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