Abdirahman Mohamed Farole insists he doesn't want to be the president of the home of modern piracy. But the recently elected leader of Somalia's semiautonomous region of Puntland says his breakaway government needs support—and about $20 million—to combat the scourge.
Puntland split from Somalia in 1998, nearly seven years after the country spiralled into a state of near-constant warfare between rival clans and factions. The region has reemerged on the global consciousness as the home base for the gangs of pirates that have seized more than 20 ships in the Gulf of Aden and the western Indian Ocean this year.
The piracy plague captured America's attention earlier this month after a gang of pirates boarded a U.S.-flagged container ship and took its captain hostage. After a tense six-day standoff, Navy SEAL snipers rescued the hostage, Capt. Richard Phillips, killing three pirates in the process. But amid the excitement, a growing chorus of pundits began calling for Washington—and other nations—to directly confront and stamp out the piracy threat. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded by outlining a multipart plan that included pressing the government in Puntland "to take action against pirates operating from bases within their territories."
Elected in January, Farole is a former Finance minister and banker with an M.B.A. from the State University of New York at Albany. He says he's ready to take on the pirates, but only if the international community will support parallel action to confront what he describes as the root causes behind piracy's growth. He spoke to Steve Bloomfield in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: How did this piracy problem start?
FAROLE: Piracy in Puntland is not something new. The escalation has reached its peak these days but it is something that started in 1991 with the collapse of the central government. Foreign trawlers started to steal our marine resources. Some fishermen turned against them. They were paid ransom and that ransom has encouraged that escalation.
Why are you against ransoms?
It encourages the recruitment of more pirates and the escalation of the criminal activity.
So ship owners should fight back?
Some of the hostages may get killed but, if you fight, some of the pirates will get killed. It's better to take the risk and fight the pirates. That's the best way to eradicate them and discourage them.
If you keep paying ransom, you are inviting them to take more ships.
It makes more sense to fight back. That discourages the escalation. We congratulated the Americans for fighting them and rescuing their citizen.
Long term, what is the solution to piracy?
It is endemic and needs to be addressed properly. The way the international community approaches it, by deploying warships off the coast of Somalia, is not enough. We need a comprehensive program to address the problem, which includes stopping the illegal fishing, developing the coastal areas, creating livelihoods for the coastal community, creating opportunities for employment for young people, supporting the Puntland government to strengthen the security forces including the coastal taskforce.
How much would this program cost?
Around $20 million.
What capability do you have at the moment for fighting piracy?
Our coast guards are just two small ships belonging to a private company which has the contract to transport the coast guards, a small unit of 30 people. We don't have an effective Coast Guard unit. We can't afford to finance them, to provide the speedboats to use when they are chasing or fighting the pirates.
Have you been able to arrest any pirates on land?
We have caught about 60 of them already. Before I left Bosasso, 10 of them had faced justice and been jailed for 20 years.
Who is funding the pirates?
We do believe there are some outside connections. There are allegations but we are not sure 100 percent. The outsiders have got more information than us. Our government was only established three months ago. We do believe there are people outside the country.
I think the information lies with the governments of the people who have been taken hostage. Because they know to whom they have paid and how they have paid. They will have more information.
Have you asked ambassadors here in Nairobi for help tracking them down?
We have discussed it with the envoys and ambassadors, but nobody has disclosed if they have specific people they know.
How much money is piracy bringing into Puntland?
We don't know how much money has been paid. Most of it, I think, goes outside. We do know they use the money to recruit new pirates from the youngsters who are inexperienced and cannot assess the risk they are running.
There is no visible wealth belonging to the pirates. There are some houses in the main towns, but they are not people who can manage money and invest in the proper way.
They spend the money in very wasteful manner by corrupting young people, using drugs, alcohol—all these things. They exploit the culture of the communities by introducing things that did not exist in the past.
Some people have said you have links with the pirate financiers.
[Laughs] It's laughable. I've never heard that allegation. It did not exist in the past, it does not exist at the moment, it will not exist in the future. We are against the pirates.
I'm told that every young boy now wants to be a pirate and every young girl wants to marry one.
There is a joke that if you ask a young woman who you want to marry she will say "In the north I will marry a pirate, in the south I will marry a Shabab boy."
How many pirates do you think there are? Thousands?
I don't believe there are thousands. There are hundreds. But new recruits will join them if we don't stop them.
Some private companies are believed to be interested in antipiracy contracts. Have you had any dealings with them?
A number of people have approached us, but we don't accept any private sector to take a role of Coast Guard for us unless it is recommended by a government. We have not entered into any agreement with them, and we do not intend to enter into any agreement with any company unless it is supported by a government so we know who they are accountable to.
Was one of them Select Armor, the group run by Michele Ballarin?
I don't hear of that name.
The international community only appears to be interested in Somalia when they are affected themselves. Does this frustrate you?
In a way, yes. They only come to talk about the pirates when the interest of the international community is touched. We have appealed many times before but nobody listened to us.
How are your relations with the United States?
We have met the American ambassador to Kenya and his special envoy for Somalia. We discussed a lot of issues and got good feedback from them. We will work in partnership in every sector including security, development and humanitarian sectors.
You studied in New York, is that right?
I studied a degree program, an M.B.A., at the State University of New York [at Albany].
Did you like it?
It was a good city, a small city. I didn't know that Albany was the capital of New York state.