, MOGADISHU, May 1 – A mobile tribunal, a system of fines and a code of conduct: the success of Somali pirates’ seajacking business relies on a structure that makes them one of the country’s best-organised armed forces.
A far cry from the image conveyed in films and novels of pirates as unruly swashbucklers, Somalia’s modern-day buccaneers form a paramilitary brotherhood in which a strict and complex system of rules and punishments is enforced.
They are organised in a multitude of small cells dotting the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden coastline. The two main land bases are the towns of Eyl, in the breakaway state of Puntland, and Harardhere, further south in Somalia.
"There are hundreds of small cells, linked to each other," Hasan Shukri, a pirate based in Haradhere, told AFP in a phone interview.
"We talk every morning, exchange information on what is happening at sea and if there has been a hijacking, we make onshore preparations to send out reinforcement and escort the captured ship closer to the coast," he explained.
Somali piracy started off two decades ago with a more noble goal of deterring illegal fishing, protecting the people’s resources and the nation’s sovereignty at a time when the state was collapsing.
While today’s pirates have morphed into a sophisticated criminal ring with international ramifications, they have been careful to retain as much popular prestige as possible and refrain from the violent methods of the warlords who made Somalia a by-word for lawlessness in the 1990s.
— They don’t rape, they don’t rob —
"I have never seen gangs that have rules like these. They avoid many of the things that are all too common with other militias," said Mohamed Sheikh Issa, an elder in the Eyl region.
"They don’t rape, and they don’t rob the hostages and they don’t kill them. They just wait for the ransom and always try to do it peacefully," he said.
Somalia’s complex system of clan justice is often rendered obsolete by the armed chaos that has prevailed in the country for two decades, but the pirates have adapted it effectively.
Abdi Garad, an Eyl-based commander who was involved in recent attacks on US ships, explained that the pirates have a mountain hide-out where leaders can confer and where internal differences can be solved.
"We have an impregnable stronghold and when there is a disagreement among us, all the pirate bosses gather there," he told AFP.
The secretive pirate retreat is a place called Bedey, a few miles from Eyl.
"We have a kind of mobile court that is based in Bedey. Any pirate who commits a crime is charged and punished quickly because we have no jails to detain them," Garad said.
Some groups representing different clans farther south in the villages of Hobyo and Haradhere would disagree with Garad’s claim that Somalia’s pirates all answer to a single authority.
But while differences remain among various groups, the pirates’ first set of rules is precisely aimed at neutralising rivalries, Mohamed Hidig Dhegey, a pirate from Puntland, explained.
"If any one of us shoots and kills another, he will automatically be executed and his body thrown to the sharks," he said from the town of Garowe.
"If a pirate injures another, he is immediately discharged and the network is instructed to isolate him. If one aims a gun at another, he loses five percent of his share of the ransom," Dhegey said.
— Anyone shooting a hostage will be shot —
Perhaps the most striking disciplinary feature of Somali "piratehood" is the alleged code of conduct pertaining to the treatment of captured crews.
"Anybody who is caught engaging in robbery on the ship will be punished and banished for weeks. Anyone shooting a hostage will immediately be shot," said Ahmed Ilkacase.
"I was once caught taking a wallet from a hostage. I had to give it back and then 25,000 dollars were removed from my share of the ransom," he said.
Following the release of the French yacht Le Ponant in April 2008, investigators found a copy of a "good conduct guide" on the deck which forbade sexual assault on women hostages.
As Ilkacase found out for himself, pirates breaking internal rules are punished. Conversely, those displaying the most bravery are rewarded with a bigger share of the ransom, called "saami sare" in Somali.
"The first pirate to board a hijacked ship is entitled to a luxurious car, or a house or a wife. He can also decide to take his bonus share in cash," he explained.
Foreign military commanders leading the growing fleet of anti-piracy naval missions plying the region in a bid to protect one of the world’s busiest trade routes acknowledge that pirates are very organised.
"They are very well organised, have good communication systems and rules of engagement," said Vice Admiral Gerard Valin, commander of the French joint forces in the Indian Ocean.
So far, nothing suggests that pirates are motivated by anything other than money and it is unclear whether the only hostage to have died during a hijacking was killed by pirates or the French commandos who freed his ship.
Some acts of mistreatment have been reported during the more than 60 hijackings recorded since the start of 2008, but pirates have generally spared their hostages to focus on speedy ransom negotiations.
With the Robin Hood element of piracy already largely obsolete, observers say the "gentleman kidnapper" spirit could also fast taper off as pirates start to prioritise riskier, high-value targets and face increasingly robust action from navies with enhanced legal elbow room.
They have warned that the much-bandied heroics of a US crew who wrested back control of their ship and had their captain rescued by navy snipers who picked off three pirates could go down as the day pirates decided to leave their manners at home.