Somalia violence hamper security, anti-piracy fight

Published on Friday 4th July 2008

Somalia: Tension among the rival political groups vying for control of Somalia has severely hampered security efforts, including initiatives to enlist foreign and private forces to patrol the coast.

The ongoing battle between the internationally recognised Transitional Federal Government and forces from the ousted Islamic Courts Union government has been well publicised.

The violent struggle for control of towns across Somalia shows no sign of waning, and the TFG's hold on vital coastal towns and seaports is weak at best.

That has not stopped the TFG from negotiating agreements with the UN and private security firms as part of an effort to fight piracy.

Without a functioning navy, pirates have enjoyed almost unfettered access to Somalia's territorial waters.

Repeated attacks on food shipments and aid workers have contributed to the worsening humanitarian situation within the country.

More worryingly for the TFG, a failure to control the violence has damaged its political standing, already weakened by the perception that the government is a tool of foreign, and particularly Ethiopian, influence.

Thus, the TFG publicly disclaimed its role in enlisting a French firm to assist with security off the country's coast. The private force would be charged with creating a coastguard and patrolling ports, while some reports suggest it will be authorised to use deadly force.

The deal met swift criticism, forcing TFG officials to announce the deal was negotiated and would be paid for by the United States and United Nations, and that the central government offered only passive assent.

Opposition leaders have similarly opposed the TFG's support for a recently passed UN Security Council resolution that allows foreign navies to enter Somalia's territorial waters to combat pirates.

Many publicly doubt the stated intent of the international effort, insisting it is part of a larger effort to illegally fish and exploit Somali resources.

Some Islamic groups have vowed to attack the foreign patrols. Though they do not possess much ability to threaten forces on the open sea, collaboration with pirate and criminal groups could result in a terrorist threat to ships within the region.

To date, co-operation between Islamic political groups and pirates off Somalia has been much theorised, if overstated.

Indeed, during its brief reign in 2006, the ICU was widely credited with curbing rates of crime and piracy in the war-torn nation.

Its essential control along portions of the southern coast may now be having a similar effect.

Ironically, that is pushing pirates farther north, particularly into the semi-autonomous, and comparatively calm, Puntland state.

The regional government is closely allied to the TFG, and has been similarly criticised for its weakness in combating an unprecedented rise in piracy, kidnappings, and organised crime. A majority of the pirate attacks off Somalia this year have occurred along Puntland's coastline.

Unpaid and poorly paid security forces are now joining forces with pirates and criminal gangs, compounding theproblem.

Puntland officials have turned the blame elsewhere ahead of regional elections planned for January 2009. Ministers have criticised shipowners for paying ransoms, which encourage piracy, while accusing US warships of raising tensions off the coast.

Meantime, regional opposition figures have promised to tackle piracy within their first year in office, highlighting the issue's prominence for local residents.

Hoping to fend off almost certain defeat at the polls, the regional government has launched a series of high-profile efforts to combat pirate and kidnap gangs.

In early June, Puntland police and troops clashed with a group of pirates after failed negotiations to release a ship held hostage off the coast. Seven pirates captured during a security operation in April were recently tried in the regional courts.

Such measures are largely symbolic, as the regional security forces are undermined by the non-payment of wages and internal divisions. In March the Puntland security minister resigned following resistance to proposed reforms.

The chief of the regional intelligence service has also refused to come under the command of the regional or federal governments, fuelling further charges that the government is crippled by nepotism and corruption.