Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Somalia’s Four-Cornered Fight

Two weeks ago we ran this story about the coming battle between the Somali pirates and the Somali Islamist group al-Shabab for control of the pirate port city, Haradheere. Last week the battle happened and the pirates were in fact driven out of Haradheere, only by a different group of Islamists, Hizbul Islam. Like al-Shabab, Hizbul Islam opposed the pirates’ presence in Haradheere, publicly because of their belief that piracy - and the free-spending, drinking and womanizing pirate lifestyle - were “un-Islamic”; privately, speculation is that both Islamic groups hoped to muscle in on the lucrative pirate industry that has sprung up along Somalia’s lawless coast and where a single ransomed ship can bring in several million dollars. According to the pirates, representatives from Hizbul Islam arrived in Haradheere a few days before their armed forces to demand a cut of the ransoms the pirates received, they refused. Rather than fight for the city on May 1 and 2, the pirates fled Haradheere before Hizbul Islam’s forces arrived, reports are that a string of luxury automobiles were seen leaving the city under the cover of night. The pirates also moved several ships they were holding for ransom to another port city, Hobyo, further up the coast. Hizbul Islam is pledging to set up a local government and provide security for the city.

The situation in Haradheere is emblematic of the utterly chaotic situation in Somalia today, which has been in a state of near-chaos since the last national government was driven from power nearly two full decades ago. Hizbul Islam and al-Shabab were allies in the Islamic militant movement in Somalia until falling out with each other last year; the two groups fought for control over the southern port city of Kismayu, a battle al-Shabab eventually won. Kismayu now provides al-Shabab with a port for smuggling and trade activities, (the export of charcoal is one way that al-Shabab funds their activities) which could also be why Hizbul Islam was keen to seize Haradheere. Both groups adhere to a fundamentalist version of Islam, hope to establish sharia law in Somalia, and have pledged their allegiance to al-Qaeda, a move that has put them on the United States’ terrorist watch list. In addition to battling with each other and the pirates, both al-Shabab and Hizbul Islam are also fighting against the Somali Transitional National Government (TNG) for control of the capital city, Mogadishu – a fight that has been going poorly for the TNG lately. The TNG has been losing ground in their battle against the militants since Ethiopian troops left the country in early 2009; with the backing of Ethiopian peacekeepers, the TNG was able to return to Mogadishu in 2006 after years in exile in neighboring Kenya. The TNG/Ethiopians drove out the Islamic Courts Union, a more moderate collection of Islamist groups who had been acting as a de facto government in Mogadishu. The defeat of the Islamic Courts Union led to the rise of more militant, more fundamentalist groups like al-Shabab and Hizbul Islam.

With so many factions fighting for control of the country, it’s clear that the situation in Somalia won’t stabilize anytime soon. And so long as Somalia remains in a state of chaos, problems like terrorism and piracy cannot be effectively addressed.
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