HARADHERE, SOMALIA — Straddling a wooden crate filled with $1 million in cash ransom, a cranky old pirate bellows names from a notebook as his anxious, bleary-eyed minions lean against the stone walls of their cramped hide-out.
The grizzled buccaneer, chain-smoking Marlboros as he taps into his calculator, checks the notebook again for outstanding loans or fines before counting out each man's share of the bounty in musty $100 bills paid to release a hijacked Thai ship off the Somali coast.
"Those of us who went to sea and intercepted the boat get $30,000," said Ahmed Salad, 24, as he waited for his share of the take. "Those who waited on the shore and helped defend us get $20,000."
When one young thug complains that a $5,000 deduction for disobeying an order is "illegal," the old man snaps back: "Even the $15,000 you are getting is illegal! It's all stolen!"
Rampant piracy is the latest, strangest and by far the most lucrative survival technique employed by Somalia's desperate populace, which has struggled without a functioning government since 1991. Seizing boats on the high seas along this lawless Horn of Africa nation is turning once-quiet fishing villages such as Haradhere into Mafia-style dens of greed and vice.
As the men file out of the room, their wallets fat, they are swarmed by prostitutes, gin hawkers and peddlers of khat, a leaf that people chew for its amphetamine-like stimulant. Special bragging rights go to the young man who can blow through $2,000 in a single evening.
"One night I got $1,000 from a pirate," a prostitute from Djibouti said. "But the luckiest is to sleep with the group leader. You get $3,000."
Some Somalis have long managed to find legitimate means of prospering amid the despair. Even without the rule of law, entrepreneurs have built thriving cellphone networks, cattle export ranches and money transfer businesses. But amid soaring inflation, civil war and rising malnutrition, many Somalis are resorting to almost anything to survive.
Entire villages along the coast now engage in piracy. Unemployed youths provide the muscle. Idle fishermen offer boats and knowledge of the coastline. Foreign businessmen provide the money for guns, radios and satellite phones. Islamic hard-liners are lured by the chance to attack Western interests offshore.
The result is a criminal free-for-all. Pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia have tripled over the last three years, with nearly three a week in 2008, maritime officials say. Currently there are about a dozen hijacked ships, with more than 300 crew members, being held hostage. Ransom payments are often as high as $2 million.
Until recently, the hijackings proved easy. Thousands of cargo ships and tankers pass on the way to Mombasa port in Kenya or destinations in southern Africa. To the north, the Gulf of Aden is a major trade route for the Middle East.
About five years ago, several Somali warlords began attacking illegal fishing boats that had been plundering and polluting the nation's waters. In 2005, more than 800 illegal vessels from Kenya, South Korea, China and other nations were exploiting Somalia's coastline.
Then the attackers began targeting humanitarian vessels, including some from the United Nations' World Food Program. Today, the brazen pirates, calling themselves Somalia's self-appointed "coast guard," attack virtually anything that floats, including private luxury yachts and even a U.S. naval boat.
Foreign seafarers usually offer little resistance and make obedient hostages. Somalia's weak transitional government is powerless to intervene. Ransoms this year alone have topped about $30 million, officials estimate.
But the Sept. 25 hijacking of the Faina may change the rules of the game. The Ukrainian vessel was loaded with 33 Soviet-era tanks and other military hardware. The Kenyan government says it was the buyer, but many believe it was a go-between for the government of southern Sudan.
At first, the pirates thought they'd hit the jackpot. But the prospect of such a large weapons cache possibly falling into the hands of terrorists or rogue nations mobilized the international community. Several NATO warships have joined several U.S. naval vessels and a Russian frigate in patrolling the waters and ensuring that the Faina's sensitive cargo is not unloaded as negotiations continue. U.S. helicopters regularly hover over the ship and visually inspect every boat to and from the Faina, whose 20-member crew is being held for a multimillion-dollar ransom.
"The ships roam around us every two to three hours and helicopters come close to see what is going on inside the ship," said Sugule Ali, a spokesman for the pirates.