A portrait of Somali pirates

The pirates who infest the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean come from a variety of backgrounds but all have elements in common: the same equipment, the same modes of attack, and a common set of rules.




The commander: The mastermind of the operation, he doesn’t go out on the open seas but manages the logistics. He carries arms, bribes government officials when necessary, launders money and assures the absolute loyalty of his men. He also finds informants in the ports he targets and recruits guards to survey the waters for captured ships, anchored around the ports particularly of Eyl, Hoboyo, and Haradhere.


He demands the status of a coast guard. He claims to protect the coasts from western trawlers who travel the ocean without permits and pollute the waters – but he is a calculating businessman. Well-off, he rides a four-wheel drive down the roads of Mogadishu, the Somali capital, and lives in luxury, in villas far from the camps where ‘regular’ pirates live.


The 'regular' pirate: Half-fisherman, half-mercenary, he sails off miles away from the coast on a simple wooden skiff, without always knowing how to swim. Sometimes in poor health, he takes daily hits of the local appetite-busting stimulant qat but has probably never received any medical treatment.


Being a pirate isn’t always his choice – commanders often threaten the families of these men to make them work.


Generally, the feeling of belonging to the band is more important than the pirate’s own life. His body is often scarred from a very early age with a symmetrical design of swollen burn marks, sometimes from cigarettes, which shows he belongs to the group.




Weapons: Pirates have sophisticated equipment, ranging from the kalachnikov – or a ‘kalach’ copy – to rocket launchers. Arms are easily available in Somalia, which has suffered a civil war for years. A total absence of taxes makes Mogadishu the hub of both legal and black market trade in eastern Africa, again facilitating the procurement of arms.


But arms are not well-looked after and are often rusty.


On the ground, pirates almost certainly use AIS receptors to find out where trade ships are.




Pirates use a skiff, a shallow boat used by the region’s fishermen. These small, very light boats are almost undetectable by radar and a good way to ride the seas incognito.


To be even more invisible, the hull is often painted blue so as to be the same colour as the ocean.


For getting around, buccaneers use an ancient Yemenite boating technique. A bigger boat, a few metres long, accompanies the skiffs to keep them supplied with petrol and weapons so that they can go for longer distances and attack a long way from the coast.


Pirates always have a ladder on board, which enables them to board the ships they attack but leaves no trace of their crime.




‘Earnings’: Pirates loot everything from their targets - mobile phones, watches, clothes, money. But these thefts are nothing compared to the money they make from ransoms that are paid to their bank accounts, often opened in Dubai. In 2008, it is believed that Somali pirates made more than 100 million dollars. At the end of January 2009, they reportedly obtained three million dollars in exchange for liberating the Sirius Star, the Saudi supertanker captured on November 15, 2008, after initially demanding 25 million dollars.

Sharing out the cash: The commander gets the most money, followed by the first pirate to set foot on the boat and then the interpreter, who negotiates the ransom. The rest is shared out according to each pirate’s role. Rocket launchers earn more because their weapons are both the heaviest and the most expensive.


A part of the money is reinvested in equipment and around 15,000 dollars is given to each family of a pirate that dies at sea.


Local authorities reportedly also receive envelopes of money for their ‘benevolence’.




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