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 ...
They're Inspired by the Same Media We Are
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 ...
... was basically a Facebook profile pic. When the camera wasn't on them, the pirates didn't bother to look menacing.
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.)
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?
The 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.
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 ...
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.
"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.
"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 ..."
Somalia Isn't Getting Rich Off of Piracy (But Somebody Is)
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.
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.
They Know How Bad Things Are (and That's Part of the Problem)
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.
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.
"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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