Secrets of Somali pirates revealed in new book

July 18, 2011 - 7:59 PM
Piracy Book

A June 15, 2009 photo showing pirate leader Abshir Abdullahi

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — The pirates were nervous. A rookie author — a white man from Canada — had unexpectedly arrived in their cliff-top Somali village to ask about the captured ship anchored offshore.

Locals fearing a showdown quietly melted away into a small collection of shacks.

The encounter with the deadly gang forms the final chapter of "The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World," a first-of-its kind book that saw author Jay Bahadur live among the pirates. Bahadur's book is being released Tuesday in the U.S.

"They were paranoid beyond belief. They thought I was a CIA agent," the tall, soft-spoken writer told The Associated Press. "I thought they were going to shoot us."

Sweating with heat and nerves, Bahadur questioned the pirates and secretly filmed them before being whisked off by his own gang of armed bodyguards.

Bahadur spent months in Somalia at a time when pirate attacks were skyrocketing in both frequency and violence. His book takes readers through the evolution of the pirate groups from garrulous, self-proclaimed vigilantes who claimed they were protecting Somalia's waters from illegal fishing vessels to the deadly criminal gangs they are today.

The author, now 27, was living with his parents and writing marketing reports about pet food and napkins when he began planning his trip to Somalia. He had never been to Africa before.

"I was thinking I better get picked up at the airport because if I hadn't I would have been kidnapped in 30 minutes," he said. "I was frantically making friends on the plane and I was going to beg one to take me home if no one was there."

But the bodyguards he had arranged for did indeed pick him up, and after a few shaky starts Bahadur was calling on pirates at home, wearing local robes and indulging in local pastimes such as chewing on narcotic khat leaves and gossiping about women and guns.

Bahadur needed the protection. Pirates have turned dangerously violent over the last year, as spiraling ransoms attracted ruthless criminals to a trade once dominated by aggrieved local fishermen. Hijacked crew members have been tortured and ships set on fire. In February, pirates hijacked a yacht and killed the four Americans aboard.

In a trip to the pirate stronghold of Eyl, Bahadur discovered pirates who are afraid of phantom U.S. navy divers and believe in psychic powers. He even describes an incident of panty-thieving on the high seas.

He also found that many widely held beliefs about pirates are wrong, including allegations that they are controlled by international criminal cartels, have alliances with Islamist rebels or use sophisticated intelligence networks. Such assumptions help shape the multibillion dollar fight against piracy.

"You have a lot of people with agendas making claims that aren't backed up by anything," said Bahadur. "I don't really have an agenda. I just tried to use common sense. ... I actually met these people and spoke to them. Most of them had no idea of the outside world."

But it wasn't always easy to get the information he wanted.

Bahadur spent time with a pirate who hit him up for car repairs and even asked for the jeans he was wearing, a request Bahadur politely declined. Eventually the man helped provide a detailed ransom breakdown, matching pirate accounts with the recollections of crew members about the ransom division.

Bahadur discovered that though pirates were paid a $1.8 million ransom to release the Victoria — the ship he saw in Eyl — the guards on board made only $12,000 each, which averaged out to about $10.40 an hour. The biggest share went to the investor backing the pirate team.

The high risks — of arrest, injury or death — that the low-ranking pirates take for a relatively small cut of the ransom reminded him of the situation faced by teenage drug dealers on the corners of American streets.

"Piracy in Somalia and the drug trade in the U.S. have a lot in common," said Bahadur. "They both provide status and an opportunity to advance in society that would be hard to get otherwise."

Bahadur's own relationship to the pirates is complex. He was protected by bodyguards supplied by the son of the president of Puntland, a semiautonomous pirate-infested region in the north, and he does not speak Somali.

One group he interviewed allowed him to test-fire a rifle during a picnic, and he brought back a Toronto Blue Jays baseball T-shirt as a gift for a pirate leader. By his own admission, Bahadur felt some slight admiration for the "reckless courage" of the men he interviewed.

But by the end of the book, the young author was forced to confront the new generation of pirates, gunmen from the interior drawn by the lure of riches and controlled by wealthy financiers. During the tense back-and-forth on the Somali cliff top, a pirate insisted that his hostages are being so well-fed that they would prefer to stay captive.

Bahadur later learned that one hostage was already dead, another gravely wounded.

"I had had the distinct impression that the Dhanane gang would have been as perfectly at ease with slaughtering their captives as ransoming them," he wrote. "Later, when reading news of the casualties the crew had suffered, I was struck by the chilling realization that I had shared tea with murderers."

These men, Bahadur concludes, are the future of piracy.