The shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden are like highways with bumper-to-bumper traffic piling up, making them easy targets for the growing crop of pirates who terrorize these waters off the Somali coast. There have been reports recently that pirates employ sophisticated networks of criminal gangs located in London and other Western centers to target vessels in the area.
According to “Mr. Ali,” a Somali who lived in the United States for 29 years before returning to his home two years ago where he became the go-between for the pirates and negotiators of hijacked ships, this is far from accurate.
“Reports depict pirates as state-of-the-art folks, who follow directives from London via satellite phones. I have to just shake my head. Pirates are overblown third-rate thieves, with an average fifth-grade education. They are hardly sophisticated. They are nomads, hoodlums, greedy fisherman without shoes or shirts with only 40-horsepower engines and makeshift ladders.”
“Mr. Ali” negotiated the release of a Danish vessel and its crew, the CEC Future, hijacked on Nov. 7, 2008. They have not confirmed how much money they paid. He was also part of the initial negotiations of a German couple kidnapped ransomed for $590,000.
His original idea, he says during a telephone interview from his home in Hargeisa, Somaliland, was to become a piracy expert in order to further a career as a consultant, perhaps ending up as an analyst on Fox TV, one of his favorite stations and in sync with his conservative values. This idea came to him after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, when networks turned to specialists of Islam, the Middle East and terrorism for analysis. “I am not looking for the fame of Michael Jackson or Michael Jordan in the world of piracy, but I wanted to help.”
In his pursuit of knowledge, he says, he got to know the pirates who insisted he work with them because of his knowledge of English. “I told them if you want me to do this I am the boss.” He claims not to be afraid of the gun-totting pirates because he used to be a bully himself, and “uses psychology” with them.
“I wanted all the hostages to be able to call home. The chief pirate didn’t want to let them do this, but I told him not to be inhumane. You are getting money that doesn’t belong to you, I told him, so let them talk to their families.”
Pirates are a hard lot to trust. “Mr. Ali,” who talks at length and often goes off on tangents and claims to be a shepherd, at times, with many camels, negotiated the large ransom for the CEC Future Danish tanker, with the promise of a $17,500 fee from the pirates.
After the money was divided up between the 30 or so pirates involved, a firefight broke out between two of the key men from different groups. One of them was killed immediately, the other died later of his wounds. A frightened “Mr. Ali” left, walking for two days. “I was the only one without a gun. I called a couple of times but they said to me after what happened you’re still asking about the money? I was robbed.
“Maybe this is a lot of money for an African,” he says. “But I lived in the U.S. - Memphis, New York, Detroit, Nashville and D.C., [so] it is not a lot of money for me.”
When it came to negotiate the release of the Turkish tanker - he was promised a 10 percent fee if he could negotiate a $1 million ransom. He claims to have made no money from his involvement with the pirates.
When it comes to identifying which ships to target, “Mr. Ali” says pirates can’t identify flags, contrary to suggestions of other reports. Instead they choose the easiest ones to board - those that aren’t in a caravan and have a low deck so they are easy to board. “You’ll find that 60 percent to 75 percent are chemical tankers.”
According to “Mr. Ali” there are about 25 groups of pirates and about 200 to 300 “kings” - the ones who put up the money to organize the hijack. The pirates who go to sea make about $60,000, and the “investors” make about $300,000 to $400,000.
It was also interesting that he said there are a few women who work with pirates. “Somali piracy benefits pirates, government officials, locals, foreign journalists, foreign countries that rob Somalis and foreign companies that dump death on Somali waters; the maritime industry unfortunately pays for it,” he says.
During our several conversations, he talks to his young son. I ask him if this worries him? “I have no stress and at night I sleep like a baby. It takes me a minute to fall asleep, whereas in the States it took me three to four hours. Greed is inhumane and false imprisonment is a crime.” Now he wants to be part of the solution.
Heidi Kingstone is a freelance journalist living in London who has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and South Asia.