5 Things I Learned Working With Somali Pirates

#2. Somalia Isn't Getting Rich Off of Piracy (But Somebody Is)

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Some soft-hearted person out there is thinking about now, "Well gosh, if these kids are starving, and if stealing cargo off boats headed for rich countries is how they make their money, that's almost a Robin Hood situation, right? And didn't I hear that they were bringing that money back to their impoverished villages?" That would be a nice thought, but no.

Admittedly, Robin Hood would've been a lot more effective with assault weapons.

True, we are talking about a shitload of money here -- piracy in Somalia costs the world around $6 billion a year. That's Escobar-level drug cartel money. But very little of it winds up in the hands of the pirates, and even less stays in Somalia -- the real money is in all of the industries that sprang up around the pirates (but more on that in a moment). The small cut of the money the pirates do make doesn't go as far as you'd think. Somalia is larger than California. The areas that actually did well thanks to pirate money were not like the rest of Somalia. Yet everyone ended up suffering higher inflation.

Payne heard about a pirate who wound up with $100,000 in cash but had no real concept of how much money that was. This guy went on a shopping spree, buying stuff left and right, until he hit upon the bright idea of hiring a hooker. Who, duh, stole the money while he was passed out. The average pirate who went out there and made $15,000 to $20,000 for a year's worth of work won't tend to keep it long. It's money he can't do anything with but just blow.

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You'd think "scourge of the high seas" would pay better than "busboy."

It's true that some pirates acted like Robin Hood with their winnings, and it helped a few people in a few villages here and there. But it didn't spread out into the economy. If you want to see which countries made bank thanks to piracy, look further west. "Specialist services" like risk consultants and security advisers are necessary to deliver a ransom and can easily double its cost. Those specialists did real well from the spike in piracy.

"Did our consultant just say 'Avast'?"

As did the maritime insurance industry -- pirates only capture a handful of ships per year, but when they're active, every ship pays more for insurance. Somali piracy generated roughly $400 million a year in increased premiums at its height. Meanwhile, the Somalis were lucky to take in $160 million in a great year. Selling pirate insurance is more than twice as profitable as the act of piracy, in other words. So, kids -- crime pays. But not nearly as well as a good legal racket.

#1. They Know How Bad Things Are (and That's Part of the Problem)

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We mentioned the terrorist attack on the Kenyan mall earlier, and how the group responsible recruits from the same pool of pissed-off young Somalis that fuels the pirate crews. Well, during the attack, the terrorists used Twitter to live tweet the assault, even creating a hashtag to try to get it trending. From inside the mall. So when we say that groups like this are aware of Western culture, it's not just limited to swashbuckling pirate movies. It's a key part of everything they do.


Remember, America's chief export is its culture, and every Hollywood movie sells the idea that awesome cars, big-ass houses, and shiny gadgets are part of the good life. Piracy is part of what happens when people accept that narrative in a place where you don't get there by following the rules.

Somalis are completely conscious of the outside world, and they are pissed off about it. Imagine you live in a hut with twigs and plastic for a roof, but you can go down the street and watch TV and see exactly how much the rest of the world has, and how they've completely written off your country. Huge numbers of angry young men with no money make great pirate recruits. But they've also been the building block for every terrifying "-ism" of the last century.

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Underneath the Jack Sparrow of it all is a country that's been a geopolitical tennis ball for decades. Right now we mostly ignore the whole mess, but it's coming back to bite us -- this is why Somalia is the next front in the war on terror. Piracy was just the canary in the mine, and now we're seeing a shitload more angry people who don't remind us of whimsical Disney characters. In the end, piracy's greatest victory was forcing us to pay attention to Somalia. Even if the movie we made about it puts the spotlight elsewhere.

Columbia Pictures
"But don't worry, a couple centuries from now you'll be played by the 23rd century version of Johnny Depp."

Thymaya Payne is a documentarian, and his documentary Stolen Seas is available now on itunes, amazon and vimeo. You can go to Stolenseas.com as well. If you have a story to tell Robert Evans, he can be reached here.

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