Somalia's increasingly brazen pirates are building sprawling stone houses, cruising in luxury cars, marrying beautiful women — even...

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MOGADISHU, Somalia — Somalia’s increasingly brazen pirates are building sprawling stone houses, cruising in luxury cars, marrying beautiful women — even hiring caterers to prepare Western-style food for their hostages.

And in an impoverished country where every public institution has crumbled, they have become heroes in the steamy coastal dens they operate from because they are the only real business in town.

“The pirates depend on us, and we benefit from them,” said Sahra Sheik Dahir, a shop owner in Harardhere, the nearest village to where a hijacked Saudi Arabian supertanker carrying $100 million in crude was anchored Wednesday.

These boomtowns are all the more shocking in light of Somalia’s violence and poverty: Radical Islamists control most of the country’s south, meting out lashings and stonings for accused criminals. There has been no effective central government in nearly 20 years, plunging this arid African country into chaos.

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Life expectancy is just 46 years; a quarter of children die before they reach 5.

Pirate towns bustle

But in northern coastal towns like Haradhere, Eyl and Bossaso, the pirate economy is thriving thanks to the money pouring in from pirate ransoms that have reached $30 million this year alone.

Once eroded by years of poverty and chaos, these towns now are bustling with restaurants, Land Cruisers and Internet cafes. Residents also use their gains to buy generators — allowing full days of electricity, once an unimaginable luxury in Somalia.

“There are more shops, and business is booming because of the piracy,” said Sugule Dahir, who runs a clothing shop in Eyl. “Internet cafes and telephone shops have opened, and people are just happier than before.”

In Haradhere, residents came out in droves to celebrate as the looming oil ship came into focus this week off the country’s lawless coast.

Businessmen gathered cigarettes, food and cold bottles of orange soda, setting up kiosks for the pirates who come to shore to resupply almost daily.

Dahir said she even started a layaway plan for them.

“They always take things without paying, and we put them into the book of debts,” she said. “Later, when they get the ransom money, they pay us a lot.”

While pirate villages used to have houses made of corrugated iron sheets, now, there are stately looking homes made of sturdy white stones.

“Regardless of how the money is coming in — legally or illegally — I can say it has started a life in our town,” said Shamso Moalim, a 36-year-old mother of five in Haradhere.

“Our children are not worrying about food now, and they go to Islamic schools in the morning and play soccer in the afternoon. They are happy.”

Spaghetti for captives

The attackers generally treat their hostages well in anticipation of a big payday, hiring caterers on shore to cook spaghetti, grilled fish and roasted meat that will appeal to Western palates.

And when the payday comes, the ransom arrives in burlap sacks, sometimes dropped from buzzing helicopters, or in waterproof suitcases loaded onto skiffs in the roiling, shark-infested sea.

The pirates use money-counting machines — the same technology seen at foreign-exchange bureaus worldwide — to ensure the cash is real. All payments are made in cash because Somalia has no functioning banking system.

There are no reliable estimates of the number of pirates operating in Somalia, but they number in the thousands. And though the bandits do sometimes get nabbed, piracy is generally considered a sure bet to a better life.

NATO and the U.S. Navy say they can’t be everywhere, and American officials are urging merchant vessels to sail with armed guards on board and to travel only within lanes now patrolled by warships.

95 attacks this year

Vice Adm. William Gortney, the commander of U.S. and allied naval forces off the coast of Somalia, said crews of merchant ships were being taught measures to prevent pirates from boarding their vessels. The techniques include complicated rudder movements and speed adjustments that make it hard for pirate speedboats to pull alongside, as well as simple steps like pulling up ladders that some ships leave dangling for an entire voyage.

Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, released statistics Wednesday showing that, so far in 2008, there had been 95 reports of piracy attacks in the Gulf of Aden and surrounding waters, with 39 of those resulting in the capture of vessels. An estimated 330 sailors from 25 nations remain hostages, with no known U.S. citizens among them.

There have been no reports of attacks on U.S.-flagged vessels, and officials have interpreted that record as a sign that the pirates do not want to provoke the U.S. Navy directly.

Information from The New York Times is included in this report.

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