BOOSAASO, Somalia: This may be one of the most dangerous towns in Somalia, a place where you can get kidnapped faster than you can wipe the sweat off your brow. But it is also one of the most prosperous.
Money changers walk around with thick wads of hundred-dollar bills. Palatial new houses are rising up next to tin-roofed shanties. Men in jail reminisce, with a twinkle in their eyes, about their days living like kings.
This is the story of Somalia's booming, not-so-underground pirate economy. The country is in chaos, countless children are starving and people are killing one another in the streets of Mogadishu, the capital, for a handful of grain.
But one particular line of work piracy seems to be benefiting quite openly from all this lawlessness and desperation. This year, Somali officials say, pirate profits are on track to reach a record $50 million, all of it tax free.
"These guys are making a killing," said Mohamud Muse Hirsi, the top Somali official in Boosaaso, who himself is widely suspected of working with the pirates, though he vigorously denies it.
More than 75 vessels have been attacked this year, far more than any other year in recent memory. About a dozen have been set upon in the past month alone, including a Ukrainian freighter packed with tanks, antiaircraft guns and other heavy weaponry, which was brazenly seized in September.
The pirates use fast-moving skiffs to pull alongside their prey and scamper on board with ladders or sometimes even rusty grappling hooks. Once on deck, they hold the crew at gunpoint until a ransom is paid, usually $1 million to $2 million. Negotiations for the Ukrainian freighter are still going on, and it is likely that because of all the publicity, the price for the ship could top $5 million.
In Somalia, it seems, crime does pay. Actually, it is one of the few industries that does.
"All you need is three guys and a little boat, and the next day you're millionaires," said Abdullahi Omar Qawden, a former captain in Somalia's long-defunct navy.
People in Garoowe, a town south of Boosaaso, describe a certain high-rolling pirate swagger. Flush with cash, the pirates drive the biggest cars, run many of the town's businesses like hotels and throw the best parties, residents say. Fatuma Abdul Kadir said she went to a pirate wedding in July that lasted two days, with nonstop dancing and goat meat, and a band flown in from neighboring Djibouti.
"It was wonderful," said Fatuma, 21. "I'm now dating a pirate."
This is too much for many Somali men to resist, and criminals from all across this bullet-pocked land are now flocking to Boosaaso and other notorious pirate dens along the craggy Somali shore. They have turned these waters into the most dangerous shipping lanes in the world.
With the situation clearly out of control, warships from the United States, Russia, NATO, the European Union and India are steaming into Somalia's waters as part of a reinvigorated, worldwide effort to crush the pirates.
But it will not be easy. The pirates are sea savvy. They are fearless. They are rich and getting richer, with the latest high-tech gadgetry like handheld GPS units. And they are united. The immutable clan lines that have pitted Somalis against one another for decades are not a problem here. Several captured pirates interviewed in Boosaaso's main jail said that they had recently crossed clan lines to open new, lucrative, multiclan franchises.
"We work together," said Jama Abdullahi, a jailed pirate. "Good for business, you know?"
The pirates are also sprinkled across thousands of square miles of water, from the Gulf of Aden, at the narrow doorway to the Red Sea, to the Kenyan border along the Indian Ocean. Even if the naval ships manage to catch pirates in the act, it is not clear what they can do. In September, a Danish warship captured 10 men suspected of being pirates cruising around the Gulf of Aden with rocket-propelled grenades and a long ladder. But after holding the suspects for nearly a week, the Danes concluded that they did not have jurisdiction to prosecute, so they dumped the pirates on a beach, minus their guns.
Nobody, it seems, has a clear plan for how to tame Somalia's unruly seas. Several fishermen along the Gulf of Aden talked about seeing barrels of toxic waste bobbing in the middle of the ocean. They spoke of clouds of dead fish floating nearby and rogue fishing trawlers sucking up not just fish and lobsters but also the coral and the plants that sustain them. It was abuses like these, several men said, that turned them from fishermen into pirates.
Nor is it even clear whether Somali authorities universally want the piracy to stop. While many pirates have been arrested, several fishermen, Western researchers and more than a half-dozen pirates in jail spoke of nefarious relationships among fishing companies, private security contractors and Somali government officials, especially those working for the semiautonomous regional government of Puntland.
"Believe me, a lot of our money has gone straight into the government's pockets," said Farah Ismail Eid, a pirate who was captured in nearby Berbera and sentenced to 15 years in jail. His pirate team, he said, typically divided up the loot this way: 20 percent for their bosses, 20 percent for future missions (to cover essentials like guns, fuel and cigarettes), 30 percent for the gunmen on the ship and 30 percent for government officials.
Abdi Waheed Johar, the director general of the fisheries and ports ministry of Puntland, openly acknowledged in an interview this spring that "there are government people working with the pirates."
But, he was quick to add, "It's just not us."
What is happening off Somalia's shores is basically an extension of the corrupt, violent free-for-all that has raged on land for 17 years since the central government imploded in 1991. The vast majority of Somalis lose out. Young thugs who are willing to serve as muscle get a job, albeit a low-paying one, that significantly reduces their life expectancy. And a select few warlords, who have sat down and figured out how to profit off the anarchy, make a fortune.
Take Boosaaso, once a thriving port town on the Gulf of Aden. Piracy is killing off the remains of the local fishing industry because export companies are staying away. It has spawned a kidnapping business on shore, which in turn has scared away many humanitarian agencies and the food, medicine and other forms of desperately needed assistance they bring. Reporting in Boosaaso two weeks ago required no fewer than 10 hired gunmen provided by the Puntland government to discourage any would-be kidnappers.
Few large cargo ships come here anymore, depriving legitimate government operations of much-needed port taxes. Just about the only ships willing to risk the voyage are small, wooden, putt-putt freighters from India, essentially floating jalopies from another era.
"We can't survive off this," said Bile Qabowsade, a Puntland official.
The shipping problems have contributed to food shortages, skyrocketing inflation and less work for the sinewy stevedores who trudge out to Boosaaso's beach every morning and stare in vain at the bright horizon, their bare feet planted in the hot sand, hoping a ship will materialize so they will be able to make a few pennies hauling 100-pound sacks of sugar on their backs.
And yet, suspiciously, there has been a lot of new construction in Boosaaso. There is an emerging section of town called New Boosaaso with huge homes rising above the bubble-shaped huts of refugees and the iron-sided shacks that many fishermen call home. These new houses cost several hundred thousand dollars. Many are painted in garish colors and protected by high walls.
Even so, Boosaaso is still a crumbling, broke, rough-and-tumble place, decaying after years of neglect like so much of war-ravaged Somalia. It is also dangerous in countless ways. On Wednesday, suicide bombers blew up two government offices, most likely the work of Islamist radicals trying to turn Somalia into an Islamist state.
Of course, no Somali government official would openly admit that New Boosaaso's minicastles were built with pirate proceeds. But many people, including United Nations officials and Western diplomats, suspect that is the case.
Several jailed pirates have accused Muse, a former warlord who is now Puntland's president, of being paid off. Officials in neighboring Somaliland, a breakaway region of northwestern Somalia, said they recently organized an antipiracy sting operation and arrested Muse's nephew, who was carrying $22,000 in cash.
"Top Puntland officials benefit from piracy, even if they might not be instigating it," said Roger Middleton, a researcher at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. Actually, he added, "all significant political actors in Somalia are likely benefiting from piracy."
But Muse said he did not know anything about this. "We are the leaders of this country," he said. "Everybody we suspect, we fire from work."
He said that Puntland was taking aggressive action against the pirates. And Boosaaso's main jail may be proof of that. The other day, a dozen pirates were hanging out in the yard under a basketball hoop. And that was just the beginning.
"Pirates, pirates, pirates," said Gure Ahmed, a Canadian-Somali inmate of the jail, charged with murder. "This jail is full of pirates. This whole city is pirates."
In other well-known pirate dens, like Garoowe, Eyl, Hobyo and Xarardheere, pirates have become local celebrities.
Said Farah, 32, a shopkeeper in Garoowe, said the pirates seemed to have money to burn.
"If they see a good car that a guy is driving," he said, "they say, 'How much? If it's 30 grand, take 40 and give me the key.' "
Every time a seized ship tosses its anchor, it means a pirate shopping spree. Sheep, goats, water, fuel, rice, spaghetti, milk and cigarettes the pirates buy all of this, in large quantities, from small towns up and down the Somali coast. Somalia's seafaring thieves are not like the Barbary pirates, who terrorized European coastal towns hundreds of years ago and often turned their hostages into galley slaves chained to the oars. Somali pirates are known as relatively decent hosts, usually not beating their hostages and keeping them well-fed until payday comes.
"They are normal people," said Said. "Just very, very rich."