02.05.09

The Pirate Whisperer

Somali pirates were just paid $3.5 million—the largest ransom ever—for the release of a ship off East Africa. In an exclusive interview with the Daily Beast, negotiator Andrew Mwangura reveals the secrets of the murderers he does business with.

Andrew Mwangura has the underground world of African piracy wired. Somali pirates trust him. Warlords respect him. And human-rights activists admire him for putting his neck on the line to keep sailors safe on the lawless high seas. “Andrew gets vital first-hand intelligence,” says Cyrus Mody, who runs the London-based Maritime Bureau of the International Chamber of Commerce. “If a ship is running low on food or there’s been some disaster, he often knows about it first.”

Unfortunately for Mwangura, an ex-journalist who lives in a shack without running water on the beach in Mombasa, the Kenyan government doesn’t see him as a hero. On February 4, prosecutors put the 45-year-old Mwangura on trial for exposing the secret of a Ukrainian freighter that was hijacked last fall while carrying $30 million in Russian arms. Although the shipment was part of a secret, back-channel deal to arm Sudan in violation of a United Nations arms embargo, Mwangura is the one accused of breaking the law. The government has charged him with releasing “alarming information.” Says the activist, “They have no evidence. What I said was the truth.”

The pirate took a phone and gave it to another crewman. He said, “OK, call home. Call your wife and say that they have started killing us.”

Mwangura works for an East African nonprofit group dedicated to seeking the safety of sailors along the Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. The alarming rise in hijackings in the region—pirates are estimated to have made $50 million last year from 46 seizures—has led to the creation of a security corridor that is being patrolled by international warships. Still, the pirates still keep coming. At least three ships are currently being held, among them a German ship carrying liquid petroleum that was hijacked on January 29 with 13 sailors aboard.

In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, Mwangura revealed how much worse things can get for sailors in the Gulf—and for him.

How did you get to this line of work?

In the 1980s, I studied maritime engineering in Kenya and South Africa and was lucky enough to get good paying jobs. I’ve been to 47 countries. But every time I came back to Kenya, I saw that people who were working here were underpaid. So I began writing and talking about it for underground newspapers.

And I started to hear stories of sailors who had gone missing. The ship owners were quiet, and the government was also keeping quiet, too. I have documentation of 38 seamen who have gone missing in the last ten years. It turns out that many of them were involved in drug trafficking and gun running. But my main concern is security for the sailors [who are innocents]. People do not only call me if there is a ship hijacking or a hostage taking. They call if there is a ship fire, or a ship is going down.

Is it fair to say then that within hours of a ship being hijacked you know about it?

Sometimes seconds.

When you make contact, how do you figure out exactly who you’re dealing with?

There are seven pirate clans in Somalia, and they do not go into each other’s areas. So the location of the ship tells us much about which group we were dealing with. As soon as I figure out the group, I try to link up with its leader through our contacts in Somalia. That's how we operate. Sometimes they call us before we call them.

The pirates paint themselves as Robin Hoods, hijacking ships that are responsible for stealing through overfishing, and then redistributing the profits through the ransoms they collect. Is that how you see them?

When we started, things were very quiet. We made our job to tell the world what was going on in this part of the country. So the warlords came to us and talked about what was happening in Somalia—the foreign ships that were overfishing and dumping toxic wastes. And they said, “We are not the pirates. We are not the enemies.”

But we came to get a real picture of them. One of the groups in Somalia, the Kismayu group, is known as National Volunteer Coast Guard and focuses on small boats close to the shore. They do not use the word “ransom.” They call what they collect a “fine” for illegal acts. The Merkah group has fishing boats with longer-range fire power. And the most sophisticated groups have names like the Central Regional Coast Guards, Ocean Salvation Corps and the Somali Marines. They have a capacity to operate at greater distances off the coast. We believe they are responsible for 80 percent of the attacks in 2008.

In the beginning, we went to the shipping companies and said, “Please don’t give them money.” But the ship owners did not understand and kept giving them money. Back then it was less than $100,000. Now they’re taking big money. And we cannot stop them.

How do the locals react to these pirates?

They used to be the common man, like you and me. But nowadays they wear bling-bling. They drive four-wheel-drive cars and live in really good houses. Everyone wants to be like them. We don’t have factories or anything to provide for our community. So when the ships are hijacked, the villagers are happy. They know when the ship is taken [to the waters outside] their village, they are going to get something.

Usually someone from the village goes to the pirates and says, “We want to talk on your behalf.” So elders come in and start talking [to intermediaries], start making negotiations. They know that in the end they'll get something for their time. In Arabic, we call it baksheesh. Baksheesh is like a thank you. If the pirates get $100, you get $1.

But most of that money does not stay in Somalia. These young men carrying guns are just foot soldiers. Their leaders are in Kenya, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and Canada. It is not easy for a common man in Africa to afford a motorboat with an 80-horsepower engine. It takes people out of Somalia to finance these activities.

How does the money find its way from the shipping companies to the warlords?

The payment of ransoms is often done in Nairobi, Mombasa and European capitals, London in particular. I’ve heard cases involving both bank transfers and old-style suitcases filled with cash carried by air or by sea.

What’s the split?

The maritime militia gets 30 percent, although the first pirate to the boat receives a double share or a vehicle. The ground militia gets 10 percent. The local community leaders, elders or local officials, also get 10 percent. The rest is divided by the sponsors and their political allies.

Sounds like quite a racket. Have things become more sophisticated lately?

They are starting to use decoy boats. That happened [on January 29] when the German boat Long Champ was taken. The pirates used a decoy to signal it was in trouble, and when the Long Champ answered its distress call, another boat that was hiding attacked it.

Your critics say that hijackings require delicate negotiations and the publicity you bring isn’t helping matters. Why do you do it?

When we started talking about this, the ship owners said, "No, no, no. You are going to endanger the life of the seamen." But if we see evil, we’re going to speak about evil. If we hear evil, we’re going to talk about evil. We’re not going to keep quiet. Why do you want to keep quiet?

We make a lot of noise and now we see the Americans are there [with warships]. The British are there. All the nations are there. You know what they say about Somalia? That it is a black hole. But Somalia is not a black hole. Because we know what is happening there.

What is the most dangerous hijacking you’ve seen?

The Cheng Fong Hwa was a fishing vessel from Taiwan that was taken on April 18, 2007. It had 168 seamen aboard and was held for more than six months. Early in the hijacking, the ship owner was not cooperating so one of the pirates put a gun to the back of a Chinese seaman’s head and shot him. He died instantly. Then the pirate took a phone and gave it to another crewman. He said, “OK, call home. Call your wife and say that they have started killing us.”

When we reported that information back to the Chinese Embassy in Nairobi, we said, “The pirates are killing these people. Please make the owners come out and talk to these gunmen.”

Why wasn’t the owner negotiating?

I believe the reason was that the ship was illegally fishing. And because of that, the gunmen killed the crewman to make an example to other ship owners. So the Chinese Embassy started putting pressure on the ship owner.

The owner of the Cheng Fong Hwa finally paid $200,000 to get the vessel released. Before the pirates left, they took all the personal belongings from the crew. That was worth about $10,000.

You were arrested after briefing reporters on the Ukrainian freighter the MV Faina and accused of feeding the press false information. Did your arrest surprise you?

No. I had been expecting this for a long time. We all know that the government of Kenya is corrupt. From what I understand, the plan wasn’t just to arrest me. It was to silence me. And you know what I mean when we say “silence” in Africa. They wanted to silence me by way of assassination. I was to be taken out of the police cell and in the middle of the night and maybe shot somewhere. So when they came to my cell in the middle of the night, I refused to go. I said, “Come tomorrow in the daylight.” The other inmates in the cell joined me and said, “Take him tomorrow.” The next day they took me to a prison. They kept me there for three days before releasing me.

Your next hearing is scheduled for April 1. What do you think is in store for you?

I don’t know. The government is looking for something to pin on me. And it is a danger because we’re dealing with international organizations. I have to watch over my shoulder. In this part of the world, you don’t know who is who.

Shaun Assael is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. He is the author of three books, including, most recently, Steroid Nation.