Home The Washington Diplomat May 2009 Drama Off Somali High SeasReflects Chaos On the Ground

Drama Off Somali High SeasReflects Chaos On the Ground


In the 1990s, as Capt. Richard Phillips was piloting multimillion-dollar tankers and cargo ships around the world, warlords were sinking their teeth into Somalia, the easternmost African nation that became the international symbol of piracy when Phillips’ ship was hijacked off the Somali coast last month.

A former Boston cabby now living in Vermont, Phillips has since become a heroic figure — the skipper who sacrificed himself for his crew and survived five days as a hostage before being dramatically rescued by Navy SEALS. Meanwhile, three of his captors are dead, killed by snipers carrying out the orders of U.S. President Barack Obama. The other is in custody. All four remain shadowy figures — products of an unfamiliar, equally shadowy country.

Although it has been a less visible problem than America’s two wars, the economic freefall or the threat of nuclear warfare, the pirate-infested seas off Somalia’s coast reflect a chaos that can at least in part be blamed on foreign policy blunders in a lawless country that continually threatens the region’s stability. “Whatever is done at sea can only ever be a palliative measure until a system of law and order is restored in Somalia itself and the piracy gangs can be arrested and subject to due process by law and order forces,” said Peter Hinchliffe, London-based marine director at the International Chamber of Shipping.

Roughly the size of Texas, Somalia has been mired in violence since its dictatorship government was toppled in 1991. Hundreds of thousands have starved to death, civil wars have periodically erupted between feuding clans, the economy is virtually nonexistent, and at the close of 2008, more than 3 million people — roughly half of Somalia’s population — needed emergency aid.

In such a destitute and lawless environment, piracy offers a pretty good living, especially considering that it only takes a few young pirates to commandeer a massive vessel with potential ransoms paying out more than million in some cases. “This is strictly for the money,” Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia expert at Davidson College, told the New York Times. “It’s a business model that has proven very effective for them.”

Dodging Mogadishu’s Mortars Fresh off a trip to the Somali seaside capital of Mogadishu that ended with insurgents shooting mortars at his plane, U.S. Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.) told The Washington Diplomat that the newly elected Somali leaders he met, including President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, were eager to tackle the piracy problem.

“They know generally where the pirates are,” Payne, chairman of the House subcommittee on Africa, said. “They think they can deal with the pirates and they say you can’t deal with them at sea — you have to deal with them at land.”

But it will be a tough test for a country that’s both extremely adept at resisting foreign intervention and one with such a lengthy history of failed governments. Nearly a generation of Somalis is unfamiliar with what it’s even like to have a government provide basic services such as education and security forces.

In fact, many Somalis blame foreign trawlers for taking advantage of the country’s lawlessness to plunder its seas illegally — pushing ill-equipped fisherman to turn toward piracy in retaliation.

“For 19 years, there has been a stateless country with general mayhem and violence and a series of peace roundtables to set up governments and none of them have taken hold,” said David R. Smock, an Africa expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “There has only been two ways that Somalia has impacted the international community — one is the threat of terrorism and the other has been piracy.

“So it has been a kind of self-contained catastrophe.”

Catastrophe Unfolds Somalia won its independence in 1960. Nine years later, Maj. Gen. Siad Barre took over the country in a bloodless coup, banning political parties, dissolving the constitution, and dismantling the national assembly. Under his 21-year reign, he went to war with Ethiopia and tortured and killed his political opponents. He also built alliances with the Soviet Union and then the United States as the two superpowers vied for control of Somalia’s strategic location along Person oil routes during the Cold War.

As the Cold War simmered down, the United States cut its financial ties to Somalia and Barre lost control of his country. By 1990, his opponents called him the “mayor of Mogadishu” because he controlled little more than the city. The following year, clans ousted him from power and the Somali Embassy in Washington closed its doors (and has yet to reopen them).

With Barre gone, Somalia had no government, no police force and no army. And while a vast majority of the country shared a similar culture and religion (Sunni Muslim), clans continued fighting.

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush intervened, sending 25,000 American soldiers to protect shipments of food to starving Somalis and protect aid workers from warlords. But the stabilization push, coined Operation Restore Hope, failed. Clans joined forces against the United States and the United Nations when their efforts shifted toward nation building.

The final straw came for President Bill Clinton in 1993 after 18 American soldiers were killed and a corpse was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu during a raid against a top warlord. The battle, which also reportedly took the lives of hundreds of Somali citizens, was later chronicled in the book and film “Black Hawk Down.”

After Clinton withdrew the last of the troops in 1994, Arab organizations stepped in, establishing, among other things, Koranic schools that served as the only source of education at the time. Somalia was largely forgotten until the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when President George W. Bush’s administration grew anxious about Somalia becoming a comfortable haven for Islamic terrorists.

In the ensuing years, the United States secretly supported warlords to wage war against Islamic groups for control of Mogadishu and tacitly backed Ethiopia, Somalia’s archenemy, in 2006 when it invaded the capital. The administration hoped Ethiopia could oust the ruling Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which controlled most of southern Somalia and many major cities, including Mogadishu.

After the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 1994, the ICU — itself tacitly backed by Eritrea — slowly emerged as a rival to the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia (TFG), ruling under strict Islamic law and, according to the State Department, giving refuge to jihadist elements with ties to al-Qaeda. Ironically, the ICU also made the city safe to walk around for the first time in years by defeating Mogadishu’s warlords.

Nevertheless, the ICU was removed by Ethiopian troops — and the U.S. decision to back Ethiopia eventually “backfired,” according to Smock of the U.S. Institute of Peace. Civilians quickly turned on the Transitional Federal Government’s poor performance and the Islamists returned to fight. The public relations went further south after several American strikes targeting suspected terrorists killed Somali civilians as well. Payne calls such strikes “a mistake.”

“You get a whole village against you because there is a suspected terrorist, so you fire into a mountainside and they say they believe they got the terrorist. Of course they got a group of women, children and houses destroyed. That, to me, is a loss.”

Such strikes also complicate current American efforts to retaliate against the pirates on land. The Obama administration has launched missile attacks inside countries such as Pakistan, but Somalia is far different.

For starters, the United States is weary of being sucked into another “Black Hawk Down” quagmire. What’s more, it’s not even certain whom to really target in the vast country. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the pirates “nothing more than criminals,” not terrorists, and while some experts argue that pirate extortions are funding Islamists, others contend just the opposition — that “policy makers should consider the possibility that a small handful of professional pirate networks in Somalia have been keeping far worse elements off the seas,” the New York Times recently suggested.

Sinking Strategy? The drama on land has been matched by the pace of piracy picking up offshore — even as an international flotilla of ships from more than a dozen nations police what is the longest coastline in continental Africa.

The International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Centre reported that there were 293 pirate attacks in 2008, with 49 vessels and 889 crew members taken hostage, the highest figures since the group started recording in 1992. Attacks in the Gulf of Aden and Somali waters accounted for 111 incidents, an increase of nearly 200 percent from 2007. More than 300 hostages remain in pirates’ hands.

“What we are seeing now is a shift in the activity of pirates much further into the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Somalia and the successful completion of attacks at considerable distance from the shore,” Hinchliffe said. One recent Germany freighter, in fact, was hijacked some 400 miles offshore. “This may indicate a tactical shift by the criminal gangs in response to the success of military operations in the Gulf of Aden; it may also to some degree be weather related.”

This tactical shift must be “tackled in a different way” because the area of operation is so enormous — more than a million square miles of water — that patrols by often-unwieldy warships are unlikely to be particularly efficient or effective, Hinchliffe added. The best response, he suggested, would be a large number of maritime aircraft to patrol the area and “intercede in piracy events.”

Meanwhile back on land, Rep. Payne said he is optimistic about recent developments in the war-torn nation. In January, moderate Islamist leaders and members of the fragile Western-backed Transitional Federal Government came together during a U.N.-backed peace process to elect Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed the country’s president.

The election of Ahmed, a moderate former schoolteacher and former leader of the rival ICU, has provided “for the first time a semblance of security and an attempt to move the country forward,” Payne said. “I think it is really the best opportunity we have had in a long time.”

Smock suggested that a large part of any success in the country hinges on President Obama taking a new approach toward Somalia. “We haven’t been as focused on peacemaking and institution building, which I think the president will take an interest in,” he said.

Still, any optimism is couched in reality — a haunting tribute to the country’s bullet-riddled past.

“The government has to deliver,” Payne said. “They have only been in for two months. They might run into some bumps on the road.”

Hopefully, for the Capt. Richard Phillips of the world, those bumps don’t include more run-ins with pirates in the high-stakes battle over the high seas.

About the Author

Seth McLaughlin is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.