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Somalia’s pirates are back in business

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After being all but stamped out by international naval forces following its late-2000s heyday, piracy has made a sudden return to the Horn of Africa. In the past month, there have been six suspected piracy incidents near Somalia, five of them successful, including three two weeks ago. That’s compared with zero successful attacks in 2016.

Three more murky maritime incidents off the coast of Somalia’s Galmudug state, where suspected illegal fishing vessels paid “fines” that may in fact have been ransoms, suggest that piracy has rebounded on a scale even larger than previously reported.

“Now it’s in the original home of piracy, in an area they thought they cleaned up,” said John Steed, a senior maritime expert at the UN Office of Drugs and Crime. “It’s very disappointing.”

The spike in banditry on the high seas off the Horn is a blow to the decades-long battle to stem piracy there, and bad news for the international shipping industry, which transports $700 billion worth of cargo through the dangerous corridor each year. It’s also a stark reminder that one of the main drivers of piracy, rampant illegal fishing that depletes local fish stocks and drives some fishermen to take up arms, remains as big a problem as ever.

Last week, pirates reportedly boarded a Tuvalu-flagged vessel known as the OS35, which was apparently travelling through the Gulf of Aden. The hijacking came on the heels of two similar attacks, the first led by a kingpin known as Bakeyle, or “Rabbit”, whose men commandeered a cargo ship roughly 130 miles off the Somali coast and charted a course towards the coastal town of Hobyo, a notorious former pirate stronghold in the Galmudug state, according to Ben Lawellin, the Horn of Africa project manager for Oceans Beyond Piracy. The second attack, reported by Britain’s Maritime Trade Operation earlier the same day, involved suspected pirates attempting to board another ship north of Somalia near the entrance to the Red Sea, but backing off after armed guards aboard the vessel made a show of force.

Those incidents followed an April 2 attack on an Indian-flagged cargo vessel near the Yemeni island of Socotra, which is more than 125 miles from the Somali coast. The hijackers, led by another Galmudug pirate leader called Afweyne Dhibic, or “Big Mouth”, also headed towards Hobyo with their quarry, according to Oceans Beyond Piracy. The Galmudug pirates have demanded ransom in both cases.

Earlier in March, pirates hit two ships in Somalia’s semiautonomous Puntland region, which is north of Galmudug. Pirates under kingpin Jacfar Saciid Cabdulaahi captured the Aris 13 oil tanker, the first large merchant vessel allegedly hijacked in Somali waters since 2012. The other ship, a fishing vessel, was reportedly hijacked for use as a “mothership” to launch further attacks. It was brought to the Puntland town of Eyl, made famous for its pirates by the Hollywood film Captain Phillips. Both ships and crew were eventually released.

The resurgence of piracy in the Horn of Africa’s busy transport corridor comes when both anti-piracy forces and shipping companies have let down their guard. A Nato naval force pulled out of the Horn in December, citing the decline in pirate attacks, though a European Union force remains. Lawellin said that many cargo ships plying Somalia’s waters have also stopped taking basic precautionary measures, such as hiring armed guards on their ships and sailing at higher speeds farther from shore.

“As piracy declined, the use of these threat mitigation measures also declined,” Lawellin said. “The opportunity for pirates to hijack vessels is still present, and it appears that some still possess the capability and intent to venture out to sea in search of targets.”

The continued threat also reflects the fact that little has been done to address what is often cited as the root of piracy in Somalia: illegal fishing by foreign vessels, which Somali fishermen say drives them to take up arms to protect their shoreline. The international navies, which deployed to the region in 2008 amid rapidly escalating pirate attacks, have a UN mandate to stop hijackings, but they are not empowered to block the foreign fishing fleets that contribute to the underlying economic problem.

“The priority is we need the mandate of the international naval forces guarding the coast of Somalia to inspect fishing vessels,” Said Jama, who until recently served as Somalia’s deputy fisheries minister, said. “We are still crying to get a UN resolution allowing these vessels to inspect any fishing vessels.”

Somali federal law forbids foreign ships from fishing within 15 miles of the coast in order to preserve fisheries for small-scale fishermen. Somali law also bans destructive fishing methods like bottom trawling, where ships drag nets or other devices along the seafloor, scooping up whatever is in their path and wrecking coastal ecosystems.

But laws have failed to halt such practices in places like Puntland, where the federal government based in Mogadishu exercises little control. Jama said Yemeni and Iranian dhows with armed guards routinely enter Somali waters unimpeded and cut the nets of small fishermen in their way. Even worse, foreign ships sometimes practice “high-grading” — keeping only the most profitable fish species while tossing the rest overboard to save cargo space, even as drought-stricken Somalis on shore face a possible famine.

“Pirates will not be eliminated as long as there is illegal fishing, because those people who are doing piracy consider themselves heroes defending their resources,” said Hassan Warsame, the fisheries minister for the Galmudug state.

In theory, Somali authorities should be intercepting illegal fishing vessels and bringing them to justice. But in areas like Galmudug, where illegal fishing is rampant, there are no maritime authorities. Instead, it’s local armed groups extracting “fines” that in some cases look suspiciously like ransom payments. Three such incidents have taken place in Galmudug this year, all of them supposedly involving the Galmudug Coast Guard. Galmudug doesn’t have an official coast guard, however, raising questions about who really captured the boats and collected the money.

“That’s the thousand-dollar question. People keep talking about the Galmudug Coast Guard, but that doesn’t exist,” Steed said. “It’s quite often pirates fining people, finding a fishing boat, and saying they’re illegally fishing. It’s not actually a coast guard. It’s more former pirates.”

Foreigners aren’t the only ones to blame for the illegal fishing believed to fuel piracy. Jama said four South Korean ships have received fishing permits improperly, indicating possible corruption on the Somali side of the process. Other trawlers purchased their permits from the Puntland state government in direct violation of Somali law, which states that only the federal government can issue commercial fishing licenses. Puntland’s government sold $10 million worth of fishing licences to China late last year, despite the law, and Jama accused Puntland of selling licences to seven Djibouti-flagged trawlers.

“The main issue that most of the community around the coast are telling us is that the local government is issuing licences to these illegal fishing boats,” said Abdirizak Mohammad Dirir, a Somali maritime security expert and former director of Puntland’s counterpiracy agency.

Puntland’s state minister of fisheries, Abdirahman Aw Jama Kulmiye, declined an interview request.

The alleged complicity of Puntland politicians in illegal fishing ventures undermines the popular “Robin Hood” narrative about fishermen taking up arms to defend their waters. So does the fact that two of last month’s hijackings occurred well over 100 miles offshore, far beyond the reach of local fishermen. Dirir said the real problem is the lack of functioning government along the coast, which allows both illegal fishing and piracy to flourish. In such a lawless environment, promises of huge ransoms, more than a desire to defend territorial waters, draw young men into the pirate game.

“There are people behind this to make a business,” he said. “When they are hiring the foot soldiers the only question they ask is can you handle an AK-47? Do you know how to swim?”

But if piracy is big business, it’s one that thrives in a market flooded with impoverished, out-of-work fishermen who make for willing recruits. It’s also one that’s harder to stamp out amid rampant onshore corruption fuelled in part by illegal fishing.

In the short term, the solution to piracy’s resurgence probably looks a lot like what drove it down five years ago: stepped-up naval patrols coupled with preventive measures by shipping companies. But if illegal fishing, corruption and onshore lawlessness continue to hold sway, the pirates may just bide their time again before reviving their criminal enterprises. In the meantime, however, Somali pirates are back in business.

–Washington Post

Briefing Room

Somalia illegally surrendered citizen to Ethiopia – parliamentary report

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Somalia’s parliament, the House of the People, says the government’s formal handover of a Somali national to neighbouring Ethiopia was illegal.

The parliamentary body set up to probe the circumstances surrounding the transfer of Mr. Abdikarin Sheikh Muse of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) presented its report with the conclusion that the government of President Farmaajo was wrong in the matter.

The team of 15 legislators – from both houses of the parliament – was constituted on September 18, 2017 from the office of the Speaker of the House with the sole objective of reporting back on the circumstances surrounding the handover.

Mogadishu’s detention and subsequent transfer of the ONLF leader to Ethiopia in August 2017 sparked outrage in the country. The action was described as a breach of Somali and international laws – which decries refoulement.

The parliament was on recess at the time the action took place, most lawmakers had gone on the annual pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. The Upper House met but deferred to the Lower Chamber to deal with the matter first. The current decision is one issued by the two houses, reports indicate.

The ONLF group in a statement confirming the handover of its top official expressed worry about the possible mistreatment that Sheikh Muse was likely to face.

“The Somali government has forcefully transferred a political refugee to Ethiopia which is known to torture and humiliate its opponents. It has been intimated that Mr. Abdikarin was sacrificed in order ti get political support from the Ethiopian regime,” their statement in August read.

It condemned the Somali regime and called for the release of Muse – who Ethiopia insists holds an Ethiopian passport and opted to return voluntarily. That claim has been roundly rejected by the family and the group which he belonged to.

ONLF describes itself as “a national liberation organisation that struggles for the rights of the Somali people in Ogaden and has no involvement whatsoever in Somalia’s multifaceted conflict at all.”

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U.S. military builds up in land of ‘Black Hawk Down’ disaster

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The Pentagon now has its largest military presence in war-torn Somalia since the deadly battle in 1993.

WESLEY MORGAN

The number of U.S. military forces in Somalia has more than doubled this year to over 500 people as the Pentagon has quietly posted hundreds of additional special operations personnel to advise local forces in pockets of Islamic militants around the country, according to current and former senior military officials.

It is the largest American military contingent in the war-torn nation since the the infamous 1993 “Black Hawk Down” battle when 18 U.S. soldiers died. It is is also the latest example of how the Pentagon’s operations in Africa have expanded with greater authority provided to field commanders.

The growing Somalia mission, coming more fully to light after four American troops were killed in an ambush in Niger last month, also includes two new military headquarters in the capital of Mogadishu and stepped-up airstrikes. It’s driven by a major shift in strategy from primarily relying on targeted strikes against terrorists to advising and supporting Somali troops in the field, the officials said.

The new operations also come as a peacekeeping mission spearheaded by the African Union is winding down. That is putting more pressure on the fledgling Somali security forces to confront al-Shabab, a terrorist army allied with Al Qaeda that plays the role of a quasi-government in significant parts of the country.

“We had to put more small teams on the ground to partner in a regional way with the Somali government,” retired Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, who commanded American special operations forces in Africa until June, said in an interview. “So we changed our strategy and we changed our operational approach. That’s why the footprint went up.”

The expansion, which was also outlined by officials at U.S. Africa Command, includes deploying Green Berets and Navy SEALs to far-flung outposts to target the al-Shabab insurgency and a group of militants in the northern region of Puntland who last year pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. The deployment of a special operations adviser team to Puntland alongside Somali troops has served as a model for the broader expansion of the mission.
“Puntland was the example we used,” Bolduc said. “We said, ‘We can do this in the other areas.’ So we changed our strategy and we changed our operational approach.”

Also, in a move not previously reported, a SEAL headquarters unit has deployed to Mogadishu from Germany to coordinate the adviser teams that are spread across the country. And in a separate move, trainers from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division spent the summer working with Somali troops at the fortified airport complex in Mogadishu. That deployment has since ended, but troops from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division twill perform a similar mission next year, a spokesman for the headquarters overseeing Army activities in Africa said.

To oversee the expanded operation, the Pentagon has also sent a general for the first time: Army Brig. Gen. Miguel Castellanos, a veteran of the 1990s peacekeeping mission in Somali who took charge in June of a unit called the Mogadishu Coordination Cell.

At the same time, more airstrikes are being conducted than ever before to kill militant leaders and to defend the American advisers and their African allies. Those include one conducted Saturday 250 miles from Mogadishu that Africa Command said killed a militant after he attacked a convoy of U.S. and Somali troops.

Some of the strikes have been conducted under new authorities that the Trump administration approved in March. It declared parts of Somalia a zone of “active hostilities” akin to Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, and delegated the authority to approve airstrikes further down the chain of command.

In all, according to Africa Command, the U.S. has conducted 28 airstrikes in Somalia this year, nine of them this month. That’s compared to 13 airstrikes and ground raids that the Pentagon announced last year and just five strikes and raids in 2015, according to numbers compiled by the New America Foundation.

The more expansive military effort contrasts with the tiny and secretive U.S. military mission over the last decade headed by the classified Joint Special Operations Command, the military’s main counter-terrorism force. JSOC drone strikes reportedly began in Somalia in 2011, and two-dozen special operations troops started working as advisers in late 2013.

But the small American contingent was confined mostly to Mogadishu and the Baledogle military airfield in southern Somalia — except during short-duration missions farther afield.

“It was something like 100 people on the ground essentially being the intel and targeting apparatus” for counter-terrorism strikes, said an active-duty special operations officer who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity while discussing sensitive operations.

Officially, the Pentagon disputes that the recent increase in troops constitutes a major buildup of forces.

“I would not associate that with a buildup, as you’re calling it,” said Lt. Gen. Frank McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff in the Pentagon, referring to the troop increase. “I think it’s just the flow of forces in and out as different organizations come in that might be sized a little differently, and I certainly don’t think there’s a ramp-up of attacks.”

A spokesperson for Africa Command, Robyn Mack, told POLITICO that the U.S. presence has increased from around 200 to more than 500 this year.

The larger “advise and assist mission,” she explained, is now “the most significant element of our partnership” in Somalia.

The increased presence has not been without controversy inside national security circles, according to multiple people who have been directly involved in the decisions.

Prominent in the discussions has been the recent history of Somalia, which has been wracked by a series of civil wars over the past quarter-century. But the legacy of JSOC’s ill-fated man-hunting mission in support of the U.N. peacekeepers in 1993 — in which two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down and a pilot captured — has long made American and Somali officials wary of deeper U.S. military involvement.

“Everybody defaults to ‘Black Hawk Down’ and what happened in Somalia in 1993,” said Bolduc, the former commander of special operations forces in Africa.

“That was a real concern when I was working on Somalia policy at the Pentagon and the White House,” added Luke Hartig, who worked on counter-terrorism operations at the National Security Council in the Obama administration. “Some military people would say, ‘We’ve evolved a lot as a force, we’ve done these raids every night in Iraq and Afghanistan and can mitigate risk in a way we couldn’t in 1993.’ But it is still one of the real catastrophes of U.S. military operations in the past couple decades.”

Nonetheless, most military and counter-terrorism officials agreed that air and drones strikes and other pinpoint operations were deemed insufficient to prevent Somalia from becoming a terrorist haven.

“We came to the realization that trying to handle the threat in Somalia just kinetically was not going to work,” Bolduc said. “Taking out high-value targets is necessary, but it’s not going to lead you to strategic success, and it’s not going to build capability and capacity in our partners to secure themselves. So we provided a plan that complemented the kinetic strikes” with a larger military advisory effort.

The arrival of the Trump administration also gave the military an opportunity to make its case to a more receptive audience, the active-duty special operations officer, who had knowledge of the strategy review told POLITICO.

“It wasn’t, ‘Oh thank God, new president, new party, now we can go kick ass,’ but there were opportunities with the change in the political situation,” he said.

An equally important factor, Bolduc said, was the Obama administration’s appointment last year of Stephen Schwartz as ambassador in Mogadishu. Schwartz is the first U.S. ambassador to Somalia since before the Black Hawk Down battle and is credited with laying the groundwork with the Somali government, he explained.

But with the stepped-up U.S. military effort also comes grater risk. A member of SEAL Team 6 was killed during one such mission in May.

“Do we get into contact with the enemy? Yes, we do — our partners do and we’re there to support it, and sometimes we come into contact by virtue of how the enemy attacked them,” Bolduc said. “The benchmark that we used in our planning was that U.S. forces coming into contact with the enemy was unlikely. We met that standard most of the time.”

However, Hartig, the former counter-terrorism official who also helped craft the new strategy, says he worries about special operations troops getting involved too deeply in rural regions with complex tribal politics. That’s a problem that has plagued U.S. counter-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan.

“Somalia’s incredibly complex human terrain, and you want to be sure you know what you’re getting into,” he said. “Some of the special operations guys do know a lot about Somalia, but we haven’t previously had people on the ground out in the communities.”

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Egypt Warns Ethiopia Nile dam Dispute ‘Life or Death’

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Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, for the second time in as many days, has delivered a stern warning to Ethiopia over a dam it is building after the two countries along with Sudan failed to approve a study on its potential effects.

Ethiopia is finalizing construction of Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile. Egypt fears that will cut into its water supply.

Cairo said last week that the three countries had failed to approve an initial study by a consultancy firm on the dam’s potential effects on Egypt and Sudan.

Ethiopia has repeatedly reassured Egypt, but Cairo’s efforts to engage in closer coordination have made little headway.

El-Sissi sought to reassure Egyptians in televised comments Saturday, but stressed that “water is a matter of life or death.”

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