26 April 2012
On the eve of the 2009 inauguration of U.S. President Barack Hussein Obama, the biggest terrorist threat to the ceremony did not come from al-Qaeda, it emanated from the Somali insurgent group Al-Shabaab. More than two decades have passed since Americans worried about the instability coming from the Horn of Africa, horrified with the images of American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident. Yet today, Americans and the international community are drawn back toward Somalia and her people who fear neither death nor drought as Islamic militants fight for political control and pirates vie to dominate the seas.
The evolution of the pirates and Al-Shabaab militants parallel each other in a number of ways. During the dictatorship of Mohamed Siad Barre from 1969 to 1991, Somali commercial fishing developed with the help of international aid and fixed prices for the abundant seafood. Following the collapse of Barre’s regime, this promising industry crumbled and the Somali Navy was unable to patrol illegal fishers in their waters. Local fishermen adopted a defensive position to protect valuable marine life and prevent large companies from dumping toxic waste off their coast to little success, gradually turning to the lucrative profession of piracy. Meanwhile, Al-Shabaab began as the youth militant wing of the Islamic Courts Union, a grouping of Sharia courts, in their struggle to challenge the 2006 Transitional Federal Government by controlling large portions of southern Somalia and key cities. Broken by an Ethiopian offensive later that year, the Islamic Courts splintered into militant factions such as Al-Shabaab. At the same time as the country’s government was disintegrating again, piracy was on the rise as several organizations acted as de facto governments.
One key area where Al-Shabaab and the pirates diverge is the extent to which they aim to project power. The Somali pirates are known to expand their area of operations when being squeezed by international or national patrols, increasingly relying on deep sea mother ships as operating hubs. Their ties are international to the extent that some weapons come from abroad and investors buy and sell shares in forthcoming attacks. The return on investment for the seafaring men is local, with ransom money supporting entire towns. In one example, Dr. Anjua Shortland of Chatham House analyzes satellite imagery to deduct that pirates are likely contributing to economic and infrastructure development in the Puntland capitals of Garowe and Bosasso. Al-Shabaab uses a local, national, and international campaign of fear to project their ideology. In the towns, Al-Shabaab will establish mobile Sharia courts to try criminals with immediate sentences ranging from an amputated hand to death. Throughout Somalia, they engage in a series of battles to expand their territory and capture Mogadishu. Internationally, Al-Shabaab draws recruits from the United States and conducts coordinated suicide attacks like those in Uganda in July 2010.
A great challenge of this generation is how a follower of a revealed religion, like Islam, is living in a world where secular modernity has won, according to Dr. John Harrison, Department of International Security Studies, The College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University. This paradox is playing out to violent consequence in Somalia. Between 2007 and 2009, some 20 young Somalis were recruited from Minneapolis and St. Paul to return home and join their militant brothers. While being jubilant about waging jihad, one fighter lamented the lack of Starbucks on his Facebook wall. Militants further engage in a form of psychological warfare as they use scissors to correct “unIslamic” haircuts on men and check for the use of unholy brassieres on women in the streets. Al-Shabaab, on a number of occasions, has attempted to challenge some of the pirate port towns and arrange a profit sharing agreement in exchange for not instituting strict Islamic law. Religion can be sacrificed for a share of the booty, but thankfully not a caramel macchiato.
Whether a young Somali was a pirate or a militant, he has a job, identity, and role in the larger hierarchy. The typical pirate might have been a local fisherman, former military, or with technical skills yet no job. He is in his 20s or early 30s and is able to earn income and experience as a pirate trained on a variety of weapons and navigation technology. The insurgents are roughly the same age, with a few older civil war fighters. Trained in camps with a proper graduation ceremony, they learn to fight and hold a position within the insurgency. This structure is quite important to both groups. Several pirate groups are quite organized and use a hierarchical military command structure with military weapons like AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, as does Al-Shabaab.
As 2012 progresses, the international community has every right to be concerned. In its most serious move toward global jihad yet, Al-Shabaab has announced its merger with al-Qaeda through a joint video. In January, Somali pirates lost several of their own during a U.S. SEAL Team 6 operation that successfully rescued an American hostage and another individual. This small setback, however, is but a drop in the water of the $6.9 billion the pirates collected last year in ransom money. The next few months will be critical if the world’s nations are to keep insurgents and pirates from being the governing force that Somalis so desperately need.
Kathryn H. Floyd teaches “Insurgency and Terrorism" and "Conflict in Continental Africa" at the College of William and Mary. She has been researching international conflict and consulting on strategic communications over the course of the past decade.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's March/April Edition.