Why New York Is No Place to Try Somali Pirates

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Eric Thayer / Reuters

Abdulwali Muse, accused of hijacking the Maersk Alabama and taking its captain, Richard Phillips, hostage, is led into a federal building in New York

The reason Abdulwali Muse will stand trial in New York's Southern District Court, we are told, is that the court has a lot of experience in trying those who have attacked U.S. targets abroad. The 19-year-old Somali is accused of being the ringleader of a group of pirates who seized the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama cargo ship in the waters off East Africa, before a dramatic U.S. military rescue operation. Unlike previous pirate suspects who have been handed over for trial in Kenya, Muse was brought to New York on Monday night and is expected to be arraigned in Manhattan soon. But even if the young Somali broke the law and kidnapped Americans, putting him on trial in New York will do nothing to stamp out the piracy that is plaguing the Somali coastline. If anything, it will turn Muse into a martyr, prompting an escalation of violence on the high seas by his peers, who will rally more Somalis to their cause (which is already pretty popular in the long-suffering nation), and jeopardize U.S. national-security interests in East Africa.

The competence of the Southern District Court is not in question. But the guiding principle in dealing with the Muse case ought to be enhancing the effort to stamp out piracy and stabilizing the failed state in which it has festered. From that perspective, bringing Muse to stand trial in New York is a terrible idea. (See pictures of the dramatic pirate-hostage rescue.)

Somalia's pirates are not viewed as criminals by their own communities. They're a symptom of a unique set of local problems: the collapse of the Somali state and the absence of the rule of law and government authority (which leaves the country's territorial waters open to exploitation and abuse by foreigners) as well as the absence of any prospect of making an honest living. Even if he is guilty as charged, Muse is not some pathological individual who has transgressed his community's norms. There are hundreds of young men just like him all along the Somali coastline, calling themselves "coast guards" who protect Somali waters and "tax" foreign shipping to compensate for the fact that foreign fishing fleets, unmolested by any Somali state authority, annually plunder hundreds of millions of dollars of fish from Somali waters — and also for the fact that unscrupulous foreigners have used the coast to dump toxic waste. None of this excuses piracy, of course, and many of these claims are spurious, since the prime beneficiaries of booty extracted by pirates are land-based warlords, many of them associated with the now deposed U.S.-backed government. Still, the plight of Somalia's coastline certainly helps explain why the phenomenon is so widespread — and why the pirates are viewed by many Somalis as folk heroes. Putting Muse on trial in New York won't change that; it will simply reinforce an already negative prevailing view of the U.S.

Even those Somalis who take a dim view of piracy will not have forgotten that the last time the country produced a political authority with a willingness and capability to stamp out piracy — in the form of the Islamic Courts Union, which drove out the feuding warlords and brought a modicum of peace and stability to Mogadishu in 2006 — the U.S. backed an Ethiopian invasion to topple that authority because it was sheltering a handful of al-Qaeda suspects. But the U.S.-backed Transitional Government propped up by the Ethiopians was not only unable or unwilling to tackle piracy; the government itself was untenable, and it subsequently collapsed.

Somalis' hopes for stability now rest with a process of reconstituting a government in which the Islamists play a central role — though this is opposed by the more radical, al-Qaeda-aligned breakaway youth militia known as the Shebab. The fact that the deployment in the area of more than 20 warships from around the world has done little more than contain the problem of piracy, and then only temporarily, underscores the reality that the only hope of eliminating the problem lies in establishing a government deemed legitimate by a majority of Somalis, and therefore capable of enforcing its writ.

A New York trial for Muse is unlikely even to prompt others to refrain from acts of piracy. There is no fear of America among young Somali gunmen, who demonstrated that attitude in the most grisly fashion in the streets of Mogadishu in 1993, during the infamous "Black Hawk Down" incident. That event has achieved mythic status in the Somali imagination. Instead, the trial is more likely to prompt Muse's peers to seek symbolic retribution — possibly even prompting them to make his release the condition for freeing some future group of hostages they capture on the high seas. Until now, the Somali pirates have scrupulously avoided harming their captives; their capture has been simply a business transaction. That may soon change. An escalation in the confrontation between the pirates and the ships of richer nations will present a golden opportunity to the Shebab to exploit popular nationalist sentiment and turn the business of piracy into a coastal jihad.

A more likely way to turn local sentiment against piracy would be, for example, to put those responsible for holding a shipment of food aid destined to feed the starving in a famine-plagued region on trial in an African court. Somali piracy needs a Somali solution — beginning with the creation of a political order capable of enforcing law and order and protecting Somalia's sovereignty, and offering young Somali men alternative livelihoods. Putting captive pirates on trial may be part of the solution to the piracy problem, but it will only be effective if the courts and laws are seen as legitimate by the communities from which the pirates hail. Putting them on trial in New York may satisfy the desire by many in the U.S. to send a harsh message to those who dare mess with Americans. But it only raises the likelihood of more, and more dangerous, pirate attacks.

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