Pro Tip for Pirates—Watch Out for Other Pirates

Somali bandits fight and kill each other over ransom for kidnapped journalist


It’s dangerous work being a Somali pirate. Not only is hijacking cargo ships out of the question—there’s now armed ex-military contractors fortified on their decks—but you have to worry about other pirates gunning for your proceeds.

The biggest danger to pirates is other pirates.

The latest internecine pirate dispute involves a $1.6 million ransom paid for journalist Michael Scott Moore, who was kidnapped in January 2012 while researching a book on Somali piracy. As Moore traveled down a highway, pirates based in the town of Galkayo grabbed him.

That set off a long ordeal until this week, when negotiators likely acting on the behalf of the German government paid the ransom—Moore is German-American—and the pirates set him free.

Then the pirates started killing each other. Fighting broke out in Galkayo as one pirate clan accused another of hoarding the money, according to the Associated Press. Three pirates died along with two civilians, reported Puntland newspaper Garowe Online. It’s not clear if one clan kept all the money with the other clan wanting a share, or if one believed the other had received more money than they let on.

Pirates fighting over booty is—perhaps not surprisingly—quite common. A $1.6 million ransom goes a long way in Somalia, and the kidnappers and their clans have been waiting for a long time. It’s a big pay day, and everyone wants to get paid.

One pirate leader said their clan put pressure on the kidnapping group to secure a ransom—a sign the clan needed money. It also costs money to hold somebody for more than two and a half years. As long as they held Moore, the clan had to pay people to watch him.

Kidnapping cases take a long time to resolve because pirates have an incentive to maximize the ransom. Freeing the kidnapped person then becomes a matter of talking the pirates down to an amount they’re willing to accept.

Private security guard at left in Somalia on June 8, 2010. European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection photo. Top—U.S. sailors inspect a dhow in the Gulf of Aden on Feb. 5, 2012. Navy photo

Human beings are also riskier to hold than ships. Eventually, the kidnappers want whoever they’re holding gone. Moore’s kidnappers also feared a rescue operation, similar to the Navy SEAL raid that freed two NGO workers a week after he was kidnapped.

“Ransom negotiations favor whichever party is less keen to conclude the negotiations,” wrote Anja Shortland of King’s College and Federico Varese of the University of Oxford in a recent study on piracy. “Rich shipowners pay maximum ransoms when pirates demonstrate that they could hold the ship indefinitely.”

But who’s to stop pirates from fighting over the proceeds? There’s no centralized authority with any real power in Somalia. The pirates are all armed and a lot of them are on drugs. The pirates don’t have any central leader who they all follow.

There’s also lots of good reasons for them to fight—if you think like a pirate. Kidnappings are well-organized business ventures. Officials and clan leaders invest in manpower and armaments. They leverage the proceeds to fund control of territory. There’s also potential for violence if the final ransom is less than what any member of the organization expected.

Worse for the pirates, there’s been a decline in off-shore piracy as shipping companies now regularly keep armed private security contractors aboard container vessels. The result is that successful hijackings in the Gulf of Aden have virtually disappeared. Kidnapping foreigners on land has helped make up some of the difference.

September is also the tail-end of the monsoon season, when the currents make intercepting big ships difficult. That means less money to go around. All in all, Moore’s ransom makes up a significant share of the little cash coming in right now.

But pirates also fight each other when times are good.

During only a few months in 2011—a banner year for ship hijackings before the business collapsed—at least 17 pirates died during drunken arguments and squabbles over ransom payments. In May of that year, the fighting was so bad, people had to flee their homes near pirate-controlled areas.

So if you’re a pirate, watching out for other pirates is more of a general rule. If someone you know steals from people, they’ll probably steal from you, too. Same goes for murdering people.

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