Feb 2, 2021

Somali Pirates - A Western Misconception

Genevieve Montague

hatever ideas you have had of pirates in the past, you might want to shelf them. The 21st-century pirates are not out there with a patch over one eye and a hook on one hand. However, most people are likely aware real-life pirates don’t exactly fit the image of Captain Hook. Instead, they believe them to be more menacing, and with malicious intent.

The Somali people are generally very misunderstood, with the vast majority of Somalis both abroad and domestic never meeting a Somali pirate.

Pirates are hard to track down, but even in their stealth, they still use societal conveniences like phones and have social lives. While this might not be entirely shocking, demystifying the 21st-century piracy profession will take more than a few assumptions that they have access to items the same as every modern person.

Somali pirates have developed quite a reputation over the last few decades. Several anecdotes provide accounts that allude to Somali waters teeming to its shores with pirates. They even go as far as declaring the pirates as tools of radical jihadists, or part of an international criminal cabal with the best intelligence networks in Africa. Fascinating as these theories are, they are misconceptions believed by foreigners who live in awe of the ‘terrorizing’ Somali pirates.

The 2013 film "Captain Philips" starring Tom Hanks and Somali actor Barkhad Abdi which was based on a true story really started to convey to the Western world about the underground world these Somali fishermen go through.

The famous line from the film

Good Robin Hood Intentions

As far as Somalis are concerned, they are fighting for the poor, the freedom of the land and the protection of their people. These honorable intentions might seem exaggerated now, but piracy in Somalia actually began this way. Legitimate claims of illegal dumping of toxic waste along the coastlines of Somalia by foreigners, notably Americans, became a major problem, mainly due to the fact that the vast majority of Somalis on those coast regions are fisherman. Fish was a major source of income, a valuable product in the nation's economy, and the illegal toxic waste destroyed practically everything.

In 1991, after the collapse of the Mogadishu government, and with Somali waters being bombarded, the first set of pirates simply wanted to protect what was theirs. Angrily, they demanded fees from the foreign vessels in a bid to get them to quit. Unfortunately, this did nothing to hamper the illegal activities, so early pirates formed a Coast Guard. They planned to look after the coastline until the government could retake responsibility.

However, as noble their intentions were, they gave other vigilantes ideas. Soon, a new set of pirates made their debut by robbing U.N. ships of food meant for refugee camps in the country. They argued that warlords would have seized it anyway. And although they had a point, the defensible beginnings soon gave way for a multimillion-dollar piracy enterprise. 

The Somali military sometimes coincides with the pirates

The newer pirates are more narrow-minded with their motives. In 2008, when pirates seized a Ukrainian freighter full of weapons for a $25 million ransom, a member of the pirate crew assured, "We only want the money."

Money Makes the Rules

Even though it might have started small, piracy is arguably the biggest industry in Somalia right now estimated to pull in as much as $150 million annually. Moreso, the most successful pirates are the eligible bachelors and stars in the society. In Somalia, a meal costs less than one dollar but high-earning pirates make as much as $2 million annually.

This obvious path to wealth acquisition in Somalia, while not noble, is really simple. Therefore, many youngsters long to be a pirate because anyone can do it. All you need is an aluminum ladder, a motorboat, a gun and guts. Now you just have to wait for your payday to sail by.

Today’s Somali Pirates

All these stories might sound quite frightful but Somali’s approach to piracy has morphed over the last few years. In recent times, piracy is more about gaining status and respect within the Somali societies than about looting and murders. An average pirate makes about the same as a soldier, although such earnings are still satisfying, considering Somalia's economy. 

Mostly, the pirate bosses take younger Somalis under their wings, and put them in painstakingly organized groups for hijacking missions fewer and farther in between than the myth would have you believe. Besides, they are too busy using khat — the infamous intoxicating leaf with high stimulants accessed by brewing or chewing. Khat has developed a pervasive atmosphere of control over the piracy business and it would seem that the lethargy-loving fellows prefer it that way.

Khat is extremely popular in Somalia

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