With foreign warships looming off its shores and a worldwide debate raging over how to defeat piracy, leaders in this seaside Somali capital say there’s a solution that could be fast, simple and relatively cheap: the Somalis themselves.
With the exception of the pirates, who showed they were undeterred by seizing two more ships Tuesday and attacking others, including an American vessel they did not manage to board, Somalis have been largely bystanders in the unfolding drama playing out hundreds of miles from Mogadishu’s coastline.
The crisis has again exposed the impotency of Somalia’s transitional government, but its leaders hope to turn the negative publicity into international momentum to end their nation’s 18-year stint as a failed state.
“We are not being utilized as much as we could be,” Somali Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke said in an interview at the government’s well-guarded compound in Mogadishu. “We need to fight pirates on land. We have information about how they function and who they are.
“I understand the short-term need to use warships in a crisis,” he added, “but the long-term objective should be to build institutions that will deal with pirates from inside the country.”
So far, that has not been a big part of the global strategy. Somali officials say they were barely informed, much less consulted, about U.S. Navy efforts to rescue American ship captain Richard Phillips. He was freed Sunday when U.S. snipers killed three pirates holding him.
There have been calls among military experts for U.S. troops to pursue pirates on land or strike at their hide-outs in northern Somalia.
President Obama spoke Monday about coordinating with international partners and boosting U.S. efforts in the waters off East Africa, where three U.S. warships are already patrolling. But the anti-piracy coalition includes nations such as China, India, France and Kenya, not Somalia.
That’s largely because the Somali government, which has no coast guard and no money to pay its disintegrating 3,500-person army, is barely holding its own against insurgents in Mogadishu.
But Somali leaders and some U.S. experts are beginning to question whether warships equipped with heavy weapons, commandos and sophisticated technology are the best tools to fight criminal gangs of young people carrying AK-47s and satellite phones.
The U.S. and other nations initially hoped a strong show of force might scare off the pirates, but the attacks have persisted. Tuesday, pirates grabbed the Greek-owned bulk carrier Irene with a crew of 22 in the Gulf of Aden. Hours later, others attacked the Lebanese-owned cargo ship Sea Horse less than 100 miles off Somalia, seizing a crew that was believed to number about a dozen.
Officials said pirates also fired automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades at the Liberian-flagged Safmarine Asia, which managed to escape. The U.S.-flagged cargo ship Liberty Sun, owned by New York-based Liberty Maritime Corp., was attacked by pirates firing grenades and automatic weapons. The pirates did not board the Liberty Sun, which was carrying food aid and heading to Mombasa, Kenya, when it requested and received U.S. Navy assistance.
Newly installed Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed said his government had a plan to bring piracy under control, similar to one he used to reduce the problem for a short time when he was in charge of the country in 2006. At the time, Ahmed led the Islamic Courts Union, a religious alliance that briefly unified southern Somalia until it was routed by Ethiopian troops.
“We had a small force on land, a small force in the water,” he said. The courts backed them up with a pledge to execute pirates. The six-month period marked the only time in the last five years that piracy subsided.
Somali officials want to dispatch 1,000 soldiers dedicated to chasing pirates into a handful of port cities. They also want to create a 3,000-person coast guard as part of a 10,000-member security force.
But lack of money is preventing the new government from equipping and training the force. United Nations and international support for the government has slowed to a trickle, they said, leaving it to operate on the $2 million a month it gets in port revenue.
During a visit to Mogadishu this week, Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.) said providing direct assistance to allow Somalis to crack down on pirates might cost the international community less, especially after accounting for rising insurance premiums and the cost of using warships.
“It’s a lot cheaper to deal with this on the land before these guys get into the water,” Payne said. He said he planned to seek funding in Congress.
Payne called the hesitation by the international community understandable. Since 1991, numerous transitional governments have risen and fallen in Somalia amid infighting, corruption and human rights abuses. Donors want to see whether the current government does any better, he said.
Somalis say their hometown advantage makes them more effective at fighting piracy as well.
“We are all Somalis,” said Abdi Wali Alitaar, an entrepreneur based in the autonomous northern Puntland region who sells protection services to commercial shippers. “These guys wouldn’t dare kill us. At most, they’d probably run away. But when they are facing the Americans, it’s a different story.”
Pirates have learned from experience that foreign naval ships won’t follow them into Somali waters.
“But as Somalis, we don’t hesitate to track them down on land,” said M.A. Jama, chief executive at Dalkom, a telecommunications provider that has been combating pirate attacks as it tries to lay underwater cables. One of his European shipping contractors wants to arrange for a French naval escort to guard its boats, but Jama is trying to convince it that Somali security guards would be a better deterrent.
“If pirates see Somalis, they know when they get ashore, those guys will be waiting for them,” Jama said.
Of course, U.S., French or other foreign naval powers could also take the fight against pirates to Somali soil themselves, but such moves risk heightening anti-Western sentiment and creating a backlash against “foreign occupiers,” experts said.
Already many Somalis are angry about illegal foreign dumping and fishing off their coast. The U.S. has launched airstrikes against suspected terrorists in Somalia over the last two years that witnesses said killed some civilians.
In the meantime, Somali government officials say the international community should move quickly.
Last year, pirates and their business partners netted at least $50 million in ransom. They’re reinvesting the money in better weapons and entrenching themselves in coastal communities by hiring young people and bribing elders.
In short, Somalis say, pirates are becoming richer and more powerful than the government.
Said Prime Minister Sharmarke: “It’s getting to the point where they are in a position to overthrow the government.”