* Pirate gangs recruiting, plan more long-range attacks
* Hijackings on the rise so far in 2010
* Analysts say external funding behind industry growth
By Mohamed Ahmed
MOGDISHU, April 16 (Reuters) - Adam Shine waited months for the chance to join one of Somalia’s growth industries. He has now completed his training and is ready to use his boat-handling and global-positioning skills to hijack ships.
"I came here with my friends. They had a gun and were immediately recruited and joined companies. But I’ve never had a gun so, after a fairly long process, I was told to take part in training for a month and now I can join," he told Reuters by phone from the coastal, pirate haven of Haradheere.
The new 20-year-old recruit is just one of hundreds of youths in Haradheere desperate to sign up in the hope of earning a tiny slice of hijack ransoms worth millions of dollars.
The steady stream of new recruits suggests that patrols by European Union warships since December 2008 to deter hijackings and arrest the seaborne gunmen have done little to dent the enthusiasm for piracy in the failed Horn of Africa nation.
The pirate gang masters are also confident their business model will survive and are only too keen to hire more manpower as they have ambitious plans to increase attacks on ships beyond Somali waters and — hopefully — the reach of foreign patrols.
"So far, most of our sea operations have been organised within our country’s water basin, besides four succeessful pilot operations outside Somali waters," said Mohamed, a pirate militia leader in Haradheere who is recuriting youths. "Now, we are strengthening this route to double such operations."
"We took account of the fact we would face danger one day and we have been thinking a lot about changing the tactics of our hijacking operations. We are financially strong enough to have access and continue our normal business in the sea."
According to the International Maritime Bureau, Somali pirates accounted for more than half the reported piracy incidents worldwide in 2009 and nearly all of the hijackings, with 47 successful captures. [ID:nLDE60D10B]
Andrew Mwangura, head of the Kenyan-based East African Seafarers’ Assistance Programme, said more than $60 million was paid in ransoms last year to Somali gangs — up from $55 million in 2008 — and they have kept up the pace this year.
Pirates got the largest ransom on record for a Greek-flagged oil tanker in January, a payout of between $5.5 to $7 million. A supertanker carrying as much as $170 million of oil from Iraq to the United States was seized this month. [ID:nLDE633091]
"What became clear in 2008 and 2009, and continued in 2010, is that Somali maritime piracy is big business," Mwangura said.
He said there are about 1,500 pirates working for seven syndicates and a smaller number of "bosses" who control separate but linked enterprises, largely financed and brokered from Kenya, Dubai, Lebanon, Somalia and other countries.
According to Mwangura, Somali pirates seized 26 vessels between Dec. 29 and April 7 and are now holding 20 ocean-going vessels and 242 crew members as hostages.
Senior shipping executives also worry that Somali piracy is still on the rise. Jan Kopernicki, president of the UK Chamber of Shipping Industry Association, told Reuters a new generation of well-organised Somali pirates was emerging. [ID:nLDE63C15S]
He said the impression in the shipping industry was that money earned by this second generation of pirates was flowing out of Somalia to criminal elements, rather than helping to pay for services in Somali villages as some had done in the past.
Mohamed said different pirate gangs were working together more and more, with groups from Haradheere, for example, coordinating with gangs from the semi-autonomous northern region of Puntland to pull off long-range hijackings.
There have been a number of hijackings near the Seychelles archipelago hundreds of miles from Somalia and U.S. officials say there have been attacks near India and in the Mozambique Channel, putting the whole Indian Ocean at risk. [ID:nLDE62O1QB]
The pirates use so-called motherships to sail great distances out to sea and then launch attacks from small skiffs with high-powered outboard motors. Sometimes vessels are hijacked just to be used as motherships.
Foreign navies have become far more robust in dealing with pirates, detaining gunmen, destroying skiffs and seizing weapons when they come across suspects.
But with huge sums coming from the ransoms, the pirates are ready to reinvest in new equipment — and the dealers in Somalia who sell boats and weapons are rubbing their hands.
A weapons dealer in the Bakara Market of the capital Mogadishu told Reuters there had been heavy pirate demand for weapons since December and there are no signs of it abating.
Khaled Ibrahim, a broker who sells boats, said increased demand was driving up the prices. A small mothership and two skiffs used to sell for $13,000. Now they cost $18,000.
A luxury car dealer who used to loan vehicles to pirates told Reuters he had given up his business and now invests cash directly in the pirate companies to generate bigger returns when the ransoms are eventually dished out.
An elder in Haradheere, Haji Ali Mohamud, lamented the draw of piracy, but said there was little they could do to stop youths joining up as long as shipping companies continued to pay for their vessels to be freed.
"Nobody feels worried about going to sea," he told Reuters.
"The brain-washed youth are begging to be recruited as pirates, but how can we advise them when they are rewarded with multi-million dollar ransoms?" (Additional reporting and editing by David Clarke and Ralph Boulton)