Horn of Africa

  • The EU's Misguided Move to Fight Pirates Onshore

    When confronting the crisis of Somali piracy, the preferred strategy of the international community has been to deploy naval vessels to protect vulnerable ships and deter and disrupt pirate attacks. The refrain that 'the solution to piracy lies onshore' is oft heard, but counter-piracy actors, including the US, the EU, and NATO, have been slow to deepen their engagement with regional authorities and hesitant to expand the military scope of their operations.

    A significant shift in strategy was thus seen on March 23, 2012, when the Council of the European Union agreed to extend the area of operations for the EU’s counter-piracy mission, Operation Atalanta, to "include Somali coastal territory as well as its territorial and internal waters." While a more inland focused policy is a welcome development, the EU’s proposed militarization of its counter-piracy strategy risks increasing civilian casualties and local resentment and will have to contend with the unintended consequences of mission creep. This new strategy also comes at the expense of an alternative onshore policy: increased international support for maritime security capacity building programs in Somalia's pirate-prone areas and the wider region.

    Charting the Wrong Course

    Military experts informing the EU's decision have argued that attacks should be launched by helicopter gunships in order to accurately hit targets while avoiding civilian casualties. While there was no official pronouncement, Germany’s Der Spiegel reports that a strike limit of two kilometers inland was eventually reached after prolonged debate within the Council. The use of both missile strikes and the deployment of ground troops were prohibited by the Council's decision.

    Though Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo assured skeptics that “much care” will be taken to avoid civilian casualties, history teaches that even the best intentioned interventions in Somalia tend to go awry. Pirate bases are not the sprawling "lairs" that the media often paints them to be. In reality, they are temporary and mobile camps made up of little more than a few tents, vehicles, and moored boats. Heavy weapons, ladders and other boarding equipment are some of the only things differentiating fishermen from pirates, but aerial surveillance can prove inadequate in identifying this distinction. Given the visual similarity between the two groups, experts from Germany’s foreign intelligence agency warned that the EUs new strategy runs the risk of misidentification and civilian deaths.

    Critics of the new mandate have warned that even with the most careful of targeting, Atalanta’s planned onshore operations escalate the risk of EU forces stumbling into “a high intensity conflict” with armed gangs in Somalia. This threat is heightened by the fact that many pirate gangs have moved south and are now operating out of areas controlled by the Islamist militia al-Shabaab. Somalia's pirates have proved themselves very adaptive, and it is likely that they would move their bases further inland into civilian areas in order to complicate the EU’s efforts to target them. Though ground troops have been excluded from Atalanta's expansion, soldiers may still need to go ashore in the event of a helicopter being shot down or malfunctioning. The results of the infamous 1993 "Black Hawk Down" incident should serve as a sobering reminder of the unintended consequences of mission creep.

    Is There a Better Way?

    Members of the Council of the European Union are correct in recognizing that piracy at sea cannot be separated from its bases on land, but their approach to tackling this issue is misguided. As this author has previously argued, a lasting solution to the piracy problem requires the international community to begin shifting resources away from a military-centric strategy and towards a program for regional maritime security capacity building. In particular, the EU, NATO and other counter-piracy actors must deepen their engagement with, and support for, authorities in Somalia’s pirate prone areas, primarily the autonomous states of Puntland and Galmudug.

    There are numerous ways that the international community can support local counter-piracy initiatives. Coastal infrastructure such as roads, docks, and radar stations need to be developed, while maritime police forces require training, vessels, and (most importantly) paychecks.  Investing in maritime security capacity building for Somalia’s sub-state regions does not sound as sexy as ‘bombarding pirate lairs,' but it remains the best way forward for a long-term strategy.

    A longer version of this article was first published with the Atlantic Council of Canada and can be found here.

    James Marcus Bridger serves as a content editor and senior research analyst with the Atlantic Council of Canada as part of the Department of National Defence's Security and Defence Forum Program. This piece appeared on Atlantic-Community.org.


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  • Briefing and Discussion on Somali Piracy and Militancy with Stig Jarle Hansen

    Briefing and Discussion on Somali Piracy and Militancy with Stig Jarle Hansen

    The Michael S. Ansari Africa Centerhosted a breakfast briefing and discussion today on Somali piracy and militancy with noted expert Stig Jarle Hansen, Head of the International Relations Program at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (UMB) in Ås.


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  • The Wrong Somalia Conference

    British Prime Minister David Cameron is hosting a major international conference tomorrow involving senior representatives of some forty countries and multilateral organizations. The agenda that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has laid out for the conferees is ambitious, to say the least: the mandarins of Whitehall are giving themselves all of five hours to get  their guests to agree to no fewer than seven sets of practical measures, includingsustainable funding for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and support for Somali security and justice sectors; a political accord about what should succeed the current Somali transitional institutions in August 2012 and the establishment of a Joint Financial Management Board for the new government; a coordinated international package of support to Somalia’s regions; renewed commitment to tackle collectively the terrorist threat emanating from Somalia; measures to take down the piracy business model; renewed commitment to tackling Somalia’s humanitarian crisis; and an agreement on improved international handling of Somalia issues. 
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  • Al Qaeda's Divisive Alliance

    In a videotaped announcement released earlier this month by the Al Qaeda chief, Ayman al-Zawahri, the group officially endorsed the struggling rebel group Shabab, which has been fighting the Western-backed transitional government and African Union peacekeepers in Somalia since 2007.
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  • Pre-London Conference Briefing on Somalia

    The Atlantic Council’s Michael S. Ansari Africa Centerhosted diplomats from the embassies of several of the European countries taking part in the upcoming London Conference on Somalia for an in-depth briefing on the troubled East African country.


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  • A (Slightly) Merrier Christmas in Mogadishu

    While billions of people around the world join in Christmas celebrations this weekend, there will be few outward signs of holiday cheer, religious or otherwise, in the onetime Somali capital of Mogadishu. 
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  • Briefing and Discussion with Sheikh Hersi Mohamed Hilowle

    Briefing and Discussion with Sheikh Hersi Mohamed Hilowle

    The Michael S. Ansari Africa Centerhosted an off-the-record briefing and discussion for US government officials and academic experts working on Somalia with Sheikh Hersi Mohamud Hilowle “Laba-Garre,” chairman of Ahlu Sunna wal Jama’a (ASWJ), a Somali military and political group with a strong following among the country’s Sufis.


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  • Famine in the Horn: Assessing the US Response

    Famine in the Horn: Assessing the US Response

    On October 27, the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center hosted a discussion on the US response to the devastating famine in the Horn of Africa, featuring remarks by Nancy Lindborg, assistant administrator for democracy, conflict, and humanitarian assistance at the US Agency for International Development (USAID).


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  • From North Korea to South Sudan: The Path of Crisis and the European Response

    On September 23, the Atlantic Council’s Transatlantic Relations Program hosted a conversation with Kristalina Georgieva, EU Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response. The Commissioner discussed the EU’s role in disaster response and the current challenges faced by her office. As Commissioner, she has overseen the EU response to humanitarian crises such as the earthquake in Haiti, the earthquake in Chile, and floods in Pakistan. Prior to her appointment as Commissioner, she held the position of vice president and corporate secretary of the World Bank Group. 


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  • A Discussion on Recent Developments in Somalia and Puntland

    On September 14, the Ansari Africa Center hosted a briefing by Kadir Abdirahman Mohamud, special envoy of the President of Puntland State of Somalia, on recent developments in Somalia in general and the autonomous Puntland region in particular. Kadir Mohamud’s prepared remarks were followed by a discussion with experts from the U.S. government, think tanks, and the NGO community that focused on piracy, foreign assistance, and Puntland’s relationship with its neighbors. The special envoy’s visit at the Atlantic Council followed several meetings he had with members of Congress to explore further opportunities for cooperation between the U.S. government and the Puntland state administration.


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