February 19, 2011

Pirate Hostage Rescue Raises Somalia's Stakes

Someone call Ridley Scott and jet him to Mogadishu, he may have a Crash-like sequel to Blackhawk Down on his hands.

Scott and Jean Adam, an American couple that sailed their “Quest” around the world with an alleged cache of Bibles, are the latest pirate news out of Somalia. Their brazen hijacking, along with two unidentified Americans, has U.S. officials on Naval warships and in the White House considering “all possible options” to rescue them. Except the Adams merely serve to further the development of a grander plot.

Roughly four miles off the Somali coast, 80 miles north of Mogadishu, lies the pirate haven of Haradheere. Half-lawless territory, Hizbul Islam raided the town in May 2010 in an attempt to tax the willing and eliminate the resistant. Its merger with al-Shabab allowed Somalia’s main insurgent group to extend control past Mogadishu, yet governing Haradheere comes with a high price. In order to make the town worth the hassle, al-Shabab recently demanded a 20% tax on hostage ransoms.

The two-day negotiations turned sour after pirate commanders balked. And a pirate who identified himself as Ali told Reuters, "al-Shabaab arrested four of our ringleaders today after we rejected their demands for 20 percent of the ransom payment.” Local reporters describe a tense scene between militants and pirates.

Imagine if U.S. Special Forces show up.

The chance of these particular pirates meeting their end is high, and there’s a degree of truth in thinking they looted more than they can carry. While propelling a large segment of international naval activity in the Gulf of Aden, U.S. forces have reserved lethal intervention for direct threats to U.S. citizens. So it’s probable that the pirates in question crossed the red-line. Graeme Gibbon-Brooks, head of Dryad Maritime Intelligence, said the four Americans offer no profit compared to the usual commercial vessels.

"They risk the collapse of their business model if they change their status quo and the American government deems that they pose an immediate threat to the safety of American citizens,” he predicts. “They've made a mistake and it's in the Somalis' business interest to get off the yacht as soon as possible."

But the question concerning President Barack Obama, who now faces another split second decision, is whether a rescue operation also proves harmful to U.S. strategic interests. Abdi Yare, a top pirate commander in Hobyo, said the squad had left Haradheere a week earlier, explaining, "The pirate team that hijacked the yacht is led by a senior commander from the Harardhere area.” Yare believes the pirates will return to Hobyo to negotiate.

And although he claims their ship is still “far out at sea,” U.S. officials expect the crew to make landfall on Sunday. That leaves a day or two to stop them from reaching shore. Otherwise Obama faces a daunting risk of escalating Somalia beyond Washington’s means.

The finale of this story depends on where the pirates take their hostages, and Hobyo reduces those risks involved. Its two positives are coastal proximity and a lesser degree of influence from al-Shabab. Yet the pirate haven remains close to Haradheere, roughly 60 miles north, where al-Shabab has gathered its strength to assert control. Were al-Shabab to make the short trip north, if its numbers afford it, Hobyo could offer similar battle conditions and strategic implications.

One must expect a speedy rescue to prevent the Adams from going ashore, because a land operation in either town exceeds the difficulty of past missions. Under the Bush and Obama administrations, direct U.S. action takes the shape of a U.S. missile or helicopter attack. Bush preferred to target al-Shabab and al-Qaeda commanders from afar, while Obama has opted for helicopter raids, one Seal incursion to eliminate Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan and an “anonymous” attack on Marka. Only in Nabhan’s case did U.S. troops land on Somali ground.

An assault on Hobyo or Haradheere, particularly the latter, won’t enjoy the advantage of surprise. The helicopter assault on Marka, which targeted a mediation between al-Shabab commanders, has given the group advanced notice of future attacks. And its possession of truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns renders the possibility of surface-to-air missiles partially irrelevant. Haradheere sits 10 miles back from the coast, adding to the degree of difficulty.

Predicting al-Shabab’s potential response isn’t easy given past U.S. attacks; threats follow each attack, except none have materialized on U.S. soil. al-Shabab also recently jettisoned its former chief, the transnationalistic Moktar Ali Zubeyr, in favor of its nationalistic deputy Muktar Robow, and has consistently adopted local objectives over international terror. Its majority actually forced al-Qaeda into removing Zubeyr, who had pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden. For now al-Shabab’s command shows little interest in becoming the next Yemen, where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) actively threatens and plots against the U.S. homeland and Europe.

al-Shabab has a good thing going in Somalia and doesn’t want to invite another Afghan-like invasion. al-Qaeda seems to feel the same.

Yet the primary dilemma of a land assault, whether in Hobyo or Haradheere, remains strategic rather than tactical. Unlike prior U.S. operations, hostages pose a rescue mission rather than simple assassination. These maze-like towns recreate Mogadishu's environment, minus a million Somalis. Were a ground battle to erupt between al-Shabab and U.S. Special Forces and result in significant loss of life, al-Shabab could order its local al-Qaeda branch to prepare attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa or the U.S. homeland.

U.S. officials are fond of playing up al-Shabab’s threat despite its nationalist ideology, a scare tactic partially attributed to the numerous U.S. citizens serving in its ranks. But a messy attack in Hobyo or Haradheere, successful or not, could actually bring that threat to life.

At this point al-Shabab would be daring America to directly intervene, something the West as a whole isn’t prepared to do. Failing to act could embolden al-Shabab, further its foreign recruitment, and bait more African Union (AU) troops into a military stalemate. But counterattacking could spawn a vicious negative cycle to top the crises piling up on Obama's desk. While militarization of the Gulf of Aden and Bab-el-Mandeb straight is considered key to U.S. strategic interests, America lacks the means and focus to successfully implement counterinsurgency in Somalia. Especially in a snap decision, Obama’s worst enemy.

A battle is about to take place regardless of the site. The White House and Pentagon have all this and more to think about in the next 24 to 48 hours.

[Update: U.S. warship shadowing hijacked yacht]

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