– in-depth reporting from the piracy front by Iddi Ju-Ju Shabeel and Jama Deperani (*)
The Somali pirates, who hijack vessels from the seas around the Horn of Africa and sometimes from locations over one thousand nautical miles away, and who then bring their catch to the coasts of Somalia, use unusual “antennas,” “satellites” and “computers” to reveal the unknown in order to make their operations successful.
So far it seems to have worked, as even top naval commanders like U.S. American Admiral Mullen admitted with astonishment and expressed respect.
FROM TRADITION TO “ANTENNA”
In the old days the most famous sources capable of foretelling the future in Somalia were the ‘Bahari’, living along the two rivers of Somalia – the Jubba and the Shabelle. These were men, often hailing from the remnant Bantu population, whose forefathers had come to Somalia either during the migration of the Mijikenda people into Southern Somalia, or they were brought as slaves – like the Jereer, the freed slaves living around Afgoye on the Shabelle. Many were also conscripted to go as soldiers into Somalia with the British colonial forces, from whom they defected and hid in the dense forests and bush-lands of the riverine areas, founding new communities and villages along Somalia’s two permanent rivers.
The term “Bahari” stems from the Arabic language and describes a man, who knows the secrets of the sea. In a similar way, the Bahari men of the Somali river areas were and still are today tasked to predict devastating floods and deal with everything which has to do with the river, including the magic and the real crocodiles. Based on their skills they are powerful men and their activities were banned by the former government under Somalia’s strongman Siyad Barre. If found out and caught, a Bahari would face severe punishments ranging up to the death-penalty, but though several pretenders and impostors were nabbed over the years, there is not a single case, where a real Bahari was brought to book. The real Bahari men continue their work, whose secrets are passed on from father to son. While doing research in the Jubba valley even one situation was found where the oldest daughter had inherited the magic powers from her father, who found her more suitable than his sons to keep the tradition. They are until today strongly shielded by the local communities, who value their magic services and who believe that a real Bahari himself is also always protected by a magic spell.
In Somalia like in other countries of Eastern Africa, witchcraft is forbidden by criminal law. Kenya even has a “Witchcraft Act”, which stipulates severe punishment for those still performing this millennia-old profession, though it is rumoured that even politicians up to the highest offices engage the services of psychics, seers, sorcerers and witch doctors. The worshipping of a gigantic rock-python became a major issue during the post-election violence in Kenya, whose tragic results, with the killing of around 1,500 people, are now sought to be punished by the International Criminal Court (ICC) with more worldly powers.
With the onset of wireless radio communications these seers and foretellers were in Somalia quickly nicknamed “Antenna”, since they seemed to receive signals from the four skies, the five continents and the seven seas like an antenna of a short-wave radio transceiver.
When the Somalis heard about certain magnificent, technical units in the sky, through which people even on other continents could see and hear them, they quickly relayed this phenomenon also to their own seers. The “antennas” were swiftly upgraded to ‘satellites’.
Though not in any way similar to what the western ships use for satellite navigation, communication or in Anti-Piracy operations around the Somali coasts, the Somali “pirate’s satellite for sea-jacking” is considered superior to those western ones – those that locals heard were ‘spy-satellites’, set up and used by powerful nations to oppress the Somalis.
The Somali ‘satellite man’ by using his magic to tell the pirates detailed information on the vessels earmarked for hi-jacking before even any operation starts, joined all the Somalis more famous than the technological novelties in the skies.
MAGIC MAN OF THE PIRATES
Before the Somali buccaneers today begin a piracy operation they invoke a process, by which most pirates especially in North-Eastern Somalia contact a Somali magic man. Based on their experience with these predictions, most believe now that this “Magic Man” can tell what will happen and what prospect a certain piracy mission will have even before any action starts.
Abdi Farah is one of the pirates from Eyl. At the end of 2009 he was ready to grant a personal interview in Badiya. From the small village section called Badiya at the southern part of Eyl and near the sea, one could clearly see that the pirates had at that time lined up more than 14 seized ships. Though many, many stories are spun and circulated by the pirates concerning their operations and methods, the one about the “pirates’ satellite” was the most magnificent one.
“This Somali magician, nicknamed ‘satellite’ is the one who tells us before our action what will occur,” Abdi Farah explained and added: “Actually he predicts all happenings for a certain period, and which situations we will encounter. What he tells us beforehand that then will let us adapt our strategies. Sometimes this is really amazing as in how it works.”
Abdi continued to explain: “For example, ‘satellite’ told us before one of our missions that we will be seizing a cruising tourist yacht with a French flag and more than 15 French people – and it happened. Later and during our negotiations with the owners of the yacht, we contacted him again and he told us depressing news. He informed us that soldiers from French warships will assault us, kill some and take a number of our mates.” “Exactly this is what occurred,” said Abdi Farah.
One of the miraculous omens from this pirate’s ‘satellite’ occurred during the naval operation against four Somali pirates after they kidnapped Richard Phillips, the captain of an American container vessel called Maersk Alabama, in early 2009. Also at that time the pirate’s satellite foretold correctly what would happen – which came as shock and most depressing news to the relatives of the Somali youth involved. The predictions from the pirates’ satellite became true, and the three Somalis left in the lifeboat were killed by U.S.American snipers, even though elders had offered to resolve the case without any bloodshed.
The most famous seer in North-East Somalia even sports a nickname, which hints at his capability to not only receive signals from the skies, but also to process the information and turn it into valuable advice.
“Computer”- one had heard this name before – is the nickname of one the most famous Somali seers in Puntland, who resides in Eyl at the Indian Ocean coast and only during the very hot season sometimes shifts to the cooler highlands near Garowe.
He works with the pirates, many whispered, and helps them to plan and facilitate their manoeuvres. As reward he demands to receive a cut from the ransom. People say he is from the same clan as Abdirahman Faroole, Puntland’s president, and for some time he did actually live with him in Garowe, the capital city of the north-eastern, regional state of Somalia. This magic man too has an aura which is said to shield him, and as a matter of fact until today not a single action was undertaken by the Puntland Government to curb the vice or to stop Abdi Musse Hersi, known by many as “the computer”.
Pirate Abdi Farah was asked a year after he gave his first interview and revealed the magic of ‘satellite’ about this ‘computer’ man and stated immediately: “He is a brilliant man,” before he continued: “Regularly we pirates link up with him before our actions. He tells us if a night in which we intend to sail off the coast is a good one or not. He tells us also what will happen or if, for example, western warships will arrive near our Somali coast.”
The Pirates’ “satellites” as well as this “computer” also foretell the ransom before the negotiations. “Muuse” is another one of the Somali pirates from Eyl, who just uses only his first name to stay incognito. Muuse stated: “When we bring a captured ship to the Somali coast ‘computer’ tells us directly the kind of ransom that we will get at the end – and that is exactly what will be the case. It is really fantastic information, which ‘computer’ gives us. He provides us with any information we require until we get the ransom. Some negotiations began with a call for more than $5million – and the owners requested us to decrease our demand. Also at that time, and before the negotiations had really started, ‘computer’ told us the exact figure of the payment that we will get,” Muuse remembers with thoughtful voice and added: “He gives us any information important for us to know, at any time during the often long period of many months and from the moment when we are preparing to go, during the operations and during the negotiations until we receive what we need.”
MAGIC OR MODERN POWERS?
While spiritual wise men and psychic seers certainly do exist, live and practice also in Somalia, and help those who seek answers or help, the modern charlatans especially recruited from the Somali returnees who had fled back to Somalia for various reasons are numerous. While living abroad some bright fellows had earlier studied even at faculties specialized in computer sciences or geospatial intelligence gathering and their capabilities must not be underestimated. It was well known that Hussein Aidid returned with the skills of a trained U.S. Marine and tried to use them as governing warlord after his father, famous General Aidid who toppled Siyad Barre, was killed. While Aidid junior lives now as a businessman in England, several of his buddies remain in Somalia.
These experienced experts relieved the previous set of defected Somali intelligence officers, who used their Intel-gathering, communication and spying skills – learned from the Americans, the British, the Russians, the East-Germans, the South Africans as well as the Koreans – and assisted warlords and business tycoons during the 90’s after their government collapsed. Right from the start of the real piracy circus in 2008 the new wiz-kids on the block were engaged in providing invaluable services to the commanders, the strategists, and the investors of the piracy phenomenon. Some became now ‘antennas’ in the traditional belief, securing their retirement benefits by providing services to the more simple minded.
Others didn’t make this transition. It is known that ‘Radar’ was just a well trained Somali maritime navigational officer with excellent knowledge of modern radar systems installed on ships, who regularly was called onto hi-jacked vessel to repair and use their radar systems for present protection as well as further intelligence gathering. While he never turned his craft into something which others could assume to be magic, he leaked certain information to a ‘satellite’. One case from early 2009 is clear, where everybody praised the ‘satellite” for having told a certain pirate group from Eyl to go out NOW and they would catch a fat prey just 50 miles off the coast. Well, they did and were successful to find and hi-jack a tanker not even forty miles off the coast. But what ‘Satellite’ never revealed was that ‘Radar’ had given him the hint, having detected the vessel from the bridge of another commandeered merchant ship. ‘Radar’ also had taught a number of clever young freebooters how to use the radar equipment on the ships and how to get the data from the Automatic Identification System (AIS) of vessels passing near and far and how to deceive the navies with staged radio communications, which mislead the navies to steam into an empty quarter of the ocean, while the pirate gang hits.
DIVINE OR FOREIGN INTERVENTION?
While Somali ‘antennas’, satellites’ and ‘computers’ continue their fortune-telling to the fortune-seekers and Somali soldiers of fortune, and many believe in their magic powers, not only the Somali ‘Radars’ help with the divining.
The first of such cases was the Ukrainian MV FAINA, a weapon-laden, roll-on-roll-off carrier with 23 Russian-made battle tanks, tons of ammunitions and a large stock of other military weapons and gear in her belly.
The hi-jacking of this vessel was a wake-up-call for the world and a turning point in the whole piracy theatre with many consequences – and it was a masterminded operation out of a James Bond movie, clearly organized from abroad with foreign intelligence playing a big role. Though the vessel was released after 144 days with the tanks not having gone to the radical Islamic fundamentalists of Somalia or North-Sudan, but rather to the Christian fundamentalists in Southern Sudan, the fact that the pirate group, who boarded and took control of the weapons-ship, revealed how they had been ordered to a specific point on the vast ocean to wait especially for this ship to take, is rather telling.
This was not just a hint by a Somali informer working at the docks of a harbour, like in the cases of weapons-smuggling MV AL MAJAAN or MV RIM. It was not a scene out of a gang-war, as in the case of a drug-smuggling yacht from the Seychelles, where one gang engaged Somali pirate-mercenaries to bust a shipment of their rivals. It was not business rivalry prompting Somali sea-gangs to target cable-laying vessels of the competitors, and this was not just an accidental leak.
Even U.S. American Government representatives, like the immediate former Ambassador to Kenya Ranneberger, knew hardly anything about the plans and actions of those behind the previous iron curtain, nor of those sitting at the newly established Eastern European fences or their allies in different capitals. As WikiLeaked embassy-cables since revealed, the pirate-gang itself spoke to the Faina crew about the clear instruction to wait for and target this particular vessel, though the pirates were not fully informed of what to expect. It scared the hell out of them in the first night after the attack, when they had realized the extraordinary weapons-cargo the ship carried, and when a warship closed in while they steamed through the night towards the Somali coast.
It also was a scary and crazy situation for the Russian captain of the vessel who – according to pirate witnesses – did not die of a heart-attack as his widow was finally told when the body was delivered after the release of the vessel, but rather dressed himself in his best uniform for a last dinner and a potion of poison because he feared to be tortured to open the safe, which held all the secrets of the clandestine weapons shipment and took the ultimate route out in good old fashion, because he believed to have failed in his mission. Officials did not inform the widow that he had died until the body was delivered, though she heard it from others, and was told to shut up or face serious consequences.
The pirates who use this kind of magic are not only from the Eyl and wider Puntland areas. Those from Harardheere and Hobyo use another sorcerer, called “Black Magic”. He is not so well known as “Computer”, but he also provides detailed information about the fate and the success possibilities and outcomes of planned piracy missions to those pirates on the southern side of Galmudug as well as for those hailing from further South like Merka.
This magic mystery man is said to shift his locations regularly from the southern part of Galkayo town to Hobyo and Harardheere, and is elusive to anybody whom he does not know from the inner circles of Somali piracy. He is said to have specific powers to make his clients immune to the many bullets which fly in Galmudug regional state not only between competitive pirate gangs but also between clan militias and religious factions.
BELIEFS AND REALITY
Such forms of magical powers and the ability to foretell the future are generally referred to as “Faal” in the Somali language. But there are differences. “Faal-ka” is simply a kind of meditation or deep thought leading to fortune-telling performed with the help of rosary beads, most likely originating from Arab culture, and as British ethnographer I.M. Lewis stated, had been introduced to Somalia with the advance of Islam from Arabia. Fal-ka – the real sorcery – is often accompanied by casting of stones or bones, mystic drawings in the sand, sacrifice, and is of much more ancient and Cushitic origin.
During the process of performing Fal the magic men in Somalia mostly throw small stones on the ground where they mark their spots and constellations on the ground by drawing lines in the sand. While sometimes looking up and turning to the sky and then concentrating downwards again, the magic men let their fingers go over their mystery pictures on the ground and talk in silence until they then tell what they have to reveal to those who asked and paid for it.
In the years prior to 2008, before piracy became a real problem, Abdi Musse Hirsi, later nicknamed “computer,” was already very well known for his profession and for helping those who sought him for his information and fortune-telling. Many admired people in Puntland, including ministers, wealthy businessmen and traditional chiefs, prospered by consulting the ‘satellites’ and ‘computer’ and adjusted their handling of issues according to the advice given by them.
Somalia has been on a constant decline since the last 20 years due to the foreign-induced civil war. Today’s survivors in these lands believe they must grab any and even the faintest possibility to lift themselves out of the prevailing misery. Organized crime like piracy boomed as a result of the invasion of foreign Mafia characters and structures. The lack of proper development alternatives, leaving vast parts of the Somali population isolated, also contributed to the prevalence of the superstitious components of this business model.
SORCERY IS BOOMING
Most Somali people today are stout Muslim and strive to live a life along the lines and teachings of the Holy Quran. While advice derived from deep thought and meditation is mostly not seen as unorthodox, if performed by Imams and other religious men, the invocation of a sorcerer, to link up with a magic man or to believe in his forebodings is considered as forbidden in the religion of Islam.
But the Somali pirates obviously do not care about such religious orders and today frequent unrepentantly the more mystic sources in order to receive clairvoyant predictions and magic blessings.
Since the pirate gangs now also more often engage in rituals to make themselves invulnerable, and have sought the help from sorcerers, who are said to have links to the Bahari in Somalia, to Tanzanian witchdoctors and also to sorcerers in Congo and even Sierra Leone, many rumours have spread.
Even the notorious news-wire-services scanning Somalia have recently published unproven stories about sacrifices of newborn babies or babies ripped from their mother’s wombs. “These are all inventions by western media and their money-hungry Somali stingers, ensures one of the four pirates, who at present are known to all sport the same nickname “Afweyne,” and who are not all cruel murderers and extortionists. But they all know what is really going on. “Usually it is just the sacrifice of a rabbit or a cock in the more severe ceremonies, one ‘Afweyne’ stated, “but also some darker forces are now invoked by the ‘Magic Man’ since the navies killed so many of our boys.” That the situation could become more severe, however, also ‘Afweyne’ didn’t want to rule out and some reports of people who stated they were being hunted by pirates believing human sacrifices might be more powerful than slaughtering wild animals, could be credible.
COUNTER-MAGIC BY U.S.AMERICAN CYBER-WARGAME ?
Maybe soon the Somali “World of Witchcraft” will have to confront the “World of Warcraft” at least in the virtual environment.
To fight piracy off the coast of Africa, the U.S.American Navy has deployed advanced warships, robotic drones, even elite Special Forces, and recently added a new weapon to that fight: a multiplayer game called MMOWGLI. The game brings experts from around the U.S.American government into a virtual environment where they can work together in developing strategies to thwart modern-day buccaneers .
MMOWGLI, an acronym contracted from ” Massive Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet,” has undergone years of development within the Office of Naval Research (ONR). ONR scientists hope to expand the program beyond piracy, and use it to solve some of the world’s most intractable military problems.
According to Dr. Larry Schuette, ONR’s director of Innovation, whose office is managing the project, “MMOWGLI is an online game designed to find and collectively grow breakthrough ideas to some of the Navy’s most complex problems — those 21st-century threats that demand new forms of collaboration and truly outlying ideas.”
Essentially it is a giant game version of selective crowd sourcing. The first tests are set to suggest ways of combating piracy off the coast of Somalia.
The first round of that pirate game, however, only proved that the U.S.American gamers have a steep learning curve to manage themselves and they got stuck – not only with the massive SPAM they received as back-fire.
On 03. June 2011 they stated:
The Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) sincerely apologize for this regrettable error. “Our intention remains to provide an engaging experience for our players, and unintended spamming detracts from that experience” said Dr. Larry Schuette, Director of Innovation. “We are hopeful that the player community can forgive us, and will return to the game when it re-starts to offer their valuable time, ideas, and expertise.”
From the other bits and pieces of the game results provided publicly, it becomes clear that suggestions like ”creating a group of Somali moms and grand-mothers as a counter-force” will only make the Somali swashbucklers laugh. Looking at the results, anybody with some knowledge of Somalia must get the impression that the U.S.American players are so far from reality that the Somalis have nothing to fear from such cyber-“intelligence.” But it might provide an interesting platform were it opened to those who really know what the situation on the ground is. Since an interface between the Somali “computer” and the U.S. American war games platform appears to be unobtainable, the Somali brain-games enhanced by Catha edulis stimulation will most likely always beat the sterile cyber-gamers.
Meanwhile the real U.S.American Navy returned to the millennia-old homo Cro-Magnon approach to handling issues, and without much thought killed 16 Somalis on the waters of the Gulf of Aden – playing judge, jury and executioner in one and in a demiurge-like fashion. It is, however, not known if that action was taken based on a cyber-game proposal, or if it was a mistake, nor do we know if it was predicted by the Somali “computer.”
The trend clearly goes from receiving sober advice to seeking an omen and to seeking possibilities to deceive an adversary or to receive a magic spell to become invincible, invulnerable and capable of destroying the many enemies.
This goes along with a growing engagement in sex rites, which some of the outlaws reportedly now copycat from video-disks found on the foreign ships or which they imported together with boats and guns.
While just a year ago, three foreign girls – disguised at first as journalists – found their way into the pirate dens of Galmudug, lived apparently a happy live as pirate-groupies and beach-bums and most importantly came away unharmed, such stints, even if set up as proof of courage and capabilities by a weird spook-service, would seem today to be a mission impossible or they would risk to face an end in aped killer-sex scenarios and blood rites, as shown in a Far-Eastern and British horror films or – even worse – realistic French devil-worshipping movies.
Some of the pirate gangs now use not only the widely chewed Khat (Mirrah, Catha edulis) as stimulant but have already started since about two years to use hard drugs, which they mostly get from the vessels they capture. Addicts regularly rob opium derivatives from the medicine chests of the vessels.
The days of the “piracy-handbook” and a strict control of the pirate-gangs by moderate commanders appear to be over, and its stipulations are not even known to certain new gangs of joint outcasts. The heinous gang holding the Danish yachting family with three children and two crew hostage is just one such sick example. Their undisclosed mastermind, still staying in the shadows and cashing in on an advance ransom, had allegedly already paid for the release of MV DOVER. He obviously has no interest in really controlling the gang. He and his men are meanwhile outlawed even by their last sympathizers from the local communities. Likewise none of the magic men allow any of these fellows to come near them, and the gang has become one highly dangerous bunch of crazy killers, ready to die themselves at any moment, while still inflicting maximum damage.
The increased killing of people for no apparent reason within the piracy circus, however, has its exemptions. Many Somalis from that area of Puntland from where the hostage takers of the sailing yacht SY QUEST hail, state that the score between the Americans, who killed the three Somalis and imprisoned one survivor in the case of MV MAERSK ALABAMA, and their Somali clan is now settled after the four Americans on board the sailing yacht were killed. The subsequent killing of four Somalis, the capture of 15 alleged pirates, and later an alleged pirate interpreter connected to this case, however, opens a new chapter for those Somalis who are deeply rooted in their traditional legal system the XEER. Even the U.S. American government recently adhered to a similar system practised in Pakistan and paid the multimillion dollar blood price to get their secret agent free, who had killed two Pakistanis in cold blood. It will be interesting to witness how modern U.S.American courts will deal with ancient law, alive and practiced in foreign countries, which even the U.S. American government found suddenly practicable and applicable. Does the U.S. American constitution not rule out paying a blood price?
However, the heinous crime of taking innocent people hostage is neither sanctioned by the XEER, by Sharia, nor by any other regulation in Somalia. While ransom taking in the release of a captured illegal fishing vessel, for example, is seen by the vast majority of Somalis as retribution for the many wrongs they believe to have suffered from, they all agree – like concerning the case of the Danish hostage family – that such cases of crime against innocent people is abhorrent, and the culprits must be killed according to tradition, customs and XEER..
A different opinion prevails concerning the vast number of Somali sea-shifta being killed by foreign naval forces on the High Seas. They often are seen as heroes defending the Somali territorial waters and therefore the people understand to a certain extent their hostility towards also hijacking crews in what the Somali pirates call their business,.
One pirate told a news-wire recently that his colleagues were turning to black magic as a result of mounting perils and increased killings of Somalis by naval forces. “Some of my colleagues have two sorcerers in Haradheere and Galkayo. These two are experts in predicting the outcome of future hijackings or pending navy attacks by using magic, a pirate called Hussein told Reuters. Asked about the rumours of human sacrifices, Pirate Hussein confirmed too that the sorcerers only request the sacrifice of a rabbit or crocodile to avert death on the ocean.
Though research from the Jubba River expedition holds video evidence of ritual killings of women in connection with the crocodile rites performed by some Bahari against unruly local women, such practises appear to have not yet entered the pirate-world.
It remains to be seen which of the supernatural strata will prevail – or if finally Somalia and the Somalis will come again to their senses and make peace – among themselves and the rest of the world.
(*) Jama Deperani is a Senior Somali Journalist, who had to flee Somalia and is awaiting asylum; Iddi Shabeel is a scholar and researcher. This exclusive report was published first by the Somali Marine and Coastal Monitor. ©2011-SMCM/ecoterra