14 Jan 2012

Inside Somalia with the pirates

Africa Correspondent

The number of successful Somali pirate attacks has halved following the introduction of armed guards and anti-piracy measures. But as Jamal Osman reports, this leads pirates to take greater risks.

It’s something outsiders hardly ever see.

But Channel 4 News bore witness to how Somali pirates prepare: they plan, test their guns, check their boats and then disappear into the vast sea.

Jamal Osman spent nearly a month in Somalia making a film; following their lives and their community.

To the outside world, people like Dahir Lugey are despised outlaws – but he claims to Jamal he’s just a former fisherman – now making a living in the only way he can.

Fishing is now much harder – because illegal fishing boats have been taking advantage of Somalia’s lawlessness – and emptying its waters

“I’d rather risk my life to hunt down those who’ve destroyed my livelihood than sit here. An oil tanker would be ideal,” he says.

“I’m prepared to either capture a ship or die. There’s nothing else for me here”.

But things are getting tougher for the pirates.

The number of pirate attacks has stayed around the same for the last three years – 176 attacks in 2011, 174 in 2010 and 163 in 2009.

But last year their rate of success had halved from previous years. Only 25 of those attacks were successful in 2011 as opposed to 47 in 2010.

And there are signs that the pirates are becoming more desperate, attacking with more violence, as far away as the coast of India where some pirates were captured in June.

Ships are also defending themselves better, deploying razor wire around their sides to prevent boarding, firing pepper spray and building a “safe area” where all the crew can escape to if pirates get onboard.

They are also fighting back by sailing with armed guards on board.

Phil Cable, of MAST security, said: “We are seeing them attacking far wider than ever before, out towards India even”

Nobody is born a pirate – Captain Colin Darch, former hostage

He said on occasion they attacks are becoming more violent and there have been examples where pirates have set fire to ships after the crew retreated to their safe rooms, in desperation to get them out.

“There is no doubt as we move into this year that clearly piracy is a long way from being defeated,” he said.

Anti-piracy operations like the ones organised by the Italian navy are also helping cut the number of successful attacks – but at huge financial cost.

The pirates make about $150m a year but the anti-piracy effort is costing several billion – surely there’s a better way stop this?

Captain Colin Darch was one of the first people to be captured by pirates back in 2007.

He was held for nearly two months and during that time pirates told him at length why they had kidnapped him.

“Nobody is born a pirate,” said Captain Colin Darch. “It’s just the failed economic government system in the country which had forced these people into acting in this way.

“They explained at length that they hadn’t a government for 17 years, no health system, no education system, no government agencies at all and they were forced into looking after themselves and they found this lucrative way of doing it.”

Captain Darch was lucky. In recent months pirates have been torturing and even killing hostages.

I’ve been covering the piracy development in Somalia for the past three years and met dozens of pirates.

Some are getting rich. But they then hire desperate young men to do the actual hijacks, they’re not risking themselves.

And as long as they can still find desperate young men willing to risk their lives to attack ships, this will continue.