The Somali Pirate Threat Isn't Going Away

Originally published in Huffington Post
February 22, 2011

U.S. Navy visit, board, search and seizure team from USS Chosin, part of CTF 151. (Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Scott Taylor, U.S. Navy. Available at defense.gov.)

Today, Somali pirates killed four Americans taken hostage Friday off the coast of Oman. President Barack Obama authorized the use of force in the case of an imminent threat to the hostages Saturday. CENTCOM reports that during the course of negotiating the hostages' release, gunfire was heard aboard the captured yacht. The pirates fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the USS Sterett, the closest U.S. naval ship, and small arms fire was heard on the yacht. U.S. forces responded immediately by boarding the ship, but discovered that the Americans had been shot.

Piracy has thrived off the coast of Somalia despite an international anti-piracy naval operation because of land-based conditions. Somalia's long coastline is essentially ungoverned -- the UN-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) does not even have full control over the capital, Mogadishu. Armed groups have taken advantage of the lack of a sovereign government. Al Shabaab, a radical Islamist group with ties to al Qaeda, controls the coastline south of Mogadishu and has extended its control northward, further into the territory where the pirates operate. Last week, in the al Shabaab-controlled pirate town of Harardhere, al Shabaab and the pirates cut a deal for the release of pirate gang leaders: The pirates agreed to pay al Shabaab 20 percent of all future ransom payments and al Shabaab opened a marine office to coordinate with the pirates. Ransom payments run into the millions of dollars, which will serve as a significant source of funding for the terrorist group.

Al Shabaab uses the funds it secures to finance the insurgency that it is currently waging against the TFG. The past four days in Mogadishu saw a spike in violence. Monday, al Shabaab suicide bombers detonated a truck laden with explosives at a police training station in a government-controlled district. Newly trained TFG police were set to arrive at the police station that day. The peacekeeping force in Mogadishu, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), does not have sufficient forces to carry out its limited mandate of protecting primary government infrastructure. Of the 12,000 authorized troops, only 8,000 peacekeepers have been deployed.

The murder of four Americans should call attention to the increasingly dire situation in Mogadishu, which exacerbates the piracy problem. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that those concerned about piracy should "contribute to AMISOM by providing material, financial, and logistical support." The current situation in Somalia creates ripe conditions for piracy. These conditions have also contributed to the growth of al Shabaab, which has executed an international attack and threatened many more.