Abdullahi “Boyah” Abshir, who claimed to have hijacked more than 25 ships, told me that he and his men did not discriminate, but would go after any ship hapless enough to wander into their sights. And despite their ostensible purpose of protecting Somali national waters, during the heat of the chase they paid no regard to international boundaries, pursuing their target until they caught it or it escaped them. Boyah separated his seafaring prey into the broad dichotomy of commercial and tourist ships. The commercial ships, identifiable by the cranes visible on their decks, were much slower and easier to capture. Boyah had gone after too many of these to remember: “a lot” was his most precise estimate.
The basic strategy was crude in its simplicity. In attack groups spread across several small and speedy skiffs, Boyah and his men approached their target on all sides, swarming like a waterborne wolf pack. They brandished their weapons in an attempt to frighten the ship’s crew into stopping, and even fired into the air. If these scare tactics did not work, and if the target ship was capable of outperforming their outboard motors, the chase ended there. But if they managed to pull even with their target, they tossed hooked rope ladders onto the decks and boarded the ship. Instances of the crew fighting back were rare, and rarely effective, and the whole process, from spotting to capturing, took at most 30 minutes. Boyah guessed that only 20% to 30% of attempted hijackings met with success, for which he blamed speedy prey, technical problems and foreign naval or domestic intervention. The captured ship was then steered to a friendly port – in Boyah’s case, Eyl – where guards and interpreters were brought from the shore to look after the hostages during the ransom negotiation.
Once the ransom was secured – often routed through banks in London and Dubai and parachuted like a special-delivery care package directly onto the deck of the ship – it was split among all the concerned parties. Half the money went to the attackers, the men who actually captured the ship. A third went to the operation’s investors: those who fronted the money for the ships, fuel, tracking equipment and weapons. The remaining sixth went to everyone else: the guards ferried from shore to watch over the hostage crew, the suppliers of food and water, the translators (occasionally high-school students on their summer break), and even the poor and disabled in the local community, who received some as charity. Such largesse, Boyah told me, had made his merry band into Robin Hood figures among the residents of Eyl.
Boyah’s moral compass seemed to be divided between sea and shore; he warned me, half-jokingly, not to run into him in a boat, but, despite my earlier misgivings, assured me that he was quite harmless on land. “We’re not murderers,” he said. “We’ve never killed anyone, we just attack ships.”