Will US intervention against pirates deepen Somalia’s crisis?

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced a new US initiative April 15 to battle piracy off Somalia, and said she has formed a diplomatic team to press Somali leaders “to take action against pirates operating from bases within their territories.” She added: “These pirates are criminals. They are armed gangs on the sea. And those plotting attacks must be stopped.”

Somalia’s Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke (whose “government” actually controls very little of Somalia) told the Associated Press that his piracy-fighting plan will be ready next week in time for an international conference on Somalia in Brussels. In Nairobi, Sharmarke and the president of Somalia’s autonomous Puntland region met with US diplomats including the ambassador to Kenya. “We want to press them to take action against these pirates who are operating from their territory,” said State Department spokesman Robert Wood. He said the United States was willing to help but has not decided how best to do so. (AP, AllAfrica.com, April 16)

An April 17 New York Times editorial, “Fighting Piracy in Somalia,” applauds the US Navy for the rescue of Richard Phillips, but warns:

The cruel fact is that even as Americans celebrated the rescue, the Somali pirates — in what is business as usual off of Somalia’s long ungoverned coast— were grabbing more ships. There are now 17 captured ships and about 260 hostages waiting to be ransomed. The short-term answer is more patrols and better cooperation with regional states; a long-term solution, alas, remains elusive.

The U.S. and French governments were fully within their rights to authorize deadly force against the heavily armed pirates. Though the bandits may only be looking for ransom, their trophies have included giant oil tankers and ships full of sophisticated weapons. They have seriously disrupted shipping in one of the busiest maritime passages in the world, and their tactics could easily be adopted by terrorist groups — including Islamist groups inside Somalia linked to Al Qaeda — looking to cripple global commerce.

Of course, this is an acknowledgement that the pirates aren’t Islamists. In fact, the Islamists have threatened to attack the pirate bases in Puntland (after the pirates were so indiscreet as to seize a Saudi ship—given that the Saudis are likely underwriting the Islamists). The Times squawks the standard media line:

Somalia has known only varying degrees of anarchy for 18 years now. A whole generation of Somalis has been raised in a violent free-for-all of warlords, pirates and extremists. Misguided American attempts to impose order produced the “Black Hawk Down” fiasco in 1993 and an ultimately useless Ehtiopian invasion in 2006.

Yet left to its own devices, Somalia can only become more noxious, spreading violence to its East African neighbors, breeding more extremism and making shipping through the Gulf of Aden ever more dangerous and costly. Various approaches are being discussed, such as working through Somalia’s powerful clans to reconstitute first local and then regional and national institutions. These must be urgently explored. One thing is clear: the United States cannot go it alone. This is a problem that can only be solved in partnership with Western allies and East African governments.

Again, no acknowledgement that “Somalia” actually consists of (at least) three distinct entities: the autonomous regions of Puntland and Somaliland (which govern themselves fairly well) and the oxymoron of “government-controlled Somalia”—which is only one-third of what maps label “Somalia,” and isn’t controlled by the government. The Great Powers insist on viewing the problem in Somalia as a power vacuum which can be solved by Great Power intervention (whether unilateral, as Bush attempted through his Ethiopian proxies, or multilateral, as the Times would prefer). Instead, it is that part of Somalia (the southern third, and the former Italian colony) which has been a war zone for nearly a generation now, thanks to Great Power efforts to impose governments. The northern two thirds of the country (Puntland and Somaliland, the former British colony), have achieved their own autonomy in spite of the Great Powers, and have relative peace. Going after the pirate bases in Puntland may provide the pretext for putting an end to its hard-won autonomy.

Meanwhile, leave it to the kneejerk Idiot Left to rally uncritically around the pirates. London Independent columnist John Hari, writing April 13 on Huffington Post, has a much-quoted article entitled “You Are Being Lied to About Pirates”:

In 1991, the government of Somalia – in the Horn of Africa – collapsed. Its nine million people have been teetering on starvation ever since – and many of the ugliest forces in the Western world have seen this as a great opportunity to steal the country’s food supply and dump our nuclear waste in their seas.

Yes: nuclear waste. As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died.

At the same time, other European ships have been looting Somalia’s seas of their greatest resource: seafood. We have destroyed our own fish stocks by over exploitation – and now we have moved on to theirs. More than $300m worth of tuna, shrimp, lobster and other sea life is being stolen every year by vast trawlers illegally sailing into Somalia’s unprotected seas. The local fishermen have suddenly lost their livelihoods, and they are starving.

This is the context in which the men we are calling “pirates” have emerged. Everyone agrees they were ordinary Somalian fishermen who at first took speedboats to try to dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least wage a ‘tax’ on them. They call themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia – and it’s not hard to see why. In a surreal telephone interview, one of the pirate leaders, Sugule Ali, said their motive was “to stop illegal fishing and dumping in our waters… We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits [to be] those who illegally fish and dump in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas.”

We’ve noted the claims about toxic waste here—and they are entirely plausible. But before we swallow this “Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia” jazz, we’d like to see some evidence that the voluminous ransom monies have been democratically distributed to impacted coastal communities, or used for ecological remediation. Predictably, Hari is just as blind as the New York Times to the fact that Somalia is not just a lawless zone where a self-styled “Volunteer Coastguard” is needed to come to the rescue. Puntland, from where the pirates operate, has its own rudimentary coast guard, and it has (under foreign pressure) been deployed against the pirates.

Nyankor Matthew, in an April 15 piece for the Liberian Dialogue, “Somali Pirates: International Hypocrisy and Pretext for Military Invasion and Economic Imperialism,” sees illegal fishing in Somali waters as a provocation to the crisis:

After years of plundering their resources, the Somali fishermen finally decided to fight off the real pirates, thieves, and terrorists, and instead of being called voluntary coast guards, they are being labeled as criminals, pirates, and terrorists… In my humble opinion they are totally justified in their actions because they are doing nothing different than what is being done to them by the same people calling them pirates. The only difference is that unlike the propagandists, the Somalis don’t have a voice.

She quotes a report form the NGO ECOTERRA International:

ECOTERRA International warned ship-owners as far back as 1992, that they were fishing illegally within the Somalia’s Exclusive Economic Zone. When foreign vessels refused to stop pirating Somalia’s ocean resources, EcoTerra repeatedly appealed to the US and the international community for help to protect the coastal waters of the war-torn state to no avail. This void provided an opening for the rise of Somalia’s pirate fleets.

Illegal fishing is a serious problem, but we’d like to know how seizing ships loaded with humanitarian aid is addressing the problem. And, alas, even Matthew, with her pan-Africanist perspective, offers no acknowledgement that two-thirds of Somalia is already running its own affairs reasonably well. International recognition of Puntland’s autonomy and Somaliland’s declared independence—building on the stability that already exists, instead of tearing it down—could provide a way out of the crisis. But hardly anyone is talking about that.

See our last post on Somalia and the pirates.

Please leave a tip or answer the Exit Poll.

  1. Accused pirate charged in federal court
    From the New York Daily News, April 21:

    Somali pirate’s smile turns to tears; charged with crimes that could send him to jail for life
    Penniless and weeping, a Somali pirate was hit with five federal charges Tuesday that could land him in the brig for the rest of his life.

    A Manhattan judge ruled Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse can be prosecuted as an adult – setting the stage for the first U.S. sea piracy trial in over a century.

    Wearing a prison jumpsuit and a bandage on his left hand, Muse had little to say during the afternoon proceedings, beyond pleading poverty.

    “I don’t have any money,” he told told Magistrate Judge Andrew Peck during a discussion of whether he could afford a lawyer.

    Several courtroom observers saw tears running down the suspect’s face, a day after he smiled for the cameras as he was led into 26 Federal Plaza.

    Prosecutors presented a charge of piracy and four related counts for hijacking the Maersk Alabama on April 8 and holding the captain hostage.

    Muse – who was on a Navy ship trying to negotiate when SEALs killed the rest of the pirate crew and rescued the captain on April 12 – did not enter a plea.

    The courtroom was briefly closed yesterday while the pirate’s age was debated. The defense claimed he was 15; prosecutors said he was over 18.

    The feds said Muse had given conflicting information about his age – telling Navy officials and an NYPD detective he was anywhere between 15 and 26.

    The judge called Muse’s father in Somalia and he said his son was his first-born and was born in November 1993, making him just 15.

    Under questioning, though, the father said his fourth-born son was born in 1990 – and the judge ruled his testimony was not credible.

    Since he’s been deemed an adult, Muse will be tried in open court. The case is going foward in New York because the Manhattan office of the FBI handles crimes out of Africa.

    For now, the Somali seaman will be held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan.

    His mother said she was horrified when she saw a photo of him being brought handcuffed into 26 Federal Plaza on Monday, a smile on his face.

    “The last time I saw him he was in his school uniform,” the mother, Adar Abdirahman Hassan, 40, told the Associated Press from her home in Galkayo.

    “He took all his books the day he disappeared, except one, I think, and did not come back.”

    She said her son should not be held responsible for the Maersk hijacking.

    “He was brainwashed. People who are older than him outwitted him, people who are older than him duped him,” she said.

    “I cried when I saw the picture of him,” Hassan said of the arrest photo. “Relatives brought a copy of the picture to me. Surely he is telling himself now, ‘My mother’s heart is broken.'”

    Note to Daily News headline writer: That’s “accused Somali pirate.” He isn’t convicted yet, thank you.

  2. ‘It’s a pirate’s life for me’
    A very telling interview from BBC News, April 22:

    A 25-year-old Somali pirate has told the BBC’s Mohamed Olad Hassan by telephone from the notorious den of Harardhere in central Somalia why he became a sea bandit. Dahir Mohamed Hayeysi says he and his big-spending accomplices are seen by many as heroes.

    ” I used to be a fisherman with a poor family that depended only on fishing.

    The first day joining the pirates came into my mind was in 2006.

    A group of our villagers, mainly fishermen I knew, were arming themselves.

    One of them told me that they wanted to hijack ships, which he said were looting our sea resources.

    ‘National service’

    He told me it was a national service with a lot of money in the end. Then I took my gun and joined them.

    Years ago we used to fish a lot, enough for us to eat and sell in the markets.

    Then illegal fishing and dumping of toxic wastes by foreign fishing vessels affected our livelihood, depleting the fish stocks.

    I had no other choice but to join my colleagues.

    The first hijack I attended was in February 2007 when we seized a World Food Programme-chartered ship with 12 crew.

    I think it had the name of MV Rozen and we released it after two months, with a ransom.

    One last job

    I am not going to tell you how much it was, or three other hijackings I have been involved in since.

    A Somali pirate on board a French yacht on 10 April 2009

    My ambition is to get a lot of money so that I can lead a better life.

    Now I have two lorries, a luxury car and have started my own business in my town.

    I only want one more chance in piracy to increase my cash assets, then I will get married and give up.

    Piracy is not just easy money – it has many risks and difficulties.

    See map showing how Somali pirates have affected various countries in video, audio, pictures and text

    Sometimes you spend months in the sea to hunt a ship and miss.

    Sometimes when we are going to hijack a ship we face rough winds, and some of us get sick and some die.

    Sometimes you fail in capturing and sometimes you come under threat by foreign navies, but all we do is venture.


    Let me give you a good example.

    Thousands of young desperate Somali [migrants] continue to risk their lives in the sea in search of a better life abroad.

    Patrol boat checks out fishing vessel off Somalia
    So it is no surprise to see us in the same water, pirating in search of money – there is no difference.

    We have local support; most of the people here depend on pirates directly or indirectly.

    Because if there is a lot of money in the town they can get some through friendship, relatives or business.

    Also our work is seen by many in the coastal villages as legal and we are viewed as heroes.

    The only way the piracy can stop is if [Somalia] gets an effective government that can defend our fish.

    And then we will disarm, give our boats to that government and will be ready to work.

    Foreign navies can do nothing to stop piracy.”