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Review: Somalia, the New Barbary? Piracy and Islam in the Horn of Africa

20th December 2010 - American Foreign Policy Interests

Since the tattered remnants of what was the country's last central government fled the capital aboard a column of their last functioning tanks in January 1991, Somalia has been such a striking case of state failure that the distinguished Harvard political scientist Robert Rotberg created a special category for it in his taxonomy of political entities. It had become a “collapsed state,” that “rare and extreme version of the failed state” that is “a mere geographical expression, a black hole into which a failed polity has fallen,” where “there is dark energy, but the forces of entropy have overwhelmed the radiance that hitherto provided some semblance of order and other vital political goods to the inhabitants (no longer the citizens) embraced by language or ethnic affinities or borders.”

Yet after the humiliating failure of the international community's attempts to intervene—even the U.S. military withdrew after the fiasco chronicled in Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down and, subsequently, in the Oscar-winning cinematographic adaption of the same title, directed by Ridley Scott—the world turned its back on Somalia. Despite successive famines, continuous civil wars, and the emergence of an armed Islamist movement with links to Al Qaeda, few policymakers had much time for the forlorn country. Even the first known U.S. citizen–suicide bomber, Shirwa Ahmed of Minneapolis, Minnesota, failed to elicit much attention.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, pirates operating off Somalia's coasts burst onto the scene, capturing the media spotlight with their spectacular heists and fabulous ransoms. In 2009 some 214 vessels were attacked and 47 successfully hijacked. By way of comparison, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reported that fewer than half that number, 111 ships, were attacked in 2008—a figure that itself represented a 200 percent increase from 2007 levels.

The pirates are by no means the gravest threat to international security emanating from Somalia. That distinction probably belongs to the militant Islamists of the Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (“Movement of Warrior Youth,” al-Shabaab) with their ambitions to establish a transnational fundamentalist Islamist state in the Horn of Africa; their links to Al Qaeda; reach into the Somali diaspora in North America, Europe, and Australia; and the training camps and safe haven they have provided various radical groups. Nonetheless, the pirates managed to galvanize an otherwise indifferent international community into the unprecedented deployment of more than two dozen warships to the waters off Somalia in what are currently three multinational task forces: the U.S.-coordinated Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151), NATO's “Operation Ocean Shield” (originally “Operation Allied Protector”), and the European Union Naval Force (EU NAVFOR) “Operation Atalanta.” Those three flotillas are supplemented by additional vessels from China, France, India, Malaysia, and Russia, among others, which are not formally integrated into one of coordinated naval groups.

The military show of force has, however, produced mixed results. Although the naval patrols in the Gulf of Aden have brought the number of attacks on merchant shipping in that vital sea lane down to 33 in the first six months of this year compared to 86 during the corresponding period last year, Somalia's pirates have shown themselves to be extraordinarily resilient. They have both adapted their tactics to respond to the increased military pressure and extended the geographical reach of their operations. Thus attacks in the Somali Basin and the wider Indian Ocean increased from 44 in 2009 to 51 in 2010. By shifting their operations to prey on vessels as far as 1,200 nautical miles from the Somali coast, Somali pirates managed to hijack some 27 vessels with 544 seafarers on board in this period, achieving roughly the same result as the year before when they seized 30 vessels and 495 crew members. Earlier this year, Admiral Mark Fitzgerald, then commander of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe and Africa, virtually threw up his hands in frustration as he told journalists: “The area is enormous and we just do not have enough assets to cover every place in the Indian Ocean.”

The admiral's candid admission probably did not come as a surprise to naval analyst Martin Murphy, whose 550-page tome, Small Boats, Weak States, Dirty Money: Piracy and Maritime Terrorism in the Modern World, published in 2009, was hailed by this reviewer in the journal of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) for Defence and Security Studies as the finest “broad, systematic treatment of the subject” in recent years.

In that volume Murphy quickly and witheringly reduced any romantic notions that the jaded citizens of developed countries may have about piracy: “Piracy is a low-risk, criminal activity that pays well. It occurs for one overriding reason: opportunity.” He then listed the conditions that historically have encouraged piracy, lessened the risk of capture or detention, and helped protect pirate capital—legal and jurisdictional opportunities, favorable geography, conflict and disorder, underfunded law enforcement/inadequate security, permissive political environments, cultural acceptability/maritime tradition, and rewards—noting that “these reasons act and react with and on each other, and although one might predominate at any one time and in any one place, they are all usually present to some degree; the cards remain the same but the deck is shuffled differently.”

Murphy's new book, Somalia, The New Barbary? Piracy and Islam in the Horn of Africa, tests his analytical framework on the problem off the Horn of Africa and, not unexpectedly, finds it applicable.

Somalia always possessed favourable geography: significant trade routes have passed close to both its coasts for much of recorded history. It also had a strong maritime tradition nurtured by its proximity to rich fishing grounds but no records exist which show piracy was previously a substantial problem although in the first half of the nineteenth-century ship-wrecking took place off what is now Puntland the spoils from which helped to build the power of the local Majeerteen clan….

Piracy arose after 1991 with the spread of conflict and disorder, and the rise to power of elites that countenanced predatory behaviour, which while it would be regarded as criminal in much of the developed world, was not necessarily viewed as such in Somalia. These elites came gradually to realise that what worked so well for them on land, kidnapping and extortion in particular, could work for them equally well, if not better, at sea where victims worth hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars were at risk.

Somalia, The New Barbary? is an excellent introduction to the subject for those who have not had the fortune (or misfortune) to be immersed in the complexities of Somali society and politics in general and Somali piracy in particular. It proceeds from a concise summary of recent Somali history to a fairly comprehensive discussion of how the piracy arose, who are the principal actors behind it, and why it has been so successful. For much of this background, Murphy has drawn on the work of almost all of the members of the small fraternity of scholars and practitioners who have labored on these issues and interviewed most of them (including this reviewer), distilling it all into a very serviceable and, indeed, engaging narrative.

Where Murphy, an adviser to the U.S. Navy, is most original and authoritative, however, is in his analysis of why the efforts of modern navies to suppress the rather primitive marauders from Somalia have proven so futile and difficult to justify from the fiscal point of view.

In fact the whole notion of deterrence is questionable. While it was true that the pirates found it harder to succeed as a consequence of the introduction and refinement of [the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridors], more naval patrols and the improved self-protection measures taken by merchant ships, these all came along at more or less the same time making it difficult to determine which had the greater effect…;. If this conclusion is true then the justification for a continuing naval presence, and certainly the assertion that it will bring piracy to an end, must be open to doubt.

Neither can the cost of this presence be ignored. It is estimated that the annual cost of maintaining a naval presence in the Gulf of Aden Horn of Africa region, based on an assumed daily availability of 29 ships dedicated to counter-piracy operations, is over $1.825 billion. Although this is a collective figure and the cost to each country is necessarily less even these smaller contributions are hard to justify solely on the basis of preventing pirates snatching between $40 and $80 million in ransoms.

In short, Murphy adds his unique voice to the virtually unanimous consensus of experts who have studied the Horn of Africa that the real problem is political, not tactical and operational. Although conceding that “Somali piracy represents the most significant challenge to maritime security since the end of World War II,” the author argues that the pirates have “exposed the futility as ever of deploying military power, in this case naval force, against even seemingly insignificant opponents in the absence of clear political objectives.” Moreover, he avers that it is not just any political solution that will work and takes to task those who believe “that state failure can be solved only by the restoration of state institutions, even if they are inappropriate to the situation at hand.”

Any workable solution to the challenges arising from the two decade-old collapse of the Somali state needs to embrace a “bottom-up” or “building-block” approach rather than the hitherto “top-down” strategy that has failed repeatedly. Moreover, as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson recently acknowledged in announcing a “new track” in America's approach to Somalia, it makes no sense not to work with effective authorities in Somaliland, Puntland, and other areas as well as seek to engage with traditional leaders, members of the vibrant business community, and civil society actors among the Somali. Unlike the denizens of Somalia's utterly ineffectually “Transitional Federal Government”—whom even United Nations reports have criticized for corruption and incompetence—these figures both enjoy legitimacy with the populace and have actual security and economic development agendas and, most important, the proven capacity to implement the solutions that address some of the root causes of piracy. In short, if the success of Somali pirates has been predicated on the cooptation of the country's clan structure and elders and giving broad segments of the population an interest in their operations, then the key to countering them will be to engage the same local authorities and by holding out the prospect of economic development give the even larger constituencies a stake in building up security along the Somali littoral. Murphy observes

Somalia has demonstrated the risks the trading nations of the world run if they ignore maritime security. It has also demonstrated that the solution is not solely naval. It never was and never has been at any point in history. Suppressing piracy and securing the seas means securing the land. Securing the land demands engagement which in turn requires a realistic political strategy. It requires that maritime powers work with the people who edge the world's maritime highways, not sail on by in the belief that the littorals do not matter. More states are likely to fail; Somalia will not be the last. Most of those states face the sea. If the political poison of state failure, and its manifestations in criminality and violent terrorism, is not to seep across the world's oceans then the world's great navies need to understand the world's littorals, and their governments must come to recognize their political and strategic importance.

Somalia, The New Barbary? concludes with a lapidary final sentence: “The pirates of Somalia have provided the world with a lesson it needs to learn.” If that is so, there is perhaps no better primer for policymakers and analysts than Murphy's.


piracy, somalia