A Peek Into The Secret World Of Somali Pirates 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. He tells their stories, debunks myths and examines the rise of piracy off the Somali coast in his new book, The Pirates of Somalia.
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A Peek Into The Secret World Of Somali Pirates

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A Peek Into The Secret World Of Somali Pirates

A Peek Into The Secret World Of Somali Pirates

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NEAL CONAN, host: Jay Bahadur's first interview in Somalia ended early when one of that country's most important pirates needed his fix of khat, the leafy stimulant that's the drug of choice for pirates. Before that, though, Boyah described his transition from fisherman to pirate after the reefs where he used to hunt lobster were destroyed by foreign trawlers. But while that may be true, it's far from the whole story.

Jay Bahadur spent three months in Puntland, a semiautonomous region in Somalia, and learned that much of what we think we know about these modern buccaneers is wrong. Jay Bahadur joins us from the studios of the CBC in Toronto. His new book is "The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World." And it's nice to have you on the program with us today.

JAY BAHADUR: Thank you very much, Neal. Pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And since you first spoke with Boyah, he's gained a bit of notoriety.

BAHADUR: Well, he's in jail now. But, yeah, he was the self-appointed pirate spokesman. And I think - it wasn't just me, but a number of media figures swarmed to get interviews with him because he was always great for a good quote, and he was always very willing to talk to media. And 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. So he's now serving a life sentence in Puntland's only - one-and-only prison.

CONAN: And it's - if you make yourself the self-appointed chairman of the pirate committee of elders, yeah, you're going to get some renown.

BAHADUR: Yeah. And the funny thing is that he claims to have been responsible in the hijacking of 25 to 60 ships, which I think is an absolutely ridiculous number. Like with many of a - information coming out of the mouths of pirates, it's a bit exaggerated. And so the thing is now this number, if - you can find very easily on Google, this claim that he's hijacked up to 60 ships, which - you know, it's funny, because this has basically put him in jail when it's not even the truth. So, yeah, he - his mouth has definitely got him into trouble. That's for sure.

CONAN: He clearly, though, did hijack some ships.

BAHADUR: Oh, most definitely. It's just that - you know, on - early - in 2008, I think there was something like - total number of the ships hijacked was some - was 68, I think, something along those lines. So he was basically claiming, you know, most of that total. So it's stretched his credulity, put it that way. There's no doubt that he's been involved in the trade since the '90s, and he began with attacking fishing ships. But I'm just saying that the 60 number was so far out of left field that, yeah, he was essentially assuming more guilt than he could have, you know, possibly committed.

CONAN: And the attacks on foreign fishing vessels, that goes back to the story that we always hear about these pirates. They don't call themselves that. They call themselves defenders of Somalia.

BAHADUR: Right. He was - the actual term they used was badaadinta badah, which roughly translates to saviors of the sea, which was the title of the first article I wrote because it was all about, you know, how they refer to themselves in this way. And it's been often translated, I think, in the English-speaking media as coast guards. So that was - that's definitely their PR angle, no doubt about that.

CONAN: And there's an element of truth to that, but there's an element of, well, exaggeration about that, too.

BAHADUR: Yeah. I think, early on, it was - it's a justification that's really turned into rationalization now. Early on - especially Boyah and his men were legitimately aggrieved by foreign fishing. There is third-party evidence - including by very credible sources such as the UNDP - that foreign fishing ships came in, through drag fishing, destroyed lobster habitats. In many cases, they were armed - especially in the later years, towards the end of the '90s - they were armed with anti-aircraft guns and often brought essentially contracted security from local warlords and so on, shot the local people, many cases, run over their gear.

One story that was told to me by the inhabitants of Eyl - which is Boyah's hometown on the Puntland Coast - was that two young lobster divers were actually caught up in the net, swept up and drowned some years back. So they definitely had a grievance. What's happened now is that it's gone so far beyond fishing. I think something like 6 percent of ships attacked are involved in fishing in any way. And what you hear now, to the mouth of any pirate you talk to, the first thing they say is we're doing this because of illegal fishing.

But now, for the most part, the people saying it are sort of inland thugs and militiamen, not fishermen. But it's - there's very much pirate PR machine at work and, you know, the evidence is that almost, like I said, almost the exact same line out of every - each one of their mouths is the same.

CONAN: How - why would a young man in Puntland decide to get into this business?

BAHADUR: Well, it's - I compare it briefly in the book. I don't like to get into the comparisons with the kind of inner-city drug trade too much, but I do compare it briefly in the book to the "Freakonomics" study, or the study that was popularized in "Freakonomics" about inner city crack dealing in Chicago. And essentially, the argument was that these - the crack foot soldiers, the one dealing on the streets and taking the biggest risk, really made very little money.

But what they were doing is they were investing in a shot, a very slim shot of getting in the bigger game down the road. And it was a very quick way, I guess - if they got into this game to the higher levels - quick way to earn, you know, respect that they wouldn't be able to or don't feel that they'd be able to achieve anywhere else. And with piracy, it's even, I think, that dynamic is definitely in play.

And the fact is that there's a huge tension between the Diaspora, the Somali Diaspora expats who are in and out of the country, speak English and Arabic, are educated and escaped the civil war, and Somalis who were stuck there to face the really the brunt of the violence and grew up there. And for these locals who grew up and only speaks Somali, there's really only a couple sources of employment, which is providing security, like basically hiring yourself out as security, day laborer or maybe transportation, like driving, that kind of thing.

And, obviously, for a youth with, you know, who know how to use a gun and with little other opportunities, you know, piracy is a great way to make some money and get a car, really. It's the first thing they buy, is an SUV.

CONAN: You talked to a young man whose name is Um Ba'alya(ph). I'm probably mispronouncing it. But he worked as what he called a holder. And I hadn't been aware of the distinction, the job categories of a pirate. And holders are those who watch over the hostages after the ship's been taken - and wanted to work his way up to attacker.

BAHADUR: Yes, exactly. So this is, again, parallels to working your way up the crack trade. He - yeah. He was brought on board. He was essentially one of a gang of about 50. And his job - and most of these - most of this 50 would have been comprised of holders like him, who, once the ship is captured, was brought on board to guard the crew, to sit there, essentially sit on the ship and chew khat all day. Khat is the narcotic drug very similar to cocoa leaf that the pirates are completely addicted to.

So his job was to sit there and watch the, obviously, watch the crew and essentially spend weeks and weeks on the ship. And so he made - I think he claimed to have made 50,000 in two operations. I estimate it was probably closer to 20,000. Again, it's a pirate tendency to exaggerate. But then he invested all that money in an operation that didn't work out, so he was back to - he was a former truck driver and after, you know, his piracy days ended without much success, he enrolled in the security forces.

So this is exactly what I'm talking about, how these - for the really lower-down guys, first of all, they don't make all that much money, really, even in Somalia. It's not that much money. And there's really only a few kind of career opportunities that they keep cycling through.

CONAN: One of the myths that you address in the book or describe in the book is that the Gulf of Aden is teeming with pirates. Any ship that sails through these waters, well, you should really know better.

BAHADUR: Yeah. I think with 24-hour news coverage these days, it - one of the effects of that is to make the world seem a lot more dangerous than it is. And that's certainly something - or an effect that's played itself out in the world of Somali piracy, because I think we hear about the big hijackings, the oil tankers, you know, the tank-carrying ships and so on that really, I guess, make it seem a lot more exciting and fast-paced and glamorous than this trade really is.

So in 2008, I calculated - when I wrote that, I do a chapter of myths of piracy, and that's one of them. And for 2008, I calculated that something like 0.2 percent of - actually, under 0.2 percent of ships going through the Gulf of Aden were actually hijacked. So it's not as big a problem as I think the media portrays it to be.

CONAN: And that the navies of the - much of the world are concentrated, a lot of their service vessels are there in an attempt to, well, bring are least, to some degree, under control. But that does not seem to be working.

BAHADUR: No. And I think that's more of an exercise in defense theater than it is a real attempt to arrive at a long-term solution. There are currently three international naval task force operating off the coast of Somalia. The U.S. force is called Combined Task Force 151, and it's built around the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which operates out of Djibouti. And I think there's varying numbers of warships in and out of the area. It ranges between 25 and 40 at a cost of about, I estimate, a billion to a billion-and-a-half a year.

And essentially, they're tasked with patrolling an area. Pirate attacks now occur across an area about some 80 percent the size of the United States. And if you think of 25 - I mean, people use corollary 25 to 40 police cars patrolling. It's not the same thing, obviously, because there's a lot more land-based crime than there is sea-based crime. But it gives you an idea of exactly how difficult a problem it is, because a warship realistically needs to be within 50, 60 kilometers - sorry, miles - of an attack if it has any chance of interceding. And that's even provided that it has the capability or the interest in interceding. I mean, a lot of the warships operating in that area are working to protect their own nationals and really wouldn't care that much about foreign nationals being hijacked.

CONAN: And we keep hearing that the solution to this is on land. It's not a - problem is going to be solved at sea. It has to be solved with better politics, better governance and a much better economy in Somalia.

BAHADUR: Yeah, that's - I think, that's a go-to line of anyone writing an op-ed on piracy in Somalia, is that it has to be solved on land. And I find that line and - is sort of trite in the sense that, I mean, what does that mean solving it on land? And a lot of people talk about we need to re-establish a government in Somalia as if, you know, people haven't been trying to do that for the past two decades. And they talk about this is a realistic solution to piracy, actually re-establishing a Somalia government.

In the book, I do think there doesn't need to be a solution on land, but I think I go into detailed solution in the last chapter of the book. Essentially, I think it's a bit too detailed to get into here because it's a very complex problem, but essentially, what I talk about is changing the way the international community deals with Somalia, i.e., right now, the international community solely deals with the, nominally, you know, official federal government in the south that controls a few blocs in Mogadishu and is desperately trying not to be chased into the sea by, you know, Islamist forces.

And I think what a solution to piracy entails is diplomat - changing countries' diplomatic stance towards Somalia and to recognizing these small states, like Puntland, that have popped up all over the place. People don't like living in anarchy, and Somalia is not a country in anarchy. It's actually a country made up of, you know, some relatively stable mini-states with, let's say, semi-functioning governments. And dealing directly with these governments, I think, is an important step on the way to stopping piracy.

CONAN: Jay Bahadur, thank you very much for your time today. Good luck with the book.

BAHADUR: Thank you. My pleasure.

CONAN: You can read more about Jay Bahadur's 45-hour slog to Puntland aboard increasingly dubious aircraft in an excerpt at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And Jay Bahadur joined us from the CBC studios in Toronto. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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