Canadian Jay Bahadur gained an extraordinary glimpse into the lives of Somali pirates by living among them for three months. The intrepid writer tells The Globe and Mail about his travels and insights, chronicled in a new book.
You're a 27-year-old Toronto resident who suddenly quit his market-research job to fly to Somalia. Why?
I had always meant to break into journalism. Every established journalist I spoke to said, "Go out and write freelance and just get your name out." I quit in 2008 and ended up in Somalia in early '09. I had studied Somalia in school quite extensively. My original plan was to go and cover an election. Then the piracy thing exploded. I was there for three months total.
Had you done journalism before?
It was the first journalism I had done. My idea was that if I'm one of the few Westerners interviewing pirates, even if my writing is crap, someone's going to take it. The thought of not doing anything with my life was pretty terrifying, a little more terrifying than the flight over to Somalia was. I'm fairly adventurous, I guess. And this was a great story to tell.
How did you get in with the piracy gangs?
I started calling overseas and fell in with some journalists there. I ended up with Mohamad Farole, who for years has run the only news site in Puntland's capital city. His father ended up getting elected as President of the region about a week before I got there. It worked out pretty well. The original pirates, the fishermen pirates from Eyl, are of the same subclan as the President. I kind of had my hand stamped – everything in Somalia is done through clan relationships.
How do the pirates see themselves?
Well, it was prickly sometimes to use the word "pirate." A lot of them would tell me they were coast guards. This is a standard trope. There are these lines that are repeated again and again almost as if they were reading from press releases. There is obviously a PR machine at work.
Why do they do it?
The main thing is the geography is perfect for it. There is a very ,very thin marine bottleneck where 10 per cent of the world's shipping traffic goes through. The only question is why did it take so long? The Somali state collapsed in 1990-1991. Why did it take almost 20 years before this thing exploded? It boils down to two things: Geography and the security situation, specifically in northeastern Somalia.
When you told them you were from Toronto, did they know it?
Even the guys who never left Somalia knew about Toronto, so many of their relatives would be there. The government of Puntland is run by expats and half of them are from Toronto. That's a bit exaggerated – one out of four? One out of five? – lived in Toronto.
Were you ever in danger?
We were in this town and we just ran into these pirate leaders with a gang who were holding a ship. We were met by the gang's accountant and the gang's logistics officer. I asked, "How do you treat the crew?" They said, "They like it, we made them fat. They like it better than they like the Ukraine." I said, "OK, can I go on and see them?" The logistics officer took off and a couple of minutes later returned with his gang and their guns. The townspeople melted away. They started gesturing with their guns. They accused me of being a CIA spy. All the pirates were absolutely crazy paranoid. After that, we kind of got out of there.
What is the appropriate international response to piracy?
It's not really an option to stop paying ransoms without incurring a huge loss of life and loss of ships and infrastructure. Piracy, it's a problem to be sure, but a fraction of 1 per cent of ships going through that area get hijacked. Why piracy began is linked to how the international community deals with Somalia. There's recognition of this figurehead government in the south, and this neglect of Puntland and five or six mini-states. The Puntland government ran out of money to pay security forces, so now these guys are into piracy. If you want to address piracy you have to bolster these mini-states where the piracy is happening.
You've talked to the U.S. Department of State about your travels. Have Canadian officials picked your brain?
Not really, no. I haven't heard much from the Canadian government.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World is being released in North American bookstores Tuesday.
Editor's note: An earlier online version of this story incorrectly identified the name of Jay Bahadur's book. This online version has been corrected.