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The pirate king of Somalia Add to ...

When Gilbert and Sullivan composed their melodies about the pirate king, it was doubtful they had a Somali like Garaad in mind. Yet this former fisherman, the man behind many of the recent hijackings in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, is as close as it comes to pirate royalty in the modern world.

In an interview on the breezy patio of a Somali hotel, he explains how he exerts direct control over 13 groups of pirates with a total of 800 hijackers, operating in bases stretching from Bosasso to Kismaayo, near the Kenyan border. Each group has a “sub-lieutenant” who reports directly to Garaad, and none of them make a move without his authorization.

An armchair CEO, Garaad is curiously uninterested in the fruits of his operation. “I don't know the names of any of the ships my men capture, and I don't care,” he says, “The only thing I care about is sending more pirates into the sea.”

Garaad is a name that has grown notorious in his own time – at least within the borders of Puntland, the autonomous region in northern Somalia that has spawned the recent pirate epidemic.

Garaad had agreed to the interview on the outskirts of the northern Somali port city of Bosasso, about six weeks before the high-profile hijacking of the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama. The interview was supposed to take place on the previous day, but after preliminary discussions in the morning, Garaad turned off his phone and disappeared. “He's off chewing khat somewhere,” suggests Mohamed, the interpreter who arranged the meeting, referring to the leafy narcotic religiously consumed by most pirates.

Much later, Garaad calls with his explanation: “I was busy,” he says.

The next day, he shows up at the gated entrance to the hotel, and meets on the restaurant patio at a table separated from its neighbours by a barrier of ferns and shrubs. With his freshly ironed dress shirt, pressed slacks, and his clean, cropped hair, Garaad blends right in with the crowd of Somali businessmen staying at the hotel. In contrast to his impeccable clothing, his face looks ragged for someone in his mid-30s, his eyes scratched raw by the constant rubbing – a textbook case of khat withdrawal.

Like many pirate headmen, Garaad hails from the infamous coastal pirate haven of Eyl. He began as a front-line pirate, participating directly in hijackings, but has since risen through the ranks to become one of the better known organizers and financiers in Puntland. As with most pirate handles, Garaad is a nickname, taken from the Somali word for “clan elder,” and is a sign of his status among his colleagues.

He instantly prickles when he hears the word pirate. “Illegal fishing ships, they are the real pirates” he says, insisting that his operations got going in 2002, with the sole objective of defending his livelihood and that of his fellow fishermen. So far, his crusade against the “real pirates” of Somalia has netted him a total of about a dozen captured illegal fishing ships, and an untold number of commercial vessels.

Garaad remains close-lipped about the dozens of hijackings he has reputedly financed, maintaining that seizing commercial vessels is a necessary evil in his private war against illegal fishing. “I've never personally attacked commercial ships,” he says. “The only one I've ever captured is the Stella Maris, and the reason for it was the financial problems we were having then.”

The MV Stella Maris, a Japanese-owned bulk carrier, was seized in the Gulf of Aden in July 2008 and held for eleven weeks before being released for a ransom of $2-million. Garaad's operating expenses since then must have been high, because he insists that he is broke. “I don't have one cent,” he says. “I don't even have a house.”

Despite his protestations of poverty, it's said that when he took his third bride, the wedding procession included 100 vehicles. And, there is a credible rumour that Garaad was involved with the much-reported hijacking of the MV Faina, the weapons-laden Ukrainian transport ship that fetched a generous $3.2-million ransom after a four-months hijacking. The story goes that in December of 2008, Garaad left Garowe, the region's capital, with a heavily armed convoy, aiming to relieve the Faina hijackers and bring them back to safety in Puntland.

They were in dire need of his assistance; forced by the U.S. Navy to anchor the captured ship at Xarardheere, south of the Puntland coast, the Americans proceeded to encircle and blockade the pirates onboard the Faina. On shore, the environment was equally hostile; Xarardheere is rival clan land, and thus was alien turf for the hijackers.

Completing the third point of this Bermuda triangle of perils was the proximity to al-Shabaab controlled territory, where militias from the Islamist group were waiting patiently inland to relieve the Faina pirates of any ransom they received the moment they came ashore. Into this melee allegedly charged Garaad with his Toyota-brand cavalry.

His intention, presumably, was to escort the hijackers to Puntland once they had secured the ransom payment for the Faina. Unfortunately, on his way to Xarardheere, Shabaab militants ambushed his motorcade, confiscating his weapons and vehicles. He was unharmed, and had to make the long journey back to Puntland, but wasn't discouraged from resuming pirating.

“If the international community ever pays us our rightful compensation for the illegal fishing,” he says, “attacks will stop within 48 hours.”

Jay Bahadur, a freelance reporter currently working on a book about Somali piracy, can be reached at piratesofpuntland@gmail.com

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