Pirates and Power Games: Bringing the Devolved State of Somalia into Focus (Updated!)

Imagine you are walking down the street, and down a small alley, you see four dogs. It is obvious the dogs were once well-taken care of, but one by one, they were left to fend for themselves. They are skinny, dirty, and you can hear them whimpering. Feeling terrible for them, you decide to nip into the store adjacent to the alley and buy a few cans of dog food, figuring it’s the least you can do. The shopkeeper notices what you are doing, and asks if you plan on feeding the strays in the alley. He is concerned, because he has noticed that the dogs tend to get snappish when the restaurant that shares the alley begins cooking food for the dinner rush. You acknowledge his uneasiness, but take it in stride: after all, they’re hungry! It’s only natural that the smell of food gets them worked up!

You return to the alley and peer into the shadows. The dogs are still there, looking at you curiously. You pop one can of food open, walk a ways down the alley, and set the can on the ground. They dogs approach warily, but once they catch the scent, there is a scrum around the can, and they begin to fight over its contents. Panicking for their safety, you quickly open three more cans and slide them toward the fray; in your haste, you unknowingly spill a bit on your hands and clothing.

You stay and watch until all of the cans of food have been consumed. By this time, you’re feeling pretty good; but as you turn to leave, you feel a wet nose on the palm of your hand. One of the dogs is at your side, inspecting a bit of dog food stuck to the cuff of your shirt. All of a sudden, the other three dogs are trotting toward you to check on the first. You realize that the dogs have smelled the food you spilled on yourself, and they think that you have more. You move quickly toward the street, but the first dog catches your cuff in his teeth, causing you to stumble. Meanwhile, the other three dogs have taken hold of the loose edges of your clothing, and are beginning to get worked up. As the growls turn to yelps, you shout for help and try to pull away, but the pack is convinced that you have more food, and will not relent. Your shouts become screams as you realize that the sticky wetness on your hand is blood; the very dogs you were trying to save have turned on you. Just when you believe all is lost, the shopkeeper sprints into the alley with a small rifle. Taking aim, he shoots one…two…three of the dogs. The fourth turns tail and escapes down the alley and out of sight.

As the shopkeeper helps you to your feet and helps you, broken and bloodied, out of the alley, he asks, “Why didn’t you heed my warning?” Rather than answering, you turn and look back down the alley. The fourth dog has emerged from behind a dumpster, growling a warning as he watches you leave.

After the daring rescue of Captain Phillips on Easter Sunday, many people have come forward with suggestions as to what should be done to combat the growing threats of piracy and insurgency in the Horn of Africa. I just sort of laughed at the more inane ones; however, the rational-sounding ones, coming from all levels of government as well as well-respected pundits, have given me pause. The more I see, the more I am convinced that (oh…arbitrarily high number) 90% of the people out there influencing public opinion on policy in the Horn have very little idea of what is actually going on over there. This in itself is dangerous, considering the staggering effect public opinion has in the current administration. What I have done here is attempt to explain why, up until now, there has been little to no success in gaining some modicum of control over the situation in Somalia. What’s going on over there goes beyond pirates, general political instability, or lack of food and medicine. A deadly combination of clan conflict, border disputes with its African neighbors, and the influence of Islamic extremism began contributing to the devolution of Somalia since well before most Americans knew where exactly they could find the Horn of Africa.

The place we call “Somalia” began as the Arab sultanate of Adel. (Bear with me…the boring history part is already almost over!) The area became populated by way of a mass immigration from the area we now know as Yemen; this, in time, formed the precursor to the clan system we see defining the sociopolitical dynamic of Somalia. In the 1800’s, small chunks of Somalia were divided up amongst European and African nations, instituting a system of colonial rule. Slaves were taken from neighboring countries into Somalia, thus further propagating cultural separation within a common “home” country. What’s important to remember about Somalia is that it hasn’t existed in a true state of peace since…ever, really. Since the dissolution of the sultanate in the 1500’s, Somalia has existed in pieces, either by way of colonialism or because of clans’ territorial borders. This reality becomes critical when trying to understand the internal strife we associate with life in Somalia.

What I’ll call “mainstream” terror in Somalia dates back to the late ‘70’s, when the PFLP (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) took hostage a Lufthansa jetliner. This first, seemingly isolated incident, occurred in the midst of social disorder and civil war; it was followed by almost two decades of confusion and chaos. In 1991, the usurper Siad Barre (a Marxist dictator who seized power in Somalia in 1969 and nationalized almost every aspect of the economy) was ousted by rebels in Mogadishu, and (quite literally) 27 warring factions (essentially, clans led by warlords) attempted to seize control of the country. The downfall of the Barre regime marked the demise of the last legitimate, internationally recognized Somali government. 1992 brought troops to Somalia as part of a United States-sponsored multinational force, but these efforts for the most part ended in chaos and death, and forced trade embargos against Somalia. The latter months of 1993 were marred by the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident and the pivotal Battle of Mogadishu, and a troop “surge” into the Horn of Africa. Toward the end of 1993, the United States gained intelligence that made it suspect an Islamic terrorist by the name of Osama Bin Laden was supplying rebel forces with anti-aircraft weaponry. It was also discovered that a man named Muhammed Atef, one of Bin Laden’s best lieutenants, had along with six other Al Qaida operatives set up training camps to help Somali tribes resist UN peacekeeping efforts in the region. From the time the last US soldier left Somalia in 1994, to the formation of the Transitional Government in 2000, Somalia existed in a state of sociopolitical devolution. In early 2002, the warlord Hussein Adid warned then-US President George W. Bush that there were terrorists sympathetic to Al Qaida hiding in Somalia, and that they had succeeded in infiltrating various factions of Somali industry. The United States initiated operations to help catch these terrorists, and the UN became involved.

Fast forward to 2005. We see refugees fleeing starvation and disease, and a new vogue in piracy and hijacking. Between June 2005 and April 2006, pirates ravaged the waters off the coast of Somalia, taking down ship after ship carrying food and other relief items, and collecting millions in ransom. The Islamic Courts came into play in 2006, engaging in peace talks with the Transitional government and pushing for complete Islamic rule in the region. 2006 brought a dramatic increase in active Islamic militias, and the government and people quietly crumbled as Islam took over the everyday life of the average Somali citizen. The terror organization Al Shabaab contributed to the chaos by smuggling enormous shipments of weapons (from Egypt, Iran, and Syria) through Eritrea, and passing them on to rebel militias in Somalia. It was a year of highly ineffective symbolic gestures, compromises, and capitulations on the side of the Transitional government.

In early 2007, the United States began an assault on Al Qaida contingents in southern Somalia, and the eternally useless UN Security Council authorized a six-month African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia—the carnage was now official. In the midst of social struggle, disease, and starvation, piracy flourished, born from both the most basic human need to survive, and the wish of the Islamists to gain singlehanded control over Somalia. While piracy was not limited to Islamists, many of the attacks on foreign vessels were power plays by insurgents. Keep in mind that the Islamists have now effectively seized control of the remnants of the Transitional government by playing to the hearts and minds of a beleaguered people. In the eyes of the insurgency, any outside effort to relieve the pain of the Somali people was seen as a grasp for control, and as such, gifts of food, medicine and supplies were violently intercepted. The pirates seized the goods—along with a ransom ensuring the return of the vessel—and distributed them amongst compliant citizens. Those who resisted were left to starve, or made into examples for others. In this way, the Islamists not only gained control of the people, but also ensured a steady stream of income via the ransoms they were rarely denied.

The past two years have been filled with more of the same. Extremist groups like Al Shabaab have violently taken control of increasingly large areas of the country; pirates continue to savage the coast, baiting the UN and further encouraging the devolution of a country that has known neither peace nor prosperity for almost 500 years. In response to the terrorists’ pledge that the violence will not end until all foreign troops have pulled out of Somalia, the Ethiopian government has recalled their (considerable) forces. In February, a moderate Islamist named Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke was named Prime Minister of Somalia; and this past weekend, the Somali parliament (acting out of Kenya—it’s too dangerous in Mogadishu) voted unanimously to adopt Shariah Law in hopes that common ground between the government and the Islamists might stifle the insurgency. However, Al Shabaab has instituted its own version of Shariah Law, and will certainly continue to do everything in its power to seize complete control of the country. Meanwhile, the United States is taking the tiny nation of Eritrea to task over their continued support of Al Qaida in Somalia. (Eritrea, however, could not care less about what we have to say about their less-than-savory political friendships.)

I’ve been a student of the Somali question for a long time, and I’m going to be honest: I have no good answer to the question, “what comes next?” (I don’t feel too bad about that, considering no one has a good answer to that question.) What I do know is this: any action taken in Somalia, whether by the military, or by a pointless contingent of UN buffoons (since we’re being honest), must come only after the careful, deliberate consideration of the big picture. It’s pointless to talk about piracy without talking about famine and disease; similarly, it is impossible to focus on the egregious human rights violations in the region without considering what the Islamic insurgency has done to reject the help of benevolent nations. Focusing solely on terrorism, or human rights violations, or piracy, will lead us through a course of events from which very few will emerge alive.

Now, here’s the part that I wish President Obama could read, because it’s the point of the diary and the most significant thing surrounding the conflict in the Horn. Ready? Okay.

There is absolutely, positively, no way to reach a hand-holding, diplomatic solution in Somalia. If you do indeed decide to skip down this rabbit hole, Sir, you will find yourself in a Hell that is beyond your imagination. You will not be able to talk, joke, hand-shake, chest-bump, or finger-wag your way out of it. Why? Because there is no one to negotiate with. Somalia is a failed state. The government is impotent at best, operating out of a few buildings in the Kenyan capitol. The Arab League is certainly corrupt, and will offer no viable solution. The African Union is a dead stick, and would not even exist without the money and manpower of other international organizations. Somalia is surrounded by nations and peoples hostile to the West; Al Shabaab and Al Qaida have made it abundantly clear that peace is quite out of the question unless they’re the ones calling the shots. And most importantly: not one person alive in Somalia has known a year of true peace—ever. Can you imagine trying to convince an exhausted, starving Somali man that you can help, if only he will help you fight back the Islamists?

This is much, much bigger than, “taking a look at a peaceable solution”, “sending in aid as a first step”, or “considering our options in the region.” And that fact, I fear, is the blazing, flashing neon sign on the side of the road that the Obama administration will willfully ignore, if they do indeed decide to bestow the fruits of their infinite wisdom and experience on the Horn of Africa.


I just got a hold of this link to AEI (h/t to Pilgrim) that addresses a whole new angle to specifically the culture war between the West and the Horn. The whole thing is great, but there’s a real gem at the bottom of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s piece. She is originally from Somalia, and offers great insight into how people in Somalia view Americans, and Westerners in general:

What do al Qaeda operatives, Somali pirates, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s militia, Hugo Ch?vez’s rhetoric, and even the new Russian authoritarianism have in common? An analysis of their rhetoric quickly shows that they all see Americans and Westerners in general as cowardly…

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