Mohamed Abdi Hassan, one of Somalia’s most notorious pirate chiefs, appears far more businessman than sea bandit, as he explains why he now wants to end the murderous hijacking of ships.
Hassan, better known as “Afweyne” or “Big Mouth,” whose men once terrorized vast stretches of the Indian Ocean — generating millions of dollars in ransoms from seized ships — now claims to have renounced piracy.
“The young men need to be trained, to get skills and get integrated into society,” Afweyne said, pulling out of his briefcase an official letter apparently nominating him as an “anti-piracy officer.”
Afweyne, who says he earned his nickname as a child “because I would cry a lot,” claims to have persuaded almost a thousand young pirates to quit.
“We are convincing the youths to give up piracy ... I have influence, and have been mobilizing the community ... to keep the men from the water,” he told reporters in an upmarket hotel in Somalia’s war-ravaged capital, Mogadishu.
Last year a UN report described Afweyne as “one of the most notorious and influential leaders” in Somalia.
Pirate attacks have in recent years been launched as far as 3,655km from the Somali coast in the Indian Ocean.
The World Bank last month calculated between US$315 million and US$385 million has been paid in ransoms since 2005, a figure dwarfed by the estimated US$18 billion that piracy costs the world economy annually.
However, Afweyne, a soft spoken and portly man in his fifties with an apparently kindly manner, shuns descriptions of himself as a pirate, and especially the Somali translation of burcad badeed, literally, the “scum of the sea.”
“Perhaps you have heard a lot about this ship or that ransom ... but 90 percent of what you hear in Somalia is false,” he said, opening his arms wide and chuckling to laugh off any suggestion he was dangerous.
“I’m not saying I was not involved, for I was the one who initiated the fight,” he said, claiming he took up piracy after his fishing company was ruined by foreign fleets off Somalia after the country spiraled into civil war in 1991.
“It was legitimate because there was no government, we were like orphans without a father,” he added.
Afweyne, whose son is reportedly a feared pirate chief, was involved in the 2008 capture of the Saudi-owned Sirius Star oil supertanker, released for a ransom of several million dollars.
His or his son’s men were also involved in the 2008 capture of the MV Faina, a Ukrainian transport ship carrying 33 refurbished Soviet-era battle tanks, which was released after a 134-day hijack for a reported US$3 million.
Afweyne also reportedly carried out a string of attacks against ships carrying food aid to his impoverished nation.
In recent years, international naval patrols from China, the EU, US and Russia have protected shipping and fought off pirate vessels, with the rate of attacks tumbling by 80 percent between 2011 and last year, according to the EU’s anti-piracy mission in Somalia, EUNAVFOR.
However, Afweyne says long-term change is not just about making changes at sea.
“[The patrols] have done a lot of good, but we need efforts on land too,” he said.
Money for training and support to allow the pirates to turn their lives around is also key, he said.
“We need financial support to allow [ex-pirates] to have alternate careers ... to be fishermen or farmers or traders, whatever they choose,” he said.
Cynics argue that Afweyne has made his money, and now wants to invest the cash in businesses.
Others suggest he is partly driven by condemnation that the pirates of his Saleban clan have tarnished the international reputation of the wider Somali people.
Last year he was reportedly given a diplomatic passport by Somalia’s then-president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, as an inducement to dismantle his pirate network.
However, whatever his motivation — and however hard it may be in reality to stimulate economic growth in the lawless pirate regions — Afweyne’s influence is important.
Somalia’s weak government — propped up by a 17,000-strong African Union force — does not control the key areas where pirates operate, which are largely along the northern coast in the autonomous Puntland region.