By Michelle Shephard
National Security Reporter
At the age of 24, bored with his job in market research and fascinated by Somalia’s pirates, aspiring journalist Jay Bahadur packed his bags and left Toronto for the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, in northern Somalia, to live among the pirates.
He arrived after the kidnapping of another Canadian, Amanda Lindout, and British journalist Colin Freeman, who was snatched in the very region where Bahadur was headed. But with some prep work, and a lot of good fortune, Bahadur managed to stay safe and gain the trust of the fabled pirates — romanticized by many Somalis as the guardians of the sea, fighting illegal fishing off their shore, and by the international community as a deadly and expensive scourge from a country plagued with problems.
Over a period of two six-week trips, starting at the beginning of 2009, Bahadur immersed himself in their world. He tells much of the story in his book
The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World
through Boyah, one of the “old boys,” an original Puntland buccaneer. After Bahadur left Somalia, Boyah became sort of a media darling and pirate spokesman. In May 2010, he was arrested and remains in a Somali prison. Bahadur spoke with the
Toronto Star’s Michelle Shephard this week. Below is an edited transcript of their discussion.
How did you do this? You’re 24, no journalism background, and as you say yourself, you were just curious and wanted to go .
.. to Somalia?
I just started sending proposals around to universities and journalists and I got a very good response from Mohamed Farole, who runs the only radio station in the capital city.
He emailed me right back and called the next morning, so I knew he thought it was a good idea.
But really I didn’t do much.
There was so little information available at the time. Almost nothing in terms of academic information, a few reports and that was about it ... I grabbed some malaria pills, bought a new computer, I went to a travel doctor a few days before I left.
(Note: Farole became his host. Farole’s father was elected Puntland’s president just before Bahadur’s arrival).
Do you consider yourself lucky?
I was incredibly lucky. Everything worked out from day one. Just the fact that his father was elected the week before I got there ...
Do you see your book as the definitive work, or a starting point on the issue?
There’s no real peer review research in Somalia. It’s not possible to produce enough, to have enough oversight to see exactly what’s going on on the ground to verify things. You see this a lot just with the numbers they throw out about how ransoms are split up, who’s involved, how much this person gets, how much this person gets. I do get into that in the book but people need to take that with a large grain of salt because I’m very suspicious always of reports that try to nail down exactly what pirates are making and where it goes. It’s just a fog. It’s impossible to follow the money.
You bust a lot of myths about piracy. One in particular that money goes into the Kenyan neighbourhood of Eastleigh (known as Little Mogadishu)
I just think from a numerical point of view it’s impossible. Eastleigh has been growing since the Kenyan government started liberalizing foreign ownership of land five or 10 years ago.
.. or the international links to Somali piracy ...
I think part of the confusion with that is that I’ve seen lists that put the number of local investors at 30, roughly. That’s key people on the ground. These local business owners running these endeavours tend to hold foreign passports, so you probably have a number of them holding Canadian passports so people take that to mean, oh there’s an international connection. Yes, but not really ... if you want to call that international crime, OK I guess, but conceptually it’s not like that they’re running transnational crime syndicate with money crossing borders all the time, going toward some central organization in the country.
Did you meet a lot of Canadians during your travels? I think I’ve met more people from Rexdale when I’m in Mogadishu than in Toronto.
Canadians essentially run the government in Puntland. I’d say a rough estimate, that 30 to 40 per cent of the high-ups in the Puntland government hold Canadian citizenship. It is great to be Canadian there.
Is it hard to remain objective when you’re essentially embedded with the pirates?
Well, from the beginning I realized that I was under the wing of the government here and immediately going to be seen as partial, and particularly by Somalis because I’m associated by a certain clan, but also the international community because they’re very divided on the political stance of Puntland.
What did you find about the connection between the Shabab (the Somali-based group with links to Al Qaeda and designated a terrorist organization in Canada) and Puntland’s pirates?
This was high on my agenda as obviously everyone wants to know about the Islamists. Immediately I was going and asking every pirate, ‘Do you give money to Islamists?Do you give money to Islamists?’ and the answer was always, ‘No.’ Really, I didn’t see that much of a reason of why they would lie to me. Southern Somalia where (the Shabab) was operating really is another world, different clan, they spoke derisively of the Shabab and thought they were lunatics and had no political consciousness of their cause. . . . Another reason is that the Shabab doesn’t control any of the areas where the pirates are operating out of so why would you pay (the Shabab) protection money?
So the reports of sharing training or weapons?
It’s an absurd picture because every Somali knows how to use a gun and if not, there are plenty of other places you could get training to be become an adequate enough marksman to become a pirate . . . There’s no ideology to pirates. It’s just about the money.
You’ve argued that this misconception is actually dangerous?
It puts the lives of (pirates’) hostages at risk if people started to believe these allegations. You can’t pay ransom; there could be a more violent reaction.
(Note: Most governments say they refuse to pay ransom for the release of hostages taken by the Shabab, a designated terrorist group. Ransom for pirate hostages are almost always paid.)
With the recent changes — the Shabab’s withdrawal from Mogadishu and their declining fortunes and vow to adopt more guerrilla war tactics — do you see the relationship changing?
In terms of their future potential? Well (the Shabab) need more money, especially since the Gulf financing drying up and their losing support and numbers. I’m sure they’ll take money wherever they can get it but the fact simply is that most pirates really have any interest in paying them. The Shabab has their own problems. I don’t think you’ll see them trying to start a piracy division or anything like that, even if they controlled areas that were ideal for piracy.
You spend a lot of time in the book on the leafy narcotic khat. What’s its importance to the piracy story?
Outside of cars, it’s their No. 1 purchase. Maybe it is their No. 1 purchase. . . half of the gang’s operating expenses went to khat. They drove the prices up ... Their money is almost literally chewed up and spit out ... There were stories of them running into the khat market and trying to spend their $100 bills like they were 1,000 shilling notes. I’m sure the mistake was quickly realized, what they were doing but just the fact that this was a widely reported anecdote was indicative that the concept of money wasn’t understood and they didn’t know where it went and in a week or month they’d be broke.
As you write, the pirates don’t call themselves pirates because the literal translation in Somali is “ocean robbers” and they consider
themselves “badaadinta badah” — saviours of the sea. How do you view them now?
I certainly enjoyed the company of Boyah and his men and I find it hard to put them in the same category as the people who are active now for two reasons. They actually did have a justification, or they fit this stereotype or trope or whatever of the oppressed fishermen who started fighting back. Boyah was not a killer and was always questioning his actions. I find it hard to group him in with the men who murdered those four Americans (in February 2011). No one now really has interest in fishing; the main purpose is money.
At the end of the book, you have outlined practical solutions of how to tackle the issue of piracy. We’ve seen recent stories about a greater — albeit largely covert — presence on the ground in Mogadishu and southern Somalia to help with issues with the Shabab. All experts seem to agree the fight should be on land, not the water. Would this approach work in Puntland?
One thing you have to keep is any foreign presence off the ground . . . I’m even skeptical of private security going in. In really weak states like Puntland, you can’t sell off a function of the state before there really is even a state . . . You need actual support and infrastructure. Another idea I like and proposed in the book is a pirate tip hotline . . . (Pirates are) absolutely hated on land. They drive up local prices, they steal women away from their families, they don’t share the wealth; they consume alcohol and khat and piss people off.
Source: thestar.com (Canada)