Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Pirates of Somalia by Jay Bahadur

At a book sale, I stumbled across this enlightening non-fiction, investigative report of a book, published in 2013 by Pantheon Books of New York, hard back, 272 pages.  It's why I like to browse these book sales, especially when the types of books I enjoy most are often discarded and priced very cheap by those whose reading are limited.  This was very unfamiliar to me, but at $1 how could I go wrong?  Well, it was a treasure to read and a book from which I learned a great deal.  I have always wondered just a how the rag tag group of so called pirates of the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden could capture merchant ships,  Jay Bahadur, a journalist answers all such questions and more in this book which   I read in September but did not get to post here. The serendipity of  finding "Pirates.." is matched by current interest generated from the recent Tom Hanks movie, about American Captain Richard Philips, captured aboard the vessel, Maersk Alabama in April 2009  by the Somalis.  Today Somalia 's Puntland  is home to 1.3 million people living below squalor primarily  and straddles the shipping bottleneck of the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.

To attach the word "country" to Somalia, founded in 1998 as a sanctuary for the hundreds of  thousands of Darod clans peoples fleeing massacres in the south,  is beyond a stretch for the word; there is not really a government, it is run by varying tribes at best, and has rampant illiteracy, no employment, no transit,  nomadic paths suffice as roads in most parts, a land of nothing. Pg 10..."contrary to the oft-recycled one-liners found in most news reports, Somalia is not a country in anarchy.  Indeed to even speak of Somalia as a uniform entity is a mis-characterization, because in  the wake of the civil war the country has broken down into a number of autonomous enclaves."  We have a significant population of Somalis settled by our US government in St Paul and Rochester, MN; it is a troubled people who do not assimilate well and the boys and  young men are readily recruited by Islamic jihadists today and repatriated to fight "infidels" in Somalia or elsewhere.  Pg. 5...."Somalia is like a country out of a twisted fairy tale, an ethereal land given substance only by the stories we are told of it."  

His flight to Somalia from Chicago took 45 hours and  connecting through five airports, of sorts.  The map in the front of the book  was an excellent reference for me about the geographic area, central to being understood to appreciate the revelations in the book.  I referred to that map repeatedly while reading to distinguish between Somalia and Somaliland, something I never before understood and the locations of Mogadishu, Puntland, Bosasso, and Galkayo.   It was an intriguing read. Most of the commercial vessels do not employ security guards which are expensive.  The vessels travel slowly and the pirates can easily overtake them.

The author traces the history of the clans  and details how piracy is more a business than an organized crime. Reading about the Somali coast guard (pgs.74-76) reveals the circuitous nature of the Somalis who might begin serving in their rag tag coast guard, then move on to employment as guards on foreign vessels and then as greed overcomes their senses, they hijack the very vessels they were hired to protect and link up with pirates only to later on become employed as guards or even service men  in the coast guard.  The author debunks the myth perpetuated by liberal leaning columnists of how the native fishermen have been driven into piracy while reporting that indeed the waters are being stripped of fish, lobster by the commercial vessels  from China and Korea, Taiwan.    Corruption is rampant but not deemed bad in Somalia but just how the clans operate politically.  International efforts have achieved little to nothing.  The foreign lines captured  have determined it preferable  to  pay the sums demanded by the pirates  to avoid capturing and then what to do with the pirates.  They are not wanted in any of the affected countries.  The piracy profits are not all that much because proceeds must be shared amongst many foot soldiers in the piracy and all their families as well as the backers, or investors.

Page 245 summarizes the progress of  Somali piracy over the last five years despite international efforts; it has become more lucrative with higher ransoms demanded and paid,  the gangs of pirates are slightly more organized and the encounters are becoming bloodier, more violent.  The epilogue proposes some solutions including keep on paying.  "If there is one thing on which every commentator on Somali piracy agrees, it is that the problem must be solved on land, not merely at sea." page 247.  Page 248, "the problem with getting tough with the pirates is that just one misstep could occasion a monumental financial or even ecological disaster, to say nothing of the potential loss of life.  ...In short, for pirates, coming home empty handed might prove as lethal as facing a team of Navy SEALS.  They are scared, desperate and unpredictable, and only one jittery finger on a grenade launcher would be needed to detonate an oil tanker and send a few hundred million dollars--more than the total of all ransoms paid to date--straight to the bottom of the ocean..."

I give this book 4 1/2 ****; and recommend it  to people who want to learn more than the news  reporting which is often exaggerated as well as slanted.  It is just one more example of why I am amused when people tout the breadth of their knowledge and yet base their opinions on what they hear in the news... Here is the back cover: