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Shashank Bengali talks about his interviews with Somali pirates

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. We’re in our studio at the McClatchy offices. Now joining us his Shashank Bengali. He just got back from Africa, covering Africa for McClatchy Newspapers. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: One of the stories you did in Africa was covering the pirates off the coast of Somalia. And I have to kind of disclose my own prejudices on this: there’s something in me that prefers straightforward piracy and grabbing a boat for ransom versus credit derivatives swaps and holding a whole economy to saying if you don’t bail us out, we’ll destroy your entire society. But anyway, [inaudible]

BENGALI: [inaudible]

JAY: What did you learn when you visited the pirates?

BENGALI: Well, there’s something that [inaudible] sort of straightforward, as you say, about these guys. They’re in it for ransoms, you know, and they’re in it because they’re poor and this is a great way to make money if you’re a Somali. These guys—I had a chance to spend some time with a few of them in Kenya and in Somalia, and they tell the same story, which is they were all fishermen in the beginning, in the ’90s, when foreign fishing ships that took advantage of the lack of a government in Somalia to come and illegally fish off of their waters. And so their little Somali skiffs, fishing skiffs, would bump into huge fishing nets that these foreign trawlers would be using to fish. And there was reports of overfishing—and some of this is quite well documented—overfishing, and even some allegations of illegal dumping of waste. So the pirates basically believe that they are ad hoc coast guard in some ways. They’re going after the foreign ships that they believe have caused a lot of problems in their own waters, because their government won’t.

JAY: So this is sort of a payback for years of destroying our coast.

BENGALI: It would be a bit of a Robin Hood story, except the pirates seem to keep most of the money to themselves. And, of course, it’s gone from—maybe in the early years of the 2000s it was more of a coast guard type activity; now it’s become quite mercenary and quite violent.

JAY: And a fairly big business.

BENGALI: And a big business. And quite violent, you know? They are now going after cruise ships, and they’re going after, you know, oil tankers and all kinds of things, and yachts, you know, private people.

JAY: Now, to be clear, how many hostages, or you could say innocents, have been killed in the course of all of this?

BENGALI: As far as I know—it’s very hard to prove any of this stuff, but no hostages have been killed by pirates since we began hearing about this in the last couple of years. We know of one hostage who died of a heart condition in Kenya two years ago. And there was a shootout involving a raid that went wrong, a French military raid trying to free a captured yacht from pirates last April that went badly wrong, and one of the yachtsman was killed in the firefight that happened between the pirates and the French military.

JAY: Now, one of your reports, you talked about money awash in Kenya, ransom money, and a lot of this is the pirates’ money. Talk about this. And what’s it doing in Kenya?

BENGALI: Well, it’s very hard to desegregate pirate money from just Somali money in general, but our sense is that there are so many Somali people living next door in Kenya because Somalia has just been a state of total chaos for the last 20 years. Kenya’s a much better place to put your money. So you have a very large Somali diaspora in Kenya, and they excel at this sort of Islamic interest-free money transfer. So money moves quite easily between clans and between families over the borders from Somalia into Kenya, Dubai, Europe, even the US. What’s happening in Kenya is that in a couple of Somali enclaves we’re seeing a lot of new construction of buildings. We’re hearing reports of Somali businessmen paying in cash, paying two and three times asking price for property.

JAY: It’s a form of money laundering. You can take the cash and turn it into property and then sell the property.

BENGALI: Exactly. Exactly. And no one is really watching this very closely because it’s so hard, again, to distinguish between, you know, what’s illegal pirate money and what’s just, you know, someone’s fortune coming from the US, for example, a remittance coming from the US via Dubai into Kenya.

JAY: Now, one of the things that puzzled a lot of people watching this is: how is it that these modern navies with this tremendous military capacity can’t close down some pirates? And some people have suggested: ’cause they don’t really want to. There’s this idea, at least, that they don’t mind some excuse to kind of militarize the African coast and have a lot of naval presence there. You think there’s anything to this?

BENGALI: I don’t think so. I think, you know, there’s been—you know, trying to catch these guys is very, very difficult. Imagine trying to, you know, kill a fly with a AK-47. You know, it’s these huge military ships trying to catch little, you know, speedboats, basically, and it’s very, very difficult in these vast waters to catch up to these guys.

JAY: Well, but their bases are pretty well known, right? Why don’t they just sail into the base and do something?

BENGALI: Their bases are known, but they are—.

JAY: I mean, they could blockade their base.

BENGALI: They could, they could. They’ve elected instead to patrol the waters and try to make a corridor for ships to travel through, and they tell ships to stay away from the Somali coastline. But these pirates have gotten really daring, and now they go out 500, 600 miles into the open sea. We had a case the other week of pirates off the coast of the Seychelles, an island nation some 500 or 600 miles off the coast of East Africa. You know, so these guys go out into the deep, deep water. Many of them die. You know, I interviewed a pirate in Somalia who was behind bars who said, you know, once, before he was captured, he was out trying to catch a ship with some guys, and they had bought a motor, and the motor just went bust in the middle of the ocean. And they had no food, no water; they were at risk of dehydration or death. And then, finally, the wind picked up and they could put up a little makeshift piece of fabric as a sail, and they were able to get back to [inaudible] I mean, they do have some equipment to help them, you know, help guide them.

JAY: Has the situation changed at all? Is the piracy still going at the same kind of rates?

BENGALI: You know, it’s been out of the news a little bit, but the attacks are still happening. It’s very seasonal. You know, the waters get choppier in the summertime, in our summertime here in the West, and so you find that from about May to September there’s very little pirate activity going on. But we had a report the other day of the largest ever ransom, some $5 million possibly, paid for a ship. Now, it’s hard to confirm these figures, but the reports say it was one of the biggest ransoms ever paid.

JAY: And who are the countries now that have naval ships going up and down the African coast?

BENGALI: It’s a large number, mostly European and Asian. There’s an American ship there as well. There’s a task force of some 12 or 14 countries that rotate—you know, Canada, France, UK, the US—sending their ships in and out of the region to patrol, basically.

JAY: So this must cost hundreds of millions of dollars to have these naval ships going up and down the African coast. What’s the alternative to this?

BENGALI: Well, it would be a much better use of the money if they would actually try to prop up Somalia’s government or help the country create a government that could police its own coastline. I mean, they’re not catching very many pirates. As we mentioned, you know, there was a shootout in which some hostages were actually killed. They’d be a lot better off putting that money—.

JAY: Or make a deal with the pirates. Like, just—why don’t we just pay the pirates an annual fee to stay home?

BENGALI: That would be a lot more efficient, probably.

JAY: There must be more imaginative solutions that would actually do something to develop Somalia.

BENGALI: People aren’t that interested in, actually, the fundamental problems of Somalia. Piracy gets a lot of headlines, and al-Qaeda activity and so on gets a lot of headlines, but no one really talks about spending money on trying to actually create a system of government that can solve all these problems. Let Somalis, you know, solve their own problems.

JAY: Thanks for joining us.

BENGALI: My pleasure.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Shashank Bengali reports for McClatchy from more than 25 countries and covered conflicts in Somalia, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq and Georgia. Before moving to Africa in 2005, he was a roving correspondent for The Kansas City Star. Originally from the Los Angeles area, Shashank studied at the University of Southern California and at Harvard University, where he earned a Master's degree in public policy. He speaks French and broken Kiswahili.