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Eric Margolis Headshot

Pirates of the Somali Main

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On 8 April, a gang of Somali teenagers with more nerve than brains challenged the might of the Bahrain-based US Fifth Fleet by kidnapping and holding for ransom the captain of the American container vessel, `Maersk Alabama.'

The pirates were shot dead in a rescue operation by US Navy Seals. This veteran war correspondent suspects the official Pentagon version of the rescue has obscured many of the more interesting details of this successful mission.

The US media reacted with flag waving and patriotic hoopla that seemed somewhat exaggerated given that the youngest pirate was only 16 years old. One of the teenage would-be buccaneers was brought to New York City for trial.

Nations around the globe are struggling to figure out what to do about the surging tide of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and western Indian Ocean, a vast area through which 20,000 vessels and 25% of the world's oil pass annually.

Somali pirates currently hold 15 merchant ships and 300 crewmen hostage. Piracy, goat herding, and growing the narcotic shrub, qat, are the only businesses in Somalia. Last year, Somalia's pirates attacked 130 vessels and captured fifty. International commerce is in an uproar; marine insurance rates are soaring at a time when many shipping firms are losing money because of slackening world trade.

Demands for action are mounting. France has taken the lead in fighting Somalia's pirates. Just before the `Maersk Alabama' incident, a French hostage was killed in a rescue mission mounted by French naval commandos.

International naval patrols off the Horn of Africa are being increased, including a flotilla of warships from NATO, Russia, China, Japan, and India. But the sea area is vast; Somali buccaneers are determined and, apparently, fearless.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just laughably called for seizure of assets of Somali pirates. She seems unaware the Somali fisherman turned pirates don't own Swiss bank accounts or New York apartments. Somalia is one of the world's poorest nations. The pirate's biggest assets are old outboard motors that power their wooden fishing boats.

The US, Britain and France are considering attacking pirate lairs on Somalia's long coast, a traditional method of suppressing piracy that the young American republic used in the early 1800's against the Barbary pirates of North Africa. Military action could include air strikes, naval bombardment, and commando raids. Mercenary firms expect a bonanza from renting armed guards for ships.

Still, caution is well advised. Somali piracy is caused by two principal factors: the dire poverty and desperation of this failed state, which has endured chaos, civil war and famine since 1991. Somalia has split into three or four autonomous mini-states. A northern one, self-styled Puntland is the base of many Somali pirates. Ironically, many of Puntland's pirate chiefs are in cahoots with Ethiopia, a key US ally. Ethiopia's interest is to keep neighbor Somalia divided, and at least some of its constituent parts under western and Ethiopian influence.

The UN says hunger, starvation and human misery in Somalia are even worse than in Sudan's war-torn Darfur region. Somalia is now the world's most urgent humanitarian crisis. A third of its 9.8 million people are reported to have become refugees.

The second cause of piracy has to do with fishing, the mainstay of Somalia's coastal inhabitants. Chaotic Somalia has been unable since 1991 to monitor or police its extensive coastal waters. Somalia has no navy or coast guard. Its waters have become a major illegal dumping ground for toxic waste from around the globe.

This lack of protection has allowed factory fishing vessels from around the globe to come and strip mine Somalia's once rich waters, leaving very little for Somalia fishermen. Eighteen years of ruthless, uncontrolled fishing has depleted all major fish stocks in Somalia waters.

I saw precisely the same thing happen off Angola's coast during that nation's long civil war. Factory fishing vessels from Poland, Portugal, the Soviet Union, China and Japan plundered Angola's famously rich waters, leaving its fishermen destitute and fish stocks wiped out. But unlike Somalis, Angolans did not resort to piracy. Angola at least had oil and, later, US aid. Somalia has nothing but sand and scorpions.

Piracy is unlikely to end until Somalia is restored as a functioning state, its people saved from misery, and its waters protected from plunder. But doing so will be exceedingly difficult as the notoriously fractious, warlike Somalis are split into bitterly feuding tribes, clans, and sub-clans with little sense of national unity. Tribalism has always been the curse of Somalia - not to mention much of the Arab world.

Somalia did achieve a somewhat stable, popular government in 2006 when a moderate movement, the Islamic Courts Union, took power and managed to restore a semblance of order and commerce.

But the bitterly anti-Muslim Bush administration quickly engineered an invasion of Somalia by its old foe, Ethiopia, aided by US warplanes and special forces, and overthrew the Islamic-light government, which was backed by Ethiopia's blood enemy, Eritrea. Ethiopia received generous cash rewards from Washington for its invasion.

Since then, anarchy has reigned. Efforts by the US and Ethiopia to impose a puppet regime on Somalia failed miserably as Somalis, led by a militant Islamic youth group called Shebab, battled Ethiopian occupation forces and their local Somalia collaborators. Ethiopia finally withdrew from Somalia, leaving a complete mess behind.

So the US bears a good deal of responsibility for Somalia's current chaos. Putting this African Humpty-Dumpty back together will make reassembling Iraq look easy.

Somalis are a warlike, proud people who fiercely cherish their independence to the point of anarchy. In the 1920's, British forces slaughtered 30% of northern Somalia's population who were resisting British colonialism. Fascist Italy also killed large numbers of Somalis.

It would be more cost effective to discreetly buy off the pirates than continue hugely expensive naval patrols in the region, or, worse, consider invading Somalia. Why not try to cut off deliveries of the fuel that powers their outboard motors?

Somalia, at least so far, has not fallen under the influence of al-Qaida, as some neocons in the Bush administration claimed. But we should not forget that Osama bin Laden promised that after sucking the US into Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, he would then lure it into yet another debilitating conflict in Somalia.