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Journalist Offers Insider’s Look at the Lives of Somali Pirates

August 17, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Journalist Jay Bahadur's new book, "The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World," offers a rare glimpse inside the inner workings of modern piracy off the cost of Somalia. Ray Suarez and Bahadur discuss his real-life tale of crime on the high seas.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, a real-life tale of crime on the high seas off the Horn of Africa.

Ray Suarez has our book conversation.

RAY SUAREZ: Three years ago, Somali pirates caught the world’s attention, capturing large oil tankers and cargo ships, as well as private yachts for hefty ransoms. A centuries-old, but forgotten practice of piracy was back in the news.

In response, a group of maritime nations committed to fight piracy and deployed their navies over several thousand square miles of ocean.

Journalist Jay Bahadur spent three months in Northeast Somalia getting to know modern-day pirates and talking to government officials about their exploits.

In “The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World,” he explores their tactics and why they have been able to flourish. And, Jay Bahadur, a young, relatively inexperienced reporter, goes to one of the most dangerous places on the planet, self-assigned.

And was there a point at which you thought, this was a bad idea?

JAY BAHADUR, “The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World”: It was mostly on the plane over there that I had the most trepidation about it, because I knew that, if the people on the other end didn’t pick me up, I would have about a half-an-hour before I would be, maybe not kidnapped by pirates, but kidnapped by somebody.

And a lot of journalists — actually, relatively recently, before I arrived, some British journalists had actually been captured out of the airport by their own bodyguards. So I had a partner there, but I had never met him. I didn’t know anything about him really deep down. I had spoken to him on the phone a few times.

So I was — on the plane over there, I was desperately trying to make friends with anyone — anyone who would speak to me, so I can have someone to take me home in case my ride didn’t show. So that was really the worst of it.

(LAUGHTER)

RAY SUAREZ: Piracy on the high sea evokes exotic, exciting, daring, violent images. But the day-to-day reality of these men’s lives, as you portray in your book, seems very different.

JAY BAHADUR: They’re not — yes, they’re not the bloodthirsty pirates you think of when you think of 17th century buccaneering.

And the main character I embedded with for about three months, as you mentioned, was a former fisherman named Boyah. That was his nickname, anyway. And he and his men were all former fishermen. They were the original wave of fishermen pirates who had begun fighting against foreign fishing in the 1990s. They weren’t murderers. They were scary guys, but they weren’t murderers.

The pirates you see out there now are becoming increasingly bloody, increasingly violent, and don’t hesitate to use torture and that kind of thing.

RAY SUAREZ: You talk about millions of dollars being realized as ransom for some of these captured ships, seized on the high seas, brought into a Somalian port.

When that couple of million bucks comes ashore in this Puntland place, how does it get divvied up? Who’s in for a share, and how much money are we talking about?

JAY BAHADUR: Right. Well, the ransoms themselves are often actually not delivered by hand, but actually parachuted down from small aircraft that just dump it on the ship and — or nearby the ship and leave, and then the pirates immediately rush and go pick up the package.

And there’s an accountant on board who has an Excel sheet with how — everyone’s name on it and how much — how much they’re owed. But, roughly speaking — and I — I hesitate to give any concrete numbers because this trade is really very, very opaque. It’s hard to know exactly how — what’s going on.

But it’s rough — the financiers roughly take 50 percent of it. So if you fronted the money, you will get 50 percent back, and it will be split up proportionately to what you put in.

RAY SUAREZ: So the guys who took the risk aren’t getting very much money at all?

JAY BAHADUR: No. In fact, in the book, I look — I look in-depth at a gang that captured a German container ship when I was in Somalia.

And the guards, those — they’re called holder — the ones who were brought on to guard the hostages once the ship had been captured, spent a large part of their lives for two months on the ship, over two months, and made about $10 an hour. The cook on the ship made something just over $5.

And even in Somalia, that money doesn’t go very far if you have friends and relatives willing to — or ready to sap you and drain you dry for what you have just made.

RAY SUAREZ: Is this dangerous work? Is this risky work? Do these guys jump into these high speedboats with some confidence that nobody up there on that big cargo ship is going to start shooting back?

JAY BAHADUR: Well, they — the risks aren’t from the crew shooting back, because largely the international maritime community has decided against — collectively, essentially, against the arming of the merchant marine, which carries many other problems with it.

But, really, what they have to worry about is, well, international naval forces, obviously, but that’s not even the worst. The worst is just simply running out of fuel and starving. When I — I mentioned this gang that I was following closely.

From firsthand accounts of how much fuel that they had on board when they set off into the Gulf of Aden, I calculated that they didn’t have enough to get back, which means you’re going out there and just hoping. And unless — if you don’t — if you don’t find a ship, you’re hoping then that you just get picked up by a naval ship or something, because you’re running out of water and food.

So they might have a few — few weeks of food and water, and not very much fuel at all.

RAY SUAREZ: The world recoils from this kind of thing, in part because, if you mess up the shipping of the world, everybody loses. I mean, it’s a…

JAY BAHADUR: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: There’s a lot of goods out on the ocean at any one time.

But you also mention in your book that the world is spending like a billion-and-a-half dollars to solve a $75 million problem.

JAY BAHADUR: I would call it the most coordinated international naval effort in human history. You have ships from as diverse countries as China, Malaysia, Russia, United States, obviously, Britain, Iran all converging on the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden for essentially the same purpose.

So you have — every country is thinking the same way. You have a very, very high level of corporation amongst the different countries and the different fleets, but ultimately it’s just not — economically, it doesn’t make sense, what — what they’re doing.

RAY SUAREZ: “The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World.”

Jay Bahadur, thanks a lot.

JAY BAHADUR: It’s my pleasure.