Tag: Somalia

What Terrorist Attacks Don’t Tell Us

This past week, terrorists struck Westgate Mall in Nairobi. Al Shabaab, a Somali Islamist organization, claimed responsibility. Frustratingly, we still know very little about the attackers, their origins, or the Kenyan security forces’ response. And the news about the last just keeps getting worse.

But there has been some analysis of the attacks – by both journalists and academics. In one of the most widely-circulated pieces, Somalia specialist Ken Menkhaus suggested that the attacks were a sign of desperation, the last gasp of an organization that had run out of an intra-Somalia game (also, here and here). Another strand of argument suggests that the growing ascendancy of a single Al Shabaab leader, Abdul Abdi Godane, has pushed the organization toward Al Qaeda, toward international jihad, toward further attacks on soft targets abroad (here and here and here). The presumption is, again, that we’re at a critical juncture for Al Shabaab, a moment of inflection at which the organization changes its character and its aims. See my AU colleague Joe Young’s piece at Political Violence @ a Glance for a roundup of some of this.

In this post, I’m going to make some empirical quibbley points about Somalia, and then I’m going to make a couple of substantive points about terrorism / COIN analysis in general. So if you’re not terribly interested in Somalia, you still might want to skip to the end.

Continue reading


#Insurgency: Warring Over Somalia….On Twitter

Al-Shabaab, the Islamic insurgency wreaking havoc in Somali, appears to have joined Twitter. The @HSMPress (Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen press office) feed has a trickle of followers and posts today that offer some fighting words on the AU’s peacekeeping efforts and the Kenyan military intervention, and laud al-Shabaab’s cause and martyrs.

@HSMPress with the rising economic burden of operation Linda Nchi, the much-hyped #Kenyan invasion has faltered quite prematurely.

Reports are that Kenyan troops, who are retaliating for al-Shabaab’s cross-border incursions, have gained ground. But critics question the legitimacy of the intervention, are concerned about regional spillover, and warn that the foreign incursions of the both the AU and Kenya play into al-Shabaab’s propaganda. Kenya announced today that it will be integrating troops into the 9,000 strong AU forces in Mogadishu.

Not to be outdone, the Twitter propaganda machine has a Kenyan side.  A Kenyan military spokesman has a Twitter account under @MajorEChirChir and regularly tweets about impending and successful attacks on al-Shabaab under #OperationLindaNchi.

@MajorEChirChir #OperationLindaNchi KDF bombed 2 Al shabaab camps south of Afmadow town, killing several Al Shabaab & destroyed technical vehicles.

(There is also a Facebook page for the Operation, in case you feel inclined to “like” it).

Reports are that Kenyan troops, who are retaliating for al-Shabaab’s cross-border incursions, have gained ground. But critics question the legitimacy of the intervention, are concerned are regional spill-over, and warn that the foreign incursions of both the AU and Kenya play into al-Shabaab’s propaganda. Kenya announced today that it will integrating troops into the 9,000 strong AU forces in Mogadishu.

@MajorEChirChir and @HSMPress are not following each other…yet. As others have noted, to follow is not to endorse.


Crimes in and of Famine

If you find the argument that famine is man-made to be credible, then famine is not just an inevitable outcome of the structural conditions of “failed states” but rather it is purposeful, systematic, and systemic human rights abuse and therefore criminal.

Those who make the argument that the current famine in East Africa is man-made place more blame on political problems of restricted access, entitlements and aid management than the environmental factors of drought, overpopulation, and food scarcity. That Somalia has been hit harder by famine than neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya underscores this point. If famine is, at least predominantly, man-made than by extension there are individuals or groups responsible for causing the famine or exacerbating its effects of death and displacement. As Charles Kenny argues for Foreign Policy, “In order to ensure widespread death by starvation, a governing authority must make a conscious decision: it must actively exercise the power to take food from producers who need it or deny food assistance to victims.”

The debate is not new. For example, in Famine Crimes (1997) Alex de Waal addresses the “political roots of famine” in Africa and the subsequent failings of the “humanitarian international” as an “obstacle rather than aid to conquering famine.” (pxv) More specifically on the question of crimes and responsibility, he argues:

“For war crimes, the challenge is to deter those who cause them. The Geneva Conventions contain strong provisions prohibiting the use of starvation as a method of warfare. Criminalizing the infliction of famine requires a further step, namely enforcing the prohibitions by prosecuting those guilty of the crimes. This it to put famine into the category of offences requiring justice, and in particular war crimes.” (p6)

Certainly civilians living amidst violence and in poorly functioning states are likely to become food insecure and displaced. But is the present famine, the worst in sixty years, an international crime in and of itself? Both Sarah Pierce and Jens David Ohlin explain the factual case that, technically, the famine is neither a war crime nor a crime against humanity but make the normative argument that it should be. Specifically starvation is a war crime but only in international armed conflicts. And for the famine to constitute a crime against humanity there must be intent and knowledge of a plan to cause “great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental and physical health” as part of a systemic and systematic attack on civilians. This is where the evidence is mixed and raises questions about determining intent and assigning responsibility to organizations and individuals. Those who breed corruption and war often to blame.

In Somalia, civilians are prevented from fleeing to areas, inside or outside its borders, to access food aid, medical assistance, and protection and aid agencies are deliberately obstructed from providing such assistance inside much of Somalia. Human Rights Watch just released a report, “You Don’t Know Who to Blame:” War Crimes in Somalia, accusing all warring factions in Somalia, particularly al-Shabaab but also government forces, of committing human rights violations and preventing access to aid. But most argue that the Islamic insurgency group, al-Shabaab, is primarily to blame. The report’s author told BBC that

“al-Shabaab carries out unrelenting daily repression and brutality in areas under its control, taxing the population for access to water, forcefully recruiting men so they cannot grow crops and restricting access to aid agencies…al-Shabaab must carry he burden of that responsibility for the way in which the fighting has led to human rights violations which have contributed to famine.”

Andrew Jillions, blogging at Justice in Conflict, also directly takes on the question of al-Shabaab’s responsibility or complicity in engineering the famine. And in Kenya too there is finger-pointing at political actors. One Kenyan activist claims “this is a governance drought. It is a situation caused by the government’s failure to plan…” and that big profits can be made from famine.

Whether those perpetrating violence and corruption have intentionally caused vs. exacerbated the famine in the commission of other abuses may matter more for identifying this as a crime and assigning responsibility, but on the ground the end result of either scenario is still increasing death and displacement with little allocation of responsibility.


Well, well, well.

From the AP:

“Somali pirates on Wednesday hijacked a U.S.-flagged cargo ship with 20 American crew members onboard, hundreds of miles from the nearest U.S. military vessel in some of the most dangerous waters in the world.

It was the sixth ship seized within a week, a rise that analysts attribute to a new strategy by Somali pirates who are operating far from the warships patrolling the Gulf of Aden.

In a statement, the company confirmed that the U.S.-flagged vessel has 20 U.S. nationals onboard.

It is not clear whether the pirates knew they were hijacking a ship with American crew members.”

Now we’ll see what develops.


It’s About Time. (For Regime Change.)

Finally, a resolution to the four-month-old stand-off with the hijackers of the Faina off the coast of Somalia. NY Times reported today that the pirate crew will disembark from the Faina after some sum of money, paid by the ship owners, was air-dropped onboard:

“According to one of the pirates, the owners of the ship had paid the ransom; the pirates had counted the money; and now they were just waiting for nightfall to slip away from the ship.

The hijacking of the Ukrainian ship, called the Faina, stirred up fears of a new epoch of piracy and helped precipitate a rash of similar attacks off Somalia’s coast and an unprecedented naval response in return. Warships from China, India, Italy, Russia, France, the United States, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Greece, Turkey, Britain and Germany have all joined the fight against the pirates, though the attacks have continued.

The pirates aboard the Faina would not reveal how much they had netted in ransom — originally they were asking for more than $20 million. According to businessmen on shore, the ransom was around $3 million and the money was dropped by parachute from a small plane, which seems to be the new way to deliver pirate booty. Last month, a huge Saudi oil tanker that had been hijacked was freed in a similar way.”

You can look at this in two ways. One: as a triumph of diplomacy with no loss of life. Two: as an excruciatingly glacial policy response to an incident emblematic of a widespread human security problem afflicting civilian and commercial traffic on the high seas – a global governance failure which could be changed with a shift in priorities and some savvy institution building, if these could only be sparked off by a bit of political imagination.

I don’t have concrete proposals, but I tend to see it through the latter lens. Four months? Surely this track record could be improved if governments took hostage taking at sea seriously as a human security problem. In fact, the protection and liberation of hostages was one of the ‘human security problems’ identified by respondents to my human security survey that has not attracted significant advocacy or global policy response.

In other words, this strikes me as an example of what Radoslav Dmitrov and his collaborators called a “non-regime” on p. 235 of their 2007 International Studies Review article: “a transnational public policy arena characterized by the absence of multilateral agreement for policy coordination.”

I wonder how this might be changed. Readers are invited to submit their ideas: what concrete goals could human security activists push for in terms of mechanisms to protect and assist victims of high seas piracy?


Pirates and Sovereigns

This post began as a response to the comments on Peter’s recent post on pirates, but they got to be so long, and required hyperlinks, I decided to start a new thread.

In his comment to that post, T. Greer asks what the pirates who hijacked the oiltanker Sirius Star were thinking, since they can’t deal with the logistics involved in selling the cargo and were certainly likely to provoke the great powers (further) by targeting such a prize.

Somali pirates want two things, as far as I can tell:

1) Money, which is why their strategies have been based on ransom demands – they don’t care about docking in port and selling cargo, they care about getting shipowners and their insurance companies to buy back their property and their crewpersons’ lives. This also explains (I think) why the hijackers of the Faina continue to negotiate at sea with the Ukrainian shipowners, rather than identifying buyers of the ships’ military cargo within Somalia (for which there is a market aplenty). Ransom is now Somalia’s fastest-growing industry and is contributing to an economic boom there, which is one reason why marrying daughters off to pirates has recently become an coveted indicator of upward mobility among villages within coastal Somalia.

2) Domestic Legitimation (which is why they tend to avoid killing hostages if possible and why they are seizing larger and riskier targets). The longer they keep the world powers at bay, the more powerful they seem and the more credible their claims to be “protecting” the Somali coast from rampant global capitalism and illegal fishing/dumping by other nations, which was destroying the local fishing industry (many of the pirates are former fishers out of work) and polluting the coastline. This legitimation helps them maintain their credibility and social power among land-based Somalis, which reinforces their economic gains.

None of this justifies piracy, of course, but just my two cents from following the complexities of it a bit over the past three years. Best to think of them not just as theives but as political players in the region.

In this sense, there are genuine parallels with eighteenth and nineteenth century maritime piracy. Janice Thomson’s landmark study of the relationship between piracy, privateering and state-building early in the Westphalian system situates earlier pirate bands as alternate forms of non-territorialized governance aimed partly at resisting the emerging European state system’s reliance on property rights and ability to discipline labor. It’s no surprise to me that as state system loses its grip on markets, its role as container of political identity, and even its monopoly on the use of legitimate force, piracy has reemerged not only as a practice (this has been going on for least 20 years) but now also as a political discourse.

Aside from how to solve the immediate problem, the constitutive and legal questions here abound. If political players they are, rather than mere brigands, then what political rulesets should guide diplomacy with these people in order to both bring about a useful causal outcome (the protection of shipping lanes, the reconstruction of a country), while contributing constructively to reconstituting international law / institutions to account for the exercise of political violence by non-state actors through asymmetrical means?

I don’t know. But that’s one frame for understanding the kinds of discussions that are needed here – they are not so different from the discussions, such as those taking place at Complex Terrain Lab, about how to reconceptualize the state-centric law of armed conflict to account for / bring into the fold non-state actors. Only difference is, most of that discussion has taken place regarding the law of land warfare only, rather than maritime war law, as Ken Anderson pointed out recently: all should read his complete Opinio Juris post on the matter.


Meanwhile, Off the Coast of Somalia…

AP reports, in an article titled “Somali Pirates Stare Down Superpowers”:

With a Russian frigate closing in and a half-dozen U.S. warships within shouting distance, the pirates holding a tanker off Somalia’s coast might appear to have no other choice than to wave the white flag. But that’s not how it works in Somalia, a failed state where a quarter of children die before they turn 5, where anybody with a gun controls the streets and where every public institution has crumbled. The 11-day standoff aboard the Ukrainian MV Faina begs the question: How can a bunch of criminals from one of the poorest and most wretched countries on Earth face off with some of the world’s richest and well-armed superpowers?

In Somalia, pirates are better-funded, better-organized and better-armed than one might imagine in a country that has been in tatters for nearly two decades. They have the support of their communities and rogue members of the government — some pirates even promise to put ransom money toward building roads and schools. With most attacks ending with million-dollar payouts, piracy is considered the biggest economy in Somalia. Pirates rarely hurt their hostages, instead holding out for a huge payday.

The pirates are demanding $20 million ransom, and say they will not lower the price. “We only need money and if we are paid, then everything will be OK,” he said. “No one can tell us what to do.” Ali’s bold words come even though his dozens of fighters are surrounded by U.S. warships and American helicopters buzz overhead. Moscow has sent a frigate, which should arrive within days.

Good that the reporter is focusing on the root causes of piracy, not just the need for an immediate response. But I don’t know about this US/Russian Goliath held at bay by David Scallywag narrative. All that’s holding the US back is casualty aversion and the desire not to step on Moscow’s toes. Any guesses as to how this will go down when the Russians show up?


This Just In: Somali Pirates Are Definitely Human

No sooner did I blog about the growing security threat posed by maritime piracy than several powerful militaries took notice… not because I was particularly persuasive, but because a Ukranian freighter loaded down with $30 million worth of tanks, grenade launchers and other military equipment was captured by marauders off the coast of Somalia.

Two dozen crew members are still hostage aboard the MV Faina, now anchored off the Somali coast, while the pirates repeatedly isuse a series of ransom demands – though it’s not obvious to me to whom. (Also, their demands have fallen, like the global stock market, since Sunday: down to $20 mil from an original demand of $35 mil.) Both the US and Russia have sent vessels to intercept the MV Faina – Russia because many of her crew members are Russian; the US because of intel that the arms shipment may have been heading not to Kenya, as claimed by both Nairobi and Kiev, but rather to Khartoum. (The plot thickens.) Neither country wants the pirates to sell the weapons to Islamist warlords in Somalia, although it is quite unclear whether they would even be in any position to offload such heavy machinery.

In an mildly entertaining twist on the story, a spokesperson for the pirate crew was interviewed today by the NY Times.

The Somali pirates who hijacked a Ukrainian freighter loaded with tanks, artillery, grenade launchers and ammunition said in an interview on Tuesday that they had no idea the ship was carrying arms when they seized it on the high seas. “We just saw a big ship,” the pirates’ spokesman, Sugule Ali, said in a telephone interview. “So we stopped it.” In a 45-minute interview, Mr. Sugule spoke on everything from what the pirates wanted (“just money”) to why they were doing this (“to stop illegal fishing and dumping in our waters”) to what they had to eat on board (rice, meat, bread, spaghetti, “you know, normal human-being food”).

(Interesting how he feels the need to stress his shipmates’ human-being-ness, as if he wants us fend off misconceptions that he and his brethren are actually akin to those under the curse of the Black Pearl.)

He said that so far, in the eyes of the world, the pirates had been misunderstood. “We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits,” he said. “We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of us like a coast guard.”

Though Adam Blickstein reminds us we can hardly take his rhetoric at face value, it does show him to be a skilled and savvy diplomat more than a common criminal. He manages to make a principled claim justifying his behavior on nationalist grounds, while claiming to side-step any political motives that would link him or his crew to US or Russian security interests in the region. Not that the superpowers are buying it for a moment – though neither are they storming the ship. Yet.

Meanwhile, pirate afficionados can take a certain guilty pleasure in admiring the swashbuckling bravado of the envoy, who, poking fun at Western humanitarian norms, told the reporter obligingly:

““Killing is not in our plans… We only want money so we can protect ourselves from hunger.” When asked why the pirates needed $20 million to protect themselves from hunger, Mr. Sugule laughed and said, “Because we have a lot of men.”



Meanwhile, Outside of the Caucasus…

Rodger and Peter remind us that many things are happening out there besides the commotion between Russia and Georgia. For example:

Canada has dispatched the naval frigate HMCS Ville de Québec to the waters off the Horn of Africa, in the hopes of stemming pirate attacks that have in recent months drastically curtailed the delivery of humanitarian aid to Somalia’s war-affected masses. It’s unclear whether a single additional vessel will be up to the task, even if its mission is to rather single-mindedly protect World Food Programme shipments, rather than to police the waters more generally. Still, it’s heartening to see Canada’s open securitization of maritime piracy: see the long quotation by Rear-Admiral Dean McFadden in Daniel Skeritch’s post at Modern Day Pirate Tales.

Relatedly, the Dallas News reports on Somalia’s humanitarian crisis, now characterized as the “worst in the world.” (Some helpful perspective: compare the “catastrophe” of between 10,000 and 30,000 refugees in N. Ossetia to the following:)

“The United Nations estimates that at least 14 million people in the Horn of Africa are in urgent need of food aid due to conflict, dramatic rises in food costs and severe drought.

Two countries most threatened by this crisis are Somalia and Ethiopia, where 2.6 million and 4.6 million people, respectively, face severe food shortages.

Somalia is already in the grip of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. It has been without an effective government for nearly two decades – but since 2007, the situation has declined sharply. Conflict, failed rains and hyperinflation have made staple foods such as rice and corn unaffordable for many.”

Finally, while two nuclear-armed superpowers step up increasingly belligerent rhetoric in the UN Security Council and beyond, it makes sense to mention the recent passage of the 63rd anniversary of the bombing of Hirsohima. Peace groups commemorated the event last week, and the mayor of Hiroshima asked the US to back a ban on nuclear weapons. Hmm. Might be an auspicious time to think about it.

The Human Security Report’s News Service provides a helpful roundup of other key stories.


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before

UN humanitarian co-ordinator Marc Bowden says that Somalia is in the grips of a worsening food crisis.

Somalia faces a worse situation than Darfur, Mr Bowden says.

Contributing to the crisis are fighting between rival militias, successive droughts, sharply rising food prices and a collapse of the Somali currency.

Mr Bowden says that during the course of the next three months the number of people needing emergency food relief will climb by about one million from the current 2.5m.

Aid agencies trying to get food into Somalia face extreme difficulties.

The task is made more difficult because fighting and violence has displaced a million Somalis from their homes.

Mark Bowden says Somalia has become one of the world’s most challenging humanitarian crises.

Somalia’s recent history is, indeed, a sorry one: political collapse in the wake of the Cold War, a botched humanitarian intervention, Islamicist forces bringing harsh rule and some stability in the south–but also a new stage of civil war, US-backed Ethiopian intervention, and now a complete breakdown in food supplies and distribution.

Some consider Somalia a critical front in the “war on terror,” but I doubt that’s enough, in the shadow of 1992-1993, to motivate concerted action by the international community.



Ethiopia launched an invasion of Somalia yesterday:

Ethiopia officially plunged into war with Somalia’s Islamist forces on Sunday, bombing targets inside Somalia and pushing ground troops deep into Somali territory in a major escalation that could turn Somalia’s internal crisis into a violent religious conflict that engulfs the entire Horn of Africa.

The coordinated assault was the first open admission by Ethiopia’s Christian-led government of its military operations inside Somalia, where — with tacit American support — it has been helping a weak interim government threatened by forces loyal to the Islamic clerics who control the longtime capital, Mogadishu, and much of the country.

This war has the potential to get rather dangerous rather fast, as Eritrea is sending troops to Somalia to buttress its neighbor against its rival, and the Islamist militias / government of Somalia calls for a wider, jihadist type of war.

While the US has not been officially in Somalia since the post-Blackhawk Down pull-out in 1994, the CIA had been funding some of the non-Islamist warlords, hoping to help them defeat and capture some other warlords.

[O]fficials said the CIA effort, run from the agency’s station in Nairobi, channeled hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past year to secular warlords inside Somalia with the aim, among other things, of capturing or killing a handful of suspected members of Al Qaeda who are believed to be hiding there….

Indeed, some of the experts point to the U.S. effort to finance the warlords as one of the factors that led to the resurgence of Islamic militias in the country. They contend that U.S. support for secular warlords, who joined under the banner of the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism, may have helped to unnerve the Islamic militias and prompted them to launch preemptive strikes. The Islamic militias have been routing the warlords, and they now claim to have taken control of most of the Somali capital.

“This has blown up in our face, frankly,” said John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit research organization with extensive field experience in Somalia.

“We’ve strengthened the hand of the people whose presence we were worried most about,” said Prendergast, who worked on Africa policy at the National Security Council and State Department during the Clinton administration.

In a way, Somalia has eerie similarities to Afghanistan of about 8 or 10 years ago. A country in anarchy after a superpower pulls out, various factions and warlords vie for supremacy. None is strong enough to prevail, until an Islamic fundamentalist militia comes in, routs the feuding warlords, and imposes a sense of order over the country. The order is an improvement over the enduring warfare for the local people, but the government develops ties to a global Islamist jihadist network of forces, such as Al Qaeda.

So now, Ethiopia, with, it seems, more than tacit but not quite overt, US support, is moving in to tip the balance toward the non-Islamist warlords. I guess we’ll see how this turns out.

Oh, and for those of you who celebrate it, I hope you enjoy a nice holiday today.

I’ll be engaging in the very traditional Chinese food and a movie. I’m thinking maybe chicken and eggplant in garlic sauce and The Good Shepard.

Filed as:


© 2021 Duck of Minerva

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑