The Phantom Pirates of Puntland

by Mohamed Haji (Ingiriis)

Somalia: The New Barbary? Piracy and Islam in the Horn of Africa by Martin N. Murphy, London: Hurst Publishers, 2011. 

The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World by Jay Bahadur, London: Profile Brooks, 2011.

The scourge of piracy in the Somali littoral – in the clan-anchored breakaway region of Puntland, in particular – is widely depicted in the media as international organized crime with both intrinsic and extrinsic dimensions. The intrinsic aspects reflect the impact that piracy has on local Somalis, while the extrinsic issues center around the maritime security concerns of the international community. It is equally represented as a great threat to the global economy, providing justification for western naval forces patrolling the coast of Somalia to control the strategic basin of the Gulf of Aden.

Virtually every nation in the world has been affected by the predation of Puntland pirates. In a sense, Somali piracy remains a sui generis in the media compared to its global counterparts, primarily due to “the access to sanctuary” on the ground, in reference to the pirates’ reliance on the local clan-based population in providing them with a permissive “hotspot” environment in which to base their activities (it should be noted that stopping piracy altogether at sea, on land or in courtrooms has constituted several legal challenges, while using military force to counter this criminal clan enterprise has been contended to be itself a “criminal offence,” not to mention ineffectual).

The recent scholarship on Somali piracy is astoundingly ahistorical, however, with analysts limiting themselves to the period from the collapse of Somalia’s brutal military dictatorship onwards. These writings lack the early historical background of piracy, failing, perhaps inadvertently, to probe its actual origins in the Somali context, specifically its etymology in the nineteenth century piracy of shipwrecked booty off the coast of Cape Guardafui. Owing to this important gap, there appears to be an acute need for an historical study in explaining the Somali concept of “burcad-badeed” (maritime bandits or sea robbers). Such a study would add new perspectives on the roots of Somali piracy, tracing back to two hundred years ago when sea robbery was common practice in the coastal villages of what is now Puntland (then known either by a clan name, Northeast Somalia or Nugaal Valley in existing literature). 

Regrettably, the two most recent books about Somali piracy offer nothing new regarding the early historical background of piracy. Consisting of twenty eight chapters and a conclusion, Martin N. Murphy’s Somalia, the New Barbary? Piracy and Islam in the Horn of Africa considers piracy as a new phenomenon beginning in 1989. Though impressive in its academic examination, albeit with an overreliance on media news reports, it provides no intellectual history of piracy, but instead describes well-known recent pirate activities – mostly ship hijacking incidents. Though Murphy attempts, somewhat shrewdly, to equate contemporary Somali piracy with that of Barbary pirates, he leaps into the seventeenth century Mediterranean piracy without even discerning the nineteenth century burcad-badeed in Puntland. Acknowledging that the parallels are “pale at best,” he analyses the British bombardment of Algiers in 1816, but apparently fails to detect an earlier British bombardment of Puntland in 1802 as retaliation for the murder of British seafarers.

Murphy argues that, similar to Barbary piracy, “Somali piracy constitutes a significant part of society. It has a human and geographic hinterland. Like Barbary it displays the ‘features of a commercial system that shows signs of turning into a way of life’” (178) and recommends a need to “deal with the leadership of Puntland in full recognition with due care” (161) if piracy is to be defeated totally. He relates that a “twelve-year-old interviewed in Garowe told his interviewer that when he finished high school he would become ‘a pirate man’ working to bring home more money for his family.” (111) This becomes a testament to the fact that piracy has morphed into a goal for many young teenagers who would otherwise have opted to pursue another profession. What are the connections, if any, to these dynamics historically?

Murphy’s book, however, is not limited to the sphere of piracy. He attempts to explain the “rise and fall” of the TNG [Transitional National Government] and the rise of the TFG [Transitional Federal Government], as well as the growth of political Islam. For him, piracy has links to the desolation that has bedevilled Somalia for over two decades and crippled every attempt by the international community to tackle the phenomenon. In short, he astutely describes that the image of the United States among Somalis “was compromised by its association with Siad Barre and various warlords over many years, and its more recently conducted air raids.” (168) He may be right on that account, but due to the “mess of the Somalis own making,” (164) he also suggests, somewhat heavy-handedly, that a land campaign against piracy has to be avoided at almost all costs due to the possibility that any inhabitant in Puntland who owns a gun would come to pirates’ defence, as is commonly believed to have happened in Mogadishu during the Black Hawk Down fiasco in 1993. 

In The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World, Jay Bahadur writes mainly of his personal experiences during several weeks observing Puntland pirates and allowing himself to rub shoulders with the highest echelons of Puntland authority, whose chauvinistic prevarications he seems to accept uncritically. His work intends to examine pirates’ social interactions with the local society as he promises to uncover “the hidden world” of pirates, yet no hidden realm is discovered at all, other than that which has been circulated by mainstream media over the years. Contra Murphy, he concedes that the “history of Somali piracy is still clouded in obscurity,” but continues to liken Puntland piracy to that of western storybooks. In an allusion to Richard Burton, who had visited Somalia in 1854 and observed a country teeming with poets, Bahadur claims that “Puntland teems with pirates.” (46) 

Nevertheless, Bahadur’s accounts of Puntland pirates follows a peculiar pattern. In the course of two visits to the area, he is a guest of Puntland “President” Abdirahman Farole. Bahadur’s host, Mohamed, and translator, Omar, are Farole’s sons, while his bodyguard, “Colonel” Omar Abdulahi Farole, is a nephew of Farole. (98-99) Bahadur would later realise that Colonel Farole is not a real colonel, but rather a local militiaman who promoted himself to colonel and is now waiting for Abdirahman Farole to promote him to General. The family interaction makes him empathize, at times, with some of the alleged players of the pirate enterprise as the Farole sons attempt to direct his mission, particularly when he researches how Puntland authorities deal with pirates. In truth, Bahadur possesses no inkling about what is really going on in the inner circle.  

The author seem to be onto something interesting when recounting an incident wherein the “two Omars had accompanied me, and I took a seat between them across the desk, the Colonel on my right, Kalashnikov slung over a shoulder, and Omar Farole to my left, serving as my interpreter.” (112) He writes that his interpreter frequently intervenes, sometimes even interrupts, during the course of his interviews. He appears to be engaging with politically conscious informants who cynically attempt to exploit foreigners bereft of the knowledge of political context and cultural gradation. 

Bahadur eventually recognises that he was “made conscious of being under the wing of the Farole family.” (112) Nevertheless, he continues to treat his host, Abdirahman Farole, passively, eventually conceding that the family is attempting to use him. He recalls that he was once taken to meet the Mayor of Garowe (Puntland’s capital) just to make a panegyric toward the President of Puntland, discerning that “with Omars [the interpreter and the bodyguard] seated on either side of me,” it was apparent that much of the (Mayor’s) monologue was being tailored for the ears of the President’s son and his cousin. Not only is this typical family propaganda, but the worst of it is that Bahadur agrees with the sycophancy, claiming that “security had improved since the days of the previous administration.” (112) Perhaps due to his excessive admiration of the Farole family, the author repetitively reminds us of his naïve observation that, with a “paltry $20 million annual budget of Puntland,” the government cannot afford to tackle piracy. This statement sounds more like advocacy for international aid to Puntland than a researcher’s unbiased observation of social dynamics in the field.


  • Ali
    February 27, 2012
    Very good analysis and insightful. Piracy reports advances an abstract perception which doesn't investigate how it empowers Farole and his company.
  • Why
    February 17, 2012
    Your article reeks of clan sentiment. I therefore believe it is rich that you accuse President Abdirahman of Puntland of clanism. It seems to me that you are projecting your feelings onto others, that you fundamentally think the way you describe the people of Puntland of thinking.