US Navy SEALs just rescued two aid workers held by Somali pirates for months. We get the story behind the story, and find out more about who the pirates are, what they want, and what — if any — role the international community can play in helping Somalia overcome its ‘failed state’ status.


  • Jay Bahadur Journalist and Managing Editor,; co-founder, Journalist Nation; and author, "The Pirates of Somalia: Inside the Hidden World" (Pantheon)
  • Bronwyn Bruton Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council's Michael S. Ansari Africa Center


  • 13:06:46

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, we'll be talking with author Walter Mosley about his latest mystery, it's titled "All I Did was Shoot My Man." But first, last night as President Obama gave his State of the Union Address, an American and a Danish citizen were experiencing their first few hours of freedom following an operation by Navy SEALs to rescue them from Somalia Pirates.

  • 13:07:25

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt had been nearly two decades since American forces had landed in Somalia which has been without a functioning government for 21 years. In recent years, ragtag groups of pirates off the Somali coast have captured international attention by hijacking multimillion dollar tankers and frequently killing their hostages.

  • 13:07:43

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut even as Naval forces increase patrols off Somalia's coast, pirates are shifting their tactics to land. So how was the international community tackling this problem beyond midnight raids? Joining us in studio is Bronwyn Bruton, deputy director of the Atlantic Council's Michael S. Ansari Africa Center. Bronwyn Bruton, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:08:06

    MS. BRONWYN BRUTONThank you.

  • 13:08:07

    NNAMDII'll start with you. First, can you give us some context to the story that broke yesterday? What's the make-up of these pirate gangs that operate in Somalia?

  • 13:08:16

    BRUTONSure. Well, basically, there are a large number of pirate gangs operating in Somalia. Primarily from the Northern territories. And one thing to keep in mind, right away, is that typically when you talk about Somalia, you hear Somalia on the news, you're going to be hearing about the South where Mogadishu is located. And that is an arctic territory that is extremely unstable. But the Northern parts of the country, Puntland and Somalia land are actually relatively well governed and peaceful.

  • 13:08:46

    BRUTONAnd so, you have a lot of aid workers going in and out of those territories and you know, you actually have, you know, enough stability so that organized crime which is basically what piracy is, can flourish. Recently, piracy has been creeping southward down the coast. But Ms. Buchanan, for example, was working in Galkayo which is farther up in the North and in one of these stables areas.

  • 13:09:14

    NNAMDIAre these pirates that we're talking about, the pirate gangs, are they largely, simply organized criminals or do they have political aspirations also?

  • 13:09:23

    BRUTONI don't think that they have political aspirations. You -- we're talking about militia leaders. In a lot of cases, you're talking about young boys who, you know, really don't have any other way to earn a living and they're caught up with the romance of piracy. The pirates do pay rent, so to speak, so they do have connections to local businessmen to even the Islamist radicals who control some of the territory that they work in. And there are allegations that the pirates are connected to the Puntland governing authorities. You know, I don't think though that that is to say that the pirates want to govern Puntland. I mean, they're interested in making money, they're mercenaries, essentially.

  • 13:10:05

    NNAMDIWe're also hoping to get back with Jay Bahadur who was joining us by phone from Nairobi, Kenya. We've lost him for the time being and he has spent time in Puntland recently so hopefully he'll be able to update us on that, if we can get back to him. But the two aid workers rescued yesterday, they aren't the only hostages being held by Somali pirates, can you give us some idea of how many people are still being held?

  • 13:10:28

    BRUTONWell, the Somali pirates, at the moment, I believe, have something in the range of 350 hostages that are being held along the Somalia coast line, basically. At times, though, they've had as many as 700 hostages that they are holding.

  • 13:10:44

    NNAMDIDo hostage negotiations work with the pirates?

  • 13:10:49

    BRUTONThey do. You know, surprisingly, these pirates are really plugged into international networks. They're, you know, they have representatives in London, for example, who have handled a lot of their hostage negotiations. And it's actually bizarrely a big benefit. When, you know, as an aid worker myself, when I visited Puntland, one of the worries that you have is that instead of being kidnapped by an organized group that's going to have a procedure for dealing with you, they're going to have systems in place to organize your release and the payment, that you might actually be snapped up by someone who's just a passerby on the street. And if that happens -- and the situation is far more fluid and uncontrollable and dangerous.

  • 13:11:33

    NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for us, call us at 800-433-8850. We're talking about piracy in Somalia, we're talking about the rescue by Navy SEALs yesterday of two Americans who were being held by Somali pirates or by certainly lawless elements in Somali. But when you saw lawless and you're talking about Somali, we call Somalia a largely lawless country. But it does have, as you pointed out, a transitional federal government. Has this authority had any influence at all over the pirates?

  • 13:12:06

    BRUTONNo. The transitional federal government is largely a government in name only. They are based in Mogadishu. Until very recently, they were based in a very small corner of Mogadishu. And they have no capacity, whatsoever, for example, to launch a military assault on pirate areas. And they are doing everything possible just to stay in, you know, in their small territory and fight against the Islamic radical group called Al Shabaab, which has been challenging their control of territory successfully for many years.

  • 13:12:39

    NNAMDIAny indication at all of any relationships between the pirates and Al Shabaab?

  • 13:12:46

    BRUTONThere's no ideological relationship. But pirates are not interested in terrorism. The terrorists are somewhat interested in piracy in so far as it allows them to make money. And so I mentioned a little bit earlier that they, you know, pirates have to pay rent, so to speak, if they want to operate in a territory.

  • 13:13:02

    NNAMDII was wondering what you meant by, so to speak.

  • 13:13:06

    BRUTONThat's right. I mean, basically, Al Shabaab is known to have strong armed the pirates into, I think, it's something like 30 percent of their ransom payment. When the pirates are operating in their territory or for example, have more to hostage ship outside of a -- one of Al Shabaab's towns that they're controlling on the coastline.

  • 13:13:25

    NNAMDII'm going to the telephones, Amon (sp?) in Silver Spring has a question about terminology. Amon, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:13:32

    AMONYes, thank you for taking my call. If you please, I wonder why we keep referring to those people as pirates? Like, what it is in Iran, is nothing like mine workers. And we keep referring them as pirates. If is for illegal point of view like to have some legal reach for the United States. And if I may have -- may -- I have another question.

  • 13:14:00

    NNAMDIWell, allow me to have the first one answered first. Bronwyn Bruton, the -- our kidnappers from -- kidnapping people on land, why are we calling them pirates?

  • 13:14:10

    BRUTONWell, basically, their primary business is piracy. And there's been speculation that -- in recent months because international efforts to...

  • 13:14:19

    NNAMDIPiracy has been becoming more difficult.

  • 13:14:21

    BRUTONIt has been. That's right. And revenues have been going down because there's also been a flood, at the same time, of aid workers into Somalia in the wake of the famine. Pirates have opportunistically said, well, we may as well do some kidnapping on land. I mean, the process is actually the same because these pirates who operate off the coast in Somalia, they're not stealing goods from the ships. It's not really their business. What they do is, they capture them, they take the crews and they hold both the ship and the crews for ransom.

  • 13:14:51

    NNAMDISo it's really a ransom business that operates primarily on sea, but is now operating also on land?

  • 13:14:58

    BRUTONThat's right, yeah.

  • 13:14:59

    NNAMDIYou had another part to your question, Amon?

  • 13:15:02

    AMONYes, please, thank you for that also. I read like a few articles about piracy in Somalia. And many of them referred to, like, pirate fisheries off the shores of Somalia because of over fish by international companies. If you could have a remark on that. And one last thing. Do we have an idea about the identity of the victims of the last operation when we freed the two hostages? Do we know for sure, are they at all pirates or family members or civilians or bystanders or whatever? And I'll take my answer from the...

  • 13:15:49

    NNAMDIYou'll take it off the air. Okay, Amon, thank you for your call.

  • 13:15:52

    BRUTONSure. Well, in terms of the casualties of the operation, my understanding is that the nine pirates who were holding them hostage were killed. I have not -- I am in touch with a number of, for example, Somali NGOs and none of them have complained to me about any other civilians being killed during that operation. Although, it's always a concern. You know, in this particular instance, the operation took place, not in Hobio, which is a major pirate area, but in a more isolated encampment, basically. So I think that the risk of civilian casualties would've been lower. And then, all I can say is I haven't heard otherwise.

  • 13:16:36

    NNAMDII think we've been able to reach Jay Bahadur by phone from Nairobi, Kenya. He's a freelance journalist and managing editor of He's also author of the book "The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World." Jay Bahadur, thank you so much for joining us. I think we may have lost Jay Bahadur again. Speaking of the political issue of Somalia, here is Gary in Washington, D.C. raising, I guess, a political question. Gary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:17:10

    GARYThanks. I keep hearing about Somaliland and Puntland and this transitional federal government. Would security in that area be enhanced by beginning a process of recognition of the governments of Puntland and Somaliland and a separation from the Southern part of Somalia so that the areas that have greater government would be able to aspire to better governance?

  • 13:17:40

    NNAMDIBronwyn Bruton.

  • 13:17:41

    BRUTONIt's a great question and it's obviously, it's a hot topic among Somalia watchers. In terms of the day to day security, I don't know that it would be improved by recognition. Basically, both Somaliland and Puntland are autonomous to all intents and purposes. The TFG has no influence, really, whatsoever over what happens up in the North. Puntland has not actually sought independence. And so recognizing it is not something that's really being considered right now. But Somaliland has insisted on its independence for almost, well, 20 years.

  • 13:18:17

    BRUTONAnd they are actively pursuing recognition and they have argued that, basically, they're inability to form a government has prevented things like development assistance, its prevented the formation of banks, people won't invest there because they're, you know, if we believe that there's no government, no businessman is going to put his money in that territory. So in that case, I would say, yes. I mean ultimately, security depends on people's ability to earn a living.

  • 13:18:44

    NNAMDIThank you for your call, Gary. You wrote recently in Foreign Policy Magazine that, quoting here, "The worlds approach to Somalia has long been trapped in an unhappy middle. It has been insufficiently robust and well designed to resolve the countries conflicts but far too heavy handed and frequent to allow the country to resolve its own problems." Next month, London hosts an international conference to pull together a workable international policy toward Somalia, is there enough will power, yet, to get this done?

  • 13:19:17

    BRUTONMy view is, no. You know, it's really -- it's the curse of Somalia, to be honest with you. That it's almost always been caught up in events that are really driven from outside the country. And the latest example of this is the war on terrorism. The U.S., obviously, is interested in humanitarian relief, it's interested in helping Somali's for moral reasons. But in a tough budget climate, what it comes down to is, I think, that the U.S. has to be primarily concerned with security. And what that means is that we have a very narrow set of objectives that have really to do with counter terrorism.

  • 13:19:53

    BRUTONAnd this idea that the U.S. is backing the building of a government in Somalia is really misleading. Because what we're actually doing is we have sort of a figurehead government that doesn't control territory, that is not functional in any shape or way. They don't really make laws. They don't provide any services to the people of Somalia. I mean, they're just not doing any of the things that would win the hearts and minds of the public.

  • 13:20:24

    BRUTONAnd to enable them to really function would be a Herculean effort. It would require us to spend, you know, billions of dollars probably. It would be an effort sort of similar to what's happened in Afghanistan. And there's just no appetite for that kind of an investment, unfortunately, anywhere in the West at the moment.

  • 13:20:42

    NNAMDIHere's Abdul in Falls Church, Va. Abdul, your turn.

  • 13:20:47

    ABDULHi, Kojo. Wonderful show. I'm from Somalia and I moved here about back in, 30 years ago. But I always -- I'm very connected back home. But this piracy -- if we look at the pirates where is -- really (unintelligible) is on the side on the Puntland. And the Somalia Puntland so called they have a -- so called a government which the guy who ruled there, his name is Mr. Farole, why he's not doing anything. Because this is involved in multimillion dollar franchise, so called. These pirates are people who are really under control in that area. So if anybody want to finger point it, this man, we should finger point him because that's why the monies involved here, and, and...

  • 13:21:50

    NNAMDIOkay, Abdul. We're running out of time very quickly. So allow me to have Bronwyn Bruton respond. Is there any evidence, any indication at all that there is a central organizing factor or individual among the pirates?

  • 13:22:02

    BRUTONThe pirates -- I mean, there are several gangs. And they certainly have leaders within each of those gangs and they tend to be connected to their local clan system. And the caller has correctly pointed out that there have been multiple allegations that Farole, the current president of Puntland, has profited from the pirates basically, that he's in their pay and that certainly he gets a percentage of their income.

  • 13:22:29

    BRUTONI've never seen any hard evidence to that effect. But it's certainly something that I think it's a stain on Puntland's character that the government has allowed so many hundreds of hostages to be held on its territory. And there's absolutely no disputing that.

  • 13:22:47

    NNAMDIAnd finally, there's this. As long as Somalia remains a military, well, no go zone can there be any kind of consensus or international strategy to deal with the piracy problem? There's obviously not the political will at this point. But given the situation, what is the likelihood that there's likely to be some consensus at some point?

  • 13:23:07

    BRUTONWell, there is a consensus about the response on the sea. And we have seen a naval response that costs in the neighborhood of $2 billion a year. So in that sense a huge amount of money in resources has gone to deal with this piracy problem. For Somalia analysts like me that's incredibly frustrating because I think we would like to see that money going into projects on the land. We see the problems on land in Somalia as being far more serious than this problem of piracy. And ultimately piracy can't be solved until there is some kind of stability on the ground. In terms...

  • 13:23:43

    NNAMDIBut here's the problem. Somalia's problems have boiled over. They're now threatening Kenya, one of the few, I guess, dependably stable countries in the region. Kenya lost an offensive in October against Al Shabaab insurgents. And a month later, troops from Ethiopia entered Somalia. Can you bring us up to speed on what's happening with those incursions?

  • 13:24:03

    BRUTONWell, yes. Basically, the short of it is that Kenya has suffered a lot from instability in Somalia. And these attacks by the pirates are only one part of it. There are hundreds of thousands of refugees that have poured over Kenya's borders as a result of the famine and even before the famine was declared. And so Kenya has been footing a very heavy bill, basically as a result of the instability in Somalia.

  • 13:24:29

    BRUTONAnd one of their biggest concerns is obviously that there will be a terrorist attack. Because they have this large population of Somalis there and it's very possible that a member of Al Shabaab could slip in and either launch an attack or else assist in radicalizing the local population. Ethiopia has also for a long time been very concerned about instability because they're also right on the border with Somalia. And so both of these countries have taken to supporting proxy militias in the border region in an attempt to sort of build a buffer zone that will allow them a little bit more security.

  • 13:25:05

    BRUTONAnd in recent months, both Kenya and Ethiopia have sent troops over the border to attempt to bolster these proxy militias and to fight directly with Al Shabaab.

  • 13:25:15

    NNAMDIBronwyn Bruton is Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council's Michael S. Ansari Africa Center. Bronwyn Bruton, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:25:22


  • 13:25:23

    NNAMDIUnfortunately, we couldn't catch up with Jay Bahadur. But he is the one who has, as I said, written the book "The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World." We were hoping to get him and at some future date, we'll be talking with him about the pirates and how he got such close access to them so that he can provide us with some further insight. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, author Walter Mosley. "All I Did Was Shoot My Man," that's the name of his latest novel. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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