BOSASSO, Somalia (Reuters) - Somali pirates are investing heavily in trafficking the narcotic khat, along with other businesses, as they seek to spend big profits from ransom payments after months of attacks.
Maritime officials say at least 26 ships have been hijacked off the coast of the Horn of Africa country so far this year.
Most of them brought ransoms of at least $10,000, and in some cases much more. A lot of that money is now in the hands of pirates in the semi-autonomous northern region of Puntland.
Siyad Mohamed and his gang recently shared a $750,000 ransom after releasing a German ship they seized in May. Mohamed said they decided to invest in trafficking khat, a mild narcotic leaf that is very popular in the region.
"We've started importing," Mohamed told Reuters by telephone from Garowe, Puntland's capital.
"We bought it from Kenya after normal supplies dwindled due to delays. We saw an opportunity and took it."
Mohamed said he earned $75,000 from the German ransom, a large amount in such a poor region.
"We work in three groups. One group is at sea now looking for ships to hijack. The other two, including mine, are next in line. We all share the ransom money," the 30-year-old former fisherman said. "Fellow pirates get free khat supply."
Banned in many Western countries, khat is a flowering plant that is native to east Africa and the Arabian Peninsula and is believed to have originated in Ethiopia. Users, mostly men, chew the fresh leaves to get a mild amphetamine-like high.
Other pirates have benefited even more from the trade. And residents of Garowe and Bosasso, Puntland's other main town, say most of the hijackers are well known.
Following this year's sharp increase in attacks at sea, the wealthy pirates have attained near-celebrity status in the area, building palatial beach villas and other buildings, cruising around town in expensive cars and marrying additional wives.
VILLAS, CARS AND GIRLS
Some residents expect them to take over more local businesses soon, and say that gangs threaten local authorities and can pay for impunity -- further worsening security in one of Africa's most lawless corners.
Piracy has flourished in Somalia since warlords overthrew Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, plunging the country into chaos.
But it has reached unprecedented levels since the start of last year.
Among the most recent victims are a German couple who were abducted in June and are still being held by Puntland gunmen demanding a $2 million ransom. Most of the pirates treat hostages well in the hope of a good pay-off.
And experts say hijackers are getting bolder.
"They have gained experience and hijack big ships that fetch them good money," said Andrew Mwangura, a maritime official based in Kenya. "They are getting smarter and smarter."
The pirates typically use speedboats, normally dropped from bigger "mother ships". The hijackers then use the faster craft to intercept commercial vessels before boarding them brandishing assault rifles, and sometimes rocket-propelled grenades.
Locals in Puntland say there will be no shortage of new recruits as long as gangs reap the rewards.
Jama Shino, another pirate, recently threw one of Garowe's most lavish weddings for years. Hundreds of guests attended as the 35-year-old father-of-two married his second wife.
"We don't fear the government. Girls here are not afraid of us. They love us because we have lots of money so they really want to marry us," Shino said with a grin.
Rodo Abdullahi, a 19-year-old who attended last week's party, said it was every local girl's dream to have such a grand wedding, But she said only pirates now had the funds to do it.
"If I marry a man who doesn't have enough money, he cannot organize such a big wedding," she told Reuters.
"That is why girls here prefer to be married to pirates."
(Additional reporting and writing by Guled Mohamed in Nairobi; Editing by Daniel Wallis)
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