Why are convicted high-seas bandits being sent to the Somali region that profits from their crimes?
- By Jillian Keenanis a New York-based journalist. Her first book, Sex with Shakespeare, will be released by William Morrow/HarperCollins on April 26, 2016.
HARGEISA, Somalia — Mowlid Ahmed Abidoon stands quietly in the small prison cell where he has lived for nearly two years. Slot windows on one wall let in only a little sunlight, leaving his face almost entirely obscured in darkness. Yet there are splashes of color all around: The room’s bunk beds are covered in sheets with bright floral and geometric patterns, over which hang canopies of blue mosquito nets — cells within the cell.
Clad in a striped polo shirt and prison-uniform pants, Mowlid estimates that he is about 20 years old; the last traces of baby fat still cling to his cheeks. He insists that he shouldn’t be behind bars. "I’m a fisherman, not a pirate," he says flatly, as though he has delivered this speech a hundred times before.
Court documents from Seychelles say otherwise. On Dec. 6, 2009, Mowlid and a band of fellow Somali pirates used firearms and explosives to attack the Topaz, a Seychelles Coast Guard patrol vessel. (Seychelles, an island nation, is about 825 miles southeast of Mogadishu, Somalia’s coastal capital.) They were arrested, convicted, and sentenced to 24 years in prison.
That’s how Mowlid ended up in Hargeisa Central Prison, home to 29 Somali pirates. The prison was born of necessity. Pirates are often tried in countries like Seychelles and Mauritius, in whose waters they are caught, but those states don’t want to keep the convicted in their jails. The Somali government can’t reasonably take them, given its extreme volatility. Yet one place has been eager to house pirates: Somaliland, a self-declared independent (but internationally unrecognized) republic in northern Somalia that wants to prove its state-like qualities and relative security in the tumultuous Horn of Africa.
So the United Nations invested millions of dollars to build a prison in Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital. Opened in 2010 and run by local authorities, it was the first new prison in the region in 30 years.
Today, outside the prison’s main entrance, a sign warns visitors what they cannot bring with them: hand grenades, knives, assault rifles. Inside, inmates compete against guards in basketball, while feral kittens roam the dusty grounds. In the prison’s open kitchen, a huge pot of stew bubbles over a fire. Aside from spirals of barbed wire and armed guards atop open towers, there isn’t much obvious security.
Beneath the veneer of calm, however, the prison is nearing capacity. The facility can hold 506 prisoners, and it already has 480. (Pirates are housed alongside other criminals.) Mowlid, like many inmates, shares his cell with nine other men. Meanwhile, some 1,350 pirates currently incarcerated abroad await repatriation to Somalia. It’s clear that neither Hargeisa nor Somaliland generally will be able — or even willing — to take them all.
The solution, according to the international community, lies in another autonomous region in Somalia: Puntland, which encompasses the country’s northeastern coastline. The U.N. provided funding to upgrade and expand a prison in the port city of Bosaso, and, as of press time, another U.N.-backed facility was scheduled to open in Garowe, Puntland’s capital, in February 2014. But Puntland isn’t Somaliland. It is a less stable and more corrupt place. Perhaps most worrying, however, is that it’s also considered the heart of Somalia’s pirate culture.
"Puntland is pirate land,"explains Michael Frodl, the founder of C-Level Maritime Risks, a Washington-based consultancy. "If I were a Somali pirate, I’d do everything I could to get sent to Garowe."
PIRACY BEGAN SPREADING rapidly in the waters off Somalia in the early 21st century because of civil war and poverty — offering a chance to make money amid an economic wasteland of opportunity. In a typical operation, pirates armed with guns and other weapons approach commercial ships in skiffs, hijack them, and demand a ransom, a chunk of which they often pay to wily financiers. But even if Somali pirates can be considered products of circumstance, some have also become torturers and murderers: Freed hostages have reported pirates hanging captives by their feet, submerging them at sea, staging mock executions, and locking them in freezers.
Reports of appalling violence, along with hundreds of millions of dollars in losses to shipping companies, have prompted the international community to focus on repressing, arresting, and prosecuting Somali pirates. In 2008, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution calling on countries with ships in the region to use military force against pirates. NATO and the European Union (among others) police the Indian Ocean, and private, foreign-funded security operations have also joined the fight. Meanwhile, shipping companies have fortified their vessels to repel attacks, using everything from armed guards to razor wire.
Their efforts have worked. There were only 15 reported attacks in 2013, according to the International Chamber of Commerce, down sharply from a peak of 237 in 2011. Analysts around the world have touted the drop as a huge success.
But while the most visible manifestations of piracy have diminished, the root causes of the phenomenon remain unaddressed back on dry land. Amid continuing political and economic instability, organized gangs of pirates still exist, looking for susceptible targets, and a new generation of young men like Mowlid could easily turn to a life of maritime crime. Indeed, according to a 2013 World Bank report, "Current and proposed onshore or offshore policies for curbing Somali piracy are either ineffective or unsustainable." As a result, the report states, "whether they [pirate attacks] will continue to be suppressed is a major question." Similarly, Jon Huggins of the nonprofit Oceans Beyond Piracy, has called the recent gains against pirates "fragile and reversible" and has warned against "emphasiz[ing] too much the declining numbers of attacks."
The prisons in Somaliland and Puntland, in other words, are part of a security solution to a problem that is, at its heart, economic and political — a worrying mismatch. Ending piracy once and for all will require more than military might on the high seas and the threat of incarceration. According to the World Bank, it will require incentivizing — through both law enforcement and development initiatives — the local leaders enabling piracy to change their tune. Then there is the matter of jobs. "Ultimately, we need to get these Somali men, often youth, quality employment," says Michael Shank, an adjunct professor and Somalia expert at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. The U.N. Development Program has pegged the unemployment rate for Somali youth between the ages of 14 and 29 at 67 percent — one of the world’s highest.
Pirate prisons alone certainly cannot address this problem. Although inmates can complete training programs in trades like construction, metalworking, and plumbing in the Hargeisa and Bosaso facilities, it’s unlikely they will be able to use their newfound skills upon release. Even fishing jobs are largely out of reach. Shank explains that, in addition to "ransom pirates," there are "resource pirates." The latter, however, aren’t Somalis. They are foreign fleets that threaten East Africa’s waters with overfishing and toxic-waste dumping, making it impossible for many Somali men to make money the way their fathers and grandfathers did. "To put the problem of piracy in perspective, ransom pirates made $60 million in their most lucrative year, while commercial-resource pirates illegally harvest up to $450 million in fish annually," says Shank. "Any sustainable solution for this problem, then, must address this exploitation."
Ironically, pirate prisons may also be generating new security risks. Pirates in Hargeisa and Bosaso are held in the same facilities as members of al-Shabab, the Somali terrorist group with ties to al Qaeda, and juveniles are housed alongside adults. That means there’s a very real risk that impressionable, disillusioned young men could be radicalized — young men like Mowlid, who, if his estimated age is correct, was only about 16 when he and his friends attacked the Topaz. "I don’t see any future," Mowlid says of his life.
John Wilcox, a prison advisor for Somaliland with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), says roughly 12 of the Hargeisa prison’s inmates are members of al-Shabab. There is a covert prison intelligence program in place to ward off radicalization, but Wilcox still worries that the facility could become a breeding ground for extremists. "A lot of these guys don’t have father figures," he says, alluding to another socioeconomic problem in Somalia: the disintegration of clan and family structures because of conflict and hardship. "And with al-Shabab in here, we certainly don’t want this to be the place where they find one."
Radicalization might be less of a concern if prison inmates were certain to remain behind bars. But in November 2013, Bosaso’s prison was attacked by al-Shabab militants carrying at least one rocket-propelled grenade; they killed three people as they sought to liberate fellow extremists from their cells. The UNODC was quick to point out that, had it not been for its recent investments in Bosaso, the attack could have been worse. "However, we cannot close our eyes to possible attacks," says Manuel de Almeida Pereira, a program coordinator with the UNODC in Garowe. "We remain, of course, worried."
It’s not just al-Shabab that threatens the prisons’ security: Puntland has a reputation for tolerating and even enabling piracy. Although Puntland’s former president, Abdirahman Farole — in office from 2009 until January 2014 — made repeated public pledges and some concrete efforts to undermine, arrest, and convict pirates, a 2012 report by the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea called into question "[t]he authenticity of the Puntland authority’s commitment to fighting piracy." Gangs have reportedly paid off local communities in order to dock hijacked ships in Puntland’s coastal cities during ransom negotiations, and Puntland government officials have been known to receive pirate money in exchange for protection agreements and information about the location of foreign ships. A 2012 Chatham House study also found that ransom money contributes heavily to the region’s economic development, particularly in provincial capitals. "Puntland’s political elites are therefore unlikely to move decisively against piracy," the report concluded.
The decision to invest in greater detention capacity in Puntland — like Somaliland before it — was due largely to a lack of alternatives. (It didn’t help that, due to an ongoing border dispute, Somaliland has refused to imprison pirates born in Puntland, saying it must deal with its own problems.) But the large-scale transfer of pirate prisoners from abroad hardly seems like a safe solution. Pirates have had success bribing their way out of custody throughout Somalia. The U.N. is working to ensure that prisoners are not unlawfully released from the facilities it funds, but some experts are worried that pirates may still slip through the cracks in Puntland.
"Pirates are basically being sheltered by the regime in exchange for protection money," Frodl, the maritime risk consultant, says. "Those jails might hold a few foot soldiers, but if you tried to incarcerate any high-level pirates in Puntland, they’d buy their way out in a week."
MOWLID, WHO GREW UP IN THE TOWN OF Barawe, south of Mogadishu, perks up slightly when asked about the Puntland prisons. Puntland might be better, he agrees. In Somaliland, he has never been able to have a visitor, and he misses his family. Puntland would be closer to home.
A few of his fellow inmates nod. A transfer might be nice.
But that’s not what they really want to talk about. As the minutes pass, they shift in their seats, ignoring the bottles of fruit juice and water a prison guard has passed around.
"How can you help us?" demands Ares Isse Karshe, a 40-year-old pirate who was captured with Mowlid. He has a thin, ragged beard with hints of gray. When I explain that I can’t help him, he leans back in his chair and says nothing.
Across the room, Mowlid is willing to speak — but only a little. He claims once more that he is innocent and that his right to a fair trial was violated.
"Please leave us alone," Mowlid says finally, looking down. "We give up the sea. It belongs to you now." His fingers have curled into fists.