Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Book Review: The Pirates of Somalia

The Pirates of Somalia: Inside their Hidden World by Jay Bahadur (2011)

To write this book about the inside world of the Puntland pirates Jay Bahadur traveled to Somalia and with great luck managed to make friends with former pirates and succeeded in returning alive to tell his story.*  Patience and a lot of khat, the tree leaves chewed in the region for its narcotic properties, allowed Jay to get pirates to tell their stories.  Surprisingly the pirates personal stories don't match the tales in the media of pirate mansions and freely flowing money.

In seeking to verify the media reports Jay Bahadur interviewed several pirates, victims, pirate associates, and villagers in the pirate areas.  In the end, Jay discovered that the pirate haven of Eyl was poor and there were no pirate mansions.  The people also claimed to be anti-pirate and wanted them to leave the area.  The former pirates all seemed to be broke and an accounting of ransom payments and the expenses of a hijacking verified that piracy didn't pay any better than a minimum wage job in the region.  However, the pirate sponsors made a lot of money.

Jay also described the three waves of piracy in Somali waters, where the first group were legitimate fisherman fighting against foreign fishing vessels which had destroyed local fisheries.  The second group of pirates started when the original fisherman weren't able to fight the foreign fishing boats (due to up arming of the foreign boats) but they found the cargo vessels transiting Somali waters to be easy targets.  The third wave transpired when Somali inlanders heard about the record ransoms for the hijacked boats and decided to get into the piracy business.  This third wave began to turn piracy into a business enterprise with motherships and speed boats that ventured hundreds of miles from Somali territorial waters to prey on big boats in the commercial shipping lanes.

An interesting point in the book is that many pirates were former members of various defunct coast guard operations designed to fight foreign fishing boats or pirates.  These coast guards learned advanced maritime operations, how to navigate at sea at distances far from shore, marksmanship, and how to coordinate attacks.  When the government of Puntland stopped paying the coast guards they turned to piracy themselves.

At the end of the book the author made several recommendations to combat the Somali piracy issue:
1. Finance an effective and well-paid Puntland Police Task Force
2. Fund an expansion of the Puntland prison system (to hold captured pirates)
3. Foster intelligence coordination between Puntland and international naval forces
4. Clamp down on illegal fishing
5. Encourage or require passive security measures abroad

The author correctly concludes by stating that the problem of piracy or land-based kidnapping for ransom in the region won't stop until the underlying issues of scarce resources is addressed. The above recommendations will help with resolving the immediate problem of piracy but addressing conflict and competition for scarce resources may never be resolved given the cultural and physical environment in Somalia.

*American journalist Michael Scott Moore wasn't as lucky as Jay Bahadur as he was kidnapped by Somali pirates while conducting research for a book on piracy in January 2012.

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