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Briefing Room

Somalia’s pirates are back in business



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

U.S. military denies Al-Shabaab killed its soldier in Somalia



MOGADISHU, Feb. 20 (Xinhua) — The United States military confirmed Tuesday no American soldier was killed or injured in southern Somalia as claimed by the Islamist militant group, Al-Shabaab.

The U.S. Africa Command (Africom), which oversees American troops on the continent, dismissed the report as incorrect that the insurgents killed the American soldier on the outskirts of Kismayo during a gun fight early Tuesday.

“We are aware of the reports, but they are incorrect. No U.S military were killed or injured in Somalia, as alleged in the reports,” Africom spokesperson Samantha Reho told Xinhua.

The militants through their radio station, Andalus had reported that the American soldier was killed in a gun battle that took place outside Kismayo town on Tuesday morning.

The allegations came amid intensified security operation by the African Union peacekeeping mission (AMISOM) backed by Somalia National Army (SNA) on Al-Shabaab controlled areas in the Lower Shabelle region, destroying several militant bases, checkpoints and explosives including an FM station run by Al-Shabaab.

The allied forces have ramped up offensives against the militants as the African Union forces continue with the drawdown which started with 500 troops last December.

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Briefing Room

Al-Shabaab plundering starving Somali villages of cash and children



Jason Burke

Al-Shabaab militants in Somalia are extorting huge sums from starving communities and forcibly recruiting hundreds of children as soldiers and suicide bombers as the terror group endures financial pressures and an apparent crisis of morale.

Intelligence documents, transcripts of interrogations with recent defectors and interviews conducted by the Guardian with inhabitants of areas in the swath of central and southern Somalia controlled by al-Shabaab have shone a light on the severity of its harsh rule – but also revealed significant support in some areas.

Systematic human rights abuses on a par with those committed by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are being conducted by the al-Qaida-affiliated Islamist militants as the west largely looks away because most analysts do not see the group as posing a threat to Europe, the UK or the US.

The group has put to death dozens of “criminals”, inflicted brutal punishments on gay people, conducted forced marriages, and used civilian populations as human shields.

In one 2017 incident investigated by the Guardian, a man was stoned to death for adultery. In another, four men and a 16-year-old boy were shot dead by a firing squad after being accused of spying for the Somali authorities. In a third, a 20-year-old man and a 15-year-old boy were killed in a public square after being found guilty by a religious court of homosexuality.

Last year at least five people were lashed publicly after being accused of “immoral or improper behaviour”. They included a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old who were given 100 lashes each for “fornication”.

UN officials said they had received reports of stonings for adultery. The former al-Shabaab leader, Hassan Dahir Aweys, who defected in 2013, described the group’s aim as “Islamic government without the interference of the western powers in Somalia”.

Al-Shabaab, which once controlled much of south and central Somalia, including the capital Mogadishu, was forced to retreat to rural areas by a military force drawn from regional armies seven years ago. Since then it has proved resilient, and remains one of the most lethal terrorist organisations in the world, but appears to be suffering a crisis of morale and financial pressure, prompting the drive to squeeze revenue out of poor rural communities.

One recent defector from central Somalia told government interrogators that the group forces “Muslims to pay for pretty much everything except entering the mosque”. Another said that al-Shabaab’s “finance ministry” – part of the extensive parallel government it has set up – is “hated”.

Al-Shabaab used to demand money or children from clans: now they demand both

The former mid-ranking commander, who defected four months ago, described how wells were taxed at $20,000 (£14,000) per month and a fee of $3.50 levied at water holes for every camel drinking there. One small town in Bai province was forced to pay an annual collective tax of a thousand camels, each worth $500, and several thousand goats, he said.

In addition, trucks using roads in territory controlled by al-Shabaab have to pay $1,800 each trip. Five percent of all land sales is taken as tax, and arbitrary levies of up to $100,000 imposed on communities for “educational purposes”, the defector said. There is also evidence that the movement is suffering from manpower shortages.

A third defector said al-Shabaab now insisted that all male children attend its boarding schools from the age of about eight. The children train as fighters and join fighting units in their mid-teens.

“By that age they are fully indoctrinated. They are no longer under the influence of their parents,” said Mohamed Mubarak, research director of the Horn Institute for Security and Strategic Policy thinktank.

According to Somali authorities, troops stormed a school run by al-Shabaab in January and rescued 32 children who had been taken as recruits to be “brainwashed” to be suicide bombers. “Al-Shabaab used to demand money or children from clans: now they demand both,” the defector said.

Al-Shabaab has also told people they will be punished – possibly put to death as spies – if they have any contact with humanitarian agencies.

Somalia has been hit by a series of droughts, and only a massive aid effort averted the deaths of hundreds of thousands last year.

A new military campaign launched by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed and supported by the US has seen intensive drone strikes on al-Shabaab targets, putting the militants under significant pressure. Fears of spies have led to a series of internal purges. Suspected agents are jailed and brutally tortured.

Al-Shabaab cuts thieves’ hands and kills looters . Everyone is scared of them

“Distrust is so high that when they go into battle, everyone is afraid of being shot in the back by his comrade,” one of the defectors said. “When soldiers get leave, half come back. Al-Shabaab now send patrols to collect people who have fled home. They stay in jail until they agree to rejoin.”

Abdirahman Mohamed Hussein, a government official overseeing humanitarian aid in southern central Somalia, told the Guardian that extremists used local populations as human shields. “They do not want people to move out because they are worried that there could be an airstrike if the civilians leave,” Hussein said.

Al-Shabaab also imposes tight restrictions on media, the defectors said. “Most people only listen to al-Shabaab radio stations or get news from al-Shabaab lectures which go on for hours and which cover religion and which all must attend,” one said. Another said some people risked harsh punishments to listen in secret toVoice of America and the BBC.

“Life is really tough in al-Shabaab-controlled areas. There is no food, no aid and children are being taken,” said Mubarak, the thinktank director. “Al-Shabaab are still trying to portray themselves as defenders of Somali identity. The message has a lot of sympathy but is not translating into active support.”

The draconian punishment, seizures, taxes and abductions run counter to the strategic guidance issued by al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has called for affiliates of the veteran group to build consensus and support among local communities. Their practices do, however, recall those of Isis.

Al-Shabaab also manipulates rivalries between clans and tribes, and benefits from the failures of local authorities to provide basic services. Several interviewees said they preferred using al-Shabaab’s justice system, and that the group had brought security.

In once case in May last year, two clan elders in Beledweyne in Hiran region agreed to seek al-Shabaab justice to settle a case of rape. The attacker was found guilty and stoned to death.

“We decided to go to the al-Shabaab court because the judge rules under the Islamic law and there is no nepotism and corruption,” said Abdurahman Guled Nur, a relative of the rape victim, in a telephone interview. “If we went to a government court, there would be no justice because the rapist could have paid some cash to the court and he would be freed.”

Mohamed Hussein, a farmer in Barire, a town 40 miles south of Mogadishu that has seen fierce fighting, returned home when al-Shabaab took control of the area in early October. “When the government soldiers were here, there was looting, illegal roadblocks and killing,” he said. “But al-Shabaab cuts thieves’ hands and kills looters. The Islamic court gives harsh sentences for the criminals, so everyone is scared of them. That way we are in peace under al-Shabaab. If you do not have any issue with al-Shabaab, they leave you alone.”

Additional reporting by Abdalle Mumin

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Briefing Room

Somalia Appoints New Security Chiefs to Combat al-Shabab



VOA — The Somali government has appointed new security chiefs, nearly four months after firing the previous commanders after a series of deadly al-Shabab attacks. But experts warn that the new security chiefs are not “miracle” workers and need support from the public and their own government to win the war against the militants.

During a special meeting in Mogadishu on Monday, the Cabinet approved the appointment of Hussein Osman Hussein to become director of the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) and General Bashir Abdi Mohamed to be the commissioner of the police.

Also appointed was Major General Bashir Mohamed Jama, known as “Gobe,” who returns as commander of the prison guards, a position he lost less than a year ago.

New blood, old blood

Hussein, who currently serves as the deputy minister of health, has been a long time member of the parliament and previously held the position of deputy security minister. He will lead a small agency with about 4,500 personnel, half of whom are plain-clothed officers.

General Mohamed is a career police officer who held various positions within the department, including chief of police engineers, commander of training department and head of the central investigations department. He joined the police in 1971.

Last year, Somali leaders agreed to create a police force of about 32,000 nationwide. The current force is about half that size.

Hussein and Mohamed’s predecessors — Abdullahi Mohamed Ali Sanbalolshe of NISA, and General Abdihakim Dahir Saaid of the police — were fired on October 29 last year, a day after an al-Shabab attack on a Mogadishu hotel left nearly 30 people dead. Two weeks earlier, a massive truck bomb in the capital killed 512, making it the largest terrorist attack in African history.

State minister for the office of the prime minister, Abdullahi Hamud, defended the long process it took to appoint new commanders.

“It was just a matter of caution and for the government to pick the right person who can fit in the job, it wasn’t because of other things,” he said.

Former NISA director General Abdirahman Mohamed Turyare said the new commanders have a chance to do well if they learn from “mistakes” made by predecessors.

“They can look back on mistakes made so as to avoid them, and bring on board ideas that worked,” he said.

Turyare urged the commanders not to confine operations to Mogadishu but to spread the war against al-Shabab beyond the capital, take care of their agencies’ personnel and make sure they get better technology.

He cautioned that the new commanders could probably not solve security failures immediately.

“They bring experience, work ethic and dedication but they are not miracle people,” he said.

There have been no major al-Shabab attacks in Mogadishu in almost four months, since the firing of the previous commanders back in late October. The new commanders will hope to continue that streak.

Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulle contributed to the report from Mogadishu.

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