Fisherman. Mechanic. Member of a militia.
Those were the jobs three Somali men held before they picked up automatic machine guns, boarded a 58-foot sailboat off the coast of Africa and killed the four Americans they found on board.
Those were the jobs Abukar Osman Beyle, Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar and Ahmed Muse Salad held before they became pirates.
What prompted the men, who could be sentenced next week to death by lethal injection, to throw their lot in with villains who rape, torture and murder innocent civilians remains unclear.
While a half-dozen investigators testified this week about the men’s lives in Somalia before the 2011 hijacking of the Quest, the defense witnesses generally avoided answering the question. Their testimony focused on the hardships the defendants faced growing up in a war-torn country that has lacked a strong central government for most of the past 22 years.
Perhaps the closest thing to a direct answer came from Dr. Patricia Johnson, an expert on Somalia who spent time there while working with the charity Oxfam and the United Nations.
“Survival,” she told the jury, summarizing her view on why so many Somali men become pirates.
Experts contacted by The Virginian-Pilot agreed. When it comes to a career in Somalia, piracy is one of the few options available.
“It’s actually something parents encourage their children to go into,” said Michael Scharf, a professor at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio who has helped with piracy trials in Kenya, the Seychelles and Mauritius. While a person might make $50 a month fishing or fighting for a militia, a pirate can make thousands of dollars by hijacking one boat and ransoming off its crew.
“They’ve created this ethos that is Robin Hood-like,” said Scharf, explaining many Somali pirates view their work as stealing from the rich Western world to feed the poor of Somalia.
Scharf added that most other career paths available in Somalia are no better. Two of the big ones: Join al-Shabaab, a militant Islamist group associated with al-Qaida, or get involved with organized crime and deal drugs.
“For basically 20 years it’s been a failed state,” Scharf said. “They have no government. No law enforcement.”
Salad, Beyle and Abrar were convicted earlier this month of 26 crimes relating to the Feb. 22, 2011, deaths of Scott and Jean Adam, a California couple who owned the Quest, and Phyllis Patricia Macay and Robert Riggle, both of Seattle. Prosecutors are asking the jury to sentence the men to death. Defense attorneys are arguing for life in prison without parole.
According to court testimony, a group of 19 pirates boarded the Quest on Feb. 18, 2011, and took the four Americans hostage. After negotiations with the Navy failed, Salad, Beyle and Abrar opened fire, killing the hostages and two pirates in the process.
Before becoming a pirate, investigators said Salad grew up a nomad in Puntland – an area Johnson described as the “Siberia of Somalia.” At 15, he joined the Puntland militia and eventually the presidential guard. In 2010, Salad fought al-Shabaab in the mountains of Puntland, shortly before becoming a pirate.
Beyle grew up in Merca, a city south of the Somali capital. Investigators said his family lived in a food camp operated by the Red Cross for several months when he was 11 or 12. After completing the Somali version of high school, he worked as a tailor earning about $2.50 a day. Later, he moved to Puntland and worked as a fisherman.
Abrar is a Bantu, an ethnic minority in Somalia investigators described as a “slave class.”
Investigators said Abrar worked as a driver and mechanic. Abrar has repeatedly claimed he was kidnapped and forced to become a pirate.