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 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.