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Why we became pirates, by the nomad jailed for life

“In our culture we were nomads and we believed it was our right to take sheep, to take cattle. That is how we see the ships. They are our sheep and we will take them.”

The ships that Farrah Ismail speaks of are those plying the sea lanes off the Horn of Africa. And the culture he refers to is that of the Somali nomads who have been raiding rival tribes or clans for centuries.

The story of how this inherently nomadic view of the world was brought to bear on one of the industrial world's most valuable trading routes is the story of Ismail's life.

The 38 year old is now languishing hundreds of miles from the sea in one of the driest places imaginable, the desert prison of Mandera in Somaliland.

One of only a handful of self confessed pirates, he has been sentenced to life in this sand-blasted colonial fort built by the British to house an earlier generation of dissenters, rebels and common criminals.

Caught red handed as he prepared to launch attacks into the Gulf of Aden from the port of Berbera he is devoid of the usual need for evasion. His account of how and why he came to the northern breakaway state is startlingly direct.

“I came here from a village called Eyl,” the port at the heart of the piracy surge off Somalia. “I came here to kidnap commercial ships from the waters off Berbera.

Sitting in a room crowded with uniformed prison guards and dressed in a stained grey sweathshirt with the letters U.S.A written in faded yellow, red and green, he continues:

“I decided to come here since it's nearer to the ships. There were no pirates I would come here to be successful.”

Typically lean but not as tall as some of his compatriots, Ismail speaks in halting but unbroken English only pausing to drag hard and often on the luxury of free cigarettes.

He did not begin life, as so many Somali pirates have claimed, as a fishermen on the immense coastline that stretches around the Horn. Ismail grew up in Mogadishu, the capital of newly independent Somalia, relinquished by Italy after its defeat in World War II.

“I became a mechanic, I could fix anything,” he says in a matter of fact tone.

He came to the coast as a young man and ran his own workshop in Bossasso, the centre of Puntland, another breakaway province in a fractured country.

Once there he spied an opportunity that many other young Somalis were just waking up to. The mainstay of the Somali economy had long been the rearing of cattle for export across the Gulf to arid Saudi Arabia, much of it to feed the annual Haj pilgrims. Fishing to get money rather than food was comparatively new and as Ismail discovered a good earner.

From owning one boat and a single engine in 1993 he quickly grew a small business harvesting lobsters and shark and making $500 per month. He got married.

“I had agents in Dubai, I was buying shark nets for $108 per piece.”

Somalia boasts some of the richest fishing grounds in the world, a fact that was not lost on foreign predators in the wake of the collapse of central government in 1991. Somali fishermen were already selling to the Gulf States and to Italian companies and the marine bounty was known.

Fishing vessels started to appear from nearby Kenya and Egypt but also from as far afield as China.

“The first point that compelled us to be sea pirates was the fishermen. These boats that came, trawlers came and destroyed everything even the small fish from our area.”

Ismail lost his shark nets in clashes with trawlers, others lost boats or lives.

The operations of the foreign ships were felt in three ways according to Ismail: “Big fishing trawlers entered our waters, destroyed our facilites, collided with our boats and even killed people.

“Some dumped toxic waste in our waters.”

And finally: “big cruise ships and tankers started to appear.”

Everything changed in 1997, he believes when Somali fishermen attacked a Kenyan fishing trawler.

“They had our lobster and fish on board. We showed the world community what they had taken.”

What Ismail insists began as a policing operation quickly shifted.

“At first it was about the hostility between us, it was about taking revenge. But when they paid ransoms we decided to take more ships to get more ransoms.”

The former mechanic took longer to step off the sidelines, eventually joining the growing bands of pirates operating from Eyl in northeastern Somalia.

“Using my own fishing boat, we got everything: sat phone, weapons... We went out to the ocean. Unfortunately we could not reach them because of the speed. They were moving faster than us.”

Talking faster now he recounts another failed attempt where a larger engine landed him alongside a container ship but his ladder couldn't reach the deck.

Far from comic, these failed attempts underline the extraordinary adaptability of his countrymen, most with little experience of the sea who have transformed themselves into hardened pirates capable of stopping supertankers and fending off a multinational fleet of warships.

Ismail's third attempt involved transporting his ship overland and restocking his armoury. “I got seven weapons, a bazooka, AK 47s, one pistol, a thuraya (satellite phone). We were using uniforms from the Puntland coastguard.”

He believes it would have worked if an informant hadn't given the gang away to authorities keen to demonstrate that they were fighting piracy.

The same communications networks that have existed for generations that have enabled the cattle traders to cross the Gulf to Yemen and Saudi Arabia; the same traffickers of weapons and people have been adapted to exploit a new economic opportunity – hijack and ransom.

There is no sympathy for the merchant seamen he has pursued who Ismail sees as representatives of a world that stood by while Somalia was exploited.

“I don't give a shit about them,” he says with a rare flash of anger. “They are like cattle to me, these ships are mine.”

“Why don't you give consideration about the destruction they did to us?”

“This time our problem has touched the outside world. Finally the rest of the world knows that hijacking ships was a punishment from us.”

Piracy off the Horn has always had seasons. When the sea is calm the mother ships and their skiffs go out. When it is rough they retreat to Somalia's cliffs and bays.

And as another of these seasons draws to a close the predictable claims are being made that the military solution is working.

So far the multinational fleet has had less impact than the weather. Nato and other international missions have congratulated themselves on reducing the threat.

Ismail has a different view.

“These navies can think what they want. We have shown we will defend ourselves, we will change tactics.”

Despite his own life sentence, the father of two becomes animated about possible solutions.

“We need to understand this solution. We need people to listen to us, to create employment for these fishing communities. To bring facilities that is the way we can stop these problems.”

The backwash from the recent killing of at least six pirates first by the French, then by US naval forces has been felt even inside the high walls of Mandera.

“I am very sorry about French and America fighting pirates. “I didn't go to France or to USA, we took these ships in our own waters.

“If they continue we will start to destroy ships and kill people. Then there will be serious and heavy consequences.”