Ibaado Aden, 65, a resident of Hobyo in the Galmudug region of central Somalia, watched a shiny sport utility vehicle slowly approaching the main market area of the village.
She said nothing. But it was clear from the look of concern on her face that the vehicle's occupants were pirates. They are the only people who can afford such luxury in this remote and dirt-poor fishing village, hundreds of kilometers from the nearest city.
Ibaado Aden abruptly ended our interview. She did not want to talk about pirates, especially about what they do with the ransom they receive. She said the pirates give the people nothing, and she does not know where or how the pirates spend their money.
Somali pirate groups operating in Hobyo and Haradhere in central Somalia and in the northern town of Eyl in Puntland have hijacked more than 40 vessels this year. The unprecedented number of hijackings has prompted at least a dozen countries, including the United States, China and Russia, to send warships to the region to protect vulnerable shipping lanes. The pirates still hold at least 19 vessels and more than 350 crew members hostage.
The United Nations believes pirates may have earned as much as $120 million in ransom payments. And there has been rising concern among western diplomats and security analysts that a large chunk of the money is being funneled to the militant Shabab group.
It was the rise of the Shabab militia that prompted the Ethiopian military, with U.S. support, to intervene in Somalia in late 2006 and end the six-month rule of the Islamic Courts Union. Since then, the Shabab has led a two-year insurgency against the country's weak, Ethiopia-backed interim government. The group, which the United States has labeled a terrorist organization, has now regained control over most parts of southern and central Somalia.
In an alarming article published in Time magazine in December, one alleged pirate claimed that the Shabab and other Islamist insurgent groups have been extorting vast sums of money from pirates and using it to fund the insurgency.
Through intermediaries in Hobyo, I located a pirate who agreed to be interviewed. Introducing himself only as Kahiye, the 26-year-old, confirmed by various residents as having been involved in numerous hijacking operations, scoffed at the Time article. Kahiye said pirate groups in Somalia only conduct business with people they refer to as "investors." Investors, he said, are not factional leaders or politicians, but former Somali fishermen who made money from pirate activities in the past.
Kahiye would not say how many investors are involved in piracy in Somalia. But he said they are essential to hijacking operations because the investors usually pick the targets and provide all that is necessary for pirates on the ground to conduct successful operations and to hold the ships and crew for ransom.
When a ransom is paid, these investors receive as much as 50 percent of the ransom, pirates 30 to 40 percent, and the remaining amount is usually set aside to be used in the next hijacking venture.
Kahiye continued, insisting that no money is ever given to the Shabab. He said all of the money ends up being spent on recruiting new pirates and buying houses, cars, and huge quantities of a mildly narcotic leaf called khat, which is chewed by many Somali men. He added that he thought some investors pay bribes to local, regional, and government officials to look the other way. Kahiye acknowledged he does not fully know how investors spend their portion of the ransom payments.
Hobyo, like the village of Haradhere to the south, is currently under the control of Islamist fighters belonging to the Shabab and another rival group made up of more moderate Islamists. Both groups are firmly opposed to piracy, calling it an offense against Islam. In 2006, Islamic courts officials implemented strict Islamic laws, which briefly stopped piracy in Somalia.
Well-placed Somali sources said that while it is unlikely that investors and pirates are willingly handing over millions of dollars to hard-line Islamist leaders who have vowed to stop piracy, it is possible that they do pay some protection money to local Shabab commanders and other low-level Islamist officials to keep them from interfering in piracy operations. Pirate foot soldiers may also be contributing to Islamist groups without meaning to do so.
Some pirates, like Kahiye, were once poorly-paid clan militia fighters who were recently lured into the far more lucrative world of piracy. But pirates often have friends and family, who support the Islamist insurgency. It is likely, some sources said, that the money pirates are giving to family and clan members is also reaching the coffers of Islamist groups.
Alisha Ryu is correspondent for VOA.