Image: Hijacked crew in failed escape
Jason R. Zalasky  /  US Navy cia EPA file
Crew members on the arms-laden Ukrainian cargo ship MV Faina, shown here in October, tried to overpower two of their Somali captors, prompting the hijackers to threaten to punish the men on Tuesday.
updated 12/10/2008 6:59:13 PM ET 2008-12-10T23:59:13

Ahmed Dahir Suleyman is cagey as he talks about the global network that funds and supports piracy off the coast of Somalia.

"We have negotiators, translators and agents in many areas ... let me say across the world," said Suleyman, a pirate in the harbor town of Eyl, where scores of hijacked ships are docked.

"These people help us during exchanges of ransom and finding out the exact person to negotiate with," he told The Associated Press. Before cutting off the cell phone call, Suleyman snapped: "It is not possible to ask anymore about our secrets."

The dramatic spike in piracy in African waters this year is backed by an international network mostly of Somali expatriates from the Horn of Africa to as far as North America, who offer funds, equipment and information in exchange for a cut of the ransoms, according to researchers, officials and members of the racket. With help from the network, Somali pirates have brought in at least $30 million in ransom so far this year.

"The Somali diaspora all around the world now have taken to this business enterprise," said Michael Weinstein, a Somalia expert at Purdue University in Indiana. He likened the racket to "syndicates where you buy shares, so to speak, and you get a cut of the ransom."

Weinstein said his interviews with ransom negotiators and Somalis indicate the piracy phenomenon has reached Canada, which is home to 200,000 Somalis.

The U.S., meanwhile, is seeking international authorization to hunt Somali pirates on land with the cooperation of Somalia's weak United Nations-backed government.

A U.S. draft resolution circulating among U.N. council members and obtained by The Associated Press proposes that all nations and regional groups cooperating with Somalia's government in the fight against piracy and armed robbery also "may take all necessary measures ashore in Somalia" including its airspace.

Presumably that could involve the U.S. military, which withdrew from Somalia after the killing of 18 U.S. troops in 1993.

The resolution is to be presented at a U.N. session on Somalia with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

'Transnational crime syndicates'
John S. Burnett, a London-based author working on a book about hijackings off the Somali coast, said there is no doubt Somali pirates are part of "transnational crime syndicates." He said information from sources, including people involved in ransom negotiations and payouts, indicates the money goes as far as Canada and capitals in Europe.

"Places like Eyl are getting only a portion of the millions in ransom being siphoned off," he said. "The Somali diaspora is huge."

Sheik Qasim Ibrahim Nur, director of security at Somalia's Interior and National Security Ministry, said evidence points to Somali expatriates in Kenya and the United Arab Emirates, but declined to give further details. He said there is "no doubt" the pirates have links outside Somalia.

Kenya's government spokesman, Alfred Mutua, said the issue was under investigation. In Dubai, a police officer at the Interior Ministry denied claims that anyone was funding piracy. He asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

The deals with "investors" appear to be fairly informal, with family or clan networks stretching overseas. The lack of a proper banking system in Somalia, which has not had an effective government in almost 20 years, makes it difficult to trace how much funding the pirates get from overseas or how it is channeled.

Somalia is a failed state with no banks, only a cash-based, informal transfer network called hawala. A hawala operator takes in money on one end, then instructs a relative, friend or another agent in another country to hand a like amount to someone else. The paperless system, based on trust and oral agreements, is commonly used in the Middle East, parts of Asia and Africa.

There is some concern that the system is used for overseas payments to and from the pirates — especially now that they are getting their ransoms in cash, sometimes dropped in burlap sacks from a buzzing helicopter.

The pirates acknowledge using foreign help.

"All I can tell you is we have people in Nairobi, Djibouti, we have people in Dubai and many other countries," said Gamase Hassan Said, a pirate in Eyl speaking by telephone.

Aden Yusuf, another pirate in Eyl, told The AP that foreigners in Dubai, Nairobi, Djibouti and elsewhere help pirates get sophisticated equipment, such as money-counting machines seen at foreign exchange bureaus, in exchange for a cut of the ransom.

Roger Middleton, an expert on East Africa at Chatham House think tank in London, said ransoms in the past have been "channeled to expatriate Somalis around the world." But pirates appear to be opting for direct cash payouts more often now — bypassing even the hawala transfer system — because of concerns about scrutiny by governments, he said. In one instance at the beginning of this year, he said, the pirates wanted the money delivered through the Gulf but nobody was prepared to take it.

"That may be an indication that the (UAE) government was stepping up pressure," said Middleton, whose information comes from private security firms and people party to hostage negotiations.

In the Emirates, hawala operators have been ordered to register with the Central Bank and to report transfers larger than $550, but it is unclear how many actually do so.

Villages turned into boomtowns
The Somali pirates also rely on a local network of corrupt officials and villagers eager for money in a region with no real economy. Somali pirates generally dock hijacked vessels near the coast in the northern Somali region of Puntland as they negotiate ransoms. Rogue security and government officials there allow the pirates to use ports and move freely around towns while they restock ships, said Abdullahi Said Aw-Yusuf, a district commissioner in Eyl.

"This is the main reason why pirates are stationed in Puntland," Aw-Yusuf said.

Piracy has turned many tiny fishing villages off Somalia's coast into boomtowns, where pirates build sprawling homes, cruise in luxury cars and marry multiple wives. Often dressed in military fatigues, the pirates are typically armed with automatic weapons, anti-tank rocket launchers and grenades. The weaponry is readily available throughout Somalia, where 20 years of anarchy means nearly everyone owns a gun and a bustling arms market operates in the capital.

The pirates have attacked more than 90 vessels this year and successfully seized more than 36.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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