For the past several decades, the East African State of Somalia has been mentioned in the media mainly in connection with the activities of Somali pirates. However, beginning in 2012, such references have become fewer and fewer due to the anti-piracy activity of international forces. Nonetheless, the social, economic, and political problems of the country have not been eliminated, and the current processes in Somalia may create a more serious threat at a global level.
For many years, Somalia has been in a state of disintegration due to the civil war, which has been flaring up and then fading since the 1980s. The generally recognized government controls only a small part of the country. In addition, unrecognized state formations are acting on the territory of Somalia, such as Somaliland. The majority of the country is divided into small parts controlled by opposing groups of separatists, Islamists, the local tribes, and pirate kindred.
The global community worries about the situation in Somalia. The issue is that the country occupies the entire coast of the Horn of Africa washed by the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. The northern part of Somalia is the Gulf of Aden coast through which the route passes from the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea and further through the Suez Canal to Europe. This means that the country is located at a strategically important stretch of one of the most important transport corridors on the planet, along which runs practically all sea traffic between Europe and Asia. Many other routes connecting Asian and African countries pass around the Horn of Africa.
The poverty of the Somali citizens and the atmosphere close to anarchy formed over the past decades has promoted the development of piracy. Many Somalis started seizing ships and their crews as hostages.
It should be noted that many pirates are former local fishermen. Media reports that they have lost the opportunity to earn a living by fishing due to the toxic substances discharged by foreign vessels in Somali waters, as well as due to poaching by foreign fishermen as disjointed Somalia has no common coast guard service. Some Somali citizens are reported to even consider piracy as protecting the country’s boundaries and a way to receive compensation for the damages caused by foreigners to its marine resources.
In addition, Somali pirates also complicate transport communications and trade. Since the early 2000’s to around 2008, they committed hundreds of attacks, seized dozens of ships and took hundreds of hostages. Therefore, the international community decided to take measures to protect shipping in the problematic region. To ensure security, the naval forces of the EU, NATO, India, China, Russia and many other countries were sent there.
In October 2008, Resolution 1838 of the UN Security Council was adopted allowing states to use their Naval and Air Forces against the pirates.
Several military operations were conducted, both at sea and on land, including with combat aviation. It has been possible to repulse a large number of attacks, to prevent the seizure of many ships. In addition, with the help of funds from the Emirate of Abu Dhabi (the UAE), which wanted to protect their cargo, a well-trained special unit of the Puntland Maritime Police was established, which has conducted a number of operations on land and carried out numerous detentions in Somalia. The number of successful pirate attacks has significantly decreased. According to media reports, from May 2012 to March 2017, pirates failed to capture a single merchant ship.
Despite the obvious success of the military and police, the situation escalated in 2011 to some extent. The fact is that Somali pirates making their attacks tried to avoid human casualties. This was caused, on the one hand, by the desire to obtain ransom for seized sailors, on the other – by the unwillingness to provoke international forces to stringent measures. However, in 2010, there were reports of extrajudicial executions of Somali pirates committed by international military forces patrolling dangerous waters. The escalation was not long in coming – in February 2011, pirates killed hostages on a seized American ship when the US military attempted to release them. After that, representatives of the pirates reported that from now on the killing of hostages would become their usual practice in the event of an attempt to release them.
These threats could have been ignored. As we mentioned above, most pirates are simple fishermen using conventional motor boats and armed with small weapons and hand grenade launchers. In fact, they are unable to offer any serious resistance to a professional military with modern weapons. However, it is necessary to pay attention to the following circumstances: first, despite the successful actions of the security forces, new pirates take the place of neutralized ones. The supplier of fighters for illegal armed groups is ordinary Somali people deprived of the ability to obtain a living legally. While Somalia has a climate of poverty and lawlessness, ever newer people will be involved in criminal activities, and the efforts of the military will fail to put an end to it. Second, it is relatively easy to fight pirate kindred and similar groups because they are few in number and scattered. If there is a force in Somalia capable of uniting small groups under one leadership, international forces could end up with a serious enemy with whom they will have to enter into a real war.
Unfortunately, such a force exists in Somalia. Representatives of ISIS (a terrorist organization prohibited in Russia) have been active in the territory of the country for several years. Over the years of its existence, many radical Islamist groups from all over the world – from the Middle East to Europe and Southeast Asia – have joined it.
In November 2017, the UN Expert Group on Somalia published a report, which mentioned the increased activity of ISIS in the country. The terrorist group controlled and financed by the ISIS leadership in Iraq and Syria is acting in the territory of Somalia. Over the past year, its size has increased significantly. The group conducted a series of savage terrorist acts, including the occupation of the city of Candala in October 2016, which was pronounced the capital of the Somali Islamic caliphate by the militants, and held for two months. This incident clearly demonstrates ISIS ambitions with respect to Somalia. According to UN experts, the ISIS leadership may focus its activities in Somalia in order to turn this country into its new stronghold after the international forces finally expel it from Syria and Iraq.
If ISIS manages to occupy Somalia, the entire world may experience its consequences: ISIS militants better equipped and prepared than the Somali fishermen are able to complicate the maritime traffic through the Gulf of Aden by causing great damage to the economies of Europe and Asia. If they receive the support of the Somali people, it will be very difficult to combat them even for the professional military.
In early November 2017, right before the aforementioned report of the UN, US military forces launched an anti-terrorist campaign in Somalia. The American unmanned aerial vehicles conducted a series of missile attacks on several ISIS facilities on the territory of Somalia. According to the American commanders, “the operation was successful and caused serious damage to the terrorists.”
Unfortunately, this news is not accompanied by information about the plans to change the social and economic situation and to strengthen legitimacy in Somalia. If these factors remain at the same level, the Somali problem will be still resolved by power-based methods instead of eliminating their roots. Extremist sentiments will grow among the 10-million population of the country. The consequences may be very unpleasant for the entire global community.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”