Piracy raises pressure for new international tack on Somalia

The world is not willing to allow this strategic nation to remain ungoverned. Can a coordinated effort create a stable government?

Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP
Competition for turf: Al Shabab insurgents stood guard in Mogadishu, Somalia, late last month. Deep instability inside Somalia is at the root of the piracy problem, says one Somalia analyst.
Rich Clabaugh/STAFF

With Islamist militias in control of much of the country, pirates using Somali coasts to attack commercial ships with ease, and mounting hunger among civilians, Somalia is a failed state begging for new ideas in 2009. US-backed Ethiopian troops who've been propping up an unpopular transitional government are now fleeing the country. Yet as the growing presence of European, American, Indian, and, soon, Chinese navies off the Somali coast show, the world is not willing to allow this strategic nation in the Horn of Africa – with its long coastline along key shipping routes – to remain ungoverned. One of the central questions for 2009: Can a coordinated international effort help create a lasting and stable government?

Who are Somalia's Islamists and what would their return to power mean for the country?

The vast majority of Somalis are Sunni Muslim, and Islam has historically been one of the few things that binds this nation of competing clans into a functioning and stable society. Some of the more fiery Islamist parties – particularly the radical Al Shabab, listed as a terrorist group by the US State Department – have caused regional experts to worry that Somalia could become a jihadi breeding ground, but the majority of Somalia's Islamist parties are more moderate and pragmatic, and eager to prove their governmental abilities.

A coalition of these different parties, called the Union of Islamic Courts, formed a government for six months in 2006, but its grandiose talk of creating a "Greater Somalia" – taking away territory from neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia where ethnic Somalis live – prompted Ethiopia to send in troops in December 2006 to back a secular transitional government. The failure of that government to extend its hold beyond the city of Baidoa is prompting many experts to suggest that the more popular Islamists should be given another try at government.

"People see the Islamists as bringing law and order, security, and stopping the fleecing of people through roadblocks and unnecessary taxation," says Iqbal Jhazbhay, a Somali expert at the University of South Africa in Tshwane, as Pretoria is now called. Somali clan elders are likely to "be a check and balance on the hardness of the Islamists," he predicts, and "the international community can use back channels through the Saudis and the Qataris to make sure that the Islamists don't make use of terror outfits" to get arms or recruits.

"One way or another, Somalia is likely to be dominated by Islamist forces," says Daniela Kroslak, deputy director of the International Crisis Group's Africa Program, in a recent report. "It makes sense, therefore, to offer the incentives of international recognition and extensive assistance in return for an agreement that is based on compromises by all major Somali actors and promotes the rights and well-being of all Somalis."

Who are the pirates – and can they be reined in?

Piracy has plagued the Somali coasts for generations, but only became a sophisticated criminal enterprise in recent years, when profit-minded militia leaders teamed up with coastal fishermen to attack the many commercial ships passing through the Gulf of Aden on their way to and from the Suez Canal.

Since commercial ships, such as the Saudi-owned oil-tanker Sirius Star, are relatively unprotected, piracy on the high seas is an attractive business in a country with few business opportunities.

Recent brazen attacks – including the capture of the Saudi-owned Sirius Star, carrying $100 million worth of oil, one-quarter of Saudi Arabia's daily production – have prompted some security experts to question whether Somali Islamist groups, or even foreign terrorist groups, might be using piracy to fund their military ambitions.

While the pirates have become more sophisticated, their ties to Somalia's Islamists are tenuous at best. Their bases are in the quasi-autonomous Puntland region – far from the Islamist-controlled south, where courts have recently sentenced pirate crews to 20 years in jail.

"Nomadic peoples have mastered the idea of survival, and even now, with a huge number of patrols, pirates can reasonably think they have nothing to lose," says Mr. Jhazbhay. Piracy can be controlled only if Somalia is stable and has an effective government, he adds. "When the Islamists were in power for six months, the message went out, piracy will not be tolerated."

"The world is preoccupied with a symptom – piracy – instead of concentrating on a political settlement, the core of the crisis," says Rashid Abdi, a Somali analyst for the International Crisis Group. "There is no quick fix to ... [this] tragedy, but this opportunity must not be missed."

How did Somalia fail as a state?

Since the military government of Siad Barre fell in 1991, Somalia has been ruled in varying degrees by traditional clan leaders and warlords.

Some regions in the north, such as Somaliland and Puntland, broke away and declared independence, while the southern majority remain bogged down in the near-constant fighting.

A brief US military intervention in 1992 and 1993 – intended to secure the flow of humanitarian aid during a famine – failed to leave behind a stable government. A similar intervention by Ethiopia (which has a sizable Somali minority) has also failed to prop up a moderate secular Transitional Federal Government.

Both foreign interventions were unable to create a government that represented all clan groups. "What it takes is to create a government where all groups are represented, and where traditional elders have a role," says Jhazbhay. "Previous governments tended to be one person, bringing one group to a position of power, and the other groups were not comfortable with that."

Will the West ramp up military operations and intervene again in Somalia?

Foreign navies of Europe, the United States, India, and China have increased patrols in the more than 1 million square miles off Somalia.

Many experts now believe foreign intervention inside Somalia is counterproductive, against either piracy or Islamists. Jonathan Stevenson, a professor at the US Naval War College, says it was a mistake for Ethiopia to topple the Islamist government, and he criticizes the US military approach to Al Shabab – including US airstrikes that killed top Shabab leader Aden Hashi Ayro.

Singling out Al Shabab for US targeting, he wrote in the New Republic, "pushed it closer to Al Qaeda; spurred it to expand its target set to any Somalis associated with the West, including local aid workers and community leaders; attracted foreign jihadist recruits; and politically inhibited any US moves toward positive engagement."

"There is a strong assumption that southern Somalia will only be safe and peaceful if there are foreign troops on the ground," says Jhazbhay, but history shows that foreign interventions only add to the confusion and strengthen hard-line parties, such as Al Shabab.

"The African Union troops in Somalia at the moment can't move beyond their own compound," says Jhazbhay. Military operations against Al Shabab "has only had a reverse impact.... It's just made Al Shabab more popular."

What are the prospects for creating a stable government? How does unrest threaten the region?

Past attempts to create a unified government have failed largely because they left out powerful ethnic and regional interest groups. That is what makes the recent resignation of Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, president of the Transitional Federal Government, a golden opportunity. "There is a glimmer of hope, now that Yusuf has resigned, because he was seen as an obstacle to peace," says Paula Roque, a Somali expert at the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane. "The question is, if he's out, then what's next?"

The best chance for peace is to continue talks in Djibouti, and to include representatives of major factions, says Ms. Roque. "[For] there to be an actual peace and a peace to keep, so the UN can send peacekeepers, the Islamists have to sit at the table," Roque says. Moderate factions of the former Islamic Courts Union, led by Sheikh Sharif, could add legitimacy to a new government in the eyes of Somalis, and help reduce the stature of more radical Islamist groups.

Including Islamists would present a major change of policy for the West. But missing this opportunity for peace would have massive humanitarian costs, Roque says. "Regionally, what we've seen over the past year, it couldn't get any worse," she says. "From an external insurgency, which some believe is attracting Al Qaeda, to a humanitarian crisis, to the splintering of warlord factions, to piracy on the high seas, Somalia has become completely ungovernable." To miss this opportunity, she says, "would only prolong the suffering."

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