Why did Somalis become pirates?

Somali pirates generally followed the same motivations as historic pirates: financial gain. But the reasons behind this motivation are specific to Somali culture and society.

At first, the townspeople were grateful for the money the pirates brought into their towns and the financial flow of support received by relatives with a pirate in the family. Many Somalis viewed the piracy as justified because of the depredations of illegal fishing and the perceptions of international disrespect for Somali sovereignty over their territorial waters. This perception continues today.

Unemployment and poverty

On his visit to the pirates’ home of Puntland in 2003, David Dorwood remarked ‘trade and telecommunications flourished. Schools and hospitals operated, and shops and market stalls in [the major port town of] Bosasso were well stocked.’ While none of this economic development eradicated crippling poverty, unemployment and the constant threat of drought to the predominantly pastoralist community, it seemed the traditional cause of unemployment as an explanation for Somali piracy was not the only motivator.

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Illegal fishing

Many captured pirates claimed they expressed their grievances towards illegal fishers by turning to piracy. Historically, there is precedent for piracy as an act of protest and as a protest against illegal fishing. For the Somalis though, they believed their piracy arose from the inability of their 'state' to protect their economic interests

 

Soon after the state collapsed in 1991, foreign fishers arrived in Somali territorial waters to exploit the inability of the Somalis to protect their rich fishing waters. In retaliation, certain Somalis took it upon themselves to demand compensation for their perceived losses from the foreign fishers. They called themselves baadaadinta badah, which translates to ‘saviours of the sea’.

The bustling port of Bossaso

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The prevalence of illegal fishing in Somali waters offered Puntland’s leaders an allegiance building and economic opportunity. Clearly, fish were a sought-after resource in the contemporary globalised economy, so by intercepting foreign fishers and demanding compensation, Puntland’s leaders could not only demonstrate their authority to their people and appeal to their long tradition of xenophobia but also tap into a potentially lucrative and desperately needed revenue stream. 

From 1998, Puntland’s administration received compensation from dozens of foreign owners of fishing boats, allegedly from ‘Italy and Far East Asian countries’ for illegal fishing. For Puntland’s leaders, these compensatory claims represented an expression of its authority to their residents, combined with desperately needed financial resources for the administration.

 

Undoubtedly illegal fishing is a serious problem for Somalis. However, while illegal fishers are not inclined to report interactions with pirates to formal authorities, the IMB-PRC’s statistics showed that by 2005, fishing vessels made up only 5 per cent of reports of pirate encounters.

The foreign fishers soon armed themselves for protection. This caused the badaadinta badah to turn their attention to stealing the valuables on foreign merchant ships. By 2005, kidnap and ransom was a popular business for warlords on land, so they extended this business model to the seas, dropping any remaining veneer of legitimate justification for piracy.

 

By the middle of 2007, it became clear that they could operate with impunity, either at home or from foreigners. The rich rewards of ransom payments brought millions of dollars into Somalia, motivating more and more young men to join in. The piracy epidemic began.

Cultural norms of wealth and respect

Unlike historic pirates, Somalis were not renowned as seafarers. But the Puntland-based Majeerteen did have a history of raiding. Historic narratives describe how the harsh north-eastern lands of the tough and uncompromising Majeerteen created attitudes of mutual suspicion compounded by extreme xenophobia. Greed was associated with sharaf (respect) and the camel was a source of prestige, power, greed, violence, wealth and theft. Its acquisition and possession afforded the respect of the clan, especially when one displayed ambition to acquire it for the benefit of clan members. This environment created a ‘kill or be killed’ society of people who did not fear death and creatively sought wealth in a forbidding environment that lacked natural and man-made resources. This included raiding European shipwrecks.

Every summer, the giant clockwise eddy (known as the Great Whirl) between Ras Haafun and Cape Guardafui emerged to routinely provide two or three European shipwrecks each season. With their lands conveniently adjacent to it, the Ismaan Mahmuud lineage of the Majeerteen particularly benefited from raiding these shipwrecks and used the financial gains to consolidate their power within the Majeerteen Sultanate.

A cultural legacy of equating wealth with respect underpins Somali society, including through piracy. Piracy offered a young man a rare opportunity for significant financial gains that would help improve his status amongst his peers and his clan.

 

The pirates’ legacy

Michael Scott Moore, a German-American hostage in Somalia for over two years, reported his kidnappers seemed devout in their Muslim faith. But their faith could not control the excesses of the sudden acquisition a large amount of money that came to a young pirate after a ransom payment.

By 2008, according to renowned Eyl-based pirate Boyah, a delegation of local clan and religious leaders declared to the local population that dealing with pirates was haram – religiously forbidden. But it was too late. The pirates undertook another great pirate tradition: drinking, carousing and fighting. In Eyl, the pirates ‘were responsible for poor security, destroying the local culture, [increased] robberies, [and they] brought alcohol and prostitution’, said Muse Osman, Eyl’s Mayor.

For locals and the international community alike, the question became how to stop the pirates. And this would prove extremely difficult to answer.