The EU has just extended its piracy campaign, Operation Atalanta, to 2012 - so expect more pirates. Dozens of groups have been broken up and tried in court since international naval patrols began in 2008, yet by all accounts piracy continues to rise. A 10 fold increase was estimated from 2008 to 2009.
"We would say there has been a threefold increase in the number of pirates since 2009," Rear Admiral Peter Hudson, commander of the European Union Naval Force Somalia (EU NAVFOR), told a briefing last week in London. "I would say we are being more effective but against an increased level of threat."
"The answer to this is not charging around the Indian Ocean with expensive destroyers," he wisely advises. "It has to be a Somalia-based solution on land.”
But while many officials and outside observers preach this mantra repeatedly, no discernible effort is being made to actually live it. One cannot say this time or that time is the worst in Somalia, considering its seemingly endless history of civil strife. Now is as bad a time as any though. Displacement and hunger know no limit, al-Shabab controls half the state, and Mogadishu teeters on the abyss.
Somalia’s fate has been thrown into the balance, leaving no surprise why piracy refuses to abate.
Weeks ago the West had a massive problem on its hands. Mogadishu seemed poised to fall after al-Shabab stormed the capital to counter a government offensive, one that never launched. Their waves pushed back AU soldiers, accused of lethargy, as Somalia’s Transition Federal Government (TFG) threatened to consume itself through infighting.
The Sunni militia Ahlu Sunna Waljama'a, aligned with the TFG in March and presumably activated by its US and Ethiopian suppliers, saved the day. Ahlu Sunna created space between al-Shabab and the presidential palace in Mogadishu, while also attacking al-Shabab controlled towns across the country in a demonstration of strength.
Villa Somalia is safe - for the time being.
Now Al-Shabab is no stranger to fighting Ahlu Sunna, having tried before to penetrate its central territory. But Ahlu Sunna’s frontal entry into the war has changed the fundamentals. It seems likely that al-Shabab didn’t intend to confront Ahlu Sunna until the final phase of its campaign, after seizing Mogadishu and eliminating or absorbing rival militant groups like Hizbul Islam.
Rather than quell the insurgency and buy enough time for US and EU trainers in Uganda and Kenya, Ahlu Sunna has shifted al-Shabab’s focus away from the TFG and prematurely forced a battle for the entire country. Perhaps it won’t materialize, or will and prove inconclusive, but that’s where the battle lines lead.
As al-Shabab and Ahlu Sunna engaged throughout late May and June in central Somalia, International Crisis Group Horn of Africa Director E.J Hogendooen observed, “All indications, at least from the indications we've received, is that al-Shabab has also moved some of its forces into central Somalia so this may be the start of a fairly significant series of clashes between Alhu Sunna and al-Shabab.”
On cue al-Shabab peacefully seized Beledweyne, the second largest city by population, from rival Hizbul-Islam, this week. Bordering Ethiopia and inhabited by advance elements Ahlu Sunna, the city has always been strategically critical and could see a new battle in the future.
Or serve as al-Shabab’s launch pad into the north.
Given Hizbul Islam’s strength disadvantage, it’s possible that al-Shabab used the group to temporarily hold Beledweyne until Mogadishu had fallen. Then it would advance on Beledweyne and form a front across the country to the capital, consolidating everything to the south and amassing in the central territory. Hizbul Islam would be destroyed or swallowed up, depending on its choice.
The latter seems probable. Hizbul Islam’s administration in Hiran’s Jalalaksi district, near Beledweyne, recently joined Al Shabaab. And while conflicting reports have surfaced, Sheikh Abdulkadir Haji Ahmed, chief of Hizbu Islam in Beledweyne, allegedly switched sides to al-Shabab the other day.
"We are hereby declaring our resolve to unite with our fellow jihadists (holy warriors) in this strategic Hiran region," said Sheikh Ahmed. "Unity is certain to arouse strength."
And in a related note, reports claim that some al-Shabab recruits infiltrated Ethiopia's training program. A spokesman for defecting soldiers delivered a speech to the inhabitants of Bula-Hawo, a strategic city on the Ethiopian border.
“In the first place when we have enrolled ourselves to the Somali government soldiers we never really mean to be part of them,” said a man by the name of Hassan, “but we merely had the ambition of observing the way the Ethiopians train, and now were are fully trained to fight against the Ethiopian troops and their entire ally.”
With the assertion of Ahlu Sunna, al-Shabab is now less likely to consolidate in Mogadishu, were it to capture the city. No sooner had Ahlu Sunna entered the fight did al-Shabab turn its eyes north. The TFG and AU troops are no longer its primary enemy, and the decisive battleground no longer Mogadishu, but all of Somalia. The main series of battles highlighted by the Western media are in territory challenged, not held, by al-Shabab.
Not in southern Somalia, but in Dhuusamareeb, capital of the central Galguduud region and forward base of Ahlu Sunna. Seizing Beledweyne is significant because it lies only 75 miles south of Dhuusamareeb.
Al-Shabab has tried capturing Dhuusamareeb before, notably in January 2010, and residents are reporting the worst fighting in months. Al-Shabab initiated operations to retake the city as soon as Ahlu Sunna moved into Mogadishu, and tried assaulting Marergur, 20 miles to the north, before being intercepted by Ahlu Sunna forces. Other central towns such as Mareeg and Gureil have come under al-Shabab’s attack.
The assaults on Mogadishu and takeover of Beledweyne are ultimately designed to create a pronged front against Ahlu Sunna, a strategy that now appears prematurely in effect. Two flanks will assail Dhuusamareeb over time while simultaneously attempting to seize surrounding villages. Mareeg, on the coast, should be another main target.
All lines then point to Abudwak, al-Shabab’s final objective to controlling all territory to Somalialand and Puntland. Abudwak lies roughly 100 miles north of Dhuusamareeb - and houses the headquarters of Ahlu Sunna.
Whether or not al-Shabab succeeds will be determined in the coming months and possibly years. Ahlu Sunna won’t be defeated permanently without the TFG’s total collapse and the successful merging between al-Shabab, offshoot militants, and tribal warlords. Furthermore, any decrease of concentration in Mogadishu could result in stalemate, not seizure of the capital, and thus inhibit the assault on Abudwak.
al-Shabab may also weaken itself internally if not careful with dispersing its forces across the country, a possibility that opens up counterattacks by the AU, Ethiopian, or even US forces.
What’s absolute is that al-Shabab will never be defeated purely through military or domestic means. Somalia demands external political intervention, not the present type that merely masks weapons supplies. Somalia requires a real regional initiative. Though partially integrative, no unified strategy exists between America, the EU and UN, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, and the Somaliland and Puntland territories.
That’s why Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki has called for greater international cooperation.
"This matter must be addressed with greater urgency,” Kibaki said during a visit from Vice President Joe Biden. “We have asked the U.S. government to provide leadership to forge a concerted international effort to stabilize Somalia.”
Unfortunately America has yet to respond politically in any meaningful way. A recent Somali conference held in Turkey appears a backhanded slap at the West for failing to provide more than token diplomacy and escalating militarism. These phases should be done in reverse, constructing an international, full-spectrum framework to then roll out local political, military and economic operations.
But such is not the case.
The number of estimated foreign fighters in Somalia continues to rise. This isn’t just a fact, but also a US propaganda campaign to justify military intervention. Last year the number was 100, and only weeks ago listed at 200. This estimate then ballooned last week to between 300 and 1,200, according to US officials.
The sudden change corresponds directly to General Petraeus’s new Special Forces directive, which emphasizes an active military campaign in Somalia despite the lack of a functioning government. Consequently, the governor of Hizbul Islam in Mogadishu recently warned of future air raids.
“We have information about plans by western countries to carry out air raids on cities and towns including Mogadishu, Kismato, Marka, which are under the control of Somali Islamists,” said Ma’alin Hashi Mohammed Farah.
And in a true sign of desperation, America has actually confirmed it’s arming child soldiers in Somalia’s army. We’ll dig deeper into that story later.
The West’s present strategy has no chance of eliminating piracy, let alone insurgency, in Somalia. America’s plan of action has resulted in al-Shabab challenging for total control of the state. Unless the strategy is to keep Somalia destabilized as part of the grand war for global resources - which has been theorized - a radical change in political mentality must reduce militarism in the region.
Failure to change will almost certainly yield a strike on Western soil, which is more likely to escalate the futile military cycle than break it.