United States cargo vessel was hijacked by four Somali pirates
On April 8, 2009, the Maersk Alabama, a 17,000-ton United States cargo vessel, was hijacked by four Somali pirates several hundred miles east of Mogadishu. Bobbing in a lifeboatwith the skipper, 53-year-old Richard Phillips, they began negotiating with the ship’s owners via cellphone for a multimillion-dollar ransom. For five days, the pirates and their hostage drifted in the Indian Ocean, shadowed by the USS Bainbridge, a destroyer that arrived at the scene not long after the hijacking. At dusk on April 12, Navy snipers killed three of the Somalis, and Phillips was rescued unharmed. The surviving pirate was seized and taken to the United States, where he pleaded guilty in a Manhattan courtroom to a host of charges and was sentenced to 33 years and nine months in a federal prison.
The hijacking of the Alabama, the first seizure of an American-flagged vessel in 200 years, drew the country’s attention to the return of a scourge once associated with plank-walks, treasure chests and peg-legged marauders. But, as Jay Bahadur makes clear in The Pirates of Somalia, buccaneering has evolved into a very modern activity, complete with night vision goggles, GPS units and even investment advisers.
In the fall of 2008, Bahadur, a young Canadian, quit his job writing market-research reports in Chicago and flew in an aging Russian Antonov to Puntland, a breakaway region of northeastern Somalia that has become, as he puts it, “the epicentre” of the piracy business. Braving the constant threat of kidnapping, he ingratiated himself with pirate bosses and their crews and made a risky trip through the desert to Eyl, the remote enclave where present-day Somali piracy was born.
Bahadur has gone deep in exploring the causes of this seaborne crime wave, charting its explosive growth and humanising the brigands who have eluded some of the world’s most powerful navies. The way Bahadur tells it, the piracy industry gained force in the 1990s, after the outbreak of Somalia’s civil war. The first targets, commercial lobster-fishing vessels, were trawling off the coast of Puntland. Because they used steel-pronged drag fishing nets, Bahadur explains, “these foreign trawlers did not bother with nimble explorations of the reefs”. Instead, “they uprooted them, netting the future livelihoods of the nearby coastal people along with the days’ catch”. A small group of aggrieved fishermen, led by a pirate called Boyah (whom Bahadur interviewed at a farm near the flyblown Puntland capital, Garowe) began capturing the trawlers and holding the crews for ransom. But after the commercial fishermen cut deals with southern warlords for protection, Boyah and his fellow pirates switched tactics, indiscriminately assaulting vessels that sailed into the vicinity of Eyl. As Somali piracy increased, resourceful characters like Mohamed Abdi Hassan, known as Afweyne (“Big Mouth”), from the central coastal town of Harardheere, brought a new sophistication to the business. Afweyne raised venture capital for his pirate operations, Bahadur writes, “as if he were launching a Wall Street IPO” Criminal gangs like his became highly organised, and the deployment of “motherships” allowed them to operate hundreds of miles from the coast.
When a radical fundamentalist movement called the Islamic Courts Union seized control of the southern half of Somalia in 2006 and declared war on pirates in its territory, the Puntland operations gained unchallenged supremacy. And dodgy coast guard outfits hired by the Puntland government inadvertently provided on-the-job training to aspiring pirates, familiarising them with sophisticated weapons, assault tactics and advanced navigation systems.
It wasn’t until October 2008 – when Nato, the European Union and the United States committed significant naval forces to patrol the main shipping route – that the international community began to respond. The Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor, a heavily patrolled safety zone, now runs for about 400 miles along the Yemeni side of the Gulf of Aden. Yet lumbering destroyers are often no match for small groups of marauders in nimble skiffs. “Hunting pirates,” Bahadur remarks, “must seem like playing a losing game of Whac-a-Mole.”
Bahadur seems to admire the pirates’ audacity and resourcefulness, yet at the same time he avoids glamorising them. If the first wave of Somali pirates consisted mostly of “fishermen vigilantes”, Bahadur writes, the new generation is far more cynical, exuding “cold ruthlessness” and demonstrating a proclivity for torture and violence.
Not all of Bahadur’s encounters are edifying. There are too many long-winded conversations with desperadoes who present the same tiresome self-justifications (they were pushed into their crimes because of abuses carried out by commercial fishing vessels) and the same dubious assertions that piracy would disappear if illegal fishing were halted.
But the book ends with a flourish, with Bahadur’s account of his road trip to Eyl, a hellhole by the sea where swaggering young pirates lord over a cowed population. Sitting immobilised in the harbour is the MV Victoria, a German freighter hijacked while transporting rice to the Saudi Arabian port of Jeddah. For the captive crew, weeks of boredom and terror end the way such episodes usually do, in this case with a $1.8 million ransom dropped by parachute. A solution to the scourge of Somali piracy, as Bahadur’s brave and exhaustively reported book makes clear, won’t fall into place so easily.