FOWLER: Off the Horn of Africa in the middle of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, heavily armed warships are playing a seafaring game of cat and mouse. Their quarry – pirates.
ROGER MIDDLETON: ‘Over the last year in 2008, piracy generated somewhere between fifty and eighty million dollars in ransom.’
FOWLER: They’re certainly raking in the money, seizing ships and taking hostages. In the last twelve months there have been more than a hundred attacks. It’s a deadly game.
VICE ADMIRAL GERARD VALIN: ‘I could kill 60 pirates that were on the beach.’
FOWLER: In the port of Djibouti, French, American and Turkish warships are preparing once again to do battle at sea.
‘So how did the world’s most powerful nations have their shipping industry held to ransom by a pack of pirates here in the Gulf of Aden? Well it’s got a lot to do with the humble lobster and a place called Puntland which until a year ago most people had never even heard of.’
Nothing about Puntland, even getting there, is normal. The only planes that will fly in are clapped out old Soviet era turbo props. The in-flight entertainment is unique. The plane is infested with tiny cockroaches. Still, the crew is accommodating, sit anywhere you like, even the co-pilot’s seat if you want.
‘How long will it be?’
PILOT: ‘Approximately one hour.’
FOWLER: It’s a thrill seeker’s delight at a budget price. One hundred and forty bucks gets you to Bossaso - pirate central. For an extra fifty you can go to Mogadishu.
PILOT: ‘But very, very dangerous in Mogadishu.’
PILOT: ‘Tomorrow we are going to fly to Mogadishu.’
FOWLER: Not that Bossaso should be taken lightly. A British journalist was recently abducted here as he tried to fly out. He spent 40 days in a cave before being released.
ISSA FARAH: ‘Welcome to Bossaso. This is Bossaso airport. I hope you guys will have a good time while you are here. We’ll do the best that we can.’
FOWLER: If there’s an upside to Bossaso, Issa Farah is it. Until a few months ago, he was a PhD student at Melbourne’s La Trobe University. Issa’s now returned as part of Puntland’s new government and he’s brought the President’s own security detail to see we don’t end up living in a cave.
‘I am very happy to hear that, very happy to hear that. Thank you very much.’
ISSA FARAH: ‘Well that’s agreement. We’ll do our best.’
FOWLER: ‘It’s a deal.’
FOWLER: A few hundred metres into Bossaso township itself and it’s time for a reality check.
‘Up front there Issa we have a security contingent….’
ISSA FARAH: ‘Yes.’
FOWLER: ‘… your bodyguard who’s armed…..’
ISSA FARAH: ‘Yes that’s my car and I’ve got in there my personal bodyguard, my driver and at the back we’ve got around six personnel. Sadly because of the piracy and kidnapping and especially being like…. a journalist and white too, that’s been quite a bit of problem in relation to thugs… so I want you to feel safe.’
FOWLER: Feeling safe in Somalia is relative. Twenty years ago the central government collapsed and the capital Mogadishu descended into chaos. Somalia became a failed state and its people started to die by the thousands of starvation. While the Western Aid agencies worked desperately to ship food into the country, the world’s fishing fleets sensed an opportunity – Somalia’s eleven hundred kilometre coastline was now undefended. Trawlers from Asia, the Middle East and Europe moved in for the kill. Somalia’s fishing grounds were devastated.
On the outskirts of Bossaso you’ll find the remnants of the fishing industry - one lonely container.
FACTORY OWNER: ‘This is fresh fish for today, this is fresh fish for today.’
FOWLER: ‘How is the catch? Is there as much fish today as…’.
FACTORY OWNER: ‘No. No. Before we were catching about five tonne, six tonne, ten tonne per day but now we are catching three hundred, four hundred kilo per day.’
FOWLER: That’s a whopping 96% reduction in the local catch. If you want to talk to Somali fishermen about the destruction of their fisheries, there’s no point looking for them down at the beach. Most of them are banged up in Bossaso’s jail.
ALI: [Fisherman in jail] ‘Our jobs, our profession as fishermen was stolen from us by these foreign ships. We tried to save our livelihood.’
FOWLER: Ali is just one of about a hundred fishermen jammed into this cell. All through the 90’s they witnessed firsthand the foreign trawler’s dirty work.
ALI: ‘We used to put our nets out there to capture fish and lobsters, but all that’s finished now. They brought ships that dragged all the fish up. They came by the coast at night and we could hear them working. They stole everything – even the stones on the seabed.’
FOWLER: Soon enough, intermittent skirmishes turned into a well-orchestrated campaign by the Somali fishermen against the trawlers.
ALI: ‘When we faced those ships they started to use force against us. They were throwing explosives and using guns. Our lives became very hard… there was no work to do. Then we decided to attack anyone who came into our seas – no matter where they came from.’
FOWLER: And so Somalia’s humble fishermen came to be seen as pirates.
ISSA FARAH: ‘We’re about to get to the Port. It’s the only port that’s effectively functioning and modern in this area.’
FOWLER: To get an idea of whether the pirates are seen as heroes or villains in Puntland, your best bet is to go down to the local harbour. These days Bossaso’s harbour is a hive of activity and the Minister for Ports was more than happy to give us a tour.
PORT MINISTER: ‘Even though it’s too small, it’s a very important port.’
FOWLER: But not that long ago his port was virtually empty, courtesy of the pirates.
‘What kind of problems were they causing for you in the port the pirates?
PORT MINISTER: ‘They were kidnapping the boats… the ships. They don’t differentiate whether it came from Australia, from South America… whether it’s owned by the Somali people, whether it’s owned by American’s… they are the same. To their mind everything is the same to them - only what they need is money you know. They need money only, you know.’
FOWLER: According to the Port Minister, the fishermen turned pirates have long since abandoned any principles. Now he’s playing it tough just like the pirates.
‘Did you kill any of them?’
PORT MINISTER: ‘Yes! One time we killed three and caught nine, you know.’
FOWLER: ‘Where are they now?’
PORT MINISTER: ‘They are in the jail.’
FOWLER: ‘In the jail?’
PORT MINISTER: ‘Yes’.
FOWLER: He’s not exactly enamoured of the world’s navies cruising off the coast either, but he does have a sense of humour. Call it if you like the lobster factor.
PORT MINISTER: ‘They are catching the lobster, you know… they are busy. Instead of fighting against those people, the sea pirates, they are busy fishing as well - we think that!’
FOWLER: ‘So you think the navies of the world that are off the coast here in the Gulf of Aden aren’t chasing pirates, they’re fishing?’
PORT MINISTER: ‘In a way… I can say in a way because… why I think that way is… why don’t they catch, you know? I think they are fishing… why don’t they catch..? A big, very huge gunship cannot catch a small boat, you know?’
FOWLER: Talk to the French navy and they don’t think they’re wasting their time.
VICE ADMIRAL GERARD VALIN: ‘As the President of the Republic Nicolas Sarkozy said, we will never leave the pirates unpunished.’
FOWLER: Vice Admiral Gerard Valin is in charge of naval operations, the French are playing it hard. Just a few months ago, Somali pirates seized the luxury French yacht Le Ponant. It would prove to be a big mistake by the hijackers. The French navy swung into action and they sent a combat film crew along to document the operation. The French quickly discovered the exact position of the hijacked yacht. No less then three warships closed in on the pirates.
FRENCH NAVAL OFFICIAL: Le Ponant is encircled by the French navy, including Le Jeanne d’Arc, Le Var and Le Bouan.’
FOWLER: In Paris, the decision to act came right from the top, French Defence Minister Herve Morin.
MINISTER HERVE MORIN: ‘We immediately arranged a meeting with the President who personally managed this crisis in co-ordination with the army Chief of Staff and myself.’
FOWLER: Vice Admiral Gerard Valin briefed the crew.
VICE ADMIRAL GERARD VALIN: ‘I wish you a good and successful mission.’
FOWLER: The French commandos checked and rechecked the weapons systems. A key member of the squad - a sniper. On the yacht the pirates had opened up negotiations with the owners. Two million dollars, delivered in a suitcase, would see the thirty hostages released and they could have the yacht back as well.
FRENCH NAVY MAN: [At briefing] ‘The first priority is to rescue the hostages and the people delivering the suitcase. The second priority is to capture the pirates. The third priority is to get back the suitcase with the money.’
FOWLER: Once the commandos had delivered the money and freed the hostages, the French sprung an ambush.
VICE ADMIRAL GERARD VALIN: ‘We surprised the pirates. I had six helicopters airborne with Special Forces on board.’
FOWLER: The pirates had fled with the money to the Somali coast. The helicopter with the sniper on board swooped down on the pirate’s four-wheel drive.
VICE ADMIRAL GERARD VALIN: ‘We made a very precise shoot to stop the engine.’
FOWLER: The pirates legged it from the disabled vehicle but they still hadn’t thrown in the towel.
VICE ADMIRAL GERARD VALIN: ‘The pirates went outside with their Kalashnikovs to fight. So my six helicopters both with Special Forces, not killing them but warning shots around them and so they understood that it was finished… their hand up…. we land the helicopters and we took them to be sent to France.’
MINISTER HERVE MORIN: ‘The hostages were rescued, we captured the pirates, and we got back the ransom. We are very happy, because it could have happened differently from what we planned.’
FOWLER: The French had won a notable victory. It’s the only time any ransom money has ever been retrieved of the more than 50 million dollars paid out to Somali pirates.
ROGER MIDDLETON: ‘The payment was around $600,000 it seems, maybe a little bit more - and they recovered around one or $200.000.’
FOWLER: London’s Chatham House is the home of one of the world’s most prestigious international think tanks. Roger Middleton is their Horn of Africa specialist. It seems the Somali pirates may still have the last laugh. The French raid might have violated Somali sovereignty.
ROGER MIDDLETON: ‘Well there is a real danger that what happened there could go horribly wrong in the court and the pirates could be released and then France would be faced with nine pirates or twelve pirates milling around Paris probably claiming asylum and all sorts of things that you know…. the laws of unintended consequence.’
FOWLER: And there’s another unintended consequence of this 21st century gunboat diplomacy. It’s making a lot of people besides the pirates, rich – especially in England.
In the City of London piracy is a nice little earner for brokers and lawyers. The place has become a clearinghouse for doing business with pirates.
ROGER MIDDLETON: ‘So the cost to the shipping industry in total is around $200 million. And that’s made up of about 80 million or 50 million in ransom payments, which goes inside Somalia. The rest of that money it’s made up in lawyer’s fees, fees to ransom negotiators and bear in mind the guys who deliver the money, they get about a million dollars for each drop off. So to deliver a million dollars it costs you a million dollars.’
FOWLER: Back in Puntland it was time to go and visit the President. It’s a seven hour drive to the capital Garowe, but being Somalia, the preparations are a bit more than kick the tyres and check the oil.
ISSA FARAH: ‘These guys are well trusted and highly professional. So you will be travelling with them, you will be sleeping with them with the next few days to make sure that when I take you to Garowe, you will come back.’
FOWLER: Puntlander’s joke their country is the Promised Land. God gave it to them because no one else wanted it.
ISSA FARAH: ‘We are a proud society, but we cannot deny we’ve been violent to each other. We’ve been violent to our neighbours. We’ve been violent to our fellow Somalians.’
FOWLER: Piracy is part of it and it has to end if Somalia’s ever to be rebuilt. If it works, it’ll be an extraordinary event. A ruined nation remade by refugees.
ISSA FARAH: ‘We need to develop law and order. We need to develop good governance systems. The President, the Finance Minister, the Head of the Defence Force – you know, all of us are from Australia, and all of us are from Melbourne, and we all sit in front of each other and we say to ourselves, we must do something - we must be different from our forefathers and say we must lead our own people from where we are, to maybe the promised land, where we all think Somalia will be a better place one day.’
FOWLER: ‘Thanks very much Issa.’
ISSA FARAH: ‘No problem.’
PRESIDENT FAROLE: [Addressing group] ‘How many of you are returnees from the western countries?’
FOWLER: President Abdirahman Mohamed Farole’s government is just three months old. Six months ago he was a PhD student in Melbourne. Now he’s got the world enraged at the pirates operating from his shores.
PRESIDENT FAROLE: ‘If they are really interested in eradicating the pirates they have to cooperate with us.’
FOWLER: His solution to the piracy problem is obvious – stop spending hundreds of millions patrolling the coast and start fixing Puntland. The annual cost, about a tenth of what’s been paid out in ransoms so far.
‘So for three to five million dollars per year…’.
PRESIDENT FAROLE: ‘Yes that’s a rough estimate that one.’
FOWLER: ‘Rough estimate….. you could if not eliminate, you could reduce the piracy problem.’
PRESIDENT FAROLE: ‘Yes.’
FOWLER: The trouble is no one in the international community has been listening to the President and his government.
‘Do you think you’ll put that forward now?’
PRESIDENT FAROLE: ‘To whom? We will have to find the interested parties.’
FOWLER: Ironically the pirates may have recently done President Farole a favour. In the wake of the attempted hijacking of a US merchant ship two weeks ago, Washington is talking of helping Puntland’s fledging coastguard.
REAR ADMIRAL RICHARD GURNON: [Massachusetts Maritime Academy] ‘The pirates have a great business model that works for them: seize ships, get ransom, make millions. As an international community we have got to stop that.’
FOWLER: It all comes down to a matter of trust.
ROGER MIDDLETON: ‘Well in the long run an effective anti-piracy force has to be based inside Somalia and come from Somalia. Now there’s a lot of concerns obviously in Puntland and putting money into Puntland. How stable is the President’s government and perhaps not quite so stable is the answer to that. We’ve seen in the late 90’s several attempts to establish coastguards in Puntland, all of which failed as governments changed and situations changed throughout the country. And many of those earlier guys who were trained as coast guards are now pirates.’
PRISONER: [Yelling] ‘Don’t record me, white boy! Don’t record me. I will kick your ass.’
FOWLER: Eradicating the piracy problem may take some time. On our last day in Puntland we revisited Bassaso’s jail. There had been an attempted breakout.
‘They dug a hole to try to get out here. They were tunnelling out.’
The pirate inmates had showed great ingenuity, starting with a spoon they’d almost engineered the collapse of the entire building. Even the prison boss had a resigned admiration for their skills.
PRISON BOSS: ‘A lot of their talent is being wasted. They should be rehabilitated and retrained and we would like to be able to do that. An effort should be made because this is the youth of the country. They should do something for the country.’
FOWLER: Ali, the fisherman turned pirate, was more poetic.
ALI: We don’t have a life. When you have a life, you taste the sweetness of life. So when you lose that life it makes you desperate to do anything you can – because life means nothing to you.’
FOWLER: The pirates have plastered the jail walls with their tragic graffiti. They’ll have plenty of time to add more. Many of them were convicted and sentenced last week to three years prison.
They’re also victims of a blighted country and the world’s neglect to actively engage in solving the problems of the failed state of Somalia.