Anarchy, Terrorism, and Piracy in Somalia: Revisited

Articles and Analysis

Anarchy, Terrorism, and Piracy in Somalia: Revisited

Alemayehu Fentaw

December 12, 2010

Somalia has long been anarchic, hitting rock-bottom claiming #1 in The Fund for Peace´s most recent Failed States Index. It had no functioning central government in the past two decades, albeit 14 attempts to reconstitute the state had been made since the ouster of the Cold War dictator Mohammad Siad Barre in 1991 after 22 years in power. All such efforts had been doomed to fail and whether or not the latest initiative shall succeed only remains to be seen. One thing is crystal clear at this point in time, nonetheless, that Somalia’s ongoing state-building project has to be supported, rather than fought, by the international community in general and to be more specific, by the US, EU, AU, and countries of the Horn of Africa sub-region lest it should continue to be a hotbed of terrorism and piracy.

Despite the hitherto neglect, the Somalia issue managed to come into the limelight of international affairs as a result of the sudden surge in piracy in the waters of the coast of Somalia. As Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN special envoy for Somalia, put it, “the problem of piracy has opened the eyes of those who have forgotten Somalia.” The waters off the Somali coast are the most dangerous in the world - accounting for a third of the world's pirate attacks. The coast of Somalia has become the world´s worst piracy area only since 2007; though foreign fishing trawlers have been aggressively exploiting Somalia´s rich and unpatrolled waters since 1991 at the expense of coastal fishing villages. Illegal fishing has undoubtedly decreased due to the effectiveness of Somali pirates. In 2008, 40 out of 111 attacks succeeded; Somali pirates carried out a record number of attacks and hijackings in 2009, despite the deployment of international warships to thwart them and a United Nations Security Council resolution to bring the fight against them to shore. According to the Piracy Reporting Center of the International Maritime Bureau, pirates operating across the Gulf of Aden and along the coast of Somalia had attacked 214 vessels in 2009, resulting in 47 hijackings. In November 2010, the pirates held more than 25 foreign ships and 500 people hostage, according to Ecoterra International, an organization with offices in East Africa that keeps track of Somali piracy. Expert estimates has it that the Somali pirates netted more than $100 million, an astronomical sum for a war-racked country whose economy is in tatters.

It is worth noting that the international community launched a large naval operation in response to the widespread pirate attacks in the waters off the coast of Somalia. Naval powers from around the globe have dispatched a fleet of warships to the Gulf of Aden to fight piracy including, (i) “NATO Counter Piracy Operations” (Ocean Shield) off the Horn of Africa, (ii) the “African Partnership Station” (APS), designed by U.S. Naval Forces Europe/Africa to foster enhanced maritime safety and security in Africa, and (iii) the European Union Naval Force (NAVFOR) Somalia – “Operation ATALANTA”. The presence of this huge naval fleet has managed to thwart attacks on merchant ships in the Gulf of Aden. The fact that NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield and EU NAVFOR’s Operation Atlanta have both been extended until December 2012 shows that the military option will continue to be the predominant mode of containing piracy off the coast of Somalia by the Western powers for some years to come. The United Nations Security Council on 27 April 2010 unanimously adopted the Russian sponsored Resolution 1918 (2010), which called on all states to criminalize piracy under their domestic laws. The Resolution also requires the UN Secretary‐General to report to the Security Council within three months on “possible options to further the aim of prosecuting and imprisoning persons responsible for acts of piracy.” This indicates that all efforts are geared towards prosecution.

Besides, at a recent conference in Brussels attended by the leadership from the UN, the EU, the AU, the Arab League, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the international community pledged $213 million toward strengthening Somali security forces. However, the question here is whether these measures are enough to address the piracy epidemic. The bone of contention is that the so-called antipiracy military measures are myopic and what the international community needs is a far-sighted long-term state-building agenda onshore in Somalia, promoting traditional peacemaking processes among the diverse conflicting Somali clans and sub-clans. In this regard, moderate Islam no doubt can provide a common ground for building consensus thereby easing the daunting task of entrenching a well-functioning and all-inclusive government.

Enough's recent strategy paper, entitled ‘Beyond Piracy: Next Steps in Somalia’, authored by Ken Menkhaus, John Prendergast, and Colin Thomas-Jensen emphasizes the aforementioned point. It analyzes the current situation in Somalia and provides recommendations for how the international community in general and the United States in particular can help Somalis address multiple security threats that put their country, the region, and even far-flung countries at risk. It argues that while short-term measures to curb pirate attacks are certainly necessary, the Obama administration must not allow the piracy problem to distract it from putting in place a long-term strategy to help Somalis overcome their political predicament, i.e anarchy by enabling them to form a viable body politic which, with measured external support, can combat the twin problems of piracy and terrorism as well as promote peace and reconciliation. It describes the irony of the problem of piracy as: "The lowest order of threat to the TFG, the Somali people, the region, and the United States is actually the security item enjoying the greatest attention right now." It goes on to say that "Even so, the continued epidemic of piracy off the Somali coast is a problem and a test of the capacity of the TFG to extend its authority." The only viable and legitimate option would be for the TFG to prosecute piracy onshore, while leaving no room for the external actors, apart from helping in building the capacity of its security apparatus as well as in the ongoing peacemaking and peace-building initiatives.

The piracy epidemic in the Gulf of Aden waters is merely a reflection of the anarchy onshore. Piracy, like terrorism, is reflected by a deeper malaise. The root causes behind the mushrooming piracy off the coast of Somalia are state collapse, humanitarian crisis, abject poverty, and the ongoing exploitation of the waters by global factory fishing vessels that left very few viable livelihoods for anyone in Somalia these days. In order to capture the essence of this problem, let´s try to consider the Somali narrative on the ongoing piracy as told by Ken Menkhaus. The narrative "sees it is justifiable protection of Somali shores from illegal fishing, and … sees the piracy as a minor problem we are overreacting to. For instance -- they say at present there is a massive humanitarian crisis in Somalia, 3.5 million people at risk, and the UN is calling for $950 million in aid. We have only provided a fraction of that aid. Yet we're willing to mobilize the world's navies at considerable cost to stop a $20-40 million piracy problem. That's how Somalis see it." Such being the nature of the piracy problem, it calls for a truly holistic approach covering the political, security and humanitarian dimensions. Efforts to prosecute cases of piracy should also include the issue of illegal fishing and toxic dumping. Perpetrators of these crimes are no less guilty than pirates. In this regard, a practical proposal would be for the UN to enjoin governments whose national are engaged in fishing off the coast of Somalia to pay license fees to the TFG.

Downplaying the piracy problem, Menkhaus contends that "the United States and the international community have overstated the threat of Somali piracy. Somali hijackers earned between $30 and $40 million in ransom in 2008, a handsome sum of cash in one of the world´s most impoverished countries, but a paltry sum for international shipping -- not even enough to appreciably raise insurance premiums for ships passing through the Gulf of Aden." Explaining away naval military operation as the dominant normative mode of engagement in Somalia, as he logically should, Menkhaus argues "Most shipping companies prefer to live with the current piracy modus vivendi. The risk of any one ship being pirated is still low; their crews, ships, and cargo are returned safely; and the ransom fees are manageable. A military rescue, by comparison, is much riskier to the crew and will raise insurance costs considerably, as insurance companies will have to factor in the possibility of injuries and loss of life to crew and ensuing lawsuits." For him, reasons that continued to justify the military response to the piracy problem are fear of copycat piracy elsewhere, fear of al Qaeda adopting the practice, and commitment to the principle of open seas, rather than the ransom amounts by themselves. Another reason, he pointed out, why the military response remained unwarranted is the practical impossibility to patrol a zone of 2.5 million square miles. Granted, piracy has over time grown in scope to include larger criminal networks, thereby posing a threat to efforts to bring an end to conflict in Somalia. As such, the situation calls for a comprehensive approach to addressing the root causes of the Somali predicament, namely state failure, abject poverty and humanitarian crisis, including strategies for effective environmental conservation and fisheries management.

Turning to the problem of terrorism, the military option equally failed to bring about lasting solution in Somalia. All military adventures, from the American Black Hawk Down in the 1990s to the December 2006 Ethiopian blitz, were doomed to fail. Although I beg to differ with all analysts who, worth their salt, claim that Ethiopia fought in Somalia as proxy for the US, I agree with David Axe’s claim that “Ethiopia had received significant help — even urging — for its invasion.” However, it still remains to be seen if further wiki leaked cables can provide us with details of the suspected American support and urging, if any. Both Ethiopia and the US have had their own, albeit concurrent, legitimate national security interests in Somalia. As Terrence Lyons aptly put it, "it’s important to note that Ethiopia moved into Somalia not as the puppet or proxy for the United States. Ethiopia had its own very specific national security interest relating to Somalia. Ethiopia saw stepped-up attacks on Ethiopia as originating in Somalia, aided by Eritrea. Ethiopia saw this as a real threat to the Ethiopian state and region. That´s why Ethiopia invaded, I believe, rather than just because the United States said ´Go get al-Qaeda.´" But the crux of the matter is whether they had to pursue their security interests the way they did, that is: through war. The Ethiopian invasion, instead of improving aggravated the status quo, turned out to be disastrous as long as it eventually emboldened the threat emanating from the very Islamists Ethiopia had hoped to neutralize. It rallied Somalis of all clannish allegiance and political persuasion against the invaders, ultimately boosting support for extremist Islamic groups that now had a clear enemy in the invaders and their American allies. Violence reigned throughout the two years of Ethiopian occupation. In what seems an admission of guilt, Donald Yamamoto, the former US ambassador to Ethiopia reportedly said in March “We’ve made a lot of mistakes and Ethiopia’s entry in 2006 was not a really good idea.”

For instance, Johan Galtung- who is widely deservedly considered to be the Father of Peace Studies- claims, in a recent piece, that Ethiopia received payment from the US in exchange for its incursion in to Somalia. I dismiss Galtung’s allegation that Ethiopia was paid by the US to attack Somalia as unsubstantiated, if not credulous. Galtung was not alone in entertaining the idea that Ethiopia obtained a pecuniary gain from the US for its incursion in to Somalia. A certain Eric Margolis also wrote in the Huffington Post that "Ethiopia received generous cash rewards from Washington for its invasion." The issue of American support aside, one has to be stupid enough to believe that Ethiopia invaded Somalia just because it was paid by the US or to believe that Ethiopia did what it did in Somalia in a bid to fight an American war on the Somali soil before engaging itself in a ‘securitization calculus’. This, by no means, is meant to be a defense of the Ethiopian invasion, nonetheless. As to the merit of Ethiopia’s decision to invade Somalia, it was nothing short of foolhardy and shall always remain to be its biggest foreign policy blunder, though I don´t gainsay its legitimate national security interests, given that there were other ways and means of safeguarding its interests short of use of force, not to mention the issue of whether the requirements of just war were fulfilled. Ethiopia could have adapted a defensive, rather than an offensive, military posture insofar as it affords her a no-less effective aggression neutralization mechanism.

Moreover, Galtung´s simpleminded characterization of Ethiopia and Somalia as Christian and Islamic respectively lends itself easily to a fallacious interpretation of the nature and causes of the conflict as it gives the impression that the major factor that plays itself out in the Ethio-Somalia conflict is religious difference, which is an outright reductio ad absurdum. First, FDR Ethiopia, unlike Imperial Ethiopia, is not a Christian state, as secularism is one of the pillars on which its new politico-legal order has been founded. Second, Ethiopia, in terms of its religious composition, is a country where almost half of its populace is Muslim. In the words of Terrence Lyons: "While many portray Ethiopia as a Christian nation, the country in fact has roughly equal numbers of Christians and Muslims. Ethnic and national identity rather than religion has proven to be the most important social cleavage. It is possible, of course, that religious divisions will grow as an additional spillover from Ethiopia´s incursion into Somalia. This is another reason why settling this conflict is imperative."

Commenting on the futility of military intervention in Somalia by drawing a parallel with the war in Iraq, Sadia Ali Aden said, "Like the Iraq war, the military solution is a failed solution. The military solution will only discredit if not altogether alienate the moderate elements, radicalize insurgents, and perpetuate bloodshed and chaos. Therefore, it seems that the only way toward a win-win solution is through diplomacy and by adopting an alternative, constructive policy toward Somalia." Writing in the same vein, Donald Levine also suggested "Ethiopia's incursion into Somalia, with US concurrence, if not active backing, is likely to have a similar effect. Our goal should be to strengthen the moderate Somalis there, not undermine them through arousing anti-Ethiopia and anti-US hysteria."

At any rate, the international community in general and Ethiopia and the US in particular should bear in mind the need to have a full grasp of the inner logic that governs and perpetuates anarchy in Somalia and its workings. The twin problems of piracy and terrorism are symptoms of the deeper and broader problem in Somalia, namely anarchy or state failure. Any effort to address piracy or terrorism in isolation from its wider context would not produce the desired results. If a genuinely viable solution to the twin problems of piracy and terrorism is to be found, the international community must primarily focus on helping the Somalis address their deeper malaise themselves. Commenting on the piracy problem, Ken Menkhaus writes "the Somali piracy epidemic is unquestionably an on-shore crisis demanding an on-shore solution. Naval operations to interdict and apprehend pirates will help, but cannot possibly halt the daily quest of over a thousand gunmen in such vast waters when the risks are so low, rewards so high and alternatives so bleak in desolate Somalia." Menkhaus argues that "The solution will ultimately have to be on-shore, with more effective government in Somalia." In keeping with Menkhaus’s proposal, Michael Shank argues that if we can find stability on land first, and then order will return to the seas.

What transpires from the foregoing is the fact that the key to solving the twin problems of piracy and terrorism on- and off-shore is to promote a negative peace agenda on-shore and off-shore buttressed by a positive peace agenda on-shore capitalizing on the gains of the Transitional Federal Government while ensuring its inclusiveness. On the former, the West must rally as long as it has all the resources if it has the requisite political will. Countries of the Horn of Africa must build consensus as to the necessity of getting over the prevalent anarchy in Somalia if their effort geared towards realizing a robust and effective regional integration, be it economic or political, is to bear fruit as long as it is in the best interest of the sub-region as a whole and its members as individual states. After all, the Somalis are such a widely dispersed population throughout much of the sub-region, and hence, the stability and prosperity of Somalia is a precondition for the enjoyment of stability and prosperity in the sub-region in general and to be more specific, in Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya.

The writer, Alemayehu Fentaw (LLB, MA summa cum laude), is an academic lawyer and public policy analyst based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He can be reached at

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