There will be plenty of winners if Somali pirates keep their pledge to release the captive Ukrainian freighter MV Faina and its cargo of Russian battle tanks in exchange for a ransom of $3 million — but very little of the booty will go to the pirates themselves. "Our representatives told us that the ship's owners have agreed to a good amount of money," TIME was told this week by a man named Ahmed Gel-Qonaf, 29, who claimed to be among the pirates aboard the Faina, captured in September. "We said if there is money they are ready to pay, then we will release the ship." And the $3 million figure confirmed by Gel-Qonaf represents a relative bargain in comparison to the pirates' opening bid of more than $25 million.
One reason the negotiations have taken more than 10 weeks, Gel-Qonaf said, is the large number of people involved who expect to get a cut from any hijacking, ranging from pirate commanders to leaders of the embattled U.S.-backed transitional government of Somalia as well as its nemesis, the Islamist Shabab militia. Lowest in the pecking order, it seems, are the gunmen who actually captured the ships.
"There is a share payment not only for the Shabab, but also others, including some big bosses of the government, both federal and regional, so that we can operate without harassment," said Gel-Qonaf, who also said he had helped organize the capture of the Faina. "Before the ship is released, all these parties have to agree about the money."
With piracy being one of the few booming businesses amid the anarchy of Somalia, pirates interviewed by TIME indicated that both the Islamist militia that controls much of the country and elements of the government are inclined to extort a share of the ransom payments — tens of millions of dollars this year alone — whenever possible. The International Maritime Board's Piracy Reporting Center says 14 ships and between 250 and 300 crew members remain in captivity along the Somali coast.
Pirates interviewed by TIME claimed that while the Shabab had declared that all taxable means of earning money in Somalia violate Islamic law by propping up a government it has declared un-Islamic, piracy had been exempted because it isn't taxed. A pirate named Abdenasser told TIME he had once done good business recruiting young men from his hometown of Bossaso for the industry, with one of his best pitch lines being that it didn't violate Islamic law. But these days, he said, the Islamists have taken such a big piece of the pie that the pirates and their recruiters no longer see much of the money.
"I am really sorry that this made a lot of money for these organizations," Abdenasser said. "The pirates and us get such little money from it now."
Somalia's pirates demonstrated the growth in their sophistication and capability last month when they seized the giant Saudi oil tanker Sirius Star some 450 nautical miles out at sea — well beyond the pirates' previous range. One of the men involved in that raid, 24-year-old Mohamed Dashishle described a distinctly low-tech operation, though organized by men he said had once trained in the Somali coast guard. One of the pirates' "mother ships" spotted the tanker and deployed three small skiffs to surround it. Dashishle told TIME that the pirates simply had to brandish their rocket-propelled grenade launchers to intimidate the tanker. They never even fired a shot or boarded the ship before it got to anchor.
"As it was happening, we stopped the ship using the weapons we held — we got our weapons ready as if we were going to shoot," Dashishle told TIME. "After half an hour, the ship stopped, and we told it where to go with signals. No one even boarded the ship during the operation."
Shortly after the Sirius Star was hijacked, the Shabab and other Islamist groups in Somalia denounced its capture on the grounds that it was impermissible to seize a Muslim-owned vessel. They even threatened to attack the pirates and free the ship.
But pirates aboard the Saudi-owned ship and members of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government dismiss these claims as an effort to placate their donors in Saudi Arabia.
"Before the Saudi Arabian ship was kidnapped, there was no conflict and there was no noise from the Shabab, but now a source of their financial help has been touched," a Foreign Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told TIME. "We understand well that the Shabab wants to protect their ties to Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia."
Dashishle, the pirate aboard the Sirius Star, concurred: "They just want the Saudi Arabians who own the ship to hear that the Shabab militia wanted to release the ship, because they receive money from some rich Saudis," he said. "But the Shabab doesn't have the strength to attack us and release the ship. It's just simple propaganda."
Still, the capture of the Sirius Star — and the apparent decision to pay ransom to free the MV Faina — makes clear that the efforts of Western and other nation-states to deploy warships to protect commercial shipping from piracy have not been particularly effective against a handful of men equipped with a few rocket-propelled grenades, a fleet of rusty boats and a great deal of pluck. Restrictive rules of engagement and the hazy legality of arresting pirates whose home nation has no functioning legal system have left even the U.S. Navy unable to take the fight to the pirates.
"Certainly, we're concerned about where this money is going, but we really don't get involved in knowing where it is," said Lieutenant Nathan Christensen, spokesman for the U.S. Fifth Fleet. "What we are really after here is the root of the problem. Regardless of where the money goes, our feeling is that the problem of piracy is ashore, and to cut off the root of the problem, that's where it needs to be dealt with."
So dire has the piracy problem become that several international shipping companies have chosen to abandon the shortcut through the Suez Canal that requires their vessels to pass the Somali coast, and instead route them around South Africa. "As long as there is no firm deterrent, attacks will continue," said Noel Choong, chief of the International Maritime Bureau's Piracy Reporting Center in Kuala Lumpur. "The risks are low, and the returns are so high." And not only for the pirates, either.