They’re the most feared outlaws in the world. Since 2005, Somali pirates have kidnapped hundreds of people—and extorted hundreds of millions of dollars in ransom payments. They've turned their stretch of the East African coastline into the most dangerous waters on earth for the shipping industry.
Naturally, foreign journalists have beaten a path to the relative safety of neighboring Kenya to interview the elusive pirates. But as Channel 4 News’s Jamal Osman—himself a Somali—found out, some of the seekers didn’t get quite what they bargained for.
The story begins in the slums of Eastleigh, a sprawling suburb of Nairobi in Kenya and home to a huge Somali community. There, I met Adan. He and his friends are running an industry that had been fooling some of the best journalists from around the world. Their business? Pretending to be pirates.
“We pretend because we have the talent,” Adan told me. With ships being regularly seized and crews kidnapped, Somali pirates have been much in demand by the news media. “They [journalists] go to the boss and say, ‘We need pirates,’” Adan said. “The boss comes to us and says, ‘The white men need pirates.’ So he says, ‘Assume to be a pirate.’”
The scam is coordinated by a “fixer” who offers journalists the opportunity to interview “real live pirates”—for a fee. Touting his local knowledge, he promises to reach parts of the community a Western journalist never could. There then follows an elaborate scheme to convince journalists of the plan’s legitimacy. The “fixer” drives the Westerners around—sometimes for days—in search of the elusive pirates, telling them it is too dangerous yet to approach the men.
The scheme culminates in sit-down interviews with the so-called pirates—interviews that have made it into the venerable pages of international newsmagazines and broadcast in documentaries, one of which was reportedly shown in some 18 countries across the world.
The “fake pirates” are mostly Kenyans; many of them, including Adan, are not even Somalis. They are Boran, an ethnic group that lives in southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya.
He now says he can’t believe anyone thought he was a pirate in the first place.
In his day job, Adan works in a restaurant, but the money he makes as a faux pirate is far greater. “My daily fee is $200. I depend on myself. I’m an asset, not a liability.”
Adan is relatively new into the industry. However, “Bashir”—not his real name—has been in the pirate role-playing trade a long time. He was harder to convince to come clean, but eventually admitted he was no pirate but an “actor.” He now says he can’t believe anyone thought he was a pirate in the first place.
Despite this, Bashir features in a 2010 Danish documentary pretending to be one of Somalia’s most feared pirates. The film was made by Rasmus Krath, a prominent Danish investigative reporter, and was broadcast by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR). In a statement to Channel 4 News, DR said: “That one out of the many pirates met in Rasmus Krath’s documentary should be an actor does not change the overall credibility of the film.”
The Danish film was just one of many interviews “Bashir” gave to different media organizations over the years. Here he is again, this time in Time magazine. In its April 2010 edition, the magazine reports: “Bashir bared his black, rotted teeth every time he smiled ... Bashir was once a fisherman. The pirates wanted to hire him because he knew how to swim, a valuable skill he could teach other recruits.
“He told me: ‘We are the ones out on the water taking all the risks and suffering.’"
Time magazine declined to comment. But as of press time, the article remained on its website.
In fact, Bashir says that he has never even been to Somalia. For me, as a Somali, it was very easy to recognize which particular region he comes from. Because of his accent I know he is a Somali-Sijui. In the northeastern province of Kenya, there are more than 2 million ethnic Somalis, who are known as Somali-Sijui. Bashir is one of them.
Bashir claims that all these years of giving interviews he thought he was just taking part in a drama film.“The fixer tells us, ‘It is drama film,’” he told me. “The white men want it and we get paid.”
“We act. And the film has to look real,” says Bashir. “Whether you accept it or not, there are no pirates here.
“Why would a pirate act in a film when they have money? Pirates have money. Why would they do this? They don’t have time to tell their stories to white guys for money.”
Adan has no regrets about the acting and feels no remorse. “You know, Western guys think the Africans are fools. But we have discovered we are not fools. We are much cleverer than the Western people. We are fooling them--but they think they are fooling us.”
As I was about to say goodbye to Adan, his phone rang. I wondered if it was his next job.
By Jamal Osman, for Britain’s Channel 4 News.