The Hollywood Pirate Returning to Somalia

Piracy was good to Omar Hassan. The skinny Somali fisherman in his mid-twenties throws his head back and rolls his eyes. “There were way too many fish,” he laughs.

Five years ago, Somali pirates were attacking foreign ships in the Gulf of Aden and Arabian sea on a near-daily basis. Their cold-blooded assaults scared off the unlicensed European and Asian fishing vessels that for years had been pillaging Somalia’s seas. Under the pirates, Somalis felt safe to fish anywhere, and marine stocks grew.

Hassan started fishing in 2000, aged 10 – it is all the only trade he knows. But last month, he quit. Piracy is now dead, thanks to a multilateral effort to stamp it out, and the unlicensed foreign fishing vessels are back. Just as piracy was good to the fishermen of Somalia, Hassan says, Nato’s $75m anti-piracy task force has been good to those foreigners wishing to plunder her seas.

The conditions Hassan describes today are almost exactly the same as those 10 years ago that drove Somalis to attack foreign fishing vessels in an attempt to recoup some of their losses, giving birth to a multi-billion dollar piracy industry. By 2005, according to the UN, Somalia was losing $300m to illegal fishing every year. The Federal Republic of Somalia has the longest coastline on mainland Africa, but now, artisanal fishing is not a viable income stream, according to residents in the semi-autonomous state of Puntland, the region at the tip of the horn of East Africa.

“I’m jobless,” Hassan says, “and I’m not the only one. Our options are either to become a charcoal maker, a pirate, to join al-Shabaab [the Islamist military group], or to starve or beg.” I ask if the rebirth of piracy is really an option, and he looks glum. “As long as Nato is there, it’s a dead end. If they’re not, then it becomes an option. Nato? We can’t take on that.”



Somalian piracy got the Hollywood treatment in 2013, when director Paul Greengrass presented the 2009 hijacking of the US-flagged Maersk Alabama in a blockbuster film Captain Phillips starring Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi. Abdi’s skeletal frame and protruding teeth made him the spitting image of the real-life pirate, Abduwali Muse. But while Abdi walked the red carpets picking up a BAFTA and an Oscar nomination, Muse languished in a US prison cell, making history as the first person charged with piracy in an American court in over a century. The fates of these two Somali men, both infants when the ongoing civil war started in 1991, diverged the day Abdi escaped the country to Yemen and then Minnesota. Muse remained in Somalia as the country descended further into anarchy. Seventeen years later, he turned to piracy to survive.

When it came out, Greengrass’s movie was criticised in Africa, for failing “to humanise the pirates by exposing the real lives of these young men, and the reasons behind the choices they make”, as the Somali development organisation Adeso says. In the US, the actual crew members of the ship in question criticised the film for hijacking the truth in favour of a simplistic ‘good versus evil’ narrative. They said that the film’s hero, Captain Phillips, was, in truth, a toad, who recast himself as the ship’s saviour. As for the pirate, Abduwali Muse – was he truly evil or was his fate sealed by the environment into which he had been born?

Last year, Abdi decided to use his profile to raise awareness of issues in Somalia, becoming a Goodwill Ambassador for Adeso. The development agency recognises that charity can be demeaning – it’s Somali founder, Fatima Jibrell, used to chastise herself for being “a professional beggar” – so only gives unconditional aid in emergencies. Instead, long-term programmes address policy, encourage civil rights movements, provide vocational training and pay communities to rehabilitate their ecosystems. In January, Adeso arranged Abdi’s first trip back to Somalia since he left as a young man, as an ambassador for their work. While there, he reconnected with uncles, aunts, cousins and the region’s famous camels’ milk.

I first met Abdi in Nairobi, ground zero for humanitarian aid missions in Somalia. He was full of hope, with “a vision of a peaceful country, with schools, hospitals, libraries, where I can raise my children and live in peace”. The threat of piracy has gone away for now. Al-Shabaab has been weakened by US and African Union operations, and Somalis are returning. Towns in Puntland, where much of Adeso’s work is focused, are a curious medley of teachers from Islington, cockney accents, Westernised children re-learning the rules of the playground, and the hardened few who never left.


Abdi was a limousine driver when he applied for a role in Captain Phillips. With no previous acting experience, he and the younger brothers of two close friends practised and performed together throughout the casting process. They were cast as the three leading pirates.

At the time Abdi left Somalia in 1992, seafaring pirates, in popular imagination at least, wore eye-patches and had hooks for hands. Abdi’s father, a schoolteacher, was working in Yemen when Somalia’s then dictator Siad Barre fled in 1991. While Abdi, his mother and siblings hid at home in the Somali capital Mogadishu, dominant clans turned on weaker clans and the country went to war. “Childhood was put on hold,” Abdi recalls. His father in Yemen, it took them a year to secure safe passage out.

Eventually, they got a lift in the back of a cargo truck to an Ethiopian town 400km away prophetically named Mustahil, meaning “impossible” in Arabic. From there, with a dozen or so family members, they hitchhiked more than 1,000km to Bosaso. They waited in the port town for a month, before sailing to Yemen, where Abdi went to a local school. After seven years in Yemen, the family moved to the United States. Abdi now enjoys speaking Somali, Arabic and English, but, at the time, being torn away from the comfort of his native language was hard. As a refugee, he says: “You’re not normal any more. You’re an outsider. You don’t belong.”

Abdi’s family built new lives while Somalia crumbled. Rule of law evaporated, both on land and at sea. Warlords filled the vacuum. The country’s 2,000-mile stretch of turquoise water became a dumping and pillaging ground. Ships swept in to offload millions of tons of toxic waste, including radioactive material, while foreign fishing vessels with no regard for sustainability poached in waters that teemed with fish, decimating the breeding grounds. Warlords tolerated the over-fishing and dumping in exchange for a supply of weapons.

The story goes that Somalia’s struggling fishermen eventually said enough was enough, and armed themselves to fight the foreign ships laying waste to their seas. What began as a coastguard operation became a thriving hijack and ransom business that took nearly half a billion dollars between 2005 and 2012, averaging $2.7m per ship. Any vessel was fair game if it had the capacity to pay. Keffiyeh-clad, gun-toting Somalis struck fear into insurance brokers in the City of London and brought piracy’s image up to date.

Abdi now lives in Los Angeles, in an apartment he shares with a friend from Minnesota who works as a chef. He is the first Somali to make it in Hollywood. Since Captain Phillips, he has played a character inspired by Joseph Kony, the Central African warlord of the day, in Hawaii Five-0, and a double agent in this year’s release, Eye in the Sky, alongside Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman. But for all his success he is delightfully true to his roots. He is more expressive in the guttural tones of his mother-tongue than in English. At mealtimes, he hunches low over his food and shovels it into his mouth with his right hand in the local tradition. And, as any true Somali, he adores camels and barters gamely for fresh camel’s milk on the roadside. He hangs out of the car window and sings in Somali to the puzzled-looking dromedaries that we pass.

At a vocational school supported by Adeso in the town of Badhan, the teacher finds out who Abdi is and howls with laughter. “The film should have shown more of the drivers [of piracy], because it’s not just a one-dimensional perspective,” he says after his laughter subsides. “We’re real people and we have real problems.” As if to demonstrate this, his pupils, all budding electricians, encircle Abdi and fire questions at him. They ask not about Tom Hanks, but about business in Nairobi, the importance of education, and, primarily, their prospects of migrating abroad. Abdi tells them about the dangers of human trafficking and advises them not to go: “There’s nothing there for you. Your life’s not worth the risk.”
Human smuggling is one of the few sectors that is growing here to provide opportunities for jobless youths. On the road into Bosaso from Ethiopia, columns of young men and women walk, day and night, towards the city, plying same route to Yemen that Abdi did over 20 years ago. The clothes they wear represent all they have. The high likelihood of getting mugged means that many sew their money into collars or hemlines. Others send it ahead via transfers. The sun burns out any clouds within hours of dawn but they walk on regardless. Some are children. “It used to just be the young men. Now, it’s a lot of women,” says Adeso’s Jibrell. She has heard plenty of horror stories; Libyan traffickers called one Somali mother threatening to execute her son unless she produced thousands of dollars. Parents in Somalia watch their children like hawks, to pre-empt their flight. But healthy, ambitious young men and women would rather risk death at sea to find work if the other option is, literally, nothing.


I meet a 27-year-old single mother of three children, Fatuma Ahmed Musa, who grew up in the eastern highlands of Ethiopia on the outskirts of Harar, an ancient holy city of Islam. Millions of Oromo have fled Ethiopia in the last two decades, citing persecution by the regime. Musa’s husband ran away without warning while she was giving birth to twins. She later heard he went to Saudi Arabia. He has sent back money for his parents, but nothing for her. Unable to find work to support her family, after a year of breast-feeding the twins she decided her only option was to leave. With flawless skin and delicate hands wearing a green diamanté-studded bui-bui, a piece of cloth worn as a shawl, Musa doesn’t look like she’s just hitchhiked and walked 1,500km. I ask if it was hard. She gives me a blank look as if to say, you’re really asking that? “I have never left my neighbourhood before.”

One of her brothers gave her 5,000 Ethiopian birr ($250), to “do something with your life”. She gave her eldest child to her husband’s family, the twins to her parents, found a truck heading east, and left. Bandits robbed her of her savings in Somaliland, and, after a few weeks begging in Hargeisa, she got a ride 200km to Burao. From there, she walked most of the 800km to Bosaso. She met some other Oromo on the way. Five of them had one 1.5-litre water bottle between them. They made it last three days at a time, either using it to wet their tongues or drinking at the very most two capfuls. Now in Bosaso, she’s living in a derelict house on the edge of a refugee camp fenced by dead thorn branches and strewn with wisps of weather-worn plastic. Her next stop: Yemen.

An hour’s drive out of Bosaso is the village El Ayo. A few kilometres north of its small concrete cuboids and crumbling stone walls, smugglers have suspended plastic sheeting on poles to form a makeshift shelter. The community believes human smuggling is haram under Islam, so the business was forced out onto what two years ago was pristine beach. Ethiopians, Somalis and other African migrants stay here while they wait for a motorboat to make the treacherous 300km journey across the Gulf of Aden. Passage costs $250 when the sea is calm January to June, and $350 when the risk of capsizing is high.

This is where Musa is headed. If she reaches Yemen, she doesn’t know what she’ll do. The only thing she knows is that she can’t return home: “I don’t want to go back to my children empty-handed.” She is prepared never to see them again if it means she can send money back to support them.

At the port in Bosaso, fishermen are landing the daily catch on a small beach by the dock. A 20-ft motorboat cuts its engine 20m from the shore. Women race towards them and fight over the few fish, arms aloft and bright jilbabs dilated on the water’s surface. On the beach, a smartly-dressed female fish trader carrying a shiny black handbag calls out: “Where are the fish?” She used to sell to international charities, but not any more because of high prices and poor availability. “This is the way it is now,” a fisherman tells her. Twenty years ago, $10 would have bought 10kg of tuna, he adds. Now it’s $40 for the same.

Fishermen all attribute the drop in fish stocks – one of the few lifelines left in Somalia – to the return of the unlicensed foreign fishing vessels. They are “pretty nasty”, a maritime security expert says. They obscure or change their boat’s names and numbers, swap their flags, and turn off transponders. “They’ll breach the law all the time to get business, and that extends from the South Koreans to the Chinese and Taiwanese. Other major players are Spanish and French. If they can get away with it, they’ll do it,” he says, on condition of anonymity. And where easier to get away with it than Somalia’s 400,000 square miles of tuna-rich waters, where Nato’s European and American anti-piracy missions are turning a blind eye?

Coastguard officials and fishing associations in Puntland say they have repeatedly requested support from Nato in combatting illicit fishing, but to no avail. International anti-piracy vessels are equipped with fantastically sophisticated surveillance equipment, which national or private enforcement organisations could never afford. “But there is no information sharing,” the security professional says. It doesn’t help, he adds, that different Somali states issue different licenses for what is, by international law, one zone.
Mohamed Abdirahman Osman, Chairman of the Puntland Fishery Association, is irate: “We’ve been asking Nato for two years! Why can they get a mandate to deal with piracy in one month, when are people are dying and we’re losing our livelihoods? They only care about their own interests.”

“Actions to counter illegal fishing would breach the scope and capabilities of the mission,” a Nato official says. Its members are, however, aware of the pressing issue.

Fishermen in Puntland say the majority of illicit fishing vessels in Somali waters are Yemeni or Iranian. Others say the trawlers, which damage breeding grounds by scraping the ocean floor, are largely South Korean. What are believed to be thousand-ton motherships hover on the edge of the Economic Exclusion Zone, which extends 200 miles off-shore. Smaller boats venture three miles from the shore, using drag nets to encircle schooling fish.

Osman of the Fishery Association shows me a video. In it, men on eight small skiffs surround a net they are pulling in. Metre-long milkfish burst out of the water in arcs, some making good their bid for freedom by jumping over the boats. There are perpetually 20 or so fish flying above the water’s surface. The men struggle to contain the catch, batting fish back whenever they fly past. Osman claims the video shows Yemenis fishing illegally in Somalia’s waters, but this is impossible to verify.


Hassan, the former fisherman, says he was fishing in Ga’an when a 50ft-long fishing vessel drew near. Gunmen onboard shouted, “Move, or you’re dead,” training guns on him. They were Somalis from Hassan’s community. “We see each other at restaurants, we drink tea together. I’m full of anger, that’s why I ran away,” he says. Asked if the unlicensed fishing vessels still use jets of boiling water to keep Somalis away, he scoffs: “Hot water is old technology. Now, they have their own army who are fearless and shoot you for their salary.”

Fishermen allege that the corruption – illegal licensing agreements, protection rackets, facilitation of unlicensed fishing through graft – starts at the top, with government ministers and clan elders. Colonel Mohamed Ali Hashi, commander of the port police, denies this. He admits, however, that unlicensed vessels employ armed Somalis to protect them. Nato may have stopped piracy but inadvertently promoted illegal fishing, he nods. He is fighting a multimillion dollar unregulated fishing industry with an annual budget of less than $10,000. “People volunteer, there’s no uniform, no fuel, nothing.”

On our last morning, Abdi and I stand at the same docks from which he left 23 years ago. Somalia’s maritime security has come full circle, back to where it was before piracy began. Could Abdi’s life have looked more like Muse’s, had he not left? “If your environment is bad, it’s really hard to be good,” he admits. And Somalia today is fractured. What would have become of Abdi, had he stayed? “I can’t picture what I would have been.” He pauses. “Now? I’m a person who has somewhere to go back to.”