Jay Bahadur wanted to know firsthand how modern pirates live and operate, so he traveled to Somalia. He spent weeks meeting with pirates and government officials.
Bahadur tells their stories, debunks myths and examines the rise of piracy off the Somali coast in his new book, The Pirates of Somalia.
He spent three months in Puntland, the semi-autonomous region in Somalia that's home to the modern buccaneers. But his first interview in Somalia ended early, when one of the country's most notorious pirates, Boyah, left to pursue a fix of khat, the leafy stimulant that's the drug of choice for pirates. Before he left, though, Boyah described how he went from fisherman to pirate, after the reefs where he used to hunt lobster were destroyed by foreign trawlers.
But Boyah's known for hyperbolic speech. "Boyah was the self-appointed pirate spokesman," Bahadur tells NPR's Neal Conan. "He was always great for a good quote, and he was always very willing to talk to media."
Boyah liked to claim to be responsible for the hijacking of 25 to 60 ships, "which I think is an absolutely ridiculous number," says Bahadur. Like much of the information coming out of the mouths of pirates, he says, "it's a bit exaggerated," though Boyah certainly hijacked some number of ships.
His mouth got him into trouble — Boyah's now serving a life sentence in Puntland's only prison. "When the U.S. government decided they needed to clamp down on Somali piracy, he was the first one to be made an example of."
The Somali pirates don't call themselves pirates. They prefer badaadinta badah, or "saviors of the sea." It's a good PR angle for the pirates, says Bahadur, and there's a small element of truth to it.
"Early on, especially Boyah and his men were legitimately aggrieved by foreign fishing," he says.
Bahadur found third-party evidence to support their claims. "Foreign fishing ships came in and through drag fishing destroyed lobster habitats," he says, and in many cases, they were armed with anti-aircraft guns. They were known to contract security from local warlords and shoot locals and run over their fishing gear.
But "what's happened now is that it's gone so far beyond fishing," Bahadur says. "I think something like 6 percent of ships attacked are involved in fishing in any way."