Move over, Johnny Depp. He may have been great as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, but when it comes to playing Captain Sparrow’s real-life Somali counterparts, noone beats a certain chap from Nairobi called Bashir.
Bashir is not actually a real-life Somali buccaneer. Nor, indeed, is he even a professional actor. Yet he is apparently very convincing as a pirate – or convincing enough, anyway, to fool a number of journalists into quoting him in their reports on the subject.
So goes the remarkable story last week from Jamal Osman, the excellent Somali reporter with Channel Four News. In what is a great scoop for him – if perhaps slightly welcome news for some of his fellow newsmen – he has discovered that there is now a thriving cottage industry in fake Somali pirates, who act as the real thing for interviews with journalists and film crews.
According to Mr Osman, there is an enterprising fixer in Kenya who has been specialising in this for a while. For a few hundred dollars a time, he introduces unsuspecting hacks to various pals in the Somali district of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, who will talk about their exploits as pirates. Some of these “actors” have, in fact, never even set foot in Somalia. Yet they’ve managed to fool a number of respected outlets, including, it seems, a Danish documentary maker and a reporter for Time Magazine.
Personally, I can safely say that during my last sojourn to Somalia, I never fell for this particular scam. That isn’t quite the boast that it might sound, though. The pirates I met were definitely the real deal. The problem was that at the time, they too were doing a spot of acting as well. Specifically, they were pretending to be members of a local armed bodyguard firm that my fixer had hired to look after my photographer and me. On our last day there, they abducted us we headed to the airport, holding us hostage in a cave in the mountains or six weeks. Frankly, I’d rather have fallen for the scam that fooled the Danish film crew.
Nonetheless, while I may have been a victim of pirates pretending to be normal people, rather than the other way around, I have sympathy for any hack who gets fooled in this fashion. It’s a dilemma facing every reporter who ever covers something like piracy or terrorism. You want the meet the “bad guys” involved to give your report a touch of life, not to say balance and credibility. Yet how do you actually do so without getting into trouble yourself? I know of several film makers who have tried to meet insurgents, people traffickers and the like, only to end up on film themselves, when the said interviewees release a hostage video of them. It’s a particular risk in the case of pirates, who are effectively professional hostage-takers anyway.
It’s here that having good fixers counts for a lot, and in places like Somalia, where clan and cousinhood counts more than the writ of law, someone with the right connections can often get you introduced safely to people who might otherwise be dangerous to meet.
The problem, though, is that most Western journalists must rely purely on their fixer’s say-so as to whether the person introduced to them is genuine. Somali pirates, for example, do not wear wooden legs, eyepatches and parrots to identify themselves as buccaneers. Most look no different from anyone else, especially to a visiting Westerner. By contrast Mr Osman, the Somali reporter for Channel Four, says he was able to tell straight away that the fakers were actually ethnic Kenyans rather than Somalis.
Besides, the fakers he met also went to considerable lengths to make themselves seem authentic to any would-be interviewer. First, they would play to hard-to-get, with their fixer pretending it was too “dangerous” to meet them. Then there would be a series of shadowy rendezvous at which the “pirates” would fail to show. Finally, an audience would be granted in a Nairobi slum with “Bashir” who appears, by all accounts, to have taken his acting almost as seriously as Daniel Day Lewis. When Mr Osman filmed him for Channel Four, he asks Bashir to show him his pirate act. Far from going “shiver me timbers” on demand, Bashir replies, in almost luvvie-ish fashion: “There is a process of getting into character, you can’t just switch it on”.
Sadly, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard of this kind of fakery. It’s just the first time I’ve seen proof. A colleague who once worked in Pakistan, for example, told me of a thriving industry in fake “Taliban” cells, where certain unscrupulous fixers would provide film crews with introductions to various people guising as Taliban fighters.
A rendezvous would be arranged, usually out in the countryside somewhere, with a group of masked men who would pose with weapons and snarl Taliban pieties before the camera. Some of them were apparently complete fakes, other were Taliban sympathisers who would then donate money to the cause. But either way, the result was the same: the fixer would get his money and the film crew would get their footage.
Similar stuff, I suspect, may also have happened out in Iraq, where I was based after the war. I personally never inquired about meeting insurgents – as a freelancer, I didn’t have the back-up if it went wrong – but from my conversations with reporters who had done, it often didn’t amount to much more than sitting in a car with a man who would angrily vent bile about the Americans and what a mess Iraq had become. In other words, not a lot different from chatting to the average Iraqi cabbie.
At the time, I remember thinking that the only sure-fire way to have told a genuine Iraqi insurgent from a fake would have been to watch them on an operation against the Americans. And quite apart from the fact that watching someone trying to kill fellow Westerners would taken the notion of exercise journalistic detachment to a very new level, it could well have ended with the journalist concerned ending up either dead or in Guantanamo Bay.
I should concede here that a few Western journalists did manage to make good contacts with Iraqi insurgents, and some too, such as the New York Times Pulitzer-prize winner Jeffrey Gettleman, have done similar great stuff with Somali pirates. But it takes time and patience, things that are often a premium for journalists on tight budgets and tighter deadlines. Hence the problem that Mr Osman has uncovered – and as far as that is concerned, I fear it is case of there but for the grace of God go most of us.
In 2000, I remember covering a week-long hijack stand-off at Stansted Airport, where a plane commandeered by a group of Afghans made an emergency landing from Kabul, claiming to be seeking asylum from the Taliban. Out of nowhere, an elderly man with robes and a big moustache appeared, who introduced himself as the Taliban’s “European spokesman” and proceeded to give interviews to all the assembled media, warning Britain to send the plane home. Noone, as far as I remember, thought to question his credentials. So while he may well have been the genuine article, he could just as easily have been an elderly man with…er, robes and a big moustache. Or, who knows, a pirate.