| Issue 381
and Regional Affairs
By Steve Bloomfield
May 3, 2009 – THE GREY speedboat cuts through the deep blue waters of
the Gulf of Aden, bouncing over waves as it makes its way out of the
Somali port of Berbera. Omar Adir stands tall, readjusting the
anti-aircraft missile soldered to the floor in the centre of the boat
and scouring the horizon.
His crew of eight men, all dressed in ill-fitting sailor whites, some
carrying machine guns, others rocket-propelled grenade launchers,
position themselves along the sides of the boat.
One young man, his blue-rimmed sailor's hat almost covering his eyes,
looks gingerly at the water and smiles nervously. Like many of the
others on the boat, he can't swim.
The boat picks up pace, passing the half-sunken wrecks of old fishing
trawlers that litter the coastline. The speedometer though sticks
stubbornly at zero. No one can remember when it last worked.
Welcome to the front-line in the fight against piracy. Every morning
Adir and his crew in the Somaliland coastguards take their two
speedboats out on patrol, searching for pirates. It's a thankless task.
They have 860km of coastline to cover and most pirates have faster boats
and far more weapons.
The global fight against piracy off the coast of Somalia has brought
warships from the United States, Britain, Japan, China and a host of
European fleets. But their successes have been limited. Despite the
presence of several of the world's most powerful navies, Somali pirates
have still been able to capture ships at will. At the last count more
than 40 ships with at least 300 hostages were still being held.
The latest idea being raised by Somali politicians and backed by some
international donors is for a new Somali coastguard unit to be
established to patrol their waters. It sounds good on paper but in
practice it is likely to be messy. Southern and central Somalia is
supposedly ruled by a new president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, but he
has little control over the capital city, Mogadishu, let alone along the
In the northeast, the rulers of the semi-autonomous region of Puntland
are accused by many of working alongside the pirates, a charge that
Puntland's president, Abdirahman Mohamed Farole, vigorously denies. That
leaves Somaliland, the breakaway republic in the northwest, which has
claimed its independence from the rest of Somalia since 1991. Somaliland
has its own democratically elected government, its own military, its own
flag and its own currency. Even its own coastguard. What it doesn't have
is much money.
Ahmed Ali Salah, the assistant commander of the Somaliland coastguard
lists off everything his forces are lacking: patrol boats, radar,
radios, uniforms, proper training. He could have added maps. The only
one that his boss, the admiral, has is a faded reprint of a map from
1952 designed by the British.
Despite the problems, the Somaliland government points to a handful of
successes. In the past year four groups of alleged pirates have been
caught, charged and prosecuted. The most recent group, a gang of nine
young men, were arrested earlier this month and sentenced for between 15
and 20 years.
They are being held in a crumbling high-walled prison built near the
Berbera port. The nine men, all dressed in faded sarongs and T-shirts,
are accused of capturing a Yemeni fishing boat and demanding a ransom.
The fishermen were released after a Dutch warship patrolling the Gulf
arrested the pirates. After deciding that they did not have the legal
authority to hold the Somalis, the Dutch released them. The Somaliland
coastguard heard on the local BBC Somali service that the pirates had
been released and sent the two speedboats out to find them.
They were eventually caught on land and brought to Berbera for trial. No
witnesses were called, little evidence appears to have been produced and
the judge delivered his guilty verdict within an hour. The men deny they
are pirates, claiming instead that they are fishermen whose boat
Farah Ismail is not so coy. By his own admission, the 38-year-old former
fisherman is not a very good pirate. The first time he tried to capture
a fishing vessel his prize got away because it was too fast. His most
recent attempt was even more catastrophic. After spending some $11,000
on a new engine for his fishing boat, a handful of guns and a satellite
phone, he was arrested in Berbera before he even got a chance to take
the boat out to sea.
Ismail is held at a maximum security jail in Mandhera, a small village
surrounded by rocky hills about 50km south of Berbera. It was built by
the British in 1941 to house Second World War prisoners and almost 600
men are held there in tiny, dank cells.
Ismail and four other men arrested with him are almost one year into a
15-year sentence. But Ismail, a skinny man with a wispy goatee, is
unrepentant. In the course of a long interview he sheds some light on
the reasons why men like him - once ordinary fishermen - have turned to
For several years Ismail fished in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of
Puntland. He was, he claims, a successful fisherman, catching enough
lobster to export weekly shipments to the markets in Dubai. He lived
with his wife and two children in Bosasso, a steaming, bustling city
with one of Somalia's biggest ports.
But Somalis were not the only ones fishing in those waters. Trawlers
from Spain, Italy and Japan, among others, regularly took advantage of
the lack of government in Somalia to fish there illegally. The lobster
and yellowfin tuna found in Somali waters is said to be some of the
finest in the world and commands a high price.
By the late 1990s Somali fishermen were starting to attack some of the
foreign trawlers and demand a tax' for taking their fish.It was not just
fishing vessels that took advantage of Somalia's lawless coastline.
According to local fishermen and UN reports foreign ships have come to
Somali waters to dump toxic waste, polluting the ocean, damaging the
coral and dramatically reducing the fish stocks.
The combination of over-fishing by foreigners and the dumping of toxic
waste angered Ismail. "I wanted the world to feel how I feel," he said.
"They are the real pirates. They came into our business so we will come
into their business."
His first attempt came in April 2006. With a crew of four other
fishermen, and armed with more than a dozen AK47s, rifles, pistols and
machine guns, Ismail took his motorised skiff out into the Indian Ocean
searching for a foreign fishing trawler. It didn't take long for them to
find their prey. For more than four hours Ismail tried to chase the
trawler but it was too fast and was able to escape.
Undeterred, Ismail returned to Bosasso and plotted his next move. He
would need a satellite phone - partly because it would give him GPS
coordinates but also so that he could contact the ship's owners and
demand his ransom once he was successful. He would also need an
extendable ladder to make it easier to board his prize.
Most importantly, he would need a bigger boat.
Ismail decided that Bosasso, which has become a centre of pirate
activity, was too dangerous. So he moved several hundred miles west
along the coast to Berbera, a small, sleepy town with a far quieter
port. It was not a good decision. After investing his entire savings in
his new boat he had it delivered, by truck, into Berbera.
The arrival of Ismail's boat, which looked unlike any other in Berbera,
caused a stir. The police and coastguards started tracking Ismail's
movements and asked him questions. Then, one night, they raided his
house and, as Ismail describes it, "caught me red-handed - with the
weapons, the boat, everything".
Now he spends his days locked up in his cell, occasionally persuading
the guards to give him a bit of khat, the mild narcotic leaf that Somali
men often spend the afternoon chewing.
Despite the severity of the sentence, Ismail knows exactly what he will
do when he is finally released: return to piracy. "I would have to," he
said. "It is the only way to make money now." And he wouldn't be going
after the foreign fishing vessels. "I would laugh if I got one with
Jurgen Kantner wouldn't find it quite so funny. The 62-year-old German
and his wife were hijacked by pirates off the coast of Puntland last
year. They were taken on land and held for 52 days in a mountain
hide-out and released only after a $600,000 ransom was paid.
Kantner now spends his days rebuilding his yacht in Berbera, on the
other side of the pier from the Somaliland coastguard base. He has
little time for the coastguards. "They put on a Mickey Mouse show," he
said, dismissing them with a wave of the hand. "They will never catch a
The admiral of the coastguard, Osman Jibril Hagar, admits his men stand
little chance against the pirates. "We are struggling," he said. "The
pirates have bigger boats."
They also have more money. Somaliland's entire annual budget is less
than $50 million. This year alone piracy is estimated to have raised
more than that already. The men currently languishing in Somaliland's
jails are just the foot soldiers. Most of the bosses, the men with the
money, are living abroad, buying up property in Nairobi, Dubai and
London. Some are also living in Puntland, building mansions, importing
dozens of shiny new 4x4s and organising week-long parties.
Funding a coastguard may lower the number of attacks but some regional
experts believe it would be more effective to follow the money. "Stop
these guys coming to Kenya or London, freeze their accounts and this
will drop by 80 per cent," said one diplomat who wished to remain
anonymous because he is not authorised to talk to the press. "The
coastguards and the navies will do nothing to stop it."
Ultimately, the only way to really solve the problem of piracy is to
solve the problem of Somalia. Piracy, said Robert Maletta, a policy
advisor on Somalia for the aid agency Oxfam, "is a symptom of deeper
issues that have gone unaddressed ever since the collapse of the
national government in 1991".
For now though, two speedboats and a dozen or so lightly armed men, are
the first line of defence. "We will keep trying," said Adir, keeping his
eye on the horizon.
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