This cabbie hunts pirates

Former Toronto taxi driver is now in charge of a Somali coast guard

This cabbie hunts pirates

To hear Abdiweli Ali Taar tell it, the pirates’ days of hijacking and plunder off the Somali coast are coming to an end. Early in the new year, vows the former Toronto cab driver and Le Château sales clerk, he will lead his men into battle. And the world’s media, should they choose to ignore the obvious risks, are welcome to bear witness. “We are going to where the pirates are holding the ships. I’m going to attack them,” Taar says via a crackling cellphone connection.

The Puntland Coast Guard—or as they are known for business purposes, the SomCan (short for Somali-Canadian) Coast Guard—will face long odds. Taar’s armada consists of one armed 30-m patrol vessel and three rusting hulks with anti-aircraft guns mounted on the decks, captured from his adversaries in a previous skirmish. He has 210 militiamen in his employ. The pirate gangs—10 at last count—are said to have as many as 1,000. And then there is the question of motivation. The ransom demand for the Saudi supertanker Sirius Star, one of close to two dozen vessels currently being held off the coast, is US$25 million. The asking price for the MV Faina, a Ukrainian ship laden with Russian tanks, ammo and rocket-propelled grenades, is a cool $20 million. Taar’s men earn $400 a month.

But since SomCan signed its contract this past summer with the government of Puntland—a semi-autonomous region in Somalia’s north with 1,600 km of coastline and home to most of the pirates plying their trade off the Horn of Africa—there have been signs of progress. “I’m doing a good job. I’ve arrested the pirates and put them in jail,” says Taar. His biggest success came in early October, when the coast guard liberated a group of Syrian sailors being held on the Wail, a Panamanian-flagged bulk carrier, after an 11-day standoff. “I told the pirates, ‘You are surrounded. Put your hands up.’ They refused,” Taar explains. “They shot one of my crew and he died. And then I made the decision to attack them.” Ten sea bandits were captured and now await trial in a jail in the port city of Bosasso. A step forward, although perhaps undercut by reports that the Wail’s Puntland-bound cargo of cement was the property of a government minister.

Of course, it’s also hard to overlook the fact that this is Taar’s second stint as head of the coast guard. SomCan’s first contract ended ignominiously in 2005, when three of its own employees were arrested for hijacking a Thai fishing trawler. There were also allegations of corruption, political infighting, and a spectacular gun battle between SomCan’s militiamen and Puntland’s police and army.

This time things are different, says Taar. He’s running for the Puntland presidency in the Jan. 8 elections. And a recent meeting in Nairobi with United Nations officials and foreign diplomats, including Canada’s ambassador to Kenya, has given him hope that the international community will soon offer some material support to his rag-tag band of sailors. The battle against Somalia’s pirates appears to be heading into a new phase, with the UN Security Council authorizing foreign militaries to take action from the failed state’s skies and on its shores—with the permission of its in-name-only “national” government. SomCan’s coast guard may not be much, but it is the only domestic force currently battling the hijackers. The world needs their expertise, says Taar. “Somalian pirates are very smart and they are very rich. When they see the U.S. and other navy ships, they go on vacation. Some of them go to Florida. When the navy ships leave the area, they go back to their business.” The ex-Torontonian should know. By all accounts, the swelling ranks of Somalia’s pirates include not just disgruntled police and soldiers, but more than a few of his former employees.

If you want to find someone important in Somalia, the neighbourhood just east of Toronto’s Pearson International Airport is a good place to start. “Dixon,” as it is known, became the first stop for thousands of refugees from the war-torn country starting in the mid-1980s. And it is still the crossroads for the Somali diaspora in Canada—close to 38,000 people, according to the last census; more than half of them living in the GTA. “They are all here in Canada—the government, the pirates, the terrorists,” says Osman Ali, head of the Somali-Canadian Association of Etobicoke, and Puntland’s special envoy in Canada. “They go back and forth, especially around election time.” Ali, who has been a Canadian citizen for close to 30 years, remembers the Taars—Abdiweli, and his brothers Hiff and Abdul Raman. “I saw them go from driving taxis to becoming very rich men,” he says.

Abdiweli, the eldest, was the first to arrive in Canada in 1985, living for a time in Montreal, then settling in Toronto. Over the years, he found himself underemployed in a series of classic immigrant jobs—a cleaner at Pearson airport, sales clerk, driving instructor, behind the wheel of a cab. Always entrepreneurial, he left the country for Dubai in 1995 to start a fishing company. Drawing on contacts he had made in Toronto’s Asian community, he found a niche exporting sea cucumbers harvested off the Horn of Africa—one of the world’s richest fishing grounds—to the Far East. “He’s a likeable, social guy, but he was very focused on the business,” says Farah Aw-Osman, Abdiweli’s roommate for two years in Dubai, and now executive director of the Ottawa-based Canadian Friends of Somalia. Hiff, a former Somali navy officer, captained the family’s growing fishing fleet, always well-armed to discourage pirates and competitors along the lawless Somali coast. (The country has been in various states of anarchy since the overthrow of Marxist dictator Siad Barre in 1991.)

After the founding of Puntland in 1998, the Taars continued to grow their business, acting as go-betweens with the fledgling government and a Thai fishing company. But the family really came into its own during the brief civil war in 2001, when the state’s founding president, the former guerrilla leader Abdullahi Yusuf, launched a military campaign against his elected successor. The Taars, members of the same clan, rallied to Yusuf’s cause, with Hiff becoming a key military adviser. And when Yusuf triumphed, they prospered. In late 2001, the brothers received their first contract to take over the Puntland coast guard. “The Taars got this opportunity as a favour, because they were so helpful to Yusuf during the civil war,” says Stig Jarle Hansen, a Norwegian researcher who has been studying Puntland politics since the state’s inception. The deal, which allowed SomCan to sell fishing licences, splitting the proceeds with the government, was a profitable one. And the Taar empire quickly diversified, with the brothers acquiring a pasta factory in Bosasso, and building the Taar City Hotel in Gaalkacyo—a plush resort and conference centre where ostriches roam the grounds—now run by Abdul Raman, the youngest brother.

The SomCan-run Coast Guard, which at its height employed about 400 militiamen, scored some victories. Piracy, while a problem, wasn’t nearly the epidemic it is now, so the force spent much of its time trying to stop illegal foreign fishing, and the dumping of toxic waste along the Somali coast. The Taars’ most notable success might have been a weeks-long game of cat and mouse with the Dutch-owned MV Cormo Express in the fall of 2003. Dubbed the “Sheep of Fools” by the world’s media, the Cormo spent months wandering the oceans off Africa after its cargo of 52,000 Australian sheep were rejected as diseased by Saudi authorities. The crew’s attempts to put their “scabby mouth” infected herds ashore in Puntland were repeatedly foiled.

But the Taars’ success—material and otherwise—was not sitting well with the local populace. “Basically there were a lot of complaints from fishermen saying they were taking too much in fees, were too inefficient, and there were rumours of corruption,” says Hansen. (Somali forums on the Internet are filled with gossip about the “mansions” the family owns in Toronto. For the record, Abdiweli says he still has an apartment in Etobicoke.) The fact that the Taars’ coast guard operated out of the port of Bosasso, home to a rival clan, didn’t help matters.

When their patron Yusuf was elected president of the national (read notional) Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in late 2004, things started to go rapidly downhill. The Taars didn’t get along with his replacement as Puntland president, Gen. Mohamud Muse Hersi, a fellow Canadian and former officer in Barre’s army who had become an Ottawa gas station owner. Hiff’s attentions were distracted by a more pressing job, leading TFG troops in battles against Islamic rebels, as well as forces from neighbouring Somaliland, a breakaway republic. With SomCan’s militia off fighting for their boss, the fishing licence money wasn’t flowing in the way it used to—to the displeasure of Hersi—and the company was having some internal problems as well. In March 2005, three of its men hijacked the Thai fishing trawler Sirichainava 12, threatening to kill the crew unless they were paid an $800,000 ransom. The trio, who had been aboard the vessel for close to three months to guard against pirate attacks, were apparently upset at not being paid. Hiff sailed out to confront them, but it was a passing U.S. Coast Guard cutter, the Munro, that intervened. With a British Navy attack helicopter hovering overhead, nine heavily armed Americans boarded the Thai ship and took the SomCan employees prisoner. They ended up in Bangkok, where they were given 10 years each on piracy charges—a sentence that didn’t exactly endear the Taars to the men’s many relatives in Bosasso.

In response, Hersi cancelled SomCan’s five-year deal, and awarded the coast guard contract to a Saudi company, al-Hababi, which in turn appointed a member of the president’s sub-clan to run the operation. “He was a usual African president,” Abdiweli says bitterly, “just thinking about his family.” Relations between the Taars and Puntland’s leader steadily worsened, spilling over into open warfare in January 2006 when the SomCan militia got into a fierce gun battle with police and elements of the army outside Hiff’s Bosasso compound. Abdiweli claims that Hersi tried to “assassinate” his brother. Other sources suggest the firefight may have been a rather large mistake. Police, chasing a local thief, reportedly fired shots outside Hiff’s home, triggering a massive response from SomCan’s hired guns. Two police were wounded, and the fighting lasted for hours before clan elders cooled everyone down.

The Taars’ ties to Yusuf—who resigned as TFG president in December—and Hiff’s military responsibilities kept the family at the forefront of Puntland politics, however. And when Hiff died in a car accident in February 2008, Hersi even paid tribute to him as a great patriot. But the enmity, at least from the other side, appears lasting. Abdiweli’s presidential run (Taar is one of 17 candidates, at least four of whom are Canadian) seems to be mostly about settling scores. “Hersi is the real pirate,” he says. “Every cent goes into his own pocket.”

There is nothing quite like $100 million worth of stolen oil to focus people’s attention. Piracy has long been a problem off the Horn of Africa, but it wasn’t until the attacks rapidly escalated in 2008—culminating in the brazen seizure of the supertanker Sirius Star more than 700 km off the coast—that the international community seemed to take it seriously. But even the increased presence of the U.S., British, Spanish, Russian, Indian, Canadian, Malaysian and other world navies hasn’t been enough to halt the hijackings. The Gulf of Aden is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and there are simply too many vessels to protect.

And for all of Taar’s bravado about taking the fight to the pirates, the roots of the crisis run awfully deep. The bandits enjoy widespread support along the coast, not just because the huge ransoms buoy the economy in a dirt-poor country, but because they are seen to be taking revenge for issues the world has long ignored. Ever since Somalia’s central government collapsed in 1991, rogue fishing fleets from Europe, Arabia, and the Far East have helped themselves to whatever they can pull out of the seas off the Horn. At one point in 2005, according to the High Seas Task Force, a body of international fisheries ministries, there were more than 800 foreign ships harvesting off the Somali coast. And their purloined catch is valued at US$450 million a year—more than the country receives in international aid. “They fish with impunity,” Mohamed Waldo, a long-time player in Somali politics and consultant for several aid organizations, says from his Nairobi office. “It is the mother of all piracies in Somalia.”

Since the December 2004 tsunami, inshore stocks have plummeted, something that the public attributes to overfishing, rather than the natural disaster. Local fishermen are afraid to put further out to sea lest they be mistaken for pirates, says Waldo. And the world’s navies are generally perceived to be in the business of protecting foreign trawlers, rather than battling the hijackers.

Then there is the growing sophistication—and perhaps internationalization—of the pirates, gangs that are now far better armed and outfitted than Taar’s men. Puntland’s first effort to create a coast guard came in 2000, when the government hired a British firm, Hart Security, to train and equip a marine patrol force. The company brought in a 65-foot trawler, converted an old Bosasso hotel into barracks, and recruited 70 militiamen, carefully balancing out the clans. In those days, clamping down on illegal fishing and the dumping of toxic waste was a more pressing concern, says the company chairman, Lord Richard Westbury, a former Special Air Services officer. Hart’s only significant encounter with the pirates came in 2000 when a cargo vessel, the Mad Express, broke down off the town of Bargaal and was hijacked. Westbury dispatched two groups of men—one to rescue the crew being held on shore, and the other to liberate the vessel. They met little resistance. “Basically, the pirates jumped off the ship. One injured his ankle,” he recalls from his Cyprus headquarters. “There was nothing sophisticated about them at all. They certainly had no skills to operate in the way they are currently operating.”

Hart pulled out of Puntland during the 2001 civil war, when the fighting shut down operations, and its local crew began to choose sides. But the company, like many other private security firms, is now doing a booming business selling its expertise and protection services to ships transiting the region. For the last few months, Westbury’s men have been operating off the coast “on a daily basis,” he says. “You aren’t going to get a bigger problem. It can’t escalate further.” He cites a recent passage when Hart employees helped a vessel stave off 20 pirate boats over a four-hour period through a combination of evasive manoeuvres, and display—but not use—of arms.

As for what happened to his former employees—rigorously drilled in small boat interception and boarding techniques—his lordship has a compelling theory. “I think inevitably that there are people we trained who now are involved in piracy,” he says. “It wouldn’t surprise me at all.”

It stands to reason that some of SomCan’s original employees have also found new and more lucrative careers. (Last fall, Fred Parle, an Irish sailor who was held hostage for 47 days, told Maclean’s that his captors boasted of their coast guard past.) But Abdiweli Ali Taar says any turncoats are “British-trained,” and definitely not his men. “They are for the security of the country,” he says. “They are willing to fight.” He points with pride to the fact that his enemy Hersi reached out to him this past summer, begging SomCan to again take over the job of patrolling Puntland’s shores. (The president cancelled al-Hababi’s contract in February 2008, after its forces refused a direct order to liberate the Svitzer Korsakov, the tugboat Parle was held upon.) The new contract is “unbreakable,” boasts Taar. “He needed a big-time job so he came to us.” And he echoes a recent promise by Hersi to take the fight to the ground, establishing military bases around Puntland to exert government order on pirate strongholds like the port of Eyl.

All that stands in the way of his coast guard cleaning up the pirate problem is lack of money—lots of money. Right now, SomCan is footing the bill for the entire operation, some US$210,000 a month. The reality in Puntland is that civil strife, hyper-inflation and an epidemic of counterfeiting have left authorities virtually bankrupt. Most police and soldiers haven’t been paid their paltry $30-a-month salaries for more than half a year. The backbone of the pirate crews are now the people who are supposed to be stopping them. And for all his belligerence about freeing the ships, Taar concedes that force alone isn’t likely to halt the hijackings. “These people are not criminals. They are only looking for money. If you create jobs for them, they will get out of the business. I guarantee it.”

At the recent meetings in Kenya, Taar was hoping to raise $30 million from international donors, but received only vague promises. “I told the UN, look, if you want to help Somalia, the pirates are peanuts compared to the problems we have,” says Taar. “Instead of spending millions to patrol our waters, use the money to help stabilize our institutions.” Still, he holds out hope that a change of president—perhaps him, perhaps one of the more heavily favoured candidates—will give the world confidence in Puntland, and provide the backing that would allow the government to actually start governing.

And then, when the pirates are all gone, maybe he can come back home. “I miss my Toronto,” he says. “I really miss it.”

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