Somalia: Embarrassing Consequences


April 16, 2009: Somali government (TNG) officials confirm that al Qaeda is using the country as a base, for training terrorists for attacks in neighboring Kenya, Ethiopia and Yemen. The most radical Somali faction, al Shabaab, has even recruited about a dozen young men from the Somali refugee community (of about 150,000 legal and illegal migrants) in the United States. The U.S. is now seeking to interrupt Somali pirate and terrorist factions access to banks in the region.

Somaliland accused neighboring Eritrea of training and sheltering Islamic terrorists who are staging attacks inside Somaliland. Eritrea is allied with Sudan and Iran in supporting Islamic radical groups.

So far this year, Somali pirates have attacked at least 80 ships, capturing about fifteen of them (many fishing boat captures go unreported, or are difficult to confirm). Since the international anti-piracy patrol has made the Gulf of Aden difficult (or even dangerous, depending on which country the warship is from) for pirates, more attacks have been made off the east coast. The pirates have the advantage here, because the 3,000 kilometers long Somali coast is far larger than the current force of two dozen foreign warships can effectively patrol. These multimillion dollar payoffs have attracted thousands of ambitious and fearless young Somalis, looking to score big, and retire.

In the past month, since the Somali TNG moved to Mogadishu, three members of parliament have been murdered. Al Shabaab death squads are believed to be responsible. So far this year, about 60,000 refugees have returned to Mogadishu, and some of them back Islamic radicals and terrorists.

At some point, when "too many" ships are captured by pirates and held for ransom, the international community will go ashore and destroy (at least for a while) the Somali pirates. There is already quite a lot of intelligence on who the pirates are, who leads them and where the leaders live and mother ships and speedboats are based. Smart bomb and ground attacks have been worked out, for planning purposes only, and estimates made for the number of "civilian" casualties. But in Somali society, there are no "civilians." Everyone gets involved in the fight. Peacekeepers in Somalia are shocked at how casually, and frequently, Somali gunmen use women and children as human shields. But military planners know that cell phone camera pictures of dead women and children, will get more attention in the media than those of blasted pirate ships and dead pirates. Nothing like a good war crime to sell newspapers.

Meanwhile, 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 attacking too many (the exact number is uncertain) ships, especially 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.

When the bombs do drop, everyone gets something. The media have their irresistible wartime headlines, Somalia has some form of peace, and a small decrease in population. Only the pirates lose. But 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 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 is not working now.  With the Ethiopians gone from Mogadishu, it's now up to 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.  Everyone wants something done about the pirates, but too many nations are holding back because of potentially embarrassing consequences (dead pirates or dead civilians).  

April 14, 2009: In the last two days, pirates seized two cargo ships and two fishing boats off the Somali coast. Another American cargo ship, approaching Mombasa, Kenya, was attacked by pirates but, despite considerable damage from gunfire and RPGs, evaded capture. There aren't too many merchant ships with U.S. crews, because sailors from other nations will work for much less money. But U.S. law mandates that certain cargoes, like U.S. relief aid for foreign countries, be carried in ships with American crews. Thus the attacks on two U.S. crewed ships, which were carrying food and other supplies for Somali refugees in Kenya, and  Somali famine victims inside Somalia.

About a thousand kilometers east of Mombasa, a French warship captured one of the pirate mother ships, and took eleven pirates prisoner.

April 13, 2009: The Transitional National Government (TNG, now run by more moderate Islamic radicals) praised the U.S. operation that killed three pirates and freed an American ship captain. The pirates are not popular with people in central and southern Somalia, because many recent attacks have gone after ships bringing in food and medical aid for drought stricken people in the south. If the pirates capture relief aid ships, they do not allow the food and other aid to be delivered, but hold it for ransom. Sometimes, pirates loot the ship's cargo and take what they want, for their own use.

In Mogadishu, a mortar shell hit the compound of the Red Crescent Society (the Moslem equivalent of the Red Cross), damaging a facility that provided artificial limbs for those with amputations (usually as a result of fighting in the area.) The mortar attack was not believed to be deliberate. Al Shabaab terrorists fire their few mortars largely at random, since the TNG controls most of the city, at least most of the time.

April 12, 2009: U.S. Navy SEAL snipers killed three pirates holding an American merchant marine captain. The fourth pirate had come aboard a nearby U.S. destroyer to negotiate and receive medical care (he had been stabbed in the hand with an ice pick when the American crew of the Alabama fought off the pirate attack four days ago). The pirates had allowed the American destroyer to tow their lifeboat to calmer waters. When it got dark, the destroyer crew gradually shortened the tow rope until the lifeboat was less than 30 meters away. This allowed three SEAL snipers, who had parachuted in earlier with sniper rifles and night scopes, to fire three shots simultaneously, after one of the pirates was seen threatening their captive with an assault rifle. A day earlier, the navy had been given permission to use force if the Alabama's captains life appeared in danger. This, in effect, was permission to kill the pirates. The SEALs sent in were from the elite SEAL Team Six, which is used for all manner of special jobs.

April 11, 2009:  Four pirates, and their captive (the captain of ship Maersk Alabama, briefly captured while headed for Mombasa three days ago) have run out of fuel while trying to reach the Somali coast in one of the Alabama's lifeboats. The lifeboat is now surrounded by U.S. warships, and other warships forced  pirates from bringing captured ships to the aid of the four pirates in the out-of-fuel lifeboat. The U.S. Navy and the FBI are negotiating with the four pirates to free the American captain. But the pirates want $2 million in ransom and free passage to the Somali coast. The U.S. refuses to pay ransom.

Pirates freed a 23,000 ton Polish freighter, and its 27 sailors, after payment of a $2.4 million ransom. The ship had been taken a month ago.

April 10, 2009: For the third time in a year, French commandos have attacked pirates to free captives. This time, two small boats containing French troops came at five pirates holding a yacht containing five civilians. During the brief gun battle, two pirates, and the captain of the yacht, were killed. The other three pirates were captured. Including these three, France now has fifteen Somalis being prosecuted for piracy.




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