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 ...
5They're Inspired by the Same Media We Are
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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:
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.)
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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?
4The Reality of Piracy Isn't Badass
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.
"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.
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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).
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 ...