The Terror of Somali Piracy

The situation in southern and central Somalia is widely recognized as “one of the world’s most intractable crises.”  One of the more notorious manifestations of the crisis has been the growing threat of “Somali pirates . . . terrorizing mariners sailing far off the African coast,” the Associated Press reports. For President Obama and his administration, the phenomenon constitutes “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”


The U.S.-led international effort to repress piracy has focused on dispatching naval forces and employing drones off the coast of Somalia in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean as part of prevention and interdiction operations. In December, the State Department’s coordinator for counterpiracy and maritime security, Donna Hopkins, expressed her jubilation over the “unprecedented solidarity among nations” committed to eliminating the “common threat.” Indeed, U.S., NATO, and EU navies are accompanied by forces from over 30 nations, including warships deployed by China, Russia, India, and several others. All are authorized by UN Security Council Resolution 1851 to use “all necessary measures” to combat piracy.


The “common interest” unifying these nations is the protection of maritime trade, which accounts for more than 80% of the world's trade. U.S. planners have described the Gulf of Aden as “one of the world's most important waterways,” in large part because close to 12% of the world's petroleum passes through it. Somali pirates have exploited the vital shipping lanes by overtaking everything from chemical and oil tankers to fishing vessels and private yachts.


A new study conducted by the One Earth Future foundation estimates the total annual cost of maritime hijackings to be somewhere between $7 and $12 billion. The high price tag is primarily due to the hike in insurance rates and growing security costs taken on by commercial vessels as well as the dramatic rise in ransom payments, an estimated 60% increase in 2010 from 2009 levels.


To date the growing presence of international naval forces has done little to repress Somali piracy. Ecoterra International, an organization that monitors piracy, claims that “more than 50 captured ships are in the hands of Somali pirates, with at least 800 captives.” The number of total attacks have also increased, though the number of successful hijackings fell from 2009 to 2010—a small victory many analysts attribute to the international flotilla. 


Pirates are responding to the international presence however by extending their reach deeper into the Indian Ocean through the use of “mother ships”or captured commercial vessels that serve as floating stations from which smaller boats can perform piracy operations. On December 11, 2010 Somali pirates ventured as far as 1,000 miles east off the Somali coast and only 550 miles from the coast of India to hijack a cargo vessel.  As a result of this expansive reach, “over 40 percent of the world's seaborne oil supply passing through the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea is at risk from Somali pirates,” the shipping industry warns.


The growing threat is prompting some nations to take more aggressive measures. Last month, South Korean armed troops raided a hijacked cargo vessel and rescued 21 sailors. In what is suspected of being a display of power directed at North Korea, the South Korean government hailed the military raid as evidence of its “strong will to never negotiate with pirates.” But amid the fanfare experts warned that aggressive military action will likely cause pirates to adopt more violent tactics, thereby jeopardizing the safety of hostages who for the most part have not been physically harmed by their captors.


In fact, Tuesday morning marked the “first time US citizens have been killed in pirate attacks,” the Guardian reports, when Somali pirates murdered four American hostages after being captured on Friday, February 18. This deadly incident occurred after negotiations between the pirates and American officials “went south” due to a “dispute about the money,” according to one U.S. official. While circumstances surrounding the event remain unclear, U.S. officials claim that the pirates fired a rocket-propelled grenade at one of the Navy warships “shadowing” the hijacked vessel. U.S. forces then raided the vessel where they found two pirates already dead and all four hostages shot. During the raid, military forces killed two pirates and captured the remaining 15. The next day the  Associated Press reported that captains of other hijacked ships “have been ordered to tell navies not to approach or hostages would be killed.” 


This dreadful event will likely be used to justify the need for more aggressive military action taken against pirates, a position U.S. leadership has held for several years.



Piracy/Terror Nexus


Prior to Tuesday's incident, Vice Admiral Mark Fox, commander of the U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based Central Command fleet, asserted that “the same techniques” used to combat terrorism should be applied to piracy, adding that “[t]here cannot be a segregation between terrorist activity . . . and counter piracy.”


Until this week, U.S. intelligence officials had found no evidence of “direct ties” between Somali pirates and Al Shabaab, the “al Qaeda-linked” coalition of  militants waging war against Somalia's internationally-recognized government. But on the same day the four Americans were killed, Reuters reported that Al Shabaab militants “freed pirate gang leaders detained last week” after settling “a multi-million dollar deal to receive a 20 percent cut in all future ransoms paid to the pirates.” In return, the militants will allow hijacked ships to anchor at the port town of Haradhere in central Somalia.


This development comes less than a year after Bronwyn Bruton from the Council on Foreign Relations explained “[p]irates . . .have strong disincentives to cooperate with extremist elements, for fear of being branded terrorists themselves” and warned that an aggressive response “could nudge pirates into profit-seeking cooperation with extremist elements.”


Applying “techniques” that can effectively reduce terrorism to piracy should be a welcomed step. But this is a far cry from Washington's prevailing counterterror doctrine. 


A “key component” of the doctrine demands denying alleged terrorist organizations the ability to use “ungoverned or under-governed spaces as safe havens.” When confronted with political entities accused of “harboring terrorists,” the U.S. application of the doctrine has often meant bypassing all available peaceful means and moving directly to preventive military action. The Bush administration's record on Somalia offers insight into the merit of this application.


In June 2006 a coalition of Islamic courts and militias, united under the banner of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), liberated much of southern and central Somalia from the oppressive grip of CIA-financed warlords, who made the payroll by offering to hunt alleged terrorist suspects. Ethiopia, Somalia's historic enemy and Washington's regional client, pulled a page out of the “war on terror” playbook by accusing the Islamic movement of “harboring terrorists.” The UIC then appealed to Ethiopia's paymaster by inviting U.S. officials to Somalia to investigate the allegations. The Bush administration refused and in December 2006 gave Ethiopia the “green light” to invade.


The U.S.-sponsored intervention eradicated the significant achievements of the UIC. Beyond establishing a level of peace and security unknown to the region for more than fifteen years and winning wide support from the Somali public, the UIC had a “severe dampening effect on the activities of maritime piracy in the waters off the Somali coast,” according to a UN Monitoring Group report. The Bush administration's top foreign policymaker for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, referred to this situation as a “lack of internal stability,” whereas letting Ethiopia off the leash to devour the long-tortured nation amounted to a “strategy to help establish stability,” meaning crushing the UIC's illegitimate act of sovereignty.


Ethiopia's occupation drove Somalia into a state of war, repression, and overall crisis reminiscent of the days of the brutal Siad Barre dictatorship, which was propped up by Washington during the regime's most murderous years before falling in 1991.


In terms of extinguishing the so-called terror threat, the region has been transformed from an environment  “inhospitable to foreign jihadist groups” prior to the occupation to one that allows  extremists “to seek safe haven, recruit new members and train for future operations,”  according to a January 2010 report to the U.S. Committee on Foreign Relations. The fall of the UIC has also been followed by the “phenomenal growth of piracy” off Somalia's shores, as documented by the UN Monitoring Group. This fact however is routinely overlooked by the mainstream press in its coverage of the relentless “scourge of piracy.”


Nevertheless, inside U.S. policymaking circles the counterterror doctrine passes without serious scrutiny, while its scope broadens to the domain of piracy. Last month, the African press reported an alleged U.S. operation where forces  “descended” by helicopter on “a former base of the notorious Somali pirates and a current stronghold of Al-Shabaab,” kidnapped several local youths and flew them offshore for questioning regarding their involvement in piracy. The alleged operation is consistent with earlier prescriptions made by the National Security Council, which in a 2008 planning document asserted the necessity of “action on land to reinforce measures taken at sea.”


If true, the operation is additional evidence of the growing confluence of counter-piracy and -terrorism operations—a trend likely to escalate given the murder of the four American hostages and the new deal arranged between pirate and Al Shabaab elements. 



International Solidarity?


Despite claims from Obama administration officials concerning the “unprecedented international solidarity,” nations from the Red Sea region questioned both the effectiveness of the international naval-buildup and the intentions of “foreign elements” during a conference held in Cairo in November 2010.


Government officials asserted that the “intensive multinational military presence” poses a “danger to Arab national security,” referring mainly to the U.S. as well as the potential for Israel to dispatch naval forces “on the pretext of protecting commercial shipping.” Peter Apps from the Washington Post reported in October that nations participating in the international naval flotilla are seeking “to stake a claim to increasingly important sea lanes,” which form a “key shipping route for oil supplies from the Persian Gulf.” Apps writes further that “none of the . . . new entrants come close to challenging the regional military dominance” of the U.S., adding that the lone superpower maintains “at least one aircraft carrier in the area with enough firepower to sink almost all the other flotillas.”


The effectiveness of the international naval-buildup was also challenged by officials, who agreed that piracy is a “symptom” of the ongoing civil conflict and therefore can not be solved by sending foreign navies to combat piracy off the coast. In other words, like terrorism tackling piracy requires addressing its “root causes.” Any attempt in this regard would require addressing the legitimate grievances of the perpetrators and the larger community, something the UN and foreign governments have fallen woefully short of doing.


According to a study on Somali piracy published this January in Third World Quarterly, “Somalis see the discourse on piracy as a clear manifestation of the double standards used in the international system.” Since the political collapse of the country in 1991, Somalia's unprotected waters have been the site of criminal conduct in the form of illegal fishing by Asian and European companies and the dumping of Europe's toxic and even nuclear waste. The study explains that “the world” has paid little attention to these crimes and for the most part has only condemned Somali pirates.


In fact, in the U.S. National Security Council's December 2008 “action plan” to counter piracy off the Horn of Africa, there is not one mention of the crimes at sea committed against Somalia. The oversight is easily explained.  The U.S. maritime security policy is to “[r]educe the vulnerability of the maritime domain to . . . [criminal] acts and exploitation when U.S. interests are directly affected” (emphasis mine). Thus, unless U.S. interests are at stake criminal acts at sea, such as the use of Somali waters as a garbage and toxic waste dump,  fail to qualify as serious threats to the vast “maritime domain.” And as minor irritants they deserve only scant attention at best.


It should come as no surprise then that many Somalis have been outraged with the international response to piracy and unsympathetic to outsiders' concerns over the threat it poses to world commerce and regional “stability.”



Limits of Law


The legitimate grievances of Somalis are now overshadowed by the U.S.-led international effort to prosecute pirates. The National Security Council planning document refered to above argues that “Somali-based piracy is flourishing because it is currently highly profitable and nearly consequence-free.” According to this logic, the threat of prosecution should serve as a powerful deterrent. 


U.S. courts have already begun prosecutions. In November a federal court finished trying five Somalis who were captured during an April attack on a U.S. warship, making them “the first defendants to be tried for high-seas piracy in a U.S. court since 1819.” Germany has also opened up its courts, ending a 400 year lapse in the prosecution of piracy. These historic moments however are complicated by various legal challenges.


One challenge has been determining whether some of those captured at sea should be tried as adults or juveniles. In November, Radhika Coomaraswamy, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General (SRSG) for Children and Armed Conflict, said “The frontline [pirate] troops now are increasingly children and youth.” She went on to say that the “big pirates do not go out, they have become businessmen; it is the young children [15-17-year-olds] who are sent out."

While jailing children and young men ensure that acts piracy no longer go “consequence-free,” the thought of convictions sending “a strong message of deterrence” is unconvincing given the misery on land that Somalis are fleeing.


In December, Sudarsan Raghavan from the Washington Post wrote, “The situation in Mogadishu [Somalia's capital] has become so bad that nearly 300,000 Somalis have made their way out this year, swelling the ranks of what is, after Iraq and Afghanistan, the third-largest refugee population in the world.”  For the past few years, the refugee and overall humanitarian crisis has been a consequence of the current phase of a two-decade long civil conflict. But now the region is inflicted with drought so severe that it has “overtaken insecurity as the main reason for people being displaced,” the Guardian reports.


Taken together, Somalia's various crises currently leave 3.2 million people (more than 40 per cent of the population) in desperate need of humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, the “international community” is subdued by  “donor fatigue,” Raghavan reports. He adds that “in a post-9/11 world,” where “nations are preoccupied with terrorism, security and other global crises,” the UN has had serious difficulty raising humanitarian funding—including from Somalia's “main donor,” the U.S.


As a result of the large pool of desperate children and adults for those running the criminal enterprise to tap into, meting out legal punishment will likely fall short of a “strong message,” at least as its intended. 


To resolve the crisis on land requires ending the ongoing conflict between Al Shabaab and the TFG, which most analysts believe would fall within days were it not for the protection of the African Union's Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). This is understood by all observers, including the Obama administration. But at the current juncture the administration and other major parties remain  unwilling to initiate dialogue with Al Shabaab, as recommended even within the foreign policy establishment. Instead, the Obama administration is preparing to take “more aggressive” action against the militia, a move many analysts believe could easily “backfire.”


Thus, at this moment in Somalia's seemingly “intractable” conflict, steps could be taken to potentially reduce hostilities. But this is a tall order for the Obama administration as doing so requires defying the prevailing counterterror doctrine. Failure in this regard carries the possible consequence of reinforcing and prolonging Somalia's various crises, including the one at sea. 



Stephen Roblin is an activist and independent researcher currently living in Baltimore, Maryland. For a copy of this article with full citations, please email him at stephenroblin@gmail.com.

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