Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
If the Somali Pirates team with the Jihadists...
The pressure to tackle piracy off Somalia's coast is growing by the day. The threat to merchant shipping in the region is now greater than it has been for decades. The taking of the leviathan 330-metre Saudi-owned Sirius Star in the high seas fully 450 nautical miles (833km) off the Kenyan coast, on Saturday, shows that all tankers heading to or from the Arabian Gulf and all cargo vessels using the Suez Canal are now at risk from pirates, no matter what course they hold to.
Shipping companies face higher insurance premiums, customers could see longer delivery times, less traffic may pass through the Suez Canal. The success of the pirates may also strengthen the hand of radical Islamists in Somalia if gunmen abandon their poorly paid defence of the feeble transitional Somali government in Mogadishu for the promise of adventures and riches at sea.
The geographical range open to the pirates gives them (generally) the upper hand over foreign navies deployed to stop them. So, too, does their ingenious use of fishing boats for satellite cover. Warships can easily intercept captured vessels and, under a United Nations resolution agreed upon earlier this year, chase them back into Somali waters. But it is rare for them to stop the pirates boarding vessels and taking crews hostage in the first place. And by luring warships into Somali waters to watch over captured vessels, the pirates will continue to stretch their operations further south towards the Comoros and the Mozambique Channel–once the hunting grounds of late 17th century English pirates.
There have been at least 83 acknowledged pirate attacks off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden this year, 33 of them successful enough to command a ransom. The amounts of money being paid have rocketed, with pirates demanding and getting $1m in ransom or more. The number of attacks is probably higher than stated, given the desire of some ship owners to pay a ransom quietly, without involving an insurance company.
The Sirius Star is believed now to be anchored somewhere off the coast of Somalia, near the pirate port of Eyl in the northern Puntland region of the country. It joins a dozen or so other vessels. They include the MV Faina, a Ukrainian cargo ship captured in September with a cargo of Soviet-era tanks bound for south Sudan, with the connivance of the Kenyan government. Ransom demands for the Faina have dropped from $20m to $8m since it was surrounded by American and Russian warships, but there is still no agreement on its release. The pirates are likely to ask for more than $30m for the release of the Sirius Star.
The tanker is owned by the shipping subsidiary of Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil giant. It was carrying oil worth over $100m and was bound for America when captured. For the Saudis, its loss is a reminder of a problem that has been festering just across the Red Sea for some time: Somali analysts say that Saudi Arabia has made big promises of aid and assistance to Somalia, but has delivered nothing of value.
For America, the case of the Sirius Star underlines longstanding concerns that piracy off Somalia, still strictly mercenary, might soon attract jihadist operators. Some think that al-Qaeda has already looked into the possibility of blowing up tankers in the narrows off the Comoros. If the jihadists do not organise an attack themselves, the worry is that they might pay the pirates to do it for them.
|Copyright © 2008 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.|
Monday, November 17, 2008
Government near to collapse, says Somalia leader
President Abdullahi Yusuf of Somalia has admitted that his government is on the verge of collapse and that Islamist groups now control most of the country.
In a speech to Somali MPs gathered in the Kenyan capital Nairobi at the weekend, Yusuf said that the government only had a presence in the capital Mogadishu and in Baidoa, "and people are being killed there every day. Islamists have taken over everywhere else."
His frank admission confirms what is known but seldom publicly acknowledged by those with a stake in Somalia's future, from Ethiopia, whose continued occupation unites the different Islamist groups against a common enemy, to the UN and western countries, which have backed the warlord-heavy government for years.
The latest bout of infighting - Yusuf and his prime minister, Nur Hassan Hussein, have failed to agree a new cabinet despite a deadline from regional leaders - came as Islamist militias made rapid gains towards Mogadishu. Al-Shabaab, the most extreme and effective of the Islamist insurgent groups, took control of Elasha, nine miles from the capital, on Saturday. Al-Shabaab fighters had already captured the strategic ports towns of Merka and Barawe without firing a shot.
Though they already control many of Mogadishu's battered suburbs, a heavy Ethiopian presence is likely to stop al-Shabaab taking over the entire city. But if the government does collapse, the mission of the 3,000 African Union peacekeepers and Ethiopian troops will be redundant with no state institutions to protect. It was a point stressed by Yusuf, who urged MPs to return to Baidoa, the provisional capital, and form a new government as soon as possible, warning that it would otherwise be "every man for himself" .
"The Islamists kill city cleaners, they will not spare legislators," he said.
While atrocities by all sides have claimed thousands of lives this year alone, al-Shabaab fighters have increasingly been targeting civilians. Accused by the US of links to al-Qaida, they have adopted similar tactics. Last month five synchronised suicide bombings in autonomous Somaliland and Puntland claimed 25 lives.
The Shabaab have also employed brutal tactics to enforce their version of sharia law in some areas under their control. In Kismayo, a young woman was stoned to death for alleged adultery last month, while 32 people taking part in traditional dancing in Balad were flogged on Saturday.
Such punishments are unpopular among ordinary among Somalis who have traditionally practised a moderate form of Islam. But, as happened two years ago when the Islamic Courts Union wrested control of Mogadishu from warlord rule, they have usually welcomed the restoration of security - a precious commodity in a country that has known only anarchy for 17 years.
The difference between 2006 and today is that the Islamist struggle has many different strands, which makes the outcome more dangerous, according to Bruno Schiemsky, a former chairman of the UN monitoring group investigating arms embargo violations in Somalia.
Apart from al-Shabaab, the Jabhad al-Islamiya movement, believed to be associated with the cleric Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, and the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia, led by Sheik Sharif Ahmed, also control territory. The two groups' ideology is more nationalist than al-Shabaab, said Schiemsky.
"For now the three groups are united against the common enemy of Ethiopia, but when Ethiopia withdraws there will be complete fragmentation and chaos. The nightmare in Somalia is still to come."
A diplomat in Nairobi said that western governments, including his own, had been guilty of viewing Somalia as "too difficult too solve and not important enough to matter". But the failure of Yusuf's government meant fresh thinking was required on what type of authority in Somalia was acceptable to the international community.
"I don't believe that Somalia will become a Taliban-style state. We need to accept a few years of harsh Islamic rule and work with the authority that way."
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Islamists take Merka
NAIROBI, Kenya — A Somali official appealed for urgent help Wednesday as residents reported that the key port city of Merka had fallen to Islamist insurgents.
Hundreds of fighters rolled into the port in heavily-armed pickup trucks, meeting no resistance because government-allied militias had fled the night before, according to residents. Merka is only 60 miles south of Mogadishu, Somalia’s bullet-pocked capital, and Somali officials said the Islamists were now planning to lay siege to Mogadishu.
“We know their grand plan,” said Abdi Awaleh Jama, an ambassador at large for the transitional federal government. “But we’re not going to run away. We’re going to fight with whatever we have.” But, he added, “We need help _ urgently.”
The Islamists have been steadily gobbling up territory — Merka, Kismayu, Dhusamare and Qoryooley — and now control most of the country.
They seem to be fast approaching Mogadishu, from the north and the south. In some areas, they have begun imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic law, even recently stoning to death a young woman who said she was raped. The Islamists convicted her of adultery. United Nations officials said she may have been as young as 13.
In Mogadishu, the transitional government seems to be embroiled in another round of infighting. Officials allied with the president, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, are accusing the prime minister, Nur Hassan Hussein, of secretly helping the Islamists. Some of the president’s men have even gone as far to say that Ethiopian forces, who have been in Somalia for almost two years helping to prop up the government, are now working with the insurgents.
At the same time, Ethiopian officials are blaming Somalia’s leaders for not making peace with Islamist clerics, who enjoy a large degree of popular support. The Ethiopians have indicated they will withdraw their troops soon, which many Somalis believe will spell the end of the government.
“Yes, it’s bad,” Mr. Abdi said about the fall of Merka and the overall status of the government. “These Islamists are terrorists. The American Congress and administration have to wake up. We have a common interest in defeating them.”
Complicating matters is the fact that Merka was home to a major United Nations operation to bring in desperately needed food. Somalia has been teetering on the edge of a famine for much of the past year, because of drought, conflict-related displacement and high global food prices. Millions of people need emergency rations to survive.
United Nations officials said Wednesday they did not know how the capture of Merka would affect their operations.