Battling the Somali Pirates: The Return of the Islamists

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The Islamist Shabab militia of Somalia at their training camp outside Mogadishu

T.E. Lawrence ("of Arabia") famously compared counterinsurgency warfare to "eating soup with a knife." The same idea might apply to the efforts of Western navies to protect commercial shipping from the marauding pirates of Somalia, except for the fact that soup is typically contained within a bowl — and the pirates have the freedom of a vast ocean in which to move. They recently captured the Sirius Star, a Saudi supertanker carrying $100 million in crude oil, by striking hundreds of miles away from the shipping lanes being patrolled by some of the world's most powerful navies. But if the pirates have the wind at their backs out at sea, they got some bad news back on shore last weekend, when five armored vehicles loaded with fighters of the Islamist Shabab militia arrived in the port town of Harardhere, where the pirates who seized the Sirius Star are based.

The Islamic Courts Union, which controlled Mogadishu until it was ousted in a U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion in 2006, denounced the seizure of the Saudi vessel as a "major crime," and its erstwhile affiliate, the more militant Shabab movement, was even more forthright. "Saudi is a Muslim country, and it is a very big crime to hold Muslim property," Sheik Abdulaahi Osman, a commander of the group in Harardhere, told the Bloomberg news service on Sunday. "I warned again and again, those who hold the ship must free it unconditionally or armed conflict should be the solution. If they don't free the ship, we will rescue it by force." (See pictures of Somalia's pirates.)

Some locals believed the Islamists had come to confront the pirates; others speculated that the Shabab may simply be seeking a share in the booty. The pirates didn't wait around to find out, reportedly hightailing it out of town and onto the high seas to avoid an encounter with the Shabab. While the presence of NATO and allied navies on the high seas has failed to stamp out piracy, the emergence of an authority more powerful than the buccaneers themselves in their onshore sanctuaries could clearly be a game changer.

Piracy has thrived along the Somali coastline not because commercial shipping is poorly defended but because Somalia is a failed state where anarchy has prevailed for most of the past two decades. The transitional government currently backed by the U.S. is a loose coalition of rival clan warlords who are fighting among themselves and whose authority is tenuous. Mogadishu and southern Somalia were a little more stable in 2006, during the brief reign of the Islamic Courts Union, whose militia fighters drove out the warlords and imposed a peace generally welcomed by the local population, even if they chafed under the resultant Shari'a law. And the Islamists cracked down on piracy in areas under their control, including Harardhere.

The Islamists, however, were giving shelter to a handful of al-Qaeda operatives wanted in connection with terrorist attacks in East Africa, so the U.S. threw its weight behind the beleaguered transitional government and helped direct an Ethiopian invasion aimed at dislodging the Islamists. Although the invasion scattered the Islamists, the transitional government remains deeply unpopular and unable to cement its control. The government's security is largely dependent on an Ethiopian occupation that is itself growing weary of the cost of fighting the resurgent Islamists, led by the radicalized Shabab movement. The government and its allies arguably control only two Somali cities. It is now involved in U.N.-brokered power-sharing talks with more moderate elements among the Islamists.

But the clock cannot be turned back to 2006, when the more cohesive Islamist authority in Mogadishu had some success in stamping out piracy. Some analysts suggest that the Shabab have themselves lately made use of pirate groups to ferry weapons and train their fighters in naval combat, in exchange for protection. There is no solid evidence to back this claim, however, and other analysts insist that the Islamists remain the best bet for policing piracy. (It is also alleged that some pirate groups are in league with warlords who form part of the transitional government.) But both the Islamists and the transitional government are riven by internal power struggles, further complicating the task of forging a law-and-order consensus necessary to combat the pirates. (See pictures of the brazen pirates of Somalia.)

Establishing order on shore, however, remains the key to stamping out the problem, for the simple reason that keeping a dozen or more vessels from the navies of the U.S. and its allies engaged in escort missions for all commercial shipping in the area is too costly to sustain over the long term. As long as the pirates remain unmolested on shore and flush with cash — Kenya last week suggested that the pirates have extorted as much as $150 million in ransom payments over the past year — they will find ways around the protection offered by sophisticated warships.

By moving into Harardhere, the Islamists are signaling an intent to reassert control over the coastline. They recently took control of the key southern port city of Kismayo. That could help tamp down the incidence of piracy — although only if the Shabab are committed to doing that rather than seeking to profit from the lucrative industry. In that way, they can be compared to the Taliban in Afghanistan, which stamped out opium production when it was in power and seeking international recognition. Today, as it wages an insurgency, the Taliban sustains itself by taxing the poppy trade. The key players in Somalia are likely to police piracy only when the political and economic incentives for doing so outweigh the gains to be made from encouraging and taxing it.

See pictures of modern-day pirates.

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