Present day piracy
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Yes, there are still pirates today.
The Strange World of Somali Pirates
Hardcover. 300 pp.
2011. Pantheon Books.
When many of us think of pirates, we immediately envision 18th Century swashbucklers with parrots and eyepatches and wooden legs, daring buccaneers hunting for treasure, chasing adventure and rampaging through the oceans fueled by alcohol and lust for riches. When you ask most people -- children and adults -- to explain the image in their mind when they think of pirates, they'll usually describe characters such as Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, or Dustin Hoffman's Captain Hook from the film adaptation of Peter Pan's classic story, Hook.
In our modern, interconnected, technologically-advanced world of 2012, the idea of pirates terrorizing "the Seven Seas" seems so far removed that you might as well place dinosaurs in their midst. To us, pirates are an extinct breed -- eccentrically-dressed Englishmen in wooden ships who hunted the watercraft of colonizing monarchs to relieve them of royal jewels and stripping the cargo holds of greedy commercial vessels.
The pirates of lore have been romanticized as dashing and daring adventurers. In many cases, their stories and legends have been given the Robin Hood treatment. In reality, they were usually a ragged bunch of military deserters, alcoholics, and outcasts. Instead of speeding through the ocean in search of their next victims, their crumbling ships limped around sea lanes hoping to find a mark that would be easy to hijack or halt so that the pirates could have enough food or drink to survive until they found their next target. Throughout history, pirates have been desperate, and frequently violent, criminals. That goes for all of the fabled raiders of past centuries, and it goes for the pirates of today.
Yes, there are still pirates today. And, I don't mean the pirates who illegally download music from the internet or bootleg movies for their friends and a few bucks. As strange as it may seem, despite the technological advances that we have achieved and the strength and speed of the countries of the world (and their respective Navies), pirates roam oceans around the world, usually hunting commercial cargo ships that they can commandeer. Pirates hold valuable cargo and defenseless crew members hostage until they are paid a hefty ransom by ship owners and insurance companies in order to gain the safe release of people and goods. Piracy is not only alive-and-well in the 21st Century; incidents are rapidly increasing.
In The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World (2011, Pantheon), Jay Bahadur takes us to a world that is not only hidden, but anarchic, bizarre, and extremely dangerous. The mysterious piracy of East Africa is a fascinating story from afar, but Bahadur goes the extra mile. Instead of researching The Pirates of Somalia from New York or London, or even Nairobi, Bahadur went to places like Galkayo, Bossaso, and Eyl. You won't find a Sheraton or a Hyatt in those towns. Bahadur went to Somalia and embedded himself with the pirates.
Somalia, as it once existed, does not exist today. It is a failed state and, since 1991 when fighting in the Somali Civil War led to the country breaking into tribal territories ruled by warlords and terrorists and corrupt politicians, there has been no central government. As of now, there are really three distinct areas of what used to be Somalia -- Somaliland, bordered by Djibouti to the north; Puntland; and, the Transitional Federal Government-controlled Somalia which contains the traditional capital of Mogadishu and is "kinda" recognized internationally. There are smaller autonomous regions, but the one constant is that the area that the world identifies as Somalia is a bizarre, violent, lawless mess.
As Bahadur illustrates in The Pirates of Somalia, out of this mess a revitalization of the ancient practice of piracy has exploded. Somalia is at a major choke point for international shipping passing through the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden en route to the Suez Canal and Mediterranean Sea. Somalia covers an East African peninsula that juts into the Gulf of Aden at a narrow point between Africa and Yemen. Billions of dollars of international shipping constantly passes through this vital pathway to markets in Europe and the Middle East.
With no real government to hold them back, Somali men have turned piracy into one of the leading businesses in Somalia; it's a criminal enterprise that is also an economic building block. Cells of pirates are financed by investors who furnish materials and ransom hijacked shipping. Pirates receive a cut of the profits, with their percentage depending on the role they play and the depth of their participation (or individual investment) in each mission. Somali pirates are desperate and drug-addled, constantly chewing khat, a mild stimulant with effects similar to amphetamines. Many Somalis use upwards of a pound of khat each day, despite living in one of the world's poorest regions and lacking regular income, economic stability, or resources.
In The Pirates of Somalia, Bahadur introduces us to some of the pirates who have hijacked ships -- not just Yemeni fishing dhows, but gigantic oil tankers and container ships. Bahadur interviews leaders of pirate cells, describes how they track down their targets, board the much-larger ships, and hold crews and cargo hostage while negotiating ransom with shipping corporations and insurance companies.
As pirate attacks from Somali cells have increased over the past half-dozen years, companies have sought ways to avoid known pirate waters, but most surprisingly, have continued paying ransoms -- something which seemingly encourages pirates to keep hijacking more ships. As Bahadur shows, the pirates see their actions as legitimate business, and go to great lengths to justify their crimes -- to outsiders, as well as to themselves.
Bahadur also takes a look at how nations around the world are reacting to the piracy problems. International condemnation is finally leading to multi-national forces patrolling the waters of the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden in order for preventive and punitive measures. While the international reaction was originally quite mild and ineffective, things have begun to change, especially after the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama in April 2009. That hijacking was the first successful hijacking by pirates of an American cargo vessel in over 200 years, and an ordeal of several days in which the captain of the Maersk Alabama was held hostage ended when U.S. Navy SEAL snipers killed the pirates. Naval forces have stepped up their presence, and countries have cooperated and coordinated efforts to target pirates both on land and at sea.
Pirates like Blackbeard and Edward Low may have romanticized the idea of piracy on the high seas for generations, but modern piracy is costly, daring, dangerous, and continuing to skyrocket. Jay Bahadur has done what few journalists of any age have been able to do -- deeply studied the problem of piracy with the help of the Somali pirates themselves. The Pirates of Somalia reads like a fantasy, but this is shockingly real. Drugged, heavily-armed, desperate Somalis are roaming their Mad Max-like country and bringing millions home by hijacking international vessels. It doesn't seem possibly, but Jay Bahadur's The Pirates of Somalia explains just how they do it.
The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World by Jay Bahadur is available now from Pantheon. You can get the book from Amazon, or for your Kindle.
Anthony Bergen, Senior Literary Editor: Anthony Bergen is a writer and Presidential historian based in Sacramento, California. His historical work has been published by numerous outlets and historical associations including pieces for the New Hampshire Historical Society's Franklin Pierce Bicentennial, ConsiderableThoughts.com and the National Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial celebration. Anthony has also been a contributing joke-writer for several touring stand-up comedians and "The KiddChris Show" on Portland's KUFO FM.