This Chinese fishing vessel was attacked by Somali pirates on November 16.

The pirate is sitting in the backseat of my car. We are parked in the basement lot of a Nairobi mall; the Muzak version of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” echoes across the concrete. The man, who calls himself Ahmad, tells me he helped hijack six ships off Somalia before he quit the trade in November because his wife left him for another pirate. He starts to cry and hides his face with his hands. “I felt that I could murder that man,” Ahmad says. “My town was dominated by him. I thought the best thing was to run away from that place before I killed someone.”

I met Ahmad a couple of weeks ago at a restaurant in Eastleigh, a Nairobi neighborhood dominated by Somalis. He came with another ex-pirate, named Bashir, who bared his black, rotted teeth every time he smiled. Bashir and Ahmad sipped strawberry milkshakes through long straws. Soon after the shakes arrived, a group of well-dressed Kenyans sat down in an adjacent booth and began shooting them cold stares. Ahmad thought they might be police or intelligence officers, so we paid the bill and retreated to the safest place we knew, another car, and parked it down an empty road.

Bashir was once a fisherman. The pirates wanted to hire him because he knew how to swim, a valuable skill he could teach other recruits. Bashir claims he was among the pirates who hijacked the MV Faina, a ship carrying 33 Soviet-era battle tanks to Kenya, on Sept. 25, 2008. He fled Somalia after that job, he says, because he fell out with the pirate leaders over pay. He earned $6,000, but his bosses deducted two-thirds of that to pay for the food he ate during the operation. “We are the ones out on the water taking all the risks and suffering,” Bashir says. “That was how our differences began. I feared that because I disagreed with the boss about money, they would assassinate me.”

When Somali piracy really hit the headlines in 2008, the first crop of stories told of young pirates who had struck it rich. They bought expensive cars and houses and married the prettiest girls. Then, everyone said, the pirates started looking for places to invest their money safely and fueled a building boom in Nairobi. Bashir and Ahmad headed to Nairobi for a different reason: asylum. Willing to risk police harassment, hunger and poor prospects, they arrived with a few hundred — maybe even a few thousand — dollars, but nothing like the riches they dreamed of when they joined the business.

Good information on the inner workings of the piracy trade is hard to come by, but evidence from out of Somalia indicates that criminal syndicates with financiers and investors based in Dubai and London and Mombasa, Kenya, have taken over piracy in Somalia, which got its start in the early 1990s as a way to mete out retribution on ships that fished illegally or dumped toxic waste in Somali waters. Now the warlords at the top take almost all the money and pay the men at the bottom next to nothing. The pirates caught on camera bobbing in their skiffs are the high-sea equivalent of the Cosa Nostra’s lowliest associates. “The people being arrested are actually foot soldiers. They are not the real pirates,” says Dickson Oruku Nyawinda, a lawyer who represents accused Somali pirates in Kenya’s jails. “We are dealing with people who have no idea where the ransoms are going.”

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