BOSASSO, Somalia (Reuters) - Only two years after deciding to join in the piracy rampant off the Somalian coast, Saeed Yare is a dollar multi-millionaire.
Leaning against the door of his luxury Toyota Landcruiser, one of the latest models in the seaside town of Bosasso, the Yare puffs on a cigarette.
“It is not an easy job being a pirate. You gamble with your life, but I enjoy being a piracy tycoon,” says the slim 27-year-old, dressed in a sharp suit he says is Italian.
“The piracy business is like a presidential seat, you don’t want to give it up once you taste its sweetness. A friend of mine died in the recent navy operation — but he left one million dollars!” Yare said, referring to a botched rescue attempt that left four U.S. citizens dead.
Yare said he made $2.4 million in 2010: $1.2 million for investing in the venture that led to the hijacking of the British-flagged Asian Glory, another $700,000 for Saudi tanker Al Nisr Al Saudi and $500,000 for Bulgarian vessel Panega.
“I earned more cash after investing in two operations and personally participating in a separate hijacking, all were successful,” he said.
“I spent some of the cash on weapons, private bodyguards, luxury cars, trucks, a boat and three villas. And I still have enough to use until another ship is hijacked.”
Armed pirate gangs have made millions of dollars striking at ships in the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean, as far south as the Seychelles islands and eastwards towards India.
Yare abandoned a lucrative trade in khat, a sure-fire route to amassing riches in the Horn of Africa country, when he saw former fishermen getting even richer by piracy.
He befriended a pirate who advised him to “invest” $80,000 to help carry out a hijacking and expect a 50 percent return of $120,000 once ransom was paid.
“I got inspired to be a pure pirate in 2009. First, I set off into the sea with them and captured a Saudi oil tanker that made us lick our fingers — a hell of a lot of cash!”
Yare was thrust into his father’s trade of fishing at the age of nine and was expected to contribute to the family’s income by the time he became a teenager.
He took up selling khat after saving enough to import a batch of the stimulant from neighbouring Kenya.
But even returns as high as 300 percent from selling the mild narcotic were not enough for the ambitious young man. He turned to piracy to fuel a flashy lifestyle.
The gangs have an agreed formula for splitting their loot — hijackers receive 50 percent, investors get 35 percent, and guards on the ship get the remaining 15 percent.
Yare said the pirates’ objective was purely money, not to torture or kill their hostages. The shooting of four Americans when special forces tried to rescue them was because those holding them were pushed to the wall, he said.
However, Yare issued a chilling warning for crews of any South Korean and Russian ships that are captured.
South Korea’s navy rescued a South Korean chemical ship hijacked by Somali buccaneers in the Arabian Sea, capturing five pirates and killing eight.
In a separate incident, Russian forces cut 10 pirates adrift without navigation equipment or much hope of survival after they stormed a tanker the gang was holding.
“The South Korean and Russian rescue operations did not affect us, but ... we must take revenge,” Yare said. “We shall be killing Russian and South Korean crew until their navies stop attacks against us.”
The bandits’ wealth has pushed up the cost of living in coastal pirate towns such as Garad, Hobyo and Hardheere, but the gangs are philanthropic to the less fortunate, Yare said.
“We give residents $200,000 whenever a ship is freed to enable them cope with the changing life. This amount goes to them through local officials such as clan elders.”
Pirate gangs elsewhere are forced to share ransoms with al Shabaab Islamist rebels, al Qaeda’s proxies in east Africa.
“Colleagues in other towns give cash to Islamists in order to continue their business,” he said. “Al Shabaab is just another pirate group, Islamists are parasites.” (Writing by Abdi Sheikh; editing by Helen Nyambura-Mwaura)