It is a slow, rough drive to Eyl – the tiny coastal town that has become notorious as the centre of Somalia’s lucrative pirate industry.
A dusty track meanders across hundreds of kilometres of rocky wilderness before slipping steeply down the side of a reddish canyon and hugging the contours of a small river out towards the roaring waves of the Indian Ocean. “If you go without guards the pirates will take you for ransom – that is guaranteed,” warned a United Nations security adviser before we left the regional capital, Garowe.
We duly took six heavily armed guards, provided by the authorities in Puntland, the autonomous north-eastern region of Somalia now struggling to clear its coastline – and reputation – of the stain of piracy. At first glance, Eyl seemed quiet and dilapidated.
The only obvious sign of the millions of dollars worth of ransom money that have flooded ashore in recent months were the dozen or more shiny new cars parked between crumbling stone houses close to the shore.
“Night and day, they drive their cars up and down,” said a fisherman named Abdul, repairing a fibre-glass skiff on the beach. “It’s dangerous for our kids. These criminals have brought nothing but harm to our town.” He gestured out to sea, where two large ships – one cargo, one trawler – wallowed just beyond the surf.
“Those have been hijacked by pirates. We don’t know where they’re from. The pirates bring them, then get their ransom, then take them off somewhere else. It’s a cycle,” he said. In town, a crowd quickly gathered around us, anxious to defend Eyl’s battered reputation. “We are all against the pirates here,” insisted a businesswoman named Abdi Hirsi.
“They have brought bad culture here. They come here with their shiny cars, collect their money and leave. We worry that our children will be attracted to crime.
We are not pirates, we are gentlemen
Convicted pirate Jamal Akhmed
“We are very fearful of the pirates, and of the international community. We hear reports that the West will launch airstrikes against our town.” But if there were any pirates on shore in Eyl, they were keeping a low profile during our visit.
“They come only at night now,” said Abdi Hirsi.
The new government in Puntland insists that in the past few weeks a combination of persuasion – an effort led by Islamic clerics – and police action has pushed the pirates out of Eyl and other towns in the area. “We’ve done a lot,” said Puntland President Abdirahman Mohamed Farole. “We’re in full control of the major towns where they used to operate.
“But we would be more effective if the international community would help us to establish a taskforce. Piracy cannot be beaten off-shore. It has to be eradicated on the ground.”
The authorities here have tried and convicted some 90 pirates in the past three months – most of them handed over by foreign navies patrolling the coast.
This man has admitted to hijacking 25 ships off the Somali coast
The convicts are being held in what amount to sweltering cages in a stone fortress outside Puntland’s main commercial port of Bossasso. “We are not pirates,” declared Jamal Akhmed, 32, who has just started a life sentence.
“We are gentlemen, defending our shores against foreign fisherman. It did become a business, but it was forced upon us because we were attacked. We have bills to pay and families to care for.” Bossasso’s police chief, Osman Hassan Uke, took us to see two alleged pirates who had just been dropped off at the port by a French warship.
The men insisted they had been sailing to Yemen to find work when they were attacked by helicopters. “These pirates are thieves and cowards,” said Mr Uke. “We will defeat them. They are not organised in the way we are organised.”
He bitterly condemned the payments of ransom by foreign companies and governments. “It is completely wrong,” he said. “Whenever 10 guys get paid ransom money, 20 more pirates are created.”
In Bosasso’s port, a handful of captured pirate boats lay on the quayside. Moored near them was a broken speedboat with the words “Puntland coastguard” painted on the side.
Puntland police have their hands full trying to crack down on the pirates
A harbour official refused to confirm reports that it represented the entire Puntland navy.
“That is a military secret,” said Colonel Mohammed Abdullah Mohammed stiffly.
President Abdirahman confirmed that the entire annual government budget for Puntland was “about $20m (£12m)”.
But although piracy is clearly a major headache for the local authorities and for coastal communities in Puntland, Mr Abdirahman sought to put it in context.
At a cabinet meeting, the focus was on the wider conflict gripping Somalia and the widespread fear that Islamic militants in the south could seize control in the capital Mogadishu and then threaten Puntland. “From the international point of view, piracy may be considered the number one issue,” said Mr Abdirahman.
“But from our point of view, it is a tiny part of the whole Somali problem – a phenomenon prompted by the collapse of the Somali state.”