With stories about Somali pirates confined to 30-second, us-v-them news grabs, few of us (including the journalists putting together those news grabs) understand the complex reasons why these pirates exist. One Canadian journalist—a fresh-out-of-uni freelancer, no less—set out to find out precisely what drives people to roam the ocean with not even enough fuel or food to see them safely back to shore and to kidnap ships and crews in the hope of extracting large ransoms.
The answers Jay Bahadur found are surprising and show the greyness of the issues underpinning piracy. These include the fact that rampant and illegal over-fishing by the kinds of commercial ships the pirates now kidnap killed off the fish stocks and left some of these former fishermen with no choice but to turn to piracy. Throw in a mysterious-sounding place called ‘Puntland’, a special kind of ‘pirate math’, and a reference to the game ‘Whac-a-Mole’, and what you have is a compelling read.
I’ve got to admit that I’ve never heard of Puntland and that I think the name sounds made up. Is that the reaction you had when you first discovered it?
It’s hard to remember my exact reaction on discovering Puntland, because it would have been when I was studying Somalia in university, seven years ago. But the name ‘Punt’ is taken from the Ancient Egyptian accounts of a land rich in ebony and frankincense, which may (or may not) be the same as the Puntland of modern times. Puntland’s founders apparently thought it was.
You were a new graduate and freelancer when you tackled this project—something that many more established journalists hadn’t and haven’t. How important do you think a bit of naivety and enthusiasm were to making it happen? How has it influenced your career/others’ opinions of you since?
Many people I’ve spoken to (including close friends) thought that what I was doing was insane, but I never saw it that way; I saw it as a justified calculated risk. In my mind, the book was already a reality—all I had to do was to go to Somalia and bring it into being.
It may sound odd, or arrogant, but I never really doubted that some publisher would end up buying the book…the subject matter was just so engrossing, and I was really the only foreign journalist staying in Somalia long enough to get the whole story.
The book opens with you taking a fairly dubious flight and you require personal security throughout the trip. Did you feel safe at any stage? Were there any hairy moments that didn’t make it into the book?
The scariest moments were during the flight on my first trip into Somalia, not knowing if I was going to be picked up at the airstrip (I had not yet met my host and partner, a local journalist named Mohamad Farole). A lone white man hanging around a Somali airstrip would be prime kidnap bait, and I was ready to beg any of the other passengers to take me home for the night if my ride didn’t show.
There were also a few dodgy moments when I was in the coastal areas, questioning a pirate gang that had gathered in anticipation of an impending ransom delivery. I started asking the wrong questions, and one of the gang leaders took exception…but you can read about that in the book!
You note that there wasn’t much research available and that most major media organisations give 30-second sound bites that don’t delve into (or even understand) the complex issues that underpin piracy. How much of the book could you research/plan?
The best information available at the time I began working on the book was contained in a handful of UN reports, which were by then already out of date. I had composed a list of very basic questions—who are the pirates, who is funding them, do they have links to terrorists, etc.—but mostly I tried to keep an open mind and figure things out when I got there.
What’s the reaction been to/action inspired by your book?
The reviews have been very positive, so far. It’s a little too soon after the launch to judge what action it has inspired, but I hope it will stimulate a more serious policy debate about potential solutions to the piracy problem. With some exceptions, I haven’t been too impressed with the quality of the current scholarship.
You note the unreliability of your sources, including that they don’t give you full information or that their figures don’t add up/dates don’t match. How frustrating was that for you? How did you overcome it?
Yes, ‘pirate math’, as I call it, often didn’t add up. Ombaali, a hostage guard whom I interviewed soon after I first arrived in Puntland, was a prime example. He claimed to have worked for Abshir Boyah—a veteran pirate boss who became the main character in my book—but Boyah denied ever having employed him.
He also claimed to have made $50,000 over the course of three hijackings, but when I worked through his numbers (he told me that the guards collectively earned 30% of the ransom), I discovered that he couldn’t have made much more than $19,000. I strongly considered completely junking the interview, but in the end decided to use it; it was the sort of decision that journalism school definitely could have helped me with.
I was really surprised that the victims you spoke to didn’t seem too traumatised by the experience. Is that across the board or were they exceptions to the rule?
I’m not really sure, having only spoken to two former hostages. The ones I interviewed, however, were treated relatively well; in more recent days, hostages have been subjected to escalating brutality, as the pirates have employed methods such as beatings, mock executions, and using prisoners as human shields.
More than one has committed suicide; on the MV Iceberg, a vessel that has now been held captive for well over a year, one crew member jumped overboard and drowned while trying to escape. With the ransom money going through the roof, the international naval forces more willing to use violence, and the pirates increasingly paranoid and jittery, the plight of hostages is likely only to worsen going forward.
My favourite diagram is where you show the expansion in piracy. The dots are incredible, but at the same time don’t feel real. Is that perhaps the issue with Puntland’s piracy? That we recognise it in theory and know that’s expanding, but we don’t quite know how to tackle it?
The problem is that the international naval forces cannot possibly cover an area of almost eight million square kilometres—roughly four-fifths the size of the United States—with a few dozen warships. The prospect of addressing the problem on land immediately conjures up images of the 1993 ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident, in which 18 US Army Rangers were killed and mutilated by Somali militiamen. Somalia is such a mess right now that no Western country would ever seriously consider putting boots on the ground.
You liken the efforts to contain pirates like playing a game of ‘Whac-a-Mole’. If you could recommend three strategies to implement right now to address the issues, what would they be?
A solution on land is a must. I suggest a five-point plan in the book, including the establishment of coastal garrisons in Puntland—equipped with radar stations, high frequency radios, and all-terrain vehicles—as well as local ‘pirate hotlines’, which would offer small rewards for intelligence tip-offs from local informants. The pirates are almost universally hated in the local communities, which is a resource that should be exploited.
You note that as big/even bigger than the issue of piracy is the issue of what to do with pirates once they’re caught. How can we address this human rights issue?
Deciding what to do with pirates is more a legal, logistical, and financial issue than a human rights issue. While most countries have a direct interest in ending piracy, none want to deal with the cost of dozens, or even hundreds, of essentially stateless persons clogging up their legal systems. In some countries, such as the UK, pirates may even be within their rights to claim asylum.
In the book, I suggest setting up regional tribunals, and ultimately funding prisons in Puntland and Somaliland where convicted pirates can serve out their terms. It’s the same approach as the one currently advocated by the UN special adviser on piracy, Jack Lang, but UN machinery is notoriously slow and cumbersome. These things take time.
On pay day, pirates throw their mobile phones into the water so no one can organise an ambush back on shore. Is it just me, or is that a problem environmentally? I’m envisaging a lot of toxic chemical-laden phones on the bottom of the harbour.
That was the practice of one pirate gang I investigated while in Puntland’s coastal areas. Even if it were a common occurrence, a few mobile phones on the ocean floor would be the least of Somalia’s problems.
Knowing what you know now, would you go in and research and write this book again?
Without a doubt. It’s worked out even better than I could have imagined. It was a sort of counter case for Murphy’s Law: everything that could have gone right, did go right.
What can we expect next from you?
I’m working with several colleagues on launching a citizen journalism website, Journalist Nation (www.journalist-nation.com). In a nutshell, our aim is to become a home for the numerous newsworthy cell phone videos ones sees floating around YouTube. My hope is to use the publicity surrounding the book to promote Journalist Nation (like I’m doing right now!).
You’re coming to the Brisbane Writers Festival (I’m currently based in Brisbane so am looking forward to it). Where else can we catch you in Australia?
After the festival I’ll be heading to Gleebooks in Sydney and also the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. I’m really looking forward to it. This will be my first time in Australia.
I’m looking forward to it too. I’ll be in Jay’s Brisbane Writers Festival session(s) if you’d like to join me.