Chokepoint Challenge

The political mess in Somalia, if it is “fixed” to suppress piracy, may well create more trouble for the liberal West, and international shipping in general, down the road.

Somalia is a mess.  The piracy problem won’t be fixed until Somalia ceases being a mess.  The most likely manner of de-messing Somalia will be the imposition of Shari’a rule.  Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda branch of Sunni wahhabism is pushing to lead that effort.  If the “moderate” Shari’a alternative to the more “Qaedist” elements in Somalia wins out, its affiliations with Iran and Saudi Arabia are not substantially more encouraging.  In Somalia, we should be careful what we ask for, because we may get it.

We could leave it at this, but I know interested readers will want to investigate this issue just a little further.  A recent shift in piracy patterns, reported by the US Fifth Fleet Commander and the International Maritime Bureau, serves as a good pretext for a top-level reexamination of the Somalia problem.  The geographic shift in piracy patterns is not really a new pattern, so much as the reemergence of an incipient one from several years ago, before the Gulf of Aden became the main focus of Somali piracy – and of the international antipiracy effort.  The capture of M/V Sirius Star, the Saudi tanker, in 2008 was the harbinger of this reemergence:  Sirius Star was seized not in the Gulf of Aden, but out in the Indian Ocean, 450 nautical miles (NM) east of the southeastern Somali coast.  Since the Sirius Star incident, and particularly since the influx of a multinational naval force into the Gulf of Aden, there has been an increase in pirate seizures off Somalia’s eastern coastline, as shown in the graphic here (from Eaglespeak).

Map from Eaglespeak
Map from Eaglespeak


Seizures in this area off the eastern coast are not unprecedented, by any means.  The most celebrated of the pirate attempts prior to 2008, the attack on the Carnival cruise liner Seabourn Spirit in November 2005, occurred off Somalia’s eastern coast, and was one of a number of attacks in that area.  The most significant changes in the east coast pattern are the distance from shore at which pirate attacks are being attempted, starting with Sirius Star last year, and the complexity of the attacks, including use of motherships. As maritime blogger gCaptain notes, the IMB is gravely concerned about this aspect of the east coast attack pattern:  sheer distances and enormous ocean areas make it impossible for naval forces to establish a credible deterrent posture there, as they are doing in the Gulf of Aden.  The US Navy agrees:  the Indian Ocean maritime region east of Somalia is simply too large to be made safe with patrols.

Galrahn at Information Dissemination highlighted a news report from Thursday suggesting the possibility that at least one unnamed navy may have sunk a pirate ship off Somalia’s east coast, unannounced, this past week.  The report cites information from fishermen in the pirate base of Harardhere, on the east coast, that a pirate vessel was sunk, by a navy ship, with one person killed.  Allied navies queried by AFP had no information about such an incident – but they are not operating in the vicinity of Harardhere.  Readers who investigate the Information Dissemination piece will see that responders there link to a story about Greek fishing vessels that opened fire on the Puntland region’s coast guard, in the Gulf of Aden; but I assess that this incident is unrelated to the report from fishermen several hundred miles to the south in Harardhere, about a pirate vessel sunk by a naval ship.  (The map shows the location of Harardhere in relation to the Gulf of Aden, where the multinational antipiracy effort is underway.)  The sketchy AFP report remains of interest, however, because of the implied location of the pirate vessel’s sinking:  in the region off the east coast of Somalia. 

Of course, the Indian navy sank a Thai fishing ship last year, somewhat further to the east, when it took the ship – which had been seized by pirates – for a pirate mothership seeking prey.

Google map, Author annotation
Google map, Author annotation


As many moving parts as the Somali piracy problem has, it is downright simple compared to the problem of national unification ashore.  The intransigence of Somali clan divisions and regionalism persist there as the main obstacles to national unity.  Northern Somalia, where Somaliland and Puntland clash over territory and resist federal power from the south, is a prize no would-be national leader has achieved mastery of since the demise of the Siad Barre regime in 1991.  Somaliland and Puntland in fact operate as essentially autonomous regions.  Piracy emanates mainly from Puntland, whose territory stretches from the major northern port city of Bossaso, on the central Gulf of Aden, to the vicinity of Harardhere.  But the pirates from the north and east coasts come from different clans:  the Darod operate in the north, and the Hawiye (the largest Somali clan, by CIA’s calculation) from the east coast.

CIA Map graphic
CIA Map graphic


(The pirating of Sirius Star last year, in addition to being a complex operation uniquely distant from the coast, was also the first, and so far only, known instance of Darod and Hawiye pirates cooperating in a joint venture.  Reports that the pirates were killing each other at one point, during the long stand-off, were considered entirely believable by knowledgeable commentators ashore, since the pirate team was composed of rival clan members.  Their normal mode of operation has been in separate piracy realms.)

The regional governments of Puntland and Somaliland have pursued policies of what we might call extreme pragmatism, doing little to suppress the pirates operating from their shores, while accommodating the foreign navies involved in the multinational effort, and offering a level of coast guard protection to foreign fishermen who pay government fees for shipping concessions.  In truth, it would be suicidal for these regional governments to take serious action against the pirates ashore, since the pirates are some of the richest and best-armed of their citizens, and the governments are poor and weak.  They are a convenience for the pirates, however, who know that their entrepreneurial activities would come in for regulation, and perhaps even elimination by force, with an extension of effective national government control from Mogadishu.

Prospects for such control remain dim, at least in the short term.  Politically, the players have shifted positions somewhat since the Islamic Courts Union seized power in southern Somalia in the summer of 2006, and was eventually ousted by Ethiopia, that December, in favor of the UN-endorsed Transitional Federal Government.  The leader of the ICU during that period of rule, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a Hawiye of the Abgal sub-clan, was elected in January 2009 to lead what is nominally still the Transitional Federal Government, and supposed to be charting Somalia’s course to a stable, democratic future.  But the election itself was decidedly odd, as befits a Somali process; and the ICU has split since 2006, with another Hawiye – Hassan Dahir Aweys of the Habr Gedir sub-clan, a wanted Al Qaeda associate and member of the 2006 government, with a reputation for Shari’a-backed brutality – leading a movement opposed to Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s presidency.  In the meantime, even more (Islamically) radical former adherents of the ICU have formed the “Al-Shabaab” movement, and seized power in much of southern Somalia (including the major city of Baidoa) using guerrilla and terrorist tactics (see map).  Al-Shabaab is believed to have ties to Al Qaeda.

Long War Journal Map see
Long War Journal Map see


The presidential election in January involved the vote of a Somali political assembly gathered, for security reasons, in neighboring Djibouti.  The UN, with EU financial backing, arranged for 200 members of Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS) to be sworn in to the Somali parliament before the vote was taken, as a measure to promote national unity.  To the surprise of few, this accession of new members boosted Sharif’s vote tally enough to get him past his main rivals, who included the prime minister, Nur Hassan Hussein, and the son of former Somali dictator Siad Barre.  Sharif, in spite of his record with the ICU, and past contacts with Al Qaeda, is considered by Western and other regional governments to be a “moderate” Islamist, and the UN is backing him without reserve.

Aweys, Sharif’s more radical ICU associate, had founded the ARS with him, after the two were expelled from Somalia with the Ethiopian invasion in late 2006.  However, Aweys and Sharif split last year over whether or not to deal with the TFG, and seek to leverage it as a path to national power.  In the weeks since the election, Sharif has not had the support of the Aweys faction, and in fact the senior leadership of the ARS opposition announced itself, in February, to be arming against Sharif.

It remains unclear, in spite of Aweys’ longstanding ties to Al Qaeda, whether Al Qaeda itself supports the opposition faction of the ARS.  Al Qaeda’s leadership might view success as likelier through backing the Al-Shabaab guerrillas, who still control much of the territory of southern Somalia.  (Al-Shabaab – “Youth” – is a movement of younger Somali Islamists who reject the Westernization inherent in accepting UN intervention and parliamentary government.)  The guerrillas are avowedly determined to impose Shari’a, on the strict – homicidal – model of the Taliban in Afghanistan, or the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria in the early 1990s.  Aweys, based on his reputation for Shari’a brutality from the middle of this decade, could be expected to hit a similar point on the Islamic law-and-order spectrum, if probably a better-organized and less-hooliganish one, at least as viewed by political outsiders.

That Al Qaeda is not backing the Sharif government is evident in a bin Laden audio communication in March, in which he urged Somalis to reject it.  (Humorously enough, a nearly contemporary video released by Al-Shabaab features an American Islamist, “Abu Mansour al-Amriki,” who is gathering fame for his role as an Al-Shabaab commander, and demonstrating yet again that there is no radical Islamic cause too far-flung or esoteric to have a Yank marching in its ranks.)  Not being endorsed by bin Laden seems to be a point in Sharif’s favor with regional governments and the UN.  His level of moderation must, however, be evaluated in light of his own past ties to Al Qaeda, and the laundry list of national Islamist suppliers that provided him weapons and monetary support for the 2006 ICU takeover, and its subsequent six months of rule.  The UN, and US and European intelligence, put Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, and Libya on that list.

The UN is no doubt motivated by a desire to promote unity and stability – and also influenced by the approval of Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s ICU rule, in 2006, by a majority of the population in southern Somalia, particularly in the strife-torn capital city of Mogadishu.  Sharif’s split with Aweys, whom many UN mission workers held responsible for the incidents of Shari’a brutality reported under ICU rule, no doubt solidified his own reputation for moderation.  The realities of Somalia have not faded away, however; the support Sharif enjoys among Hawiye, who are in the majority in Mogadishu and much of the south, does not necessarily extend to the country’s other clans.  Non-Hawiye do not speak as highly of his 2006 tenure in leadership as those of his own clan do.  Sharif’s support is greater in Mogadishu than elsewhere, and there are no signs that he will, unaided, or without the use of force, have a federal unifying effect on Somaliland and Puntland.

We must also take note of an Islamic conference held at Sharif’s behest in Mogadishu in February.  Little reporting has emerged on it in the West, but an America-based reporter provided a summary at the Somali website Dhahar Online, in which he noted the report of a Somali political analyst that the conference endorsed the imposition of Shari’a law on Somalia, insisted on the removal of UN and African Union stability missions from the country, and was considering a government with theocratic supervision designed on the model of Iran’s.

It would be a mistake to imagine that Somalis are not thinking for themselves in this regard.  Somalia is almost 100% Sunni Muslim, and most analysts agree that, particularly in the south, the people do not viscerally object to the idea of Shari’a rule.  Many, especially the Hawiye majority in Mogadishu, remember the ICU’s brief period of Shari’a rule as one of relative calm and order.  Whatever we suppose about the average Somali in the street, we may at least accurately understand that Somali religious and political leaders feel themselves free to consider, and perhaps adopt, the Iranian model, without it being the case that that model must be imposed, with no popular support, by revolutionary force.

That said, we must also recognize that support from the Hawiye in Mogadishu does not equate to support from all of Somalia, for either Shari’a rule or federal unification.  Moreover, one does not have to argue – wrongly, I believe – that Iran is pulling strings behind Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, to nevertheless recognize that a government he is in charge of will be more likely to conclude agreements with Iran than would a Somali government led by another.

Iran has, of course, long cultivated ties with other Horn of Africa nations, and used them (e.g., in Eritrea and Sudan) to facilitate arms transfers to Hizballah and Hamas – transfers that have included Chinese-design shore-launched antiship missiles like the ones that hit an Israeli patrol ship and a Cambodian freighter in July 2006.  It is not a stretch to imagine a Somalia unified by force – perhaps Iranian- or Russian-backed force – and in one way or another choosing to menace or extort shipping through the Gulf of Aden, using Iranian-provided military weaponry.  A nation need not even fire its weapons in anger to have this effect:  merely putting them in place, calling attention to them, and exercising with them is sufficient to communicate to merchant shipping that it passes at the sufferance of the armed coastline’s owner – or, as in the Strait of Hormuz, under the de facto protection of a countervailing hegemonic navy.

The beauty of the piracy problem for a would-be unifier of Somalia is that one may simultaneously win the support of the UN’s membership by appearing to be the leader who will fix it; and, in fixing it, create the conditions for hegemony over a vital global checkpoint.  Neither Sharif nor Iran will be slow to see that (nor, for that matter, will Russia or China).  The UN and EU have already demonstrated that they are willing to throw their support to an ICU leader whom they believe to be a moderate.  They are not the source of support for the uglier business of forcibly unifying Somalia – but if Sharif can also make headway against the Somali pirates, the EU (and assuredly the US, under Obama) will probably turn a blind eye to the “unification” process; particularly if it is not supported by Al Qaeda, but by Iran.

Bin Laden may have made a tactical error in showcasing his rejection of Sharif so overtly (with last month’s call to Somalis to rebel against him).  The outcome in Somalia is now, inevitably, a referendum of sorts on Al Qaeda’s radical, insurgent leadership as a transnational phenomenon.  If Sharif, backed by the UN and the EU, and possibly supplied with weaponry from Iran, Russia, or China, can achieve effective rule of all of Somalia, he will have modeled an alternative to Al Qaeda support – and one that could be especially timely as Iran, Russia, and China maneuver to extend their influence in the region through just such “cooperative,” nation-to-nation projects.  We have had a hiatus of almost two decades from this Cold War-era pattern (which also featured Russia, in her Soviet guise), but Russia’s reassertions abroad in the last year, China’s forays into Burma and Zimbabwe, and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear arms, continue to suggest that projects like the one outlined here are on the horizon.  What we may well be in for is a showdown between the transnational, non-state-based Al Qaeda model for the release of revolutionary energy, and a renovated version of the nation-state-based patterns of predatory international Marxism.

Meanwhile, the world badly wants the piracy off Somalia to stop.  As Vice Admiral Gortney, the US Fifth Fleet Commander, pointed out to Congress last month, piracy cannot be effectively eliminated through a maritime approach.  It has to be stopped through a change of conditions on land.  The brief ascendancy of the ICU under Sharif, in 2006, encouraged international observers to think that Sharif may be the best hope for corralling the Somali pirates.  (We do need to understand that Somali pirates are to an Islamist central government what Afghan drug traders were to the Taliban:  an independent power center with their own sources of income and weaponry, and their own transnational connections.  Suppressing the activities of crime syndicates is, in either case, a move to consolidate power, cloaked in a thin veneer of Shari’a morality.)

If Sharif can navigate the wickets of the Aweys faction, related others arming against him, and Al-Shabaab, he may well requite his UN and Western supporters by ultimately suppressing the pirates, and getting control of northern Somalia.  Having shed Aweys, he now has a better chance of achieving these power-consolidation objectives without alarming Ethiopia about resurgent “pan-Somali” designs on Ethiopia’s heavily Somali Ogaden province.  We need have no illusions about Sharif remaining uncourted by the aggressive Asian powers:  his position is precisely the one in which they would like to find their prospective clients.  If Sharif does succeed in consolidating unified national power, it will only be with outside assistance, most likely from Iran and/or Russia.   This is something the EU and UN are likely to accept, if it will just make the piracy stop.

In the end, we may very well find Sharif to have been a Faustian bargain.  Stopping piracy at the cost of giving Iran or Russia (or both) a foothold on the Gulf of Aden would mean paying a high price for our (entirely natural) resistance to sorting Somalia out ourselves.  Admiral Gortney is right, but in an even larger sense than his words imply.  The security of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Gulf of Aden for free maritime trade depend, today more than ever, on what is going on ashore.

If Sharif does consolidate national power in Somalia, developments like this would require some years.  But not as many as they once would have.  The reason the Gulf of Aden is not the backwater it once was, and now seems more “up for grabs,” is that the absoluteness of US Naval power, as manifested on the lines of the Cold War, has been diminishing.  The relative intensity of US naval and air presence in the Mediterranean has declined significantly since the collapse of the USSR; the sense of approaching the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden from a sea bristling with the patrols, arrangements, and alliances of the US Navy no longer obtains to nearly the extent it once did.  The conditions for approach from the other direction, while there are geographic dissimilarities, combine to present a similar sense, which basically amounts to the absence of an immediately apparent hegemon.  US naval and air presence formerly gave a more overwhelming sense of bastions of power – in the Mediterranean, across East and Southeast Asia – that obtains less and less with each passing year.  Our maritime hegemony has tipped, in a way that may be significant sooner than we think, from being broadly tangible to being abstract, in more and more of the globe.

As is usually the case, a challenge to that hegemony is most likely to come in the vicinity of a chokepoint.  The project to consolidate power in Somalia will, inevitably, open the door to such a challenge in the Gulf of Aden, as long as the US is not involved in the power consolidation ashore.  Given the fresh conditions in Somalia for making a run at federal unification, we should be watching the Gulf of Aden for a “chokepoint challenge” even sooner than one from Iran in the Strait of Hormuz, or one from China in the eastern approaches to the Strait of Malacca.

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