Somalia: Shoot On Sight, Shoot First, Shoot To Kill, Keep Shooting


November 27,2008: There's a gold rush atmosphere on northern Somalia's "pirate coast." More gangs are being formed, and going hunting. The gangs have an informal organization, which largely consists of not getting into each others' way. The local government of Puntland (a tribal coalition that had brought peace to this corner of the country) has been bought off and intimidated into inaction. The local Islamic Courts gunmen are not numerous, but have declared the taking of ships owned by Moslems to be bad. Plundering infidel ships is another matter, which the Islamic radicals are rather more vague on.

What it comes down to is that the piracy will continue and grow until the pirates no longer have bases. Nothing new about this. Similar piracy situations have arisen for thousands of years, and have been eliminated the same way; you go after the bases. But no one wants to step forward and do this. In the past this was less of a problem, because there was no mass media quick to find fault with any government action. But there's also the nature of the enemy. The Somalis have been a regional menace for centuries, raiding and threatening neighbors with all manner of mayhem. The Somalis are persistent and resourceful fighters. British 19th century colonial administrators learned that the best way to deal with Somali outlaws was to "shoot on sight, shoot first, shoot to kill, keep shooting."  Not unexpectedly, post-colonial Somalia proved unable to govern itself. The tribal rivalries kept the pot boiling, and even the rise of a "clean government" party (the Islamic Courts), based on installing a religious dictatorship, backfired. Too many Somalis were willing to fight the Islamic radicals, who were also handicapped by their support for al Qaeda and international Islamic terrorism.

In the past (before the European colonialists showed up) a form of order was imposed by having more reasonable (and often non-Somali) powers hold the coastal cities and towns, enabling trade with the outside world. One had to accept a near constant state of war, or just the  banditry, with the interior tribes. There were periods of peace, as warlords established temporary kingdoms, but was never the notion that peace was something that would last. The Somalis were constantly at war with their neighbors, usually in the form of Somalis raiding into Kenya and Ethiopia, and sometimes getting attacked in turn by "punitive raids" (to discourage raiding, for a while anyway.)

Local Arab and African governments are looking to the West (the owners of most of the  ships being plundered) to deal with the problem. The West is looking to the United States to take the lead. The U.S. got burned (by the Somalis and the mass media) the last time (1993) it tried to bring peace to Somalia. What will happen now is all these nations will squabble among themselves over who will do the deed, until the piracy gets so bad that someone blinks. Egypt is particularly nervous, as major ships are starting to avoid the Gulf of Aden, and the Suez canal. This could eventually deprive Egypt of millions of dollars a day in canal transit fees. It will cost shipping companies even more to send their slower and more vulnerable (to pirates) ships around the southern tip of Africa. But what will really bring in the marines (U.S. or otherwise) will be greedy pirates to pull more stunts like going after the huge tankers entering and leaving the Persian Gulf. This trade is vital to international commerce and the world economy. Put too much hurt on the big money, and the big stick comes out. The media have their irresistible wartime headlines, Somalia has some form of peace, and a decrease in population. The Somalis don't fight like the Iraqis or Afghans (who don't fight like each other either). The Somalis have shorter fuses, and come at you with more vigor and determination. They are not really difficult to defeat, but it's messy. The Somalis like making war a family affair, and will use civilians as human shields. They have embraced the use of suicide bombers, roadside bombs and all manner of modern Moslem mayhem. Short of some unprecedented national attitude adjustment, the Somalis will continue being difficult and deadly to deal with.

The Islamic radical groups now control most of Somalia south of Mogadishu. The Transitional National Government (TNG) keeps trying to achieve a compromise deal to unite most of the tribes (called clans here), but compromise is not a popular thing in Somalia, nor is trust.  The Islamic radicals have popular appeal among the tribes, because the radicals are the least corrupt and capricious armed group in the country. But the Islamic radicals also try to impose strict lifestyle rules on everyone, and that is not popular. Thus the very peace that the Islamic radicals bring with them, is quickly undermined by the actions of the "lifestyle police" the radicals unleash. More moderate Islamic radicals could easily take over the country. But the problem with Islamic radicalism is there is always a competition among factions to be more radical than thou. This leads to internal strife and collapse of the movement. Then there's always the tribal politics, and the inability of tribal and warlord groups to compromise to form a united government. Not enough Somali leaders have accepted the fact that the old ways just are not working. Then again, many Somalis have a different concept of peace and prosperity. In times past, the losers in these tribal wars would all die, or be absorbed into the victorious tribe. But these days you have international relief efforts. So two million Somalis are surviving on foreign aid. This refugee community produces more angry young men, ready to take up the gun and go get some tribal justice, or just get rich.

The UN is trying to make an arms embargo in Somalia work. The UN has authorized the use of asset freezes and travel restrictions against gunrunners. This has not worked in the past, and will probably not work now.  With the Ethiopians leaving Mogadishu by the end of the year, it's going to be the UN and AU (African Union) trying to maintain some form of order in the city. The UN is also under pressure to authorize a naval blockade of Somalia. This would be difficult and expensive to carry out, what with a 3,000 kilometer coastline, and lots of determined pirates. The blockade would have to be maintained (and paid for) "indefinitely", or until someone went in and imposed peace on the country. NATO has flat out refused to consider helping out with a blockade.  

November 26, 2008: Up north in Puntland, bandits kidnapped two British journalists, and held them for ransom. Three other foreign journalists are being held in Mogadishu. Somali bandits are trying to get ransoms of half a million dollars or more for each of these reporters.

November 22, 2008: A small (several dozen gunmen) group of Islamic radicals announced that they would find those responsible for seizing the Saudi owned tanker, and punish the pirates for attacking Moslems. The Islamic radicals made a show of driving around Puntland waving their guns and shouting slogans. But with a potential ransom of over $10 million, the Saudi tanker is well guarded by even more determined Somalis.

November 21, 2008: Pirates released a chemical tanker, and its crew of 19, after two months of captivity. Apparently a ransom (of over two million dollars in cash) had been paid.

November 19, 2008: As of today, the pirates have seized nine ships in twelve days. One of those ships, a Thai fishing trawler, fishing illegally in Somali waters, was approached by an Indian frigate shortly after the pirates took over. The pirates fired on the Indian warship, which returned fire and destroyed the trawler. Apparently most of the pirates and trawler crew were killed. It took a several days for it to become clear that the Indians had not destroyed a pirate "mother ship", but a recently captured fishing boat. These craft are often used as mother ships, but only after the original crews are disposed of (ransomed or murdered). The pirates prefer to collect ransom on these large fishing boats, and believe they are acting as an informal "coast guard", and halting illegal fishing, by doing so. The pirates consider the ransom for fishing boats to be "fines", and that foreign warships have no right to interfere with this coast guard business.


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