Somalia: Is There a Way Forward?

By Lieutenant Commander Mark B. Munson, U.S. Navy

• A revolving door of successive transitional governments having little authority over any of the country

• An Ethiopian invasion in 2006 in which an Islamist government that had exerted some effective control from Mogadishu was defeated.

In two decades nothing has prevented Somalia from becoming one of the world’s most failed states.

A review of recent events there and analysis of what is currently driving those trends indicate there is no simple fix to the myriad security challenges resulting from Somalia’s condition. The ongoing efforts to address those matters should be recognized for what they are: Little more than a hope that the spreading symptoms of the country’s malady can be ameliorated. The multinational coalition fighting pirates and the training programs aimed at creation of land-based and maritime security forces in Somalia at best will be capable of achieving only minor tactical successes against a lawlessness whose root causes remain unaddressed. Policy solutions that focus solely on those particular aspects not only are likely to fail, but may also work at cross purposes, for those elements of Somali society interested in stopping piracy are not necessarily interested in fighting terrorism, and vice versa.

The al Qaeda Connection

Piracy has risen drastically over the past decade. According to the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau, various Somali pirate bands were holding 26 ships and 522 people hostage as of 23 May 2011. 1 In 2010 a total of 1,181 people were held captive and 53 ships were hijacked (out of 445 attacked)—an increase of 10 percent from 2009. 2 The expanded reach and capability of Somali pirates is seen in the fact that attacks increasingly occur farther afield from the traditional hunting grounds of the Gulf of Aden and Somali basin, with some incidents occurring closer to India and South Africa than to Somalia itself.

Meanwhile, al-Shabaab, a terrorist group having roots in the militias participating in a multifaceted, two-decades-old civil war, has now become an explicitly al Qaeda-linked, Somalia-based member of the global jihad. Although elements of the broader Somali Islamist movement admittedly sheltered known al Qaeda terrorists (such as Harun Fazul, the Comoron responsible for the 1998 attacks against U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya), there was not necessarily much of an international dimension to the way the older-style Islamist militias operated in Somalia. Those groups primarily were concerned with domestic conflicts and politics, manifested through battles with other clan-based Somali militias and Ethiopia’s army after its invasion of Somalia in 2006.

Today, while still engaged in the fight against African Union (AU) peacekeepers, militias affiliated with Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), and the self-declared breakaway sub-states of Somaliland and Puntland, the Somali Islamist movement has splintered into components fighting against each other as well. Al-Shabaab conducted an international attack on 11 July 2010 in Kampala, Uganda, killing more than 70 people. (The perpetrators said the attack was retaliation for Uganda’s participation in the African Union peacekeeping force in Mogadishu, Somalia.) Al-Shabaab, with an international jihadist element increasingly prominent in its membership, is moving closer to al Qaeda. It is likely that in the future al-Shabaab publicly will embrace its de facto status and become the official al Qaeda franchise in the Horn of Africa.

There is no simple answer to the question of whether piracy and al-Shabaab are linked or have a causal relationship. Both have been fostered by the almost complete lack of state control in Somalia, resulting from 20 years of anarchy. (It should be noted, too, that the Siad Barre government had little or no control over some regions long before Somalia collapsed in the early 1990s). The Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), an Islamist coalition of clans, militias, and jurists that controlled most of southern Somalia for much of 2006 before being defeated by Ethiopia’s invading army, had been the only power in the country to have any success at deterring piracy.

Since the UIC’s defeat, however, pirate attacks have increased, both from bases on southern Somalia’s Indian Ocean coast and from the coastline of the semi-autonomous region of Puntland along the Gulf of Aden. It is uncertain whether a clear-cut defeat of the two primary Islamist factions now fighting the TFG would stop piracy or not, because pirates in Puntland are widely believed to be connected with officials in the government, if not the government itself. Also, despite current TFG efforts to train and develop indigenous counterpiracy/coast guard forces in Mogadishu or in Puntland, it is not clear that those forces can effectively combat piracy, or even whether that would be their first priority.

Counterpiracy versus Counterterrorism

It is useful to compare the current international efforts that have been assembled to fight both terrorism and piracy in the region. In terms of combating terrorism, since the departure of the Ethiopian army in 2009 there have been ongoing efforts to train the military forces of the TFG, which has included European Union (EU) training for 2,000 Somali TFG troops in Uganda in 2010, as well as French training for another 500 Somalis in Djibouti in 2009. 3 Recent reports allege that Kenya, increasingly concerned that violence may spill over its border with Somalia, has also begun to arm and train militias, possibly intending to encourage the creation of another breakaway sub-state, “Jubaland,” in southern Somalia. 4 After its withdrawal from Somalia, Ethiopia trained and funded a TFG-aligned Islamist militia known as Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama’a (ASWJ). 5

Meanwhile, the officially sanctioned international presence, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), has been forced to act less a peacekeeper and more as the TFG’s military arm because it is the only viable military force capable of protecting the TFG’s continued existence in Mogadishu. The AMISOM force, primarily manned by the armies of Burundi and Uganda, is about 6,000 strong. 6 Other African states have pledged forces for the Somalia mission, but they have yet to materialize. In December 2010 the U.N. Security Council authorized an increase of the force’s size to 12,000. 7 It is unclear who will provide the additional troops, although Uganda, Djibouti, and Guinea have offered to send a total of 4,000 to augment the force in place. 8

The logic behind having African states act as peacekeepers in Somalia rather than Western armies seems sensible on a continent still very sensitive to what could be perceived as imperialist intervention. But the presence of primarily Christian African militaries in Somalia may be highly contentious to some Somalis, given that AMISOM’s “identification with the TFG, and by extension the Ethiopians, has made it an increasing target of attacks.” 9 Overall, efforts to stabilize the situation on the ground are either relatively small and conducted through regional institutions such as the AU, or prosecuted covertly in order to achieve the relatively limited aims of neighbors such as Kenya and Ethiopia.

In terms of international counterpiracy efforts, a number of nations currently have naval forces deployed in the region, both unilaterally and in multinational coalitions. International naval efforts against piracy are grounded in a strong global diplomatic consensus, with the U.N. Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia having nearly 60 member states and organizations as of March 2011. 10 Additionally, recent Security Council resolutions encourage the prosecution of pirates, reiterating the appropriateness of international law to deal with piracy (UNSCR 1918), as well as authorize counterpiracy operations within Somalia’s territorial waters (UNSCR 1816).

Western European nations have the option of deploying their ships in three separate coalitions. The various international maritime efforts combating Somali piracy include:

• The EU’s Operation Atalanta, with Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden 11

• NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield, with the United States, Denmark, the Netherlands, Turkey, Italy, UK, Greece, Portugal, and Canada

• The U.S.-led Combined Task Force (CTF) 151, with vessels from EU and NATO nations plus South Korea, Pakistan, and Singapore. 12

Other countries that have deployed ships or personnel to the region include China, India, Japan, Russia, Iran, Thailand, and Malaysia. At any given time the counterpiracy flotilla generally comprises “20 to 25 ships patrolling the waters around Somalia and the Gulf of Aden.” 13 Paralleling the international efforts to support indigenous security forces in Somalia to fight terrorists and/or defend the TFG, international donors are investing money and training in efforts to build an indigenous maritime-security capability. The effectiveness of those programs is unclear, however.

Current foreign-funded Somali counterpiracy efforts have had little success, with allegations that forces trained in Puntland are linked to pirates—or actually have engaged in piracy themselves. In December 2010 Puntland announced that its new counterpiracy force will deploy to a region not particularly close to the traditional operating areas of known pirate groups. Some observers suspect that they will instead operate against militias aligned with al-Shabaab. 14 The TFG, meanwhile, also announced in December that another counterpiracy force—funded by an unidentified Muslim state—will soon commence training. Former U.S. diplomats and CIA officials are said to be involved. And yet, the status of a 500-man force trained for the TFG to do the same counterpiracy mission a year ago is unknown. 15

Despite the likely shortfalls in efforts to build an indigenous Somali maritime security force, the international counterpiracy force—at least in terms of its multinational U.N. support and the participation of numerous navies—seems much more substantial than the relatively small AU peacekeeping force and various efforts to train federal militias. It is difficult to measure how 20-25 ships under way at any given time, plus smaller efforts to train Puntland and TFG-aligned coast guards, compares with a 6,000-12,000 man AMISOM force on the ground and the smaller efforts of neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia to train forces supportive of the transitional government.

While straightforward comparison is impossible, it is clear that many more nations are willing to get directly involved in the fight against piracy than are interested in restoring the capacity of the destroyed Somali state. That may be due to a perception that piracy has a more direct effect on commercial and maritime interests, or perhaps the sense that naval intervention is easier both in terms of international law and public opinion. However, because piracy is caused by a lack of effective state authority in Somalia, it is likely that efforts to build greater security capacity on the ground in Somalia would ultimately have a much better chance at stopping piracy than multinational naval coalitions.

A Snarl of Competing Messages and Motives

As noted earlier, elements of the Puntland government have been accused of being involved in, supportive of, or at the very least tolerating piracy. Farther south, the transitional government’s authority does not extend from Mogadishu to the various pirate bases in Somalia. To date, Somali Islamists have proved to be better at delivering antipiracy messages to the domestic population. The only successful recent campaign came in 2006, when the Union of Islamic Courts controlled southern Somalia, and pirate gangs operating from the town of Harardhere were quickly shut down. 16

While some of the factions that formed the UIC continue to fight the TFG today, Somali Islamism as a whole does not necessarily oppose the Mogadishu government. Its current president is Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, an Islamic scholar and jurist who also served as the leader of the Union of Islamic Courts. Supporting moderates such as Sharif may turn out to be a wise choice in the long term for an international community interested in stabilizing Somalia. He potentially provides an Islamist counterpoint to an increasingly radical al-Shabaab. However, the enemies of the TFG have yet to be defeated, and Sharif’s brand of Islamism has yet to neutralize al-Shabaab’s anti-Western rhetoric. Regardless of the credentials of Sharif or his government, al-Shabaab has successfully convinced a significant number of Somalis that the TFG leaders are stooges of the West, Ethiopia, or Christianity. 17

Islamist groups in Somalia can be divided into three major factions. In addition to the Ethiopian and TFG-backed ASWJ militia, mentioned previously, Hizb al-Islam is led by figures such as Hassan Dahir Aweys and Hassan al-Turki. Both men were prominent in the UIC and various Somali Islamist movements over the past several decades, including an earlier armed group known as Al-Itihaad al-Islamiya. The group’s goal is primarily one of a Somali-Islamic state. The third group, al-Shabaab, meanwhile, aspires for al Qaeda’s restored caliphate, and views the fight in global terms, instead of strictly nationalist ones. Following the death of leaders such as Aden Ayrow and Saleh Nabhan in U.S. strikes in 2008 and 2009, respectively, al-Shabaab has morphed into a centralized, al Qaeda-linked force dominated by Ahmed Abdi Godane, but with many foreigners in leadership positions, including Harun Fazul (Comoros); Sheikh Mohamed Abu Faid (Saudi Arabia); Abu Suleimann Al-Banadiri (an ethnic Yemeni from Somalia); Ahmed Abdi’s adviser, Abu Musa Mombasa (Pakistan); Abu Mansur al-Amriki (United States); Mohamoud Mujajir (Sudan); and Abditaf Aweys Abu Hamsa (a Somali trained in Afghanistan). 18

Despite Hizb al-Islam and al-Shabaab’s shared rule of Somalia as part of the UIC in 2006, the factions split after Ethiopia’s invasion. Hizb al-Islam, led by Aweys, fought both al-Shabaab and the Sharif-led TFG. 19 Relationships on the battlefield have proved extremely dynamic, however, with Hizb al-Islam and al-Shabaab working together in early 2009, but again parting ways after a failed offensive against Mogadishu later that year. Al-Shabaab then wrested control of the southern port of Kismayo, important not only for its access to the sea and infrastructure, but also as a potentially lucrative source of revenue from duties levied on imports moving into the country. 20 Hizb al-Islam then seized pirate capital Harardhere in May 2010. It is unclear whether it plans to use the pirate bands there as a revenue source, or repeat the successes of the UIC on the public-relations front, shutting down piracy to demonstrate its Somali patriotism and seriousness about providing security. 21 An agreement between local leaders in Hobyo and pirate gangs in September 2010 likely was driven by fears that al-Shabaab wants to take control of that area. 22 The impact on piracy of a December 2010 merger between the two groups remains unknown. 23

The various Somali Islamist factions have proved much better than the international community at articulating antipiracy messages to which average Somalis are receptive. Their narrative is that while piracy is wrong, its roots lie in illegal exploitation of Somali waters by foreign fisherman and the dumping of toxic waste (made possible by the lack of a Somali navy or coast guard since the early 1990s). They say Somali pirates are actually a grassroots coast guard made up of outraged locals, a concept the pirates incorporate in names such as “National Volunteer Coast Guard” and “Somali Marines.” 24

They further argue that while they oppose piracy, it came about in response to exploitation of Somalia’s national resources by outsiders. Similar concerns led to another of the court’s well-received policies while in charge, a ban on the export of charcoal, a commodity highly valued by Middle East consumers. Producing it for export led to deforestation that was devastating to the local environment. 25 The UIC thus portrayed itself as the only protector of Somalia’s bounty among all the players (internal and external) in the civil war. That type of Somali-centric argument and narrative regarding piracy may prove more fruitful in mobilizing Somalis against piracy than continued Security Council resolutions. Even the TFG has struggled in efforts to create antipiracy legislation, with many officials subscribing to the notion that pirates are not criminals but the defenders of Somalia’s coasts. 26

Current Policies Help, but Aren’t a Cure

Are current U.S. and international policies designed to combat piracy working? Are they incompatible with counterterrorism efforts? The February murder of four Americans after Somali pirates hijacked their yacht did not prove to be the spur toward sustained land operations against pirates. What action would it take to provoke such operations by the United States or the international community—an attack on U.S. soil by Somalia-based terrorists?

It seems as if the only way forward that the various players are willing to pursue is one of maintaining the status quo: Hope that the TFG, Puntland, and Somaliland, with active international support, can achieve true sovereignty and control within their borders and territorial waters, while multinational forces afloat provide some sort of deterrent to potential pirates.

While it is the best of the limited policy options, even an “African” solution to Somalia’s problem is not a sure thing, however. Most recently the continued deployment of the African Union mission was uncertain, with Uganda threatening to withdraw its forces if elections to select a new parliament and president proceeded later this year as recommended by the U.N., claiming that the TFG and AMISOM need at least another year to stabilize Somalia. 27 While those elections have now been delayed, the West’s first priority should be to ensure that an effective African military force is present to protect the fragile institutions that will need to develop for there to be a viable Somali state.

Simplistic solutions, such as killing pirates more aggressively at sea (technically in accordance with international law, but not easy to do because identifying pirates before they attack is exceptionally difficult), or attacking pirate lairs on land, are untenable policies for a variety of reasons, and don’t reflect the complexities of an anarchic, stateless Somalia in 2011. In April, the purported leader of the pirate network behind the hijacking of the yacht Quest , on which those Americans were killed in February, was captured through joint military and law enforcement efforts. 28 The details of his capture have not been released to the public, so it is unclear whether this sort of targeted operation will work against Somali piracy as a whole. But it is certain that such efforts will be bolstered by strong relationships with Somali institutions.

Ultimately, Somalis themselves will prove to be the most effective at combating piracy. They will do so wholeheartedly only when they have the tools, and only when it is not a burden imposed on them by the West and peripheral to their security concerns. Therefore, the international flotillas currently operating off Somalia’s coasts are probably the best way in which the world’s navies can hope to combat Somali piracy with the strictly maritime tools available to them.

1. ICC Commercial Crime Services, “Piracy News and Figures,” .

2. “Piracy Reached Record Level in 2010, Monitors Say,” J. David Goodman, The New York Times , 18 January 2011, .

3. “Somalia’s Divided Islamists,” International Crisis Group, 18 May 2010, p. 16, .

4. “Kenya: Wikileaks Reveals Kibaki, Black Box,” Francis Mureithi,, 10 December 2010, .

5. “Somalia’s Divided Islamists,” p. 3.

6. AMISOM: African Union Mission in Somalia, “Military Component,” .

7. “UN Votes Big Increase in Somalia Peacekeepers,” Agence France-Presse, 22 December 2010, .

8. “UPDF Soldiers Start Training for Somalia Deployment,” Risdel Kasasira, Kampala Daily Monitor , 27 August 2010, .

9. “Somalia’s Divided Islamists,” p. 16.

10. U.N. Security Council, Contact Group on Piracy off the coast of Somalia, press conference, 21 March 2011,

11. EU NAVFOR, European Union Naval Force Somalia–Operation Atalanta, .

12. Combined Task Force (CTF) 151, .

13. “Pirates’ New Tactics Make Navies’ Job Harder,” Jim Michaels, USA Today , 7 January 2011, .

14. “Undisclosed Muslim Country ‘Paying for Anti-Piracy Force in Somalia,’” Xan Rice, The Guardian , 2 December 2010, .

15. “Somalia Mulls Privately Trained Anti-Piracy Force,” Katherine Houreld, The Associated Press, 10 December 2010, .

16. “Worldwide Threat to Shipping Mariner Warning Information,” David Pearl and Charles Dragonette, Office of Naval Intelligence Civil Maritime Analysis Department, 16 August 2006.

17. “Somalia’s Divided Islamists,” p. 15.

18. Ibid., pp. 4–5.

19. Ibid., p. 9.

20. Ibid., p. 10.

21. Ibid., p. 13.

22. “In Somali Civil War, Both Sides Embrace Pirates,” Jeffrey Gettleman, The New York Times , 1 September 2010, .

23. “Somali Islamists Al-Shabab and Hizbul Islam to Merge,” BBC News, 20 December 2010, .

24. “The European Roots of Piracy,” Leigh Phillips, , 21 April 2009, .

25. “Somali Islamists Ban Animal Trade,” BBC News, 22 August 2006, .

26. “Somali Anti-Piracy Law: MPs Block Law Banning ‘Heroes’” BBC News, 20 January 2011, .

27. “Withdrawals, Lack of Pay for African Union’s Somalia Forces Could Thwart Progress,” Alex Thurston, The Christian Science Monitor , 6 June 2011, .

28. “Somali in Norfolk Court Said to be Pirate Leader,” Tim McGlone, The Virginian-Pilot , 14 April 2011, .

Lieutenant Commander Munson currently is the intelligence officer for Naval Special Warfare Group Four, at Little Creek, Virginia. He previously served in the USS Essex (LHD-2) and at the Office of Naval Intelligence. He holds a master’s degree in security studies in Middle East affairs from the Naval Postgraduate School.

Lieutenant Munson currently serves as the intelligence officer at Naval Special Warfare Group Four, at Little Creek, Virginia. He has previously served on board the USS Essex (LHD-2), and at the Office of Naval Intelligence. He received a M.A. in security studies in Middle East Affairs from the Naval Postgraduate School.

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