HOBYO, Somalia — Ismail Haji Noor, a local government official, recently arrived in this notorious pirate den with a simple message: we need your help.
With the Shabab militant group sweeping across Somalia and the American-backed central government teetering on life support, Mr. Noor stood on a beach flanked by dozens of pirate gunmen, two hijacked ships over his shoulder, and announced, “From now on we’ll be working together.”
He hugged several well-known pirate bosses and called them “brother” and later explained that while he saw the pirates as criminals and eventually wanted to rehabilitate them, right now the Shabab were a much graver threat.
“Squished between the two, we have to become friends with the pirates,” Mr. Noor said. “Actually, this is a great opportunity.”
For years, Somalia’s heavily armed pirate gangs seemed content to rob and hijack on the high seas and not get sucked into the messy civil war on land. Now, that may be changing, and the pirates are taking sides — both sides.
While local government officials in Hobyo have deputized pirate gangs to ring off coastal villages and block out the Shabab, down the beach in Xarardheere, another pirate lair, elders said that other pirates recently agreed to split their ransoms with the Shabab and Hizbul Islam, another Islamist insurgent group.
The militant Islamists had originally vowed to shut down piracy in Xarardheere, claiming it was unholy, but apparently the money was too good. This seems to be beginning of the West’s worst Somali nightmare, with two of the country’s biggest growth industries — piracy and Islamist radicalism — joining hands.
Somalia’s pirates are famous opportunists — “we just want the money” is their mantra — so it is not clear how long these new alliances of convenience will last. But clan leaders along Somalia’s coast say that something different is in the salty air and that the pirates are getting more ambitious, shrewdly reinvesting their booty in heavy weapons and land-based militias, and now it may be impossible for such a large armed force — the pirates number thousands of men — to stay on the sidelines.
“You can’t ignore the pirates anymore,” said Mohamed Aden, a clan leader in central Somalia. “They’re getting more and more muscle. They used to invest their money in just boats and going out to sea but now they’re building up their military side.”
Take the elusive and powerful pirate boss Mohamed Garfanji, who surfaced briefly two weeks ago wearing a belt of bullets strapped across his chest in an X and a purple rain jacket to guide a group of foreign journalists to Hobyo, his base of operations. The journalists had been invited by the Galmudug State administration, a clan-based local government trying to gain a foothold in the region. But Hobyo is a fully engulfed piracy community, where 10-year-old boys with Kalashnikovs hang out in the sandy streets and glare at outsiders, and the visit could happen only with Mr. Garfanji’s blessing. During a meeting with Hobyo elders, Mr. Garfanji stuck his head through the door and grunted: “It’s O.K. for you guys to speak to the journalists. And for them to take pictures.” After that, he vanished.
Mr. Garfanji is believed to have hijacked a half-dozen ships and used millions of dollars in ransom money to build a small infantry division of several hundred men, 80 heavy machine guns and a fleet (a half dozen) of large trucks with antiaircraft guns — not exactly typical pirate gear of skiffs and grappling hooks.
While some of his troops wear jeans with “Play Boy” stitched on the seat, others sport crisp new camouflage uniforms, seemingly more organized than just about any other militia in Somalia.
Mr. Garfanji’s original motivation was probably profit, pure and simple — by mustering a formidable force on land, nobody could squeeze him to pay protection fees. But now his associates claim that their pirate army was created to stop Hizbul Islam and the Shabab.
“Sometimes,” explained Fathi Osman Kahir, a pirate middle manager, “you commit crimes to defend your freedom.”
The government in Hobyo has asked pirates to ring off coastal villages and block out the Shabab.
The Shabab are the most fearsome insurgents in Somalia — they have pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda — and last month they showed how effective — and brutal — they can be by infiltrating a hotel in the government zone of Mogadishu, the capital, and methodically gunning down more than 30 people, including four lawmakers. Once the Shabab take over an area, they impose a harsh form of Islamic law, banning music, soccer, even bras. Offenders can get their hands chopped off or their heads bashed in with rocks.
Many areas of Somalia have given up on the central government’s saving them from the Shabab, which is why local administrations are beginning to gain traction. The local governments are often run by Somalis who have lived abroad, like Mr. Noor, a former Somali Army officer who resided in London for years and still seems to enjoy playing war. (Night vision scope: Check. Body armor: Check. 9 mm pistol tucked into the small of his back: Check.) One of Mr. Noor’s favorite expressions, which he continually barked out to the journalists with him, was “be my skin,” meaning something like “stay close to me” because even though he was working with the pirates, there were still some serious questions about trust.
Still, Mr. Noor said, he needed the pirate muscle to protect his area because “we just don’t have the forces.”
Many pirates seem happy to help. Though 2010 is shaping up as another banner year — more than 30 ships have been hijacked, which means tens of millions of dollars in ransom — the increased naval presence off Somalia’s coast has taken its toll, with hundreds of pirates now in jail and even more lost at sea and presumably drowned.
Ahmed Elmi Osoble, 27, said his family was so upset at him for being a pirate that they basically staged an intervention to get him to quit.
“As soon as I got back from the Seychelles,” he said, where he had been jailed for six months on piracy charges, “my mom locked me in the house.”
“She wouldn’t let me out until I got another job.”
He is now driving a truck for the government/pirate militia — it is hard to separate the two — working side by side with policemen in grubby Galmudug administration uniforms and his pirate friends wearing the Play Boy jeans.