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“Desperate Somali Women Are Flocking To the Coast To Marry Pirates”

April 20, 2009

An investigation from the Atlantic Monthly into the origin of the Somali pirate “culture” arising, as it has, out of the militia activities and warlord leadership of the world’s longest-running failed state. Who are the pirates?

Here’s who the pirates are: Militias calling themselves “coastguards,” made up of strike teams of gunmen who have fought in the employ of various warlords for decades, fishermen who have found a more lucrative prey in tankers than in tuna, and a few techies capable of reading a GPS, or making a call on a Satellite phone. (Months of ransom negotiation can cost roughly $40,000, so the pirates wisely use the phones aboard the captured vessels.) At the top of the food chain are warlords —or businessmen. Call them what we will, the label means little. Many belong to the northern-based clan called Majarteen, the family of Somalia’s recently ousted and politically powerless president, Abdullahi Yusuf, who also happens to be one Somalia’s most notorious warlords. This is how business has been done for more than two decades in Somalia: leadership means little more than the acquisition of money, and the pirates are no different.

What the pirates do is exactly what Somali militias do on land: They feed off of anyone with anything to steal. On land, rival clan-based militias attack UN aid convoys, food trucks—even refugees forced to carry all their wealth in the world as they flee from home. At sea, they use the same tactics, only with higher, more public stakes. In the past year, they have seized 30 Russian-made tanks (from a Ukrainian ship bound for Kenya); they have stripped parts from luxury yachts and oil tankers; and last year they raked in an estimated $30 million. Finally, two weeks ago, they drew the world’s attention by attacking their first American ship, the Maersk Alabama. The Alabama was carrying containers of food —vegetable oil, wheat, and dehydrated vegetables—meant to alleviate starvation in Somalia. And while the attack kept the world riveted, as if this were a unique and astonishing event, in reality, it was just a larger-scale version of what these bandits do on land every day, while the world pays little attention.

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