger Middleton, an expert on East Africa at Chatham House think tank in London, said ransoms in the past have been “channeled to expatriate Somalis around the world.” But pirates appear to be opting for direct cash payouts more often now—bypassing even the hawala tranfer system—because of concerns about scrutiny by governments, he said. In one instance at the beginning of this year, he said, the pirates wanted the money delivered through the Gulf but nobody was prepared to take it.
The Somali pirates also rely on a local network of corrupt officials and villagers eager for money in a region with no real economy. Somali pirates generally dock hijacked vessels near the coast in the northern Somali region of Puntland as they negotiate ransoms. Rogue security and government officials there allow the pirates to use ports and move freely around towns while they restock ships, said Abdullahi Said Aw-Yusuf, a district commissioner in Eyl.
The pirates have attacked more than 90 vessels this year and successfully seized more than 36.