Paul Greengrass’s “Captain Phillips,” an action movie starring Tom Hanks, dramatizes the hijacking of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama in 2009. The high-seas, high-stakes drama of Somali piracy has been a box-office hit.
But of the millions of people who will watch the movie, few will leave the cinema grasping the context of crime and terrorism in Somalia, even as this violence has had ripple effects like the recent terrorist attacks at a shopping mall in Nairobi, and accounts of religious radicalization of Somalis, from Minnesota to Norway.
Based on my fieldwork with Somali pirates, ransom negotiators, and naval officers in Kenya, as well as statistical analysis I conducted with Arjun S. Bedi, an economist at Erasmus University Rotterdam, I want to dispel some of the conventional wisdom about what is happening along the Horn of Africa.
Foremost, Somali piracy has all but vanished, but not for the reasons we think it has. Counter-piracy operations by multinational naval forces starting in 2008-2009, led by the United States, the European Union and NATO, have not contributed to the reduction in piracy. To the contrary, they have actually caused pirates to push out of the Gulf of Aden deep into the Indian Ocean and to adopt more sophisticated technology and weaponry in response.
When I presented this finding to Royal Navy commanders at a conference at Oxford in January, they publicly held to their belief that the navies have done good, but over beers afterward, admitted to me their doubts. After all, they asked me, how can Western forces patrol 2.5 million square miles of ocean with just a few dozen ships? We left the conference tipsy with uncertainty — agreeing that naval force has its place, but that piracy on the high seas will only be truly resolved on land.
The most likely reason for the decline in piracy is that the Kenyan and Ethiopian war against Al Shabab, the deadliest terrorist organization in East Africa, has disturbed the patronage networks and business conditions along the Somali coast that have enabled pirates to operate.
Pirates flourish in a “sweet spot” of intermediate governance — not too weak, not too strong — and cannot function under conditions of either intense conflict or effective rule of law. This is because piracy, like other illicit businesses, needs stable conditions to prosper. Anja Shortland, a scholar of international relations at King’s College London, and her colleagues have demonstrated that piracy falls when war is raging on land, as it has since Kenya invaded Somalia two years ago.
For all its terrorist activity — including, most notably, the recent deadly attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi — Al Shabab has been terrific at stamping out piracy from its ports, due to its harsh interpretation of Shariah and the personal animus between profit-seeking pirates and Islamist militants.
There have been isolated attempts at cooperation between pirates and terrorists, but my research shows that Islamists are serious about putting an end to piracy. In any given month from 1993 through 2011, Islamist control of a region was associated with a 50 percent drop, on average, in the number of pirate attacks emanating from that region.
Now that Al Shabab is in retreat, the emerging power vacuum in Somalia’s southern ports may lead to “sweet-spot” conditions for pirates to resurface.
The complex relationship between Al Shabab and the pirates is poorly understood in the West. Islamism in Somalia comes in several varieties, but Western-backed interventions against terrorists have had the counterproductive effect of radicalizing and uniting otherwise disparate Islamist factions.
Al Shabab itself emerged from the shadows only after the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006. At the time, the administration of President George W. Bush, and officials at the Central Intelligence Agency, were worried about Al Qaeda’s gaining a foothold in Somalia, and so, with the help of Ethiopia, shattered the moderate Islamist group that had taken power — and with it Somalia’s best hope for peace in a generation. The moderates splintered and the radicals won. Al Shabab flourished and shortly became an affiliate of Al Qaeda.
Amid the chaos, piracy also thrived, and later mushroomed after the U.S. Navy established its counterpiracy coalition. Then, in a twist, the same militant Islamists that the Bush administration had targeted in the war on terror joined the war on piracy — and did a better job of it.
Somalia has never been a nation-state as much as it has been a loosely governed federation of tribes — with fierce reverence for the land their cattle graze and a distaste for trespassers that ought be better respected. I don’t dare to say how, but it would be wise to extricate ourselves from the war in Somalia, lest Somalia bring the war ever closer to us. We can take a page from “Captain Phillips”: True heroes know when to put their life on the line, and also where to draw the line.
Currun Singh is the Middle East and North Africa adviser for the World Organization Against Torture.