5 Things I Learned Working With Somali Pirates

Somali piracy has finally hit the big time with its own Tom Hanks movie, bringing public awareness to the issue in the same way we became aware of the problem of lovable foreigners getting trapped in our airports.

The truth is that pirate attacks along the Somali coast are actually on the decline today, but just a few years ago bands of latter-day buccaneers ruled the Gulf of Aden with an iron prosthetic hook. They hijacked a boat full of Ukrainian tanks, caused a crisis in the U.S. that required the intervention of Navy SEALs, and extorted the shipping industry for billions of dollars.

So who are the human beings behind these maritime assaults? We spoke to Thymaya Payne, who in the course of shooting a documentary got to know both Somalia and its pirates in a way rare for men who haven't been held for ransom by them. He found ...

#5. They're Inspired by the Same Media We Are

Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images

When Payne was talking to a group of Somali pirates, he mentioned that he lived in Hollywood -- at which point one of the men pointed to himself, smiled, and said, "Johnny Depp."

He wasn't referencing Edward Scissorhands or Fear and Loathing. This pirate had a mental image of the job that came from the same Jerry Bruckheimer movies yours does. It's no coincidence Somali pirates struck a chord with American audiences. Look at these guys -- they're everything we want out of a plucky movie pirate crew:

U.S. Navy
Right down to the literal red shirt.

At one point Payne sent some local Somali journalists onto the boats to get pictures of pirates in their natural habitat. He reviewed the footage later and realized something: These guys were consciously posing every time the camera panned their way. This ...

Via Thymaya Payne

... was basically a Facebook profile pic. When the camera wasn't on them, the pirates didn't bother to look menacing.

Via Thymaya Payne
Except for rocket-launcher guy. There's something inherently menacing about him.

They knew that any picture a journalist took of them would wind up online, and they wanted to be able to point out "That's me!" to their friends. Kids are all the same, even if they happen to make a living through violent piracy. They're still young guys who mostly want to look badass in front of girls and listen to Half Dollar* albums.

(*That's how the Somalis know 50 Cent.)

Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
Apparently they hijack brand consistency as well.

It's a mistake to think these people are so different from us. They may live in the desert and own a bunch of camels, but they're still denizens of 2014. Pirates of the Caribbean and gangsta rap belong to them, too. Which group do you think identifies most strongly with MIA's "live fast and die young" -- American teenagers, or 16-year-old Somali kids robbing freighters at gunpoint?

#4. The Reality of Piracy Isn't Badass

U.S. Navy

Pirates aren't big on quality control. Thymaya Payne interviewed one in prison who had a (self-given) reputation for badassery. But when asked "How many ships did you capture?" he answered "None."

And that's what the guy was in there for: attempted piracy. He'd gone out with the wrong motor on his boat and the wrong sort of hooks to get up the side of the ship, and thus he failed and got caught. It was a Mr. Magoo-level attempt at high seas crime, but it was enough to earn him the right to call himself a pirate. And that's all he wanted.

Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images
"Sorry, pal; shoulder parrots are for closers."

So it's not uncommon to see new pirates vomiting all over the boat because it's literally their first time out to sea. A lot of them wind up falling into rotors or drowning. But the most dangerous time is when the money comes. That's one thing every pirate movie gets right -- pirates like to murder each other on payday.

David De Lossy/Photodisc/Getty Images
Downsizing is always tough.

Many of the pirates Payne met were in prison and by definition not the best and brightest of the bunch. But he also met a lot of "fishermen" (as they call themselves) who were extremely wealthy. These guys were clever, and they treated piracy like any other form of organized crime. Once world governments started navying up Somalia's coast to crack down on the pirates, these guys simply switched to smuggling guns and charcoal (yes, the stuff you put in your grill -- Somali charcoal is awesome for grilling and thus in huge demand).

Ablestock.com/AbleStock.com/Getty Images
Crime has changed.

But if most of these missions wind up in death or slapstick failure, why did so many want to get into piracy? Well ...

#3. Piracy (and Terrorism) Are Like the Armed Forces for These Kids


On the day Osama bin Laden's death hit the news, Thymaya Payne was sitting at an airport in Somalia with a local friend. This fellow had helped him track down pirates to interview but seemed distinctively un-piratey in appearance himself, down to his knockoff polo shirt. They talked about the assassination ("He was just some rich Saudi asshole, anyway"), and Payne's friend casually admitted to having joined the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab as a young man. It had been exciting, he said, but he'd wound up with a girlfriend and a kid and no time for terrorism. He spoke of this infamously violent militant organization like it was his old college garage band.

Brand X Pictures/Stockbyte/Getty Images
"It's been a few years, but sometimes it's still nice to kill a few beers, listen to 'Glory Days,' and wire a bomb."

Al-Shabab, by the way, is the same group that shot up that mall in Kenya. They're also affiliated with al-Qaida. To us, they're a violent group of Cobra-level bad guys. To a starving 16-year-old in Somalia, they're the closest he can get to joining the Marine Corps. They offer food, training, social status, and the ability to feel totally awesome when you namedrop your job to girls in the bar. So you get an idea of why some parents would encourage their children to join the pirate crews. In addition to room and board, the job comes with the possibility of earning tens of thousands of dollars. (Note: Youth unemployment in Somalia is 67 percent.) So crime and terrorism doesn't just pay, it's sometimes the only paying job in town.

Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images
"We're not really hiring any poetry majors at the moment, but how are you with a bazooka?"

For context, understand that Somalia's lifeblood used to be its coastline, and then illegal fishing operations started putting them out of business. That's actually how the first Somali pirates started off. Between poachers and ships dumping toxic waste on their shores, the Somali fishing industry died out, and failed states don't exactly have coast guards. A few angry fishermen started patrolling their waters themselves and then realized, "Hey, while we've got these guns and boats ..."

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