You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Wages of Anarchy

The Pirates Of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World
By Jay Bahadur
(Pantheon, 300 pp., $26.95)

The monsoon winds are dying down and the Indian Ocean is getting smooth again. This happens at the end of every summer, and September marks a new season: pirate season. Somalia’s wily, indefatigable buccaneers are just coming off their summer break. Now that the maritime conditions are right, expect a new rash of hijackings.

This year has already been incredibly lucrative for them, with more than twenty ships seized, hundreds of seamen in captivity, and the average ransom fetching $5 million--a fortune anywhere, but especially so in an ungoverned country with a war-shattered economy. Just a few years ago, pirates were lucky to clear six figures. Their continued success seems to stem from the fact that, like any good student or criminal, they are constantly learning. One of their newest tactics is the use of “mother ships,” hijacked fishing boats or small freighters serving as floating bases that extend their range to more than one thousand miles offshore. Though the Chinese, Russian, and American navies have beefed up patrols in the congested Gulf of Aden, a vital shipping lane between Somalia and Yemen at the mouth of the Red Sea, Somali pirates today are commandeering vessels closer to India than to Africa. They have steadily stretched their strike zone to more than two million square miles, a watery expanse that any naval officer will tell you is virtually impossible to patrol.

How did these wafer-thin men outfitted with rusty Kalashnikovs and flip-flops get into the sea-jacking business in the first place? Why are they so hard to stamp out? How organized are their operations, and what do they do with the millions that literally drop from the sky and into their hands? And who are these guys, anyway?

Jay Bahadur seeks to answer these questions in his new book, which is engaging but flawed. Under considerable dangers, Bahadur spent several weeks in Puntland, a semi-autonomous crimeinfested region in northeast Somalia that used to be a real piracy hot spot, though the business has more recently shifted south. He logged the miles with the bad men--chewing the stimulant khat with them, visiting their lairs on the coast, trying to tease out tidbits on their criminal enterprise from taciturn and lying thugs.

The best chapter in Bahadur’s book, I think, is the one in which he drops in on a pirate boss named Momman at his well-appointed home. The hulking man lounges against a divan, toying with a handgun, skillfully eluding Bahadur’s eager questions. In the end the pirate does not reveal much, but Bahadur’s taut description of Momman, and his surroundings, and his stubborn reticence, nicely captures the caginess and the sense of menace that you face when confronted with the real thing. “He studied me intently, his eyes tracking over my face,” Bahadur writes of Momman. “His rare smiles slipped by with obvious reluctance, as if his facial muscles had briefly triumphed over his brain for control of his expression.”

I should disclose that I have done some piracy research myself, and have been to Puntland several times. I have met some of the more notorious characters in Bahadur’s book--including Boyah, the pirate chief now seeking redemption, who seems to fascinate Bahadur and even gets a warm thank-you in the acknowledgments. (“To Boyah, who welcomed me into his world.”) And Bahadur refers in his footnotes to some of my articles published in The New York Times. All that said, I still find his book to be an illuminating guide. His prose can be sharp. About a marathon khat chewing session with Boyah and company, he writes of “faces fading into the twilight until only the glowing points of cigarettes marked their locations.” There are many passages as skillful as that. But the book feels like it was rushed into print. I can’t tell you how many times the author reminds us that sweet drinks are customarily served alongside khat to counteract the bitter-tasting leaves. And there are some glaring inaccuracies, such as when Bahadur writes that “in the late 1990s, Somalia erupted into civil war.” It was the late 1980s, my friend. By January 1991, the central government of Somalia had collapsed.

That is where the piracy story should begin. There were a few isolated incidents of piracy before 1991; colonial records indicate that brigands in the Gulf of Aden were striking dhows and fishing vessels back in the 1950s. But it is the staggering failure of Somalia to resurrect its government that is primarily responsible for the two biggest ills associated with the country today: piracy and famine. The militant Islamist group known as the Shabab comes in a close third, but they are on the wane: they recently withdrew from Mogadishu, Somalia’s bullet-ridden capital, for the first time in years. All three of these problems--the Shabab, the pirates, and the famine, which has created a refugee crisis in East Africa as Somalia hemorrhages hundreds of thousands of starving people--prove the same point: a failed state becomes everybody’s headache.

AFTER CLAN warlords overthrew Siad Barre, Somalia’s dictator, in 1991, most Western diplomats and aid workers--and most Somalis, for that matter--reckoned that one of the warlords would eventually prevail and form a new government. That never happened. Instead the warlords turned on each other, promptly leveled Mogadishu, and divided up Somalia into clan-based fiefs. All national institutions evaporated, including the Somali navy, once one of Africa’s most formidable. Somalia’s 1,900-mile coastline was left totally exposed.

Foreign fishing trawlers descended to scoop up the rich stocks of tuna, shark, lobster, deepwater shrimp, and whitefish. With no authorities to fear, they were especially unscrupulous and used heavy steel dragnets that wiped out the reefs, the underwater plants, and the habitat of marine life for years to come. Somali fishermen responded by arming themselves and fighting back. (Somalia had been a cold war dumping ground for weapons, first as a Soviet client state, then as an American one; as soon as the central government collapsed virtually everyone had a Kalashnikov.) Bahadur traces this familiar story--think of it as the pirates’ self-serving charter myth--and explains how the introduction of armed guards on the foreign fishing trawlers, along with dubious “fishing licenses” granted by the Puntland administration, exacerbated the situation and created a blue-water arms race.

By the late 1990s, Boyah and other fishermen-turned-gunmen had become equal opportunity attackers, hitting essentially anything that floated--fishing trawlers, cargo ships, creaky Indian dhows, whatever. This went on for years, growing, but quietly, as more and more fishermen traded in their nets for machine guns. Then, in September 2008, a handful of pirates hijacked a lumbering Ukrainian freighter in the Gulf of Aden that just happened to be stuffed with tanks and rocket launchers. Alarm bells starting ringing in Nairobi, Moscow, and Washington. People were afraid that the Shabab might get their hands on the weapons, and that Al Qaeda’s East Africa franchise would suddenly have the biggest arsenal in Somalia. More than that, the freighter episode put the world on notice: the greatest piracy epidemic since the Barbary era hundreds of years ago was now under way.

Since then, Somali pirates have attacked hundreds of ships and captured thousands of crewmen. Their method of operation is straightforward. The pirates zoom up in skiffs and scamper aboard a ship, sometimes with old-school grappling hooks. They hold the crew at gunpoint and then make them sail back to Somalia, where the pirates enjoy essentially an entire country to use as a sanctuary. The pirate gangs feast on goat--and khat, of course--while ransom discussions play out via cell phone. Almost all of the hijackings end the same way, with the ship owners forking over a hefty ransom. The money--hundred-dollar bills, please, and none older than 2006--is nowadays delivered by parachute, dropped by a small propeller plane that buzzes over the hijacked ship. The pirates then split it up, based on a loose hierarchy, with much of the cash blown on cars, alcohol, and women. Some is reinvested in future operations--more skiffs, more guns, more young men for hire, ready to risk their lives for a slice of the booty.

Some of the pirate bosses are now getting more ambitious. I visited one last year who was building his own small infantry division, complete with a fleet of trucks, heavy machine guns, and hundreds of men kitted out in crisp new camouflage. The fear is that these land-based pirate armies could be yet another anarchic force, alongside the clan warlords and the war profiteers, who will fight to the death to resist the re-establishment of any government that threatens their ability to continue to profit from Somalia’s chaos. After twenty years without a government, there are plenty of heavily armed people in this country who have a deep dislike of taxes.

BAHADUR HAS two chapters on the feeble international response. He likens the naval efforts, using billion-dollar warships to chase down tiny fiberglass skiffs, to “a losing game of Whac-a-Mole.” The ocean is just too damn big. And even if pirates are apprehended, it is not an easy task to prosecute them. Witnesses--that is, seamen--may hail from three different continents, making it difficult to get everyone in place for a trial. More often than not, the pirates caught prowling around the high seas are stripped of their weapons and deposited back in their skiffs or on shore, catch-and-release style. That is changing a bit, as the United States and European countries have stiffened their resolve and begun hauling pirates back to courtrooms in Virginia and Paris. But this is just a trickle.

And the stakes are rising. The pirates are getting more dangerous. Earlier this year, four Americans cruising the Arabian Sea in a yacht full of Bibles were shot to death after Somali pirates hijacked them and then got cornered by the U.S. Navy. Other accounts have recently emerged of frustrated pirates torturing hostages--stuffing them in refrigerators or dragging them in the ocean. The problem is that the barriers to entry are so low: a few thousand dollars is enough to buy some skiffs and some guns. So as the ransoms climb, more and more disaffected and inexperienced Somali youth get on board. Boyah had bragged to me that there once was a loose fraternity of pirate chiefs up and down the Somali coast who called themselves “The Corporation.” They even had a printed code of conduct, he insisted, detailing how to humanely treat hostages. But the old order seems to be breaking down. The ex-fishermen are no longer in control. One Somali elder recently told me that for many young pirates, the first time they’ve ever seen the ocean is when they pick up a gun and step into a criminal skiff.

Bahadur tries to crack the pirates’ organizational code. He has an interesting discussion of what he calls “the freakonomics of piracy,” which attempts to present a balance sheet of pirate costs and pirate revenues. I think his analysis is mostly correct. The pirates run up huge operating expenses holding foreign crews for months, and often they do this on credit, going deep into debt as the ransom talks drag on. They borrow money from local businessmen, clansmen, and other pirates to pay for food, fuel, and khat, in addition to the manpower--the attackers, the holders, the accountants, the translators, the chefs (and sometimes even the sous-chefs). By the time the parachute of cash arrives, even if it is in the millions of dollars, most of the gunmen involved are paid in the neighborhood of $10,000 to $40,000. By Bahadur’s calculations, that can mean as little as $10.43 an hour.

The great mystery, and Bahadur does not solve it, is what exactly the pirate bosses, who can make several hundred thousand dollars from a single hijacking, do with their money. Some, as I said, are building armies. Are others investing in ancillary businesses, such as gun running or khat distribution? Or funneling money to Islamist militants, as has been the worry for years? Maybe they are burying their treasure, like Captain Kidd? None of this is clear.

BAHADUR HAS probably spent more time with Somali pirates than just about any other Western researcher or writer. He concludes that the pirates are not especially high-tech, and again I think that he is correct. All the credible research that I have seen indicates that Somali piracy remains a homegrown, rudimentary, and somewhat wild business. There are plenty of conspiracy theories: pirates are said to routinely consult the Internet to glean information on ships crossing the Indian Ocean, and some are said to have obtained a special paint to make their skiffs invisible to radar. In 2009, I had the opportunity to meet one of the founding fathers of Somali piracy, Mohamed Abdi, also known as Af Weyne, or Big Mouth. When I asked Big Mouth about the invisible paint, he laughed. “Total b.s.,” he said, gasping for air. He found it equally hilarious when I remarked that the United Nations was considering freezing pirate assets. “Assets?” he howled. “What assets?” Here he was, one of the biggest pirate operators around, a man who had orchestrated several multimillion-dollar hijackings, sitting in an ordinary sweltering house in a flyblown central Somali town, wearing a tacky shirt with nasty black stains on it.

I would have liked Bahadur to have devoted more energy to the subject of the local response to piracy. What is really going on between the businessmen and the pirates? What about the girls who marry pirates and thus intertwine their families and their families’ reputations with the seajacking business? Piracy needs community support to survive; and in Somalia, community--clan elders and traditional clan systems--still matters. In Somaliland, the autonomous region in the northwest corner of Somalia and the one relatively safe part of the country, there is very little piracy, despite the fact that Somaliland lies right on the Gulf of Aden. Why has Somaliland succeeded in keeping the pirates away when Puntland, which has a similar-sized military and police force, failed?

And this brings up another point that bothers me a bit about this book. Bahadur was too close to the administration of Puntland, which has been accused by United Nations investigators of being in cahoots with the pirates. He palled around with the president’s son, and he used the president’s people to arrange appointments and to translate for him. The president’s family was essentially his host. Was he really not aware that this was a clear conflict of interest for anyone serious about getting to the bottom of piracy in Puntland? Some of us have worked in Puntland without becoming chummy with the president’s people. Puntland, after all, has long been known as the oily underbelly of organized crime in Somalia, a place notorious for gun running, human smuggling, kidnapping, and counterfeiting. A United Nations report last year declared that Puntland’s president, Abdirahman Farole, and his henchmen “have received proceeds from piracy and/or kidnapping,” and that “Puntland authorities have extended protection to pirate militias.” Bahadur makes an impassioned plea at the end of his book that the world should work with Puntland. Really?

Still, Bahadur has usefully humanized the pirates. He presents them as rational actors, surveying a bleak landscape and turning to piracy because it is one of the only ways to make money in a country that has been thoroughly trashed by war and was isolated and impoverished even before that. The pirates in his book--and the pirates whom I have encountered--are not ideological or even especially greedy. They are basically trying to survive. This is not an excuse for their criminality, but it is an explanation. These are the results of political breakdown and state failure. On the way to an infamous pirate den, Eyl, an old man, approaches Bahadur and says, “Please don’t kill the pirates. You need to give them jobs.” If only someone could figure out how to gainfully employ thousands of young men who know little more than how to steal, piracy might indeed wither away and the end of the monsoon season might once again herald smooth--and safe--sailing in the Indian Ocean. 

Jeffrey Gettleman is the East Africa bureau chief for The New York Times. This article appeared in the October 6, 2011, issue of the magazine.