MOGADISHU (AFP) — As Somalia sinks ever deeper into hunger and despair, attacking foreign ships bottle-necking into the Gulf of Aden is proving to be one of the few profitable activities in the country.
Abdi Garad, who describes himself as the commander of one of the first groups of pirates who started marauding Somalia's much-frequented waters, has no qualms about listing the personal advantages derived from piracy.
"We enjoy life with the money we get as a ransom," he told AFP from an undisclosed location in the semi-autonomous breakaway region of Puntland.
Abdi Garad boasts a large flat in one of Puntland's main towns, owns two fully-equipped SUV's, three mobiles, a satellite phone and a laptop.
Last on his list, but maybe not least, he says he recently married two more wives to add to the lone spouse he had before launching his career in piracy.
Residents have also reported a boom in lavish wedding parties in the Puntland town of Garowe since the hijacking of mainly merchant vessels off Somalia's lawless coastline became a weekly occurrence last year.
According to experts, the surge in piracy has raked in up to 30 million dollars (22 million euros) in ransom money since the start of the year alone, causing jitters in world trade and attracting unprecedented attention to a forgotten country.
But Garad remains a far cry from the romantic image of the swashbuckling buccaneers that wreaked havoc in the 17th century Carribbean and claims to be engaged in a legitimate nationalist struggle.
"This is just like any business for us. We care about it just like anyone would care about their job. I have been on the ocean for a long time, not to fish but to hunt down ships in our territorial waters, which nobody will guard if I don't do it," he explained.
"We're defending our waters from foreigners dumping toxic waste and plundering our sea resources. I hope the world can understand this is the responsibility of Somalis and we shall one day be rewarded for our efforts."
In Puntland's coastal villages, not everyone sees the pirates as heroic freelance coast guards but most show suitable respect for the area's new rulers and their money.
"They have a lot of money and they can buy everything without even looking at the price," said Mohamed Abdi Dige, a trader in Puntland's main port and economic capital Bossaso.
"We give them supplies, medicines, food, fuel and clothes when they go to sea to stalk ships and they pay us after they obtain the ransom."
Pirates have had the nous to share the spoils, distributing the ransom money to friends, relatives and local officials across clanic lines.
Bile Mohamoud Qabowsade, adviser to the president of Puntland, said such an approach has meant the pirates have built an informal network providing logisitical and political back-up onshore.
"Many people like the pirates for their pockets. They have money and give to their relatives and friends. That money goes through many hands, which in return gives them support among the community," he said.
Jama Ahmed, 26, joined the trade in Harardhere, one of the coast's main pirate lairs. For him, redistribution to the community is logical since he does not consider the pirates extort ransoms but rather "fees" from foreign ships.
"All we do is ask ransoms for the ships we hijack because we believe a ransom represents a legal tax that a government may have taken," he said.
In some parts of Puntland, an impoverished region of northern Somalia with a barely functioning administration and security forces depleted by successive conflicts, returning pirates are welcomed back like prodigal sons.
News that bags of cash have hit the shore, often under the cover of darkness, spreads like bushfire in neighbouring towns and villages.
The next day, pirates aim straight for a large restaurant or an expensive hotel, where they invariably start their celebration by chewing the best kat, a mild narcotic leaf to which many Somali men are addicted.
A procession of well-wishers then starts: friends, relatives as well as local traders and elders who have come to claim a reward for the assistance they provided in the ransom mediation.
"You see many people coming into the hotel visiting them, they are busy paying money to the visitors for a whole day and they spend half of their time talking on their expensive mobile phones. They look like big company bosses," said Ali Haji Yusuf, a hotel owner in Garowe.
Bossaso resident Asha Elmi described with a mixture of envy and amusement the transformation her neighbour underwent.
"He used to be a poor fisherman a year ago but now he is rich. He bought three beautiful houses in the same neighbourhood," she said.
"He had a wife but married a second one recently. There were maybe 150 cars in the wedding convoy."
Government officials claim they are powerless to combat piracy and say they are outdone by the parallel economy piracy has created.
"They are powerful and getting better equipped by the day. We clearly have no power to fight them," Seaports Minister Ahmed Said Awnur told AFP.
Yet experts and locals alike argue piracy could not have been allowed to fester unchecked without government collusion.
"If you ask around, everybody will tell you pirates are bad. But that's just in the conversation," said Haji Abdi Warsame, an elder from the coastal town of Eyl, a major piracy hub on Somalia's Indian Ocean coast.
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