The World's Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia - James Fergusson (2013)


Chapter 9. Galkacyo: Pirateville

Galmudug, August 2011

President Farole said I would need to go south to see pirates, so I took his advice and joined a UN field trip from Garowe to Galkacyo, Puntland’s second city. The surface of the old north–south highway had long since eroded, and for the most part was as rough as a farm track, so that it took well over three hours to cover the 200 kilometres in between. Our white-painted Toyota travelled in the routine UN way, in a convoy between two truckloads of heavily armed SPU. The dust thrown up by the vehicle in front made it hard at times to see out. The desert on either side, dimly perceived through ochre-coloured clouds, was a Henry Moore sculpture park of termite mounds. Here and there we passed an acacia tree, often with a ragged tent pitched in its handkerchief of shade: refugees, the driver said, who had paused in their northward flight from the drought. There was little traffic on the road during the hot mornings, apart from the occasional lorry lumbering towards Bossasso with a cargo of offended-looking camels, their protruding necks and heads swaying in time as their vehicle lurched into another disconcertingly deep pothole.

I was curious to see Galkacyo, one of the great crossroads of Somali trade and an important city in its own right. One of its traditional nicknames was ‘the place where the White Men ran away’,1 a reference to a battle won against European troops in colonial times, although its modern reputation was hardly less fierce. Galkacyo lay on the front line between the two main clans of central Somalia, the northern Darod and the southern Hawiye, which made it one of the tensest places in the country. The civil war had not really ended here. The city remained physically divided by an uninhabited no-man’s-land, a ‘green line’ connected by a single road with heavily armed checkpoints at either end. Each side was governed by separate administrations. North Galkacyo was part of Puntland. South Galkacyo was the capital of the autonomous region of Galmudug, presided over by a Hawiye ex-colonel, Mohamed Alin. Those were the basics; it took me some time with a large-scale map to understand the details.

‘Galmudug’ was a neologism, a composite of the two old provinces from which it was carved, Galgaduud and Mudug (either of which could easily be confused with the nearby town of Galdogob). President Alin, who had returned from exile in Northolt in Middlesex, was a member of the Sacad sub-clan of the Hawiye Habr Gidr. To his south-west was an even smaller regional administration, Ximan & Xeeb, run by Mohamed Aden ‘Tiiccey’, a returnee from Minneapolis, and a member of the Habr Gidr Suleiman, a Hawiye sub-clan that did not always see eye to eye with the Sacad. Beyond that was territory controlled – most of the time – by the ASWJ, the multi-clan Sufi militia, who were battling al-Shabaab to their south. I was not about to attempt it, but anyone driving from Garowe to Mogadishu in mid-2011 was obliged to cross territory controlled by at least six different armed clans or factions, and three active front lines. Galkacyo lay at the sucking edge of a political maelstrom, and that was before taking into consideration the fickle pirate gangs, for whom unstable central Somalia was a true haven, with this city at its hub.

I recalled my visit, earlier that year, to the Northwood, north London headquarters of EUNAVFOR, the naval force spearheading the European Union’s counter-piracy mission in the Indian Ocean. I was shown a map marked with blue dots for the pirates’ suspected desert camps, around thirty of them in all, with codenames borrowed from Charles Schultz’s Peanuts cartoons like ‘Great Pumpkin’ and ‘Red Baron’. Galmudug had noticeably more blue dots than anywhere else. The EUNAVFOR operations room resembled the set of a James Bond film. The main feature was a giant electronic wall map, on which the movement of shipping was updated by satellite in real time. At an array of desks facing it worked two dozen officers from twenty different navies, many of them speaking purposefully into the microphones of their headsets.

‘When there’s an attack on, this place gets as sweaty as a Royal Marine at a spelling test,’ said a spokesman, Paddy O’Kennedy, a former RAF Tornado navigator.

The EUNAVFOR operation, although an undoubted triumph of high-tech, international cooperation, seemed a sledgehammer for the nut of Somali piracy. Its size, its expense, the sheer professionalism represented by so many gold-braided hats and shoulder pips, stood in hilarious contrast to the amateurism of their opponents, the drunk young men who crashed and fought over the Prantalay 12. The challenge, O’Connell explained, was not the pirates per se, but how to locate and then deal with them quickly enough.

‘We’re trying to police an area the size of Western Europe with twenty-five military vessels. Once the pirates are aboard their target, it’s generally too late to intervene without jeopardizing the lives of the crew. Yet the average time between the first distress call from a boat under attack and the pirates going aboard is about ten minutes. We can’t get there fast enough. If we had all the ships of all the navies in the world, we still wouldn’t have enough.’

The pirates’ success rate had declined recently as merchant ships had learned to defend themselves: by sailing in escorted convoys, by turning their bridges into fortified ‘citadels’ and, increasingly, by employing armed guards who knew how to repel a boarding party by force. And yet the pirates were not deterred. Indeed, the number of attacks was still increasing: 189 attempts in 2011, up from 152 the year before, according to the shipping industry’s Oceans Beyond Piracy project. The main reason, everyone agreed, was that the rewards on offer were bigger than ever. Marine insurance companies paid out $146m in ransoms in 2011, an average of $4.8m per ship, compared to just $5m and $600,000 per ship in 2007. April 2011 saw the highest ransom payment ever recorded: $13.5m for the Greek-flagged tanker Irene, which at the time had $200m worth of crude oil on board.*

EUNAVFOR could go on trying to contain piracy by ‘altering the risk–reward ratio’ – O’Connell pointed out that over a thousand pirates had in fact been imprisoned – but there would be no lasting solution to the problem while the insurance industry effectively colluded with the pirates’ mission of self-enrichment. Western governments could legislate to outlaw the paying of ransoms, but O’Connell suspected they would not do that, or indeed take any other truly decisive action against the pirates, until they were forced to. There were a handful of potential ‘game-changers’. An obvious one was the emergence of evidence of a financial link between the pirates and al-Shabaab. The payment of ransoms would have to stop then because it would mean that insurers were indirectly funding a proscribed terrorist organization, which was of course illegal. Conclusive evidence of such a link had so far proved elusive, however. A likelier possibility, according to O’Connell, was ‘a really big hijacking’ in the Indian Ocean.

‘A gas or oil tanker arrives in the UK every three days. If two of those get taken, Britain’s lights go out,’ he said.

The capture of a big cruise liner might also force a change in policy. A handful of liners had in fact already been attacked, but had so far always managed to escape.

‘Three months ago, we received intelligence that a mothership had put to sea with three hundred pirates on board. We can only think they are going after a big cruise ship. Why else would they need so many people?’

In January 2011, the Saga Holidays-owned Spirit of Adventure was attacked in the Mozambique Channel on its way from Madagascar to Zanzibar. Its 350 mostly elderly passengers, who had paid £2,000 a head for their cruise, were sitting down to a black-tie dinner when a pirate attack skiff was spotted. Dinner interrupted, they were shepherded amidships to a lounge deck that was then locked from the inside. The atmosphere, according to a lady passenger I later interviewed, was remarkably calm. The passengers drank champagne and listened to the ship’s pianist play Rule Britannia. It was fortunate that their captain, a former Australian Navy gunnery officer who had seen service in Vietnam, was prepared for this event. Unseen by the pirates, his crewmen deployed a wire trap designed to be towed in the ship’s wake below the aft tender deck. This was the point on the ship where the freeboard was lowest, and thus where the pirates were likeliest to try to board. Sure enough, the propellers of the pirates’ attack skiff became hopelessly entangled as they closed in, allowing the Spirit of Adventure to make its escape at full speed. It was a clever ruse that the pirates were unlikely to fall for again in future.

As President Farole had maintained, the original pirate gangs were dominated by disgruntled fishermen seeking to protect their livelihoods from illegal foreign operators. The coastal communities they came from were made up of skilled old seafaring families, whose ancestors had plied the Indian Ocean’s trade routes for centuries in their high-sterned wooden sailing dhows, a boat design that had barely changed. Puntland’s sailors still put to sea without echo-sounders, and calculate the ocean’s depth at night by going down into the hold, putting an ear to the hull, and listening for the knocking sound of rockfish picking at insects in the ship’s planking, an indication of shallow waters. The ‘aristocratic’ nomads of the interior traditionally looked down on the coastal communities, but that did not prevent the fishermen from taking great pride in their own distinct heritage. Shuke Osman, the director of the Puntland Development Research Centre in Garowe, noted: ‘In the same way that nomads sing songs of desert hardships to their camels, fishermen sing to their canoes and boats of the dangers of the sea.’

Dark that which dark is

Stormy sea

Morning rain

A woman’s veil is dark

You, my horned canoe

May your wood never break up

Fly over the sea

Skim to the shore

Speed us to land

Driven by our oars and paddles2

Their marine subculture was so distinct that until very recently, coastal Somalis used a different calendar to the rest of the country, the Nayruus system, which has its roots in ancient Zoroastrianism. This calendar’s most notable feature is that it has no leap year, which meant that the people of the coastal communities had fallen badly out of sync with the rest of the world over the centuries. The first day of 2001, for instance, was on 23 July.3

Until 2007, hostages taken for ransom were rarely harmed by the pirates, even by accident. This was partly because the pirates were governed by the marine xeer, the customary law of fishing known as the ’Uruf Alba’hr, a kind of honour-code of the sea which obliged its followers to respect the lives of other mariners – even foreign ones come to steal Somali lobsters. In 2007, however, as word of the pirates’ success spread and the size of the ransoms began to creep up, other Somalis began to get in on the act. The newcomers were not ex-fishermen, or even from the coast, necessarily, but chancers from the south-central interior who knew little and cared less about the ’Uruf Alba’hr. By 2011, the profile of the typical pirate had changed utterly.

‘They are really just criminal gangs in boats now,’ said O’Connell. ‘The pirates used to be quite tightly organized along Darod clan lines, but we are seeing many more Hawiye now, and gangs that are much more clan-mixed.’

The consequences for the victims of the new pirate breed could be serious. It wasn’t only that their seamanship was often spectacularly poor. Men who didn’t know what they were doing in boats were more afraid of the sea, and fear, according to O’Connell, could make them lose their heads and become ‘trigger-happy’. Of the estimated 3,500 seafarers taken hostage by Somalis since 2007, sixty-five had been killed, according to the shipping industry lobbying organization SOS (Save Our Seafarers).

Perhaps even more troubling was evidence that, for the first time, an element of sadism had crept into the way that some pirates now operated. A crew member of the Beluga Nomination, a German-owned freighter captured in January 2011 off the Seychelles, was killed while being ‘punished’ in retaliation for a failed rescue attempt mounted by the Seychellois Coastguard. The crew of the Marida Marguerite, an Antwerp-bound chemical tanker, were beaten with iron bars, locked in the ship’s freezer, and had cables tied around their genitals. One crewman was even keelhauled – pulled beneath the barnacled hull on a rope, a traditional sailor’s punishment unheard of in Europe since the nineteenth century. The pirates reportedly did this ‘for fun’.

In January 2012 came the even more chilling news that Chao-I Wu, the Vietnamese skipper of the trawler the Shiuh Fu-1, had had his right arm sawn off, in the style of al-Shabaab. His frustrated captors, who had been holding him and his crew near Harardheere for over two years, then allowed his shipmates to phone home, in the hope that their descriptions of their captain’s suffering would increase the pressure on the ship’s owners to pay up.

And so I felt some unease as our convoy finally bumped its way on to the tarmac that marked the city limits of north Galkacyo. Earlier that week, according to a local radio report, a well-known pirate boss had been injured in a shoot-out between rival gangs, and was being treated at the city hospital, where I now hoped to interview him. August, I had been told, was a good month to find pirates on land, because the sea was too rough for them until September when the south-west monsoon abated. But I did not expect to see so many of them, so soon.

‘Look. There,’ said the driver as our convoy turned off the city’s main drag towards the UN compound. ‘Those men are pirates.’

I looked out at a row of tin shack cafés, all closed for Ramadan, where a number of macawiis-clad young men were nevertheless congregated, squatting idly along a wall or chatting in one of two standing groups.

‘What – all of them?’

‘All of them,’ the driver insisted.

I wondered how he could possibly know. They looked entirely ordinary, and no different from the unemployed young men one saw in every Somali town, hanging about on street corners. But the driver was adamant. This was Galkacyo, he said, and the moment the seas calmed down, these men would be off to the coast.

Their ordinariness was, I supposed, the point. Pirates didn’t wear tricorn hats or parrots on their shoulders except in the imaginations of small Western boys. Real pirates were part of the people, and so were bound to resemble the other members of the society from which they sprang. Piracy was not something to be conjured from a dressing-up box, but the product of deep social dysfunction and the failure of the Somali state.

It wasn’t just small boys who misunderstood this. Piracy had an extraordinary grip on the imaginations of Western adults, too. Between 2003 and 2011, Walt Disney’s four Pirates of the Caribbean movies grossed over $3.7bn at the box office, with merchandising and other spin-offs worth many millions more.4 The Gulf of Aden was the modern version of the Spanish Main, and Western imaginations were still in full flight. Several Somali piracy-based thrillers were published in 2011, most of them far too lurid for children. Robert Louis Stevenson, who started the West’s romance with eye-patches when he published ‘Treasure Island’ in a magazine called Young Folks in 1881, would have been amazed by Elmore Leonard’s novel Djibouti, which turned on an al-Qaida plot to blow up a supertanker; or Michael Burns’s archly titled The Horn, which featured a mixed-sex team of US Navy SEALs hunting pirates from a decoy yacht; or Wilbur Smith’s Those in Peril which dealt with the kidnap and rescue of the beautiful (and oversexed) daughter of an American oil billionaire.

TV dramatists were no less fascinated. In September 2010, the BBC aired a truly fantastic episode of the drama series Spooks, in which an al-Qaida-affiliated gang of Somali pirate suicide bombers try to blow up Westminster using high-speed stealth submarines provided by Columbian drug smugglers. Not even Hollywood had managed to synthesize so many of the West’s demons into a single plotline, although it probably wasn’t far behind. In November 2011 Paul Greengrass, the celebrated director of two Bourne action films, began auditioning among the Somali exile community in Minneapolis for actors to play pirates in Captain Phillips, a retelling of the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama starring Tom Hanks. Not all Somalis were impressed. ‘I can tell you what the movie is going to be already,’ said a Minneapolis restaurateur, Abdi Ahmed. ‘They will have a bunch of white American people kidnapped, and Tom Hanks will save them, and a bunch of skinny black guys will get killed.’5

A bunch of skinny black guys: to me, in Galkacyo, that was exactly what the pirates looked like. We dropped our bags at the UN office – another prison-like compound with barbed wire on the walls and blast barriers at the gates – and at once headed out again, the SPU men in their vehicles ahead and behind us as before. We hadn’t gone far when we came across a cluster of people celebrating the inauguration of a new customs house. Calypso-style music blared from a pair of immense loudspeakers mounted on a van dressed in bunting. We stopped to pay our respects to Cowke, the mayor of north Galkacyo, our SPU men joining us as we mingled with the crowd of officials and onlookers. The mayor was in a grumpy mood despite the carnival atmosphere.

‘You’ve come from Garowe? That nest of vipers,’ he said.

And he plunged into an exposition of all the ways the Farole administration was neglecting his town.

‘Look at the new police station in Garowe. It is very beautiful. Here, the police sleep in the corridors. Please: take pictures.’

The police, Cowke explained, were appointed not by him but by Farole, according to their clan affiliation. But underinvestment from Puntland’s centre – which he called ‘an Omar Mahmud mafia’ – meant there wasn’t enough money to pay the police their salaries, let alone build new facilities. They had therefore turned to corrupt practices in order to survive, practices that even included collusion with pirates.

‘The police and the pirates are so intermingled now, but what can I do? The people here are fed up with the corruption. If Farole is not very careful, there will be a revolution here.’

We stayed for his inauguration speech out of politeness. Just as he finished, one of the SPU men came worming his way through the politely clapping audience and tugged urgently on my sleeve.

‘We go. Now,’ he said with an anxious look over his shoulder, ‘quick, quick.’

Back in the safety of the vehicles, the SPU men described how they had been approached at the back of the crowd by two strangers, who asked if the gaalo they were working for were French. When they asked why, the men – who spoke, the guards said, with slurred voices – replied that they were looking for hostages to exchange for some clansmen of theirs who had been captured by a French warship, and were now in jail in Paris. They had even begun a discussion about how much it would cost for the SPU to look the other way while they grabbed us.

I looked out at the dispersing crowd but could still see nothing unusual. Any one of them could be a pirate. It was uncomfortable to consider how utterly dependent we were on the integrity of our SPU men. How ‘special’, in reality, was the protection they offered? The fact that they were employed by the UN meant nothing. The pirates could easily trump their paltry salaries, and every man has his price. In October 2011, two staff of the Danish Demining Group, Poul Thisted and an American, Jessica Buchanan, were kidnapped by their own guards on the way to Galkacyo airport.* I later heard about an SPU man, one of the trusted regulars at the Galkacyo UN office, who had vanished from work a few months previously. Not long after his disappearance he was arrested at sea by the Royal Thai Navy; he was currently awaiting trial for piracy in a jail in Bangkok. I supposed it was simply lucky for us that our guards today had more honour.

If the mayor of north Galkacyo could do nothing about piracy, the powerlessness of the administration to the south turned out to be greater still. Nick Beresford, the Garowe UN Development Programme chief, was keen to show his face in Galmudug, especially as President Alin had recently appointed a new cabinet. And so our little convoy made its way south towards the so-called Green Line, although the only sign of greenery as we approached it was the Somali rose, the local nickname for the shreds of plastic that snag on the thorns that grow in all the country’s abandoned urban spaces.

There was no better demonstration of the crazy power of clanism than at the border post, where our guards from Garowe flatly refused to go any further. Instead we were handed over to another, Hawiye, SPU team, employees of President Alin, who were waiting for us at the barrier. I had expected tension, but in fact the handover was weirdly amicable. Indeed, there was so much smiling and back-slapping between the SPU men that I felt certain that we were the focus of a business arrangement of some kind, although I did not actually see money change hands. The new guards then escorted us along a straight, raised stretch of road that ran through a buffer zone of derelict housing to another sandbagged checkpoint on the far side. It felt a little like crossing from West to East Berlin in the days of the Cold War.

The process felt absurd as well as corrupt. It was not just because I was a foreigner that it was impossible to distinguish between the Darod and Hawiye men. In truth, there was no meaningful difference between them. The author Nuruddin Farah made the same point in his 2005 novel Links, the action of which is dominated by two rival Mogadishu warlords, characters based on real people, although Farah refuses to name them. He also avoids mentioning which clans they represent, because to do so would be to dignify the absurd cause for which they are fighting. Instead he refers to them throughout the novel simply as ‘Strongman North’ and ‘Strongman South’. It is a piece of satire reminiscent of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, in which the people of Lilliput are divided into ‘Big-Endians’ and ‘Little-Endians’ according to how they think a boiled egg should be eaten – a dispute, wrote Swift, that had given rise to ‘six rebellions . . . wherein one emperor lost his life, and another his crown’.

We found Mohamed Alin, Galkacyo’s Strongman South, waiting for us in a darkened municipal debating chamber with half a dozen of his newly appointed ministers, who sat in a line on a bench to the left of their president with their backs hard up against the wall. Alin, small and bald and spritely looking, introduced them one by one – the Commander of Police, the Minister of Fisheries, the Governor of Mudug, a general called Sed – and explained that they represented all the clans in Somalia, because he had appointed them according to the 4.5 clan formula used in Mogadishu. This, he wanted us to know, was progress; it was the reason he had fired his old cabinet, whose members had all been Habr Gidr Sacad, like him. We sat down on the bench against the wall opposite the ministers. A ceiling fan chugged above, throwing complex shadows from the only light source, a window high up in the wall behind the president. The ministers eyed us in silence, as wary as young teenagers at a school dance. A brown floral coffee table was marooned in the wide space between us, cut into the shape of a five-pointed star.

‘Piracy is a particular problem in Galkacyo,’ said Alin, in a thick English accent, when our conversation finally began. ‘Pirates have more militia, more vehicles and more money than we do. No one can fight them at sea. We need assistance to fight them on land, but no one in the international community is listening.’

He wanted help with the funding of schools – ‘to educate the young men about the perils of piracy’ – and with skills training to provide alternative livelihoods, such as carpentry and electrical engineering. The courts needed restructuring. There was no proper prison in Galmudug. The few police available to him were under-trained, they had no transport or communications equipment, and their uniforms were worn out. The shopping list went on and on in a tone that suggested it was not the first time he had itemized it. Nick Beresford, a man with a UN budget and thus the main intended audience, nodded extravagantly and took copious notes.

If Alin was bitter about foreigners ignoring him, he was bitterer still about their support for the TFG in Mogadishu, which he accused of abandoning Galmudug, for they had contributed nothing to his fight against the pirates either. I noticed that he was clutching a copy of The Law of the Somalis by Michael van Notten, which was not exactly a TFG-friendly polemic. The author, a highly respected Dutch lawyer, argued passionately that xeer, Somalia’s ancient customary law, should be allowed to form the basis of Somalia’s reconstruction, and that the international community had made a critical error when they opted instead to try to create a centralized democratic legislature.

Alin was a former governor of Hobyo, another notorious pirate port on the Galmudug coast, which he announced he was determined to clean up. He said that as soon as the monsoon abated – or by the end of September at the very latest – he intended to move his entire cabinet there.

‘We need to show the people we are still here,’ he explained. ‘We need to mobilize the business community there. We need to clean house.’

I looked across the floor at the ministers, one or two of whom seemed to shift uncomfortably in their seats. Alin said he wanted Hobyo to recapture its nineteenth-century glory days by becoming a commercial port again, an entrepôt as successful as Bossasso. He intended to take not just his ministers there in the autumn, but a cross-section of religious leaders too, who would drive home the message that piracy was not just unSomali but unIslamic. I said it sounded a bold and interesting experiment and asked if I could accompany him to witness the transformation of his old town.

‘You will be welcome,’ he said.

We were taken, then, to the main police station to see for ourselves how badly Galmudug needed money. The cells, or at least their contents, were suggestive of a society in total meltdown. The division chief, Mohamed Nur Ali, led us into a cell where four young men were shackled together, including a cowed 15-year-old called Fahid.

‘That,’ said the chief, with the righteous pride of an implacable disciplinarian, ‘is my nephew. He was running errands for the pirates. He was well on his way to becoming one of them. I’m locking him up until he sees sense. He needs to listen to his elders and betters.’

He turned on his heel without a second glance at the boy, and led us off to the next cell. Here we found another saved soul, Jamaal, who had been locked up at the request of his father, a friend of the chief. Jamaal, also fifteen, had been inside for five days, awaiting his father’s return from a business trip at the end of the week. The chief said Jamaal had been caught skiving off school and hanging out with ‘bad characters’ who lounged about with guns, chewing qat. ‘But you won’t do it again, will you, Jamaal?’

‘Nooo!’ said Jamaal, with a furious shake of his head.

I wasn’t sure whether to feel cheered or appalled. The chief had certainly hit upon an effective means of disciplining the young. Like the parents of the teenagers in his jail, he was convinced that disrespect for authority lay at the root of society’s ills, and that the best place to start fixing the problem was within the family. Maybe he was right. It was a sentiment often heard on the lips of politicians back home in Britain, after all, particularly in the wake of the urban riots that broke out across England that August, when the British prime minister himself observed that ‘if we want to have any hope of mending our broken society, family and parenting is where we’ve got to start’.6 The chief saw himself as a rare paragon of order in a world drowning in chaos and violence. There was no arguing with the gruesomely illustrated posters in his office urging children not to play with guns, of which, he said, there were an estimated 14 million in circulation in the country. His stand against the mayhem was not uncourageous, suggesting that society here was perhaps not quite as broken as it was constantly made out to be, and that there was hope after all.

On the other hand, Chief Ali was operating his jail as if it were some kind of private borstal, and this was troubling. Imprisonment was supposed to be an instrument of the state. It made one realize how little due process there must be in Galmudug if the head of the local police could act as judge, jury and executioner – a vigilante, in effect. On the way out I caught sight of another teenager, a beautiful girl this time, who was chained like a dog to a courtyard wall. Her name was Kafiyo, and she was sixteen. She had been brought in by her parents that morning, the chief explained, for starting a family fight in the course of which she had bitten her aunt.

‘You know,’ said the chief, ‘in our culture, it is a very serious thing to bite one of your elders. Particularly an aunt.’

Kafiyo scowled and tossed her mane of long black hair at us as we passed, proud and magnificently unrepentant.

We returned to north Galkacyo for an appointment at the medical centre, where I hoped to find my injured pirate. Abdulcadir Giama, its surgeon-director, was a returnee from Crotone, on the sole of the boot of Italy, where he had practised and prospered as an obstetrics and gynaecology consultant for over thirty years. Vivacious, gossipy and instantly likeable, he had become so thoroughly Italianized in exile that he even spelled his name Jama with a ‘Gi’. He described with glee how he had once been obliged to operate on Guirino Iona, a notorious capobastone in the ’Ndrangheta, who had come into his surgery late one night with a piece of glass stuck in his head.

‘That was good training for my work here in Galkacyo,’ he laughed, his hands flying as he leaned back in his office chair. ‘Iona? Eh! All of Interpol were after him!’

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the medical centre – the only trauma clinic in Puntland – was that he had personally raised the funds to build it. Over 7,500 patients now passed through his doors each year, many of them internal refugees from far beyond the borders of Puntland. The centre was still expanding, and he was so hungry for funding that he had even sold his house in Italy to help meet the bills.

Giama described piracy as a ‘pollutant’ in Galkacyo, a city that in the last few months had become a magnet for unemployed militiamen from all over the country. Ninety-nine per cent of the pirates, he thought, were ex-military.

‘We are seeing more and more things happening that are alien to our culture: rape, abductions, drive-by shootings,’ he said. ‘They are always getting into car smashes, or injuring each other in drunken shoot-outs. I get two or three gunshot victims in the hospital every day.’

My hopes rose but were just as quickly dashed when I explained what I was after. The radio report I had heard was wrong: there was no injured pirate boss in the hospital at the moment. But Giama, sensing my disappointment, offered to introduce me instead to a patient of his who was ‘a good friend of the pirates’. I had no idea what this might mean but accepted anyway, and followed him out of his office and through the half-finished hospital to a small, hot ward that smelled of sweat and cheese, just like the wards in Mogadishu.

Propped up in a bed at one end of the room was a tall man with an imperious, pockmarked face. He had one arm in a cast in a grubby grey sling, the result of a car accident. There was a subtle menace in his bloodshot eyes, a repressed violence that one instinctively knew it would be unwise to provoke. From the way the ward’s other patients all looked to him as we entered, it seemed that they knew it too. He gruffly agreed to speak to me so long as I hid his identity with a pseudonym. I suggested Abdi.

‘No,’ he said firmly, ‘I want to be Guled.’

‘OK then. Guled.’

He grunted his satisfaction, but still would not speak until we had gone somewhere private. It was no wonder, because Guled turned out to be more than a playground bully. He was a killer with a past, an Omar Mahmud gun for hire who had once fought Islamic militants for President Yusuf in the Galgala Mountains, before switching sides and fighting for al-Shabaab – although he was now back with the government, working undercover for PIS, the Puntland Intelligence Service that was supposed to be under the control of President Farole, but which was often alleged to be trained and funded by the CIA.

‘We are under the Americans,’ he confirmed flatly, as if this were of no interest. ‘I saw their trainers in Bossasso. The training programme is continuous.’

Guled had been charged with the extraordinarily dangerous task of infiltrating the pirate gangs in order to establish whether or not they were in league with al-Shabaab. He had begun by infiltrating the main pirate network around Garacad in Puntland, and found that there was no such connection. Al-Shabaab’s presence in that small, Darod-dominated port was minimal.

Then he had proceeded to Harardheere to ask the same questions, an even riskier enterprise considering that Harardheere was under the control of al-Shabaab, the local pirates were all Hawiye Suleiman, and he was a Darod Omar Mahmud. He found what he was looking for, though. In Harardheere, he said, al-Shabaab routinely took a cut of between $200,000 and $300,000 for each pirated ship brought to anchorage there.

‘Are you sure?’ I said, startled. ‘Does the CIA know this?’

‘I suppose so,’ he shrugged with the same supreme indifference as before. ‘I passed the information up the chain.’

The pirate–al-Shabaab relationship, Guled explained, had nothing to do with shared ideology. It was purely a business arrangement, and not a very happy one at that.

‘The Harardheere pirates would normally use a different port rather than pay al-Shabaab, but as Hawiye Suleiman they are forced to use Harardheere. They can’t go to Garacad, and Hobyo is difficult for them now.’

Al-Shabaab, in other words, was extorting cash from the pirates. This was not the same thing or as dangerous as a merger between the groups, as postulated in Elmore Leonard’s novel Djibouti. Nevertheless, it sounded as though Western insurance money was finding its way into the pockets of designated terrorists: one of the piracy ‘game-changers’ muttered about at Northwood. If Guled’s findings were provable, they were important.

He had little respect for the pirates, although not because their immoral behaviour was tearing at the fabric of society, but because they were so foolish with their money.

‘They flash their money around. The price of everything goes up when the ransoms come in. Even the dollar exchange rate goes up, but they still spend everything. They buy cars from Dubai, alcohol from Ethiopia, qat from Kenya, beautiful girls from Djibouti. They will drop $40,000 on a new car, no problem. It’s all fun, fun, fun.’

The solution he proposed was predictable: he wanted them all put down by military force.

‘The marines would close them down,’ he drawled. ‘If the marines had enough weapons, they could go wherever they liked.’

Like so many among his damaged generation, Guled had known nothing but violence in his life, in the course of which he seemed to have developed a frightening indifference to pain and suffering. I doubted whether he had lost his moral bearings. He struck me rather as someone who had never had such a compass in the first place. He was an ugly, feral, dangerous man, and thus, I supposed, well suited to the job of infiltrating the pirate boss underworld. I wasn’t sorry when, as though suddenly bored, he cut our conversation short and sloped off back to his ward.

Dr Giama, who never passed up a fundraising opportunity if he could help it, wanted Nick and me to watch a new PowerPoint presentation he had prepared, an explanation of the work of his hospital. It sounded dull. But this was Somalia, and the frank, before-and-after surgery photographs he had taken turned out to be some of the most riveting I had ever seen, as well as some of the most horrific.

Only a few of the images were to do with war, such as the eight-year-old boy who had been brought in with both hands reduced to bloody stumps by an IED. Most of the operations Giama performed were on congenital or cancerous deformities that, like so many evils in Somalia, had been allowed to fester for far too long. His slide show was thus the starkest illustration imaginable of the human cost of the state’s twenty-year failure to provide basic healthcare or education. The projector whirred through close-ups of every kind of tumour, a Victorian freak show of suffering: an advanced sarcoma, a huge angioma, an inoperable mesenteric carcinoma.

‘Just look at that myoma,’ said Giama at one point, in amazement still at the obscenely glistening mound of matter that he had chopped out of some poor woman’s uterus, ‘How big is that?!’

The horrors grew worse: a baby with a malignant, football-sized growth on its backside; two still-born Siamese twins, a starburst of misdirected eyes and hands and limbs, spatch-cocked on a mortuary slab; and a calcified ectopic pregnancy, a creature from the scariest science-fiction film, removed from its mother after six years of mummification.

‘In Europe you would just never see such things,’ Giama murmured.

I looked away, and saw Nick sitting ramrod straight with a hand over his eyes, peeping out through a slit between his fingers. It seemed that he hadn’t been prepared for this, either.

But Giama wasn’t finished yet. As a gynaecologist he had a fascinated hatred for Somalia’s continuing adherence to the old African practice known to the World Health Organization as FGM, or Female Genital Mutilation. I had read a great deal about this infamous cultural oddity, which Giama called Somalia’s ‘silent tragedy’. But actually seeing the surgical reality of FGM, especially in such lurid, explicit close-up, was an experience that soon had me peeping through my fingers too.

Giama explained, in his mesmerizingly soft and sing-song voice, how Somalis favoured the most extreme, ‘Pharaonic’ form of genital modification technically known as infibulation, in which both inner and outer labia as well as the clitoris are removed, usually when their owner is between six and twelve years old. Then the labia majora is sewn back on across the top of the vaginal opening, where it eventually heals to form a wall of scar tissue, leaving nothing but a matchstick-sized hole below. This procedure, he said, was almost always carried out at home, on a kitchen table, without much antiseptic and never with any anaesthetic. The thread used was often the same as the kind used to make sacking. There were, inevitably, many complications, physical, psychological and social.

We heard the story of a ‘beautiful, beautiful’ young girl brought into the clinic by her father, who couldn’t understand why his daughter kept refusing the hand of any of the many suitors he had brought her. Giama soon discovered his patient’s secret. Out of embarrassment and shame, she had told no one of the dermoid cyst growing between her legs, an object so massive that she could barely walk.

‘It is remarkable what you can find hidden beneath an abaya,’ said Giama.

FGM, he said, often led to complications like cysts, as his slideshow amply demonstrated.

There was a moment when one of our SPU men put his head round the door to check on us, and stopped dead in the shaft of light streaming in from outside, his eyes popping at another monstrous, mutilated vagina that had just flashed up on the opposite wall. Giama shooed him out and we all laughed at the guard’s comic-book confusion, although I wondered whether he had fully understood what we three men were doing, looking at such explicit pictures together in a darkened room. There was, of course, nothing erotic about the experience. Giama’s surgery was more suggestive of a butcher’s shop than a brothel; the flesh so rudely exposed in his slideshow spoke of carnage, not carnality. Certainly, one was nothing but repulsed by the close-up of a six-year-old girl who had been sewn up so tightly that there was no opening left in her vagina at all: ‘The result of a really well-done Pharaonic infibulation,’ Giama drily observed. The girl was in agony when she was brought in, suffering from ischuria, or urine retention, so acute that one of her kidneys had failed.

Giama wanted to campaign against FGM in Somalia, to publicize what he had seen in his clinic, but said he didn’t have the time. The only good news was that it was in decline in the cities, and rarest of all among the diaspora, which was a ‘positive and important’ influence on the homeland. He noted that Mohamed Farole, Puntland’s Australianized president, was one of FGM’s most vociferous critics. On the other hand, Siad Barre had also tried to eradicate it in the 1970s, and failed. The practice today, Giama reckoned, was as widespread as ever among rural communities.

The reasons were complex. Ignorance played a big part. For instance, many Somalis believe FGM to be obligatory under Islam, when in reality there is no such requirement laid out in the Koran.* The underlying cause, however, was Somali society’s continuing reluctance to raise women above the status of a chattel. A woman was a possession to be treasured in the way that a nomad values a good camel, and was to be kept ‘pure’ at all costs. Giama described a 28-year-old mother he had recently seen who had been sewn up for a second time, without anaesthetic, just ten minutes after giving birth. Yet perhaps the most astonishing aspect of this brutality was that it was often not men but women themselves who perpetuated it. In her autobiography Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who later became a Dutch MP and a noted campaigner for the rights of Muslim women, memorably described how her traditionally minded grandmother orchestrated her own ‘cutting’, against the specific wishes of her unfortunately absent parents. At the time, Hirsi Ali was just five years old.

‘A special table was prepared in [Grandma’s] bedroom, and various aunts, known and unknown, gathered in the house . . . Grandma swung her hand from side to side and said, “Once this long kintir [clitoris] is removed, you and your sister will be pure.” . . . She caught hold of me and gripped my upper body . . . two other women held my legs apart. The man, who was probably an itinerant traditional circumciser from the blacksmith clan, picked up a pair of scissors . . . Then the scissors went down between my legs and the man cut off my inner labia and clitoris. I heard it, like a butcher snipping the fat off a piece of meat.’

Grandma was convinced that if left uncut, Hirsi Ali would never find a husband.

‘Imagine your daughters ten years from now,’ she tells the child’s furious mother on her return. ‘Who would marry them with a long kintir dangling halfway down their legs?’

This attitude seemed old-fashioned to Hirsi Ali’s parents in 1975. And yet, thirty-five years on, the preoccupation with purity remains so culturally ingrained that many Somali women still refuse even to shake hands with male strangers, particularly infidel ones. I discovered this when I was introduced to Maryam Qasim, who at the time was Somalia’s Minister for Women’s Development and Family Affairs. I offered my hand; she withdrew hers to her breast, smiling and shaking her head like someone declining a canapé at a cocktail party. Her experience of exile in Birmingham, where she had worked for years as an officer for Sure Start, a British government programme for pre-schoolers, had not Westernized her.

Pirates were frequently accused of behaving in a way that was ‘alien’ to Somali culture, particularly in relation to women. They were said to procure prostitutes from Djibouti, and rape was reportedly on the rise. But Giama’s slideshow made me think more than ever that these things were symptomatic of a wider social problem, not its cause. The pirates were certainly sexually frustrated, but in that they were no different from al-Shabaab’s foot soldiers or, indeed, young men living in any conservative Muslim society. Jay Bahadur, a Canadian reporter who spent several weeks interviewing pirates in Puntland in 2008, recorded a conversation with one of them, Momman, who said: ‘The white people we see in porn movies are always so horny. How is it that you’re not?’7

In early 2011, the Johansen family from Denmark had been kidnapped while on a yachting holiday, and were still being held in the north of Puntland. In a development that sent a frisson around the Western world, the pirate chief had recently offered to release four of the five Danes in exchange for the hand in marriage of the Johansens’ 13-year-old daughter, Naja.8 The Western tabloids were duly convulsed.* And yet, this behaviour was not so hard to recognize. Like young men everywhere, the pirates were desperate to get laid; and big money, to some, was just another means of achieving that. According to one report, proceeds from piracy had caused the traditional bride-price to rise from $5,000 to $35,000 in just six months in 2011, and young women were said to be ‘flocking’ to marry the men with the new money.9

‘It really affected me,’ said Anab Jama, a mother of two children. ‘I divorced my husband and I married a pirate who works in Garacad. For the first few months we had a good time, but then he began to go out with another woman after he got another ransom. Finally I asked for a divorce and came back to my parents’ home in Galkacyo.’

Was the pirates’ behaviour any surprise when some young women colluded in it in this way, while so many others did so little to emancipate themselves? The pirates did not invent the attitude that led them to treat women as sex objects. As Dr Giama’s slides showed, Somali society had been mistreating their women – and women had been mistreating each other – for a very long time before any pirates came on the scene.

I kept in touch with President Alin after I left Galkacyo, hoping to hold him to his promise to take me with him to Hobyo to report on his crackdown on the pirates. Less than a month after my visit, however, there was a surge in clan violence and kidnappings that put off any further thought of return. A two-day battle erupted in September that left sixty-eight dead and 153 wounded. The Green Line was a warzone again, and the airport, located on supposedly neutral ground between North and South Galkacyo, was briefly shelled. President Farole insisted that his troops had been battling al-Shabaab, but was contradicted by his own terrorism adviser, General Shimbir, who noted that the dead and injured were ‘mostly from one clan’, a local Darod sub-clan called the Leelkase. As so often in Somalia, the true source of the fighting may have been a traditional dispute over water wells.10

In any case, Alin’s political position was too precarious to allow him to leave Galkacyo for long. The cabinet’s move to Hobyo never happened. Instead, at the end of the year, the president was dragged into a power struggle with his own parliament, who voted to oust him for corruption. Alin countered by declaring the vote unconstitutional, and ordering the MPs to be dismissed for incompetence. At the time of writing, the pirates were able to move about the port as freely as they pleased; the latest foreign vessel to be hijacked, the Taiwanese fishing boat Naham 3 captured south of the Seychelles, was being held in a harbour near by.

At a major conference on Somalia in London in February 2012 – the twentieth such meeting since 1991 – the international community ‘reiterated [our] determination to eradicate piracy, noting that the problem requires a comprehensive approach on land as well as at sea’. The foreigners also ‘recognised the need to strengthen capacity in regional states’ and ‘reiterated the importance of supporting communities to tackle the underlying causes of piracy’.11

The words were fine, but seemed entirely empty to Abdiweli Farabadane, the commander of President Alin’s counter-piracy militia, who in March 2012 was poised for a military campaign against the pirates of Hobyo, although without much expectation of success.

‘There are no international organizations supporting us,’ he told a reporter plaintively. ‘If we had [such support] there would be no pirates in the region. Lack of support is what causes us to be powerless.’12

Western leaders liked to assert that a lasting solution to piracy would only be found if it was ‘driven’ by Somalis themselves. The problem was that Galmudug had lost confidence in its ability to drive anything on its own. The statelet was too frail; and until a surgeon could be found who was able and willing to excise the cancer of piracy, the patient seemed likely to continue to weaken.

The author with Ugandan Colonel John Mugarura

The author with Ugandan Colonel John Mugarura, of AMISOM, on the front line in Hawl Wadaag district, Mogadishu.

Contingency Commander Paul Lokech

Contingency Commander Paul Lokech during an eve-of-battle briefing.

Fighting through this densely packed

Fighting through this densely packed city required exceptional planning and leadership.

A captured communications trench, one

A captured communications trench, one of a vast network dug through the city centre. AMISOM and al-Shabaab front lines were just 50 metres apart in some places.

Soldiers used ‘mouseholes’ such

Soldiers used ‘mouseholes’ such as this to pass between abandoned homes: often safer than the front door.

Somalis refer to the years of civil

Somalis refer to the years of civil war simply as Burburki, ‘the Destruction’.

AMISOM troops quickly settled

AMISOM troops quickly settled into life on the front line.

Somalia has been afflicted by wild street fighting for twenty years.

Al-Shabaab took power with a promise to restore discipline; footage of well-drilled militiamen in uniform became an important propaganda tool.

Newly captured al-Shabaab fighters, all

Newly captured al-Shabaab fighters, all schoolboys. They said they volunteered in exchange for a daily piece of fruit.

Al-Shabaab’s recruitment process often

Al-Shabaab’s recruitment process often begins even earlier, in a nation said to contain 14 million guns in a population of 8 million. Boys as young as seven have been put to work on the front line.

Top: A food queue at Mogadishu’s Badbaado

Top: A food queue at Mogadishu’s Badbaado

A food queue at Mogadishu’s Badbaado refugee camp where some 35,000 famine victims arrived in the space of three months

Top: A food queue at Mogadishu’s Badbaado

The 2011 drought was the worst for sixty years, affecting over 12 million people. The international aid community were initially slow to respond – unlike the ex-health minister, Osman Ibrahim, here seen dousing a camp latrine with Dettol retrieved from the boot of his car.

Dysentery from contaminated food and water

Dysentery from contaminated food and water is a major killer in a famine, along with typhoid, cholera, malaria, dengue fever and measles. US officials estimate that 29,000 children under the age of five died between May and July 2011.

Somali shops advertise their wares with

Somali shops advertise their wares with images to overcome an illiteracy rate of over 60 per cent.

Between 60 and 75 per cent of Somalis are

Between 60 and 75 per cent of Somalis are thought to be users or sellers of qat, a leaf that acts like an amphetamine when chewed.

In Hargeisa (left) the streets are

In Hargeisa (above) the streets are so safe that money-changers line the pavements with bundles of bank notes. Further south, however, marketplaces can be deadly, providing easy targets for terrorists (Mogadishu, 2012, below).

In Hargeisa (left) the streets are

In 1920, when British Somaliland was

In 1920, when British Somaliland was threatened by the Dervish leader Sayyid Hassan

In 1920, when British Somaliland was

The RAF’s Z Force attacked his fort headquarters at Taleh

In 1920, when British Somaliland was

Whose modern inhabitants are still demanding compensation.

The bombing of civilian areas remains controversial,

The bombing of civilian areas remains controversial, a point made by the cartoonist Amin Amir in this sketch of the Kenyan airforce in action over Kismayo in 2012.

Top: A humanitarian mission to relieve a famine

Top: A humanitarian mission to relieve a famine

Top: A humanitarian mission to relieve a famine

Top: A humanitarian mission to relieve a famine in 1992, Operation Restore Hope, began with a farcical Mogadishu beach landing by US Marines. It ended two years later after two US helicopters were shot down following a botched night raid (above), and their injured crewmen were lynched and dragged through the streets (left).

The grim reality of Sharia law, as

The grim reality of Sharia law, as applied by some extremists. Mohamed Abukar Ibrahim, 48, was stoned to death for adultery in 2009. These photographs were later used by the Kenyan Army as propaganda against al-Shabaab.

Siad Barre, Somalia’s dictator

Siad Barre, Somalia’s dictator president from 1969 to 1991

US-born Islamist Abu Mansoor al-Amriki

US-born Islamist Abu Mansoor al-Amriki (right) with al-Shabaab’s deputy, Sheikh Mukhtar Robow

al-Shabaab’s hardline leader Ali

al-Shabaab’s hardline leader Ali ‘Godane’ Zubeyr

the ‘spiritual leader’ Sheikh Hassan

the ‘spiritual leader’ Sheikh Hassan Aweys.

Mohamed Farole, the president of Puntland

Mohamed Farole, the president of Puntland

former TFG President Sheikh Sharif

former TFG President Sheikh Sharif

President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, elected

President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, elected in September 2012 following the first genuine presidential poll in a generation.

Suspected pirates are intercepted by

Suspected pirates are intercepted by the French Navy in 2009. But what will happen to the captives? Prison places in Somalia are in short supply. Here a pirate suspect sits in chains.

EUNAVFOR, which has a fleet of 25 warships

EUNAVFOR, which has a fleet of 25

EUNAVFOR, which has a fleet of 25 warships at its disposal (above), insists that a sustainable solution will only be found on land. But counter-piracy measures such as the new Puntland Marine Force (below) have proved controversial.

Somali terrorism arrived in the UK

Somali terrorism arrived in the UK

Somali terrorism arrived in the UK

Somali terrorism arrived in the UK with the London Transport attacks of 21/7, 2005: key perpetrators Muktar Said Ibrahim (above left), and Somalia-born Ramzi Mohamed during their arrest. Police had earlier filmed their gang on a training exercise in the Lake District (left). The reformed jihadist Hanif Qadir (below) has made it his mission to dissuade other young Muslims from copying them, through his Active Change Foundation in East London.

The diaspora have played a key role in resistance

The diaspora have played a key role in resistance to al-Shabaab, as regular demonstrations across the world have shown.

The London Conference of 2012 – the twentieth

The London Conference of 2012 – the twentieth peace conference since 1991 – was judged a success. But will the international community keep up the pressure on Mogadishu?

* Although these ransoms sound large, they form only a tiny part of piracy’s overall cost to the global economy. According to Oceans Beyond Piracy, hiked insurance premiums, increased security precautions and the extra fuel needed to re-route cargo ships cost the world $6.9bn in 2011 alone.

* They were freed three months later in Ximan & Xeeb following a night-time rescue by US Navy SEALs.

* In recent years religious scholars in several Muslim countries have issued fatwas against the practice that, as some have pointed out, pre-dates Islam by centuries – as the ‘Pharaonic’ description of the procedure suggests.

* The Johansen family were released, unmolested, in September 2011, following payment of a ransom of between $3m and $4m.