on August 11, 2011
Jay Bahadur's "The Pirates of Somalia" is a incredible work of non-fiction. There are actually two stories told in this book. The first is a fascinating look into the history of what may be the most failed of "failed states" on the planet and the piracy scourge that has developed on its shores. Understanding piracy must be understood within the context of the country as a whole and Bahadur does a great job of explaining this. The inside look into pirate gangs, pirate leaders, hostages, politicians and others provides a viewpoint not available elsewhere. But the second story, and equally intriguing, is about a Canadian rookie journalist flying to Somalia on a whim, when no other reporter would do so, with a half-baked plan to embed himself with marine kidnappers for a few months - not something you hear about often.
Kudos to Bahadur for a beautifully written, well researched book. Enjoyed every page.
on August 11, 2011
Article first published as Book Review: The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World by Jay Bahadur on Blogcritics.
Far from being a romanticized history, The Pirates of Somalia by Jay Bahadur is a new (July, 2011) and important book about the pirates themselves, giving readers a full-color view of their origin, their clannish culture, and their motives.
Bahadur explains through his bold interviews with financiers and respected leaders that the piracy we currently see in Somalia is a result of an evolutionary process.
Early on, in the mid 1990's, in absence of a coast guard, Somali fishermen vigilantes, determined to protect their livelihood, began seizing the assets of small commercial fishing boats, in essence levying on them a tax of sorts for the offender's intrusion into their national waters.
By the mid-2000's, as Bahadur explains, these same operations became big businesses. No longer a defensive measure alone pirating became profitable and drew attention from other sectors of Somali culture.
In the "third wave" opportunism matured, attracting among others "disaffected youth from the large inland nomad population." This group, while echoing the "worn-out mantra" of the legacy they inherited, has lost the "brooding introspection" possessed by the older fishermen vigilantes who chose the route of piracy as a means of forcing justice in absence of a government authority. It is this third wave that has extended their reach into the high seas targeting large commercial trade ships for multi-million dollar ransoms.
In the conclusion of his book, Bahadur proposes actions which the international community might take to offer a "pragmatic mitigation" of piracy, a term he uses instead of "elimination." Among them are measures of prevention, enforcement, and intelligence. It is a problem, he says, that must be solved on land as well as on the sea.
The Pirates of Somalia is a daring book which invites readers into a world that challenges both the romanticist as well as the view of the noncritical consumer of television news.
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Few places are more uninviting than Somalia, a lawless 'failed state' gripped by the worst drought in 60 years. Jay Bahadur, a young Canadian, quit his job writing market-research reports and flew to the center of piracy in northeastern Somalia to pursue his dream of being a journalist. Wisely he had previously arranged for a local sponsor (Mahamad Farole, son of the new president of Puntland, a Somalian state) to both provide safeguarding and introductions to local pirates - otherwise his story, at best, would have simply been one of being kidnapped and held for ransom. Bahadur further ingratiated himself to the locals by adopting some of their customs - most notably the chewing of 'khat,' a mild cocaine-like leaf grown in Africa and selling for about $20/kilo, roughly a day's supply.
Khat produces mild euphoria, and a belief that one is invincible and superhuman. Downsides include tooth decay, decreased liver function, and depression after withdrawal. The leaves' ability to create a narcotic effect is time limited - thus fresh supplies are flown in daily from Kenya and Ethiopia.
Local pirates told Bahadur that their forays started in the mid-1990s when Chinese, Taiwanese, and Korean fishing trawlers began using steel-pronged drag fishing nets to wipe out their lobsters and their breeding grounds. The first piracy raids were retaliatory - capturing foreign fishing vessels, keeping the catch, and ransoming the crew. However, by 1997 the foreign fishing fleets began obtaining protection contracts with local warlords who provided armed guards and anti-aircraft guns. So the early pirates then began pursuing commercial cargo ships, identifiable by the cranes on their decks and much slower speeds (supertankers ran at about 10 mph) vs. tourist ships.
From initially spotting their prey to capture took at most 30 minutes, primarily relying on hooked rope ladders and the threat of AK-47s. Crews rarely fought back, partly because of their volatile cargoes, and also because owners did not want to escalate situations over a relatively small ransom loss. (Armed guards would cost about $40,000/trip.) Only about 20-30% of piracy attempts succeeded, thanks to most prey being too fast or taking evasive action, and foreign naval intervention. (Only about 15% of pirate attacks are stopped by foreign naval forces.) The odds of any ship being seized in the Gulf of Aden were only about 0.17% in 2008.
ailing around the Cape of Good Hope is an alternative, but would cost $3.5 million/year in extra fuel and reduce the number of trips made. Employing extra men for lookouts would help (take earlier evasive action), but owners generally don't - crews have been reduced from about 25 in the 1970s to 11-15 today. Another defense is for the crew to barricade themselves in the engine room, able to shut off the engines and remain out of the line of fire if international forces intervened.
Ransom payoffs were often parachuted onto or near the decks of the seized ships. Half went to the attackers, one-third to investors, and the rest to guards, translators, and local suppliers of food and water. Many of the pirates had previously been trained by local governments in a failed efforts to form a coast guard. They failed because of the high costs of fuel and manpower. (Per the author, the UAE is now attempting to restart these efforts and fund them on a sustained basis.) Somalian troops are of little use fighting the pirates because they are usually stationed far inland - aggressive pursuit of the pirates risks creating civil war. Islamic clerics strongly oppose piracy, and anything bought with the proceeds is labeled as 'damned.' Prisoners in Somalia are often released early, thanks to bribes and the need to make room for more serious offenders.
Somali pirate attacks occur in an area approximately two-thirds the size of the U.S., mostly in shipping lanes. There are an estimated 1,500-2,000 pirates, grouped in packs of 6 - 12. The opposing international naval coalition is comprised of 25 - 40 vessels costing $1-1.5 billion/year, vs. hijacking losses of about $90 million. The number of seized ships has meanwhile risen from 49 in 2008, to 68 in 2009, and 74 in 2010; 2011 looks like it will set a new record. Simultaneously, rewards have grown from an average $1.35 million in 2008, to $2.25 million in 2009, and $3.5 million in 2010. The record ransom was $9.5 million for a South Korean oil tanker. (Earlier this year Korean commandos retook another tanker, killing 8 pirates.) At least 64 pirates have been killed between 8/08 - 5/10 by coalition forces.
Bahadur ends with recommendations on reducing piracy - improved policing in Somalia, more prison space, and stopping outsiders from taking the area's fish and lobsters.
It's a good bet that we'll be reading more from Bahadur, continuing in his journalism career.
The word "pirates" evokes images of bearded men, eye patches, parrots, and 18th century sailing vessels. Nothing could be further from the truth of the AK-47 toting pirates operating today in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. Jay Bahadur offers an unprecedented perspective on the modern pirate organizations operating out of the less governed regions of Somalia. Once his patience waiting for proper introduction to a Somalia "pirate" paid off, Bahadur was able to learn from an insider the whys and hows piracy came to be.
Bahadur provides the reader with a primer on the history of piracy in the waters surrounding Somalia. While he recognizes his indebtedness to the information in Stig Jarle Hansen's "Piracy in the Greater Gulf of Aden", Bahadur provides a much richer (and readable) version of events. With that being said, Bahadur does not objectively examine the Somalia pirate's motivation for piracy. Universally, the pirates claim illegal fishing as the reason for turning to piracy. However, the first recorded attacks in 1991 were against cargo ships sailing into Mogadishu - it's hard to support the statement that illegal fishing was the initial reason, but the first targets were commercial cargo vessels whose cargo was stolen and resold on the black market. Interestingly, he identifies that the "illegal fishing" excuse is a myth in the epilogue of the book - not in the section entitled "myths".
The author does an outstanding job of covering the history of Somali and International efforts to establish a coast guard to combat piracy in the waters. Bahadur discusses the concepts of licensing fishing vessels (and security forces), and how these efforts eventually failed. Subsequently, this left a sizable number of unemployed men trained in boat operations and paramilitary training - the perfect recruiting pool for piracy operations.
For readers interested in the economics of the operations, the author looks at how the operations are funded. In essence, there are three groups of people. The venture capitalists provide the boat, weapons, and supplies for the operation. The second group, the assault team, is responsible for securing the victim. The third group are the holders, who guard the ship after the crew has been subdued. Bahadur offers the pirates perspective on how each of these groups function, and how the shares are distributed once the ransom has been paid.
Just as interesting, Bahadur runs the numbers from the perspectives from the victim's and insurer's perspective. In debunking some of the myths surrounding Somali piracy, the numbers show that it's really not as dangerous as the media makes it out to be.
Having spent six months on the business end of supporting combat operations against the pirates, I agree with his predictions on the growth of piracy in the region. However, I do not agree two of his recommendations. Politically, it is more palatable for voters to fund combat operations against pirates than it is to pay employees in another nation. The other three recommendations are outstanding and do deserve more consideration.
Overall, I'm very impressed with the book. I highly recommend this book for readers looking to discover more about Somali piracy.
on August 21, 2011
I saw the author plugging the book on the Daily Show, and having studied the pirates and their operations while serving as an Intelligence Specialist in the Marine Corps, I can tell you that this is a great book that gives insight to the how's and why's the pirates do what they do.
on September 11, 2011
When I first heard about this book while the author was on his book tour, he was described as this kid who'd been unable to find a job as a journalist who had flown to Somalia. So, I had thought this book was an account of how he'd survived after doing this incredibly stupid thing. But in reality he was much smarter than that, he planned his adventure so he had a greater than 50 percent chance of coming home. He hooked up with a local agency that provided him with UN trained bodyguards, secure housing, translators, clan access. So, he wasn't stupid which makes the book much more interesting to read. You get the sense that the local people appreciate that an outsider sat down and let them tell their story, even if their story strains credibility frequently. It is a remarkably fair and balanced account. It is a lively fact-based story.
Where it failed for me was the epilogue where he comes to the conclusion that the solution to the problem is a generous influx of cash with few strings attached. The solution to most problems -- the US educational system, third world garbage pickers, the end to our reliance on fossil fuels, unemployment -- could all be fixed by massive influxes of non-judgmental cash. One more set of people with their hand out, saying just trust us, we'll make somebody's life better, we'll get back to you on that, doesn't really convince me at this point.
on December 1, 2011
When I started reading this book, my first thought was this was an author who allowed the romance of the pirate life to hook him like a fish and he would swallow the stories hook, line, and sinker. I could not have been more wrong. What author Jay Bahadur has given us is a comprehensive analysis of the pirate problem off the coast of Somalia.
Author Jay Bahadur first baits the reader with his anxious account of his trip to Somalia. This Prologue sets the stage for the rest of the book. From here we learn the background to what caused the pirate problem to begin with--foreign companies over fishing Somalian fishing grounds. The Somalis retaliated by attacking foreign fishing vessels. By the time we finish reading, we learn that although the pirates still contend they are fighting the good fight, they really are not. They have lost their way and are now doing this more for profit and to chew qat.
Mr. Bahadur not only interviews various pirate leaders, he even interviewed some Romanian sailors who were on the MV Victoria, one of ships the pirates hijacked. The author digs deep and goes deep inside Somalia to understand the ideals that reportedly guided the pirates in the early days as well as what motivates them now. A good part of this understanding includes the qat chew. He spends most of one chapter discussing qat and its effect on the pirates and society in Somalia. This is not a frivolous chapter. To understand this part of the world requires an understanding of the cause and effect of the qat chew.
The maps at the beginning of the book are simple, but very effective; virtually every place name mentioned in the text can be found on the base map. The map showing the "Expansion of Pirate of Operations" was very effective in illustrating the problem.
MV Maersk Alabama is mentioned more as a stage setter for the author's interview of Garaad, who claimed responsibility for the hijacking, than as an analysis of that event itself. Mr. Bahadur also shows us how Somalia attempted, despite rampant corruption, to legally counter the pirates and the illegal fishing. Each attempt met with frustration and even more corrupt officials.
The author also puts the problem in perspective with a chapter on the five myths. The first myth is that this is a rampant problem. To counter this Mr. Bahadur provides statistics showing the number of ships (24.000) that transit the area compared to the successful hijackings (42). He states that the media coverage makes it sound riskier than it really is. He also analyzes the presence of the foreign navies and the effect, good or bad, they are having on the level of hijackings.
This book is a thoroughly researched study of the pirates of Somalia. It is a must read if you are interested in or have to deal with the problems of this part of the world. You can not find a better introduction to the subject.
Jay Bahadur took his life in his hands and went to interview the pirates of Somalia, the ones who hijack ships in a vast area off the coasts of East Africa and Arabia. But though he may not have thought of this himself, it seemed to me that his life resembled theirs in some way, the main difference being that his activities were legal, while theirs were illegal. He didn't like his life and so resolved to do something "completely different". He forsook writing dull reports and going to journalism school and instead, risked his life in a mad adventure designed to propel him into the ranks of the established journalists. It worked. (Though I think journalism school might have given him some better organizing skills in his writing.) The young pirates operating from such ports as Eyl, Garacad, Hobyo, and Harardheere on the long, mostly barren Somali coastline also risk their lives to hijack a commercial ship and bring it back to port. Some of them didn't even bring enough fuel to return to port if their venture proved unsuccessful. They had very few other options if they ever wanted to "be somebody", if they ever aspired to get a car, a house, a bride, or a regular supply of khat (qat), the ubiquitous drug of choice in Somalia and Yemen. Risk and adventure to achieve your life's goals---both Bahadur and the pirates took the challenge, but I'd say the author was ultimately more successful.
While I won't say this is the best-organized book I've ever read, it certainly is interesting. Bahadur (which by the way, means `brave' in Hindi and Nepali) lived up to his name. He befriended some top pirates, didn't chicken out when people got nasty, and chewed khat with everyone. He gleaned information about methods and finance of piracy, about distribution of ransom money, about the `government' of Puntland, the breakaway section of Somalia that is home to most pirates, and even--from some Romanian mariners--what it felt like to be a captive. He found that while illegal fishing by Asian and European trawlers off the unpatrolled coast of Somalia might have triggered piracy, the whole thing had gone a lot further by 2008, when any commercial ship from any nation became a target for the well-armed, GPS toting pirates. Somalia, the most failed of all the failed states of this world, hardly existed by the time the author got there. I think a bit more about this aspect of the situation would have been helpful, but the reader will definitely get the feeling of what it was like. Though both the provisional government of Somalia and warlike Islamic groups condemn piracy, they haven't been able to do much about it. The leaders often have pirate relatives and ex-pirates become coast guards or ex-coast guards become pirates ! There aren't enough jails to hold even the ones that get caught. If you'd like more details, I suggest you get a copy of THE PIRATES OF SOMALIA. Whether the pirates disappear or going there becomes too risky, I don't think there are going to be many other books on the subject.
"Pirates of Somalia" is a stupefyingly audacious book. Actually, it brings it a far bit short to call Jay Bahadur's work simply a "book." It's more life-altering project. Bored writing marketing reports, he conceives an idea to fly to Somalia and get the straight scoop on this international phenomenon by talking directly to its protagonists. Amazingly, he finds a willingness in the people he writes to and - a mere weeks later - he's winging it into a nearly ungovernable country meeting up with contacts heretofore unseen. Say what you want about the book's execution, but in terms of sheer audacity of action: Hats off, my man. Bravo.
I knew I was in the right place when Bahadur's references Aidan Hartley's The Zanzibar Chest early on. I view Hartley's book as a masterpiece of reporting and memoir. It's easily one of the best five books I've read. Bahadur quotes a passage in which Hartley "describes in chilling detail the life-and-death importance of clan lineage during the worst days of the [Somalian civil] war." If you see Hartley as your model, I'm in.
Bahadur focuses his reporting on the Puntland State of Somalia, the hotbed of piracy. He seeks to cover what he enumerates as the "four main causes explain[ing] the rise of piracy in Puntland: geopolitics, environmental factors, economic adversity, and breakdown of governance." What makes the book sing: this is no armchair analysis from a comfortable, far-away seat. This is face-to-face, winning-hearts-and-minds, chew-the-khat, ride-the-Toyota Surf-to-the-small-village, meet-the-elders, hire-the-bodyguards-and-translators reporting. Very, very well done.
I thought this a good read for a young journalist on his first assignment. He covered the failed state of Somalia, specifically the region of Puntland. This region has some limited government as opposed to the south, and the rich fishing waters caused nations to acquire easy catches when Somalia went into being a failed state. Million dollar ransoms on a poverty landscape provided the incentive.
I agree with the author's ideas regarding providing some incentive to the local government for instituting controls on piracy, including jails, punishments, coast guards, and other issues. A western task force of ships will not solve the problem. On the other hand, simply letting pirates takes merchant ships on the high seas several thousands of miles from shore is also not a solution. The pirates themselves sound like criminals justifying their actions, saying they were just fishing, and foreigners were taking their fish stocks.
This is a good summary of an international problem which will continue to plague the nations of the world.