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Terrorists, Pirates and Anarchy, Somalia Style

Somalia has become the poster child for transnational threats emanating from Africa.
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Somalia has become the poster child for transnational threats emanating from Africa. By sea, pirates much more dangerous than their predecessors from centuries past prowl the Indian Ocean and Red Sea waterways and extort tens of millions of dollars in ransom. By land, extremist militias connected to al-Qaeda units ensure that Somalia remains anarchic and the only country in the world without a functioning central government.

Until recently, this seemed to matter little to most Americans, as our only perceived connection to Somalia was the receding memory of the Black Hawk Down incident over 15 years ago, when 18 American soldiers were killed in what was thought to be a humanitarian mission.

Suddenly, though, Americans have reconnected to Somalia in two distinct ways. First, the drama that unfolded on the high seas which finally led to the rescue of the American ship captain from his pirate captors has provided a glimpse into a modern day profession that most of us had thought was limited to Johnny Depp movies and the shores of Tripoli. Ships carrying oil, tanks, and other prized cargo have been taken hostage by Somali pirates, and a naval armada from Europe, Asia and North America hasn't stopped these sea-based predators.

Second, at least 20 American citizens have gone to Somalia and joined jihadist militias there, mostly to fight against Ethiopian forces which until recently occupied swathes of southern Somalia. These Americans joined the al-Shabab organization, which the U.S. classifies as a terrorist group. Many came from America's Midwestern heartland, and were recruited mostly in mosques around Minneapolis.

Both the land and sea phenomena have similar roots: in the absence of any state authority, predatory mafia and insurgent networks drive the informal economy, combining to extort, tax and ransom their way to multi-million dollar incomes. This reinforces state collapse, as the economic incentive remains in favor of disorder and predation rather than stability and the rule of law. In this vacuum jihadist recruitment has flourished, and U.S. actions over the last fifteen years have only fanned the flames of extremism.

The Bush administration pursued a policy that prioritized military measures over political processes and state reconstruction. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, U.S. policy emerged from years of neglect to one of its most counter-productive chapters, in which American intelligence agents began to funnel suitcases full of dollars to Somali warlords that professed willingness to attempt to capture al-Qaeda elements there. After that approach only galvanized further support for extremist militias, the U.S. then supported Somalia's regional rival Ethiopia to invade, which led to an even faster rise in jihadist recruitment in Somalia and back here in the U.S. Counter-terrorism and anti-piracy efforts are both failing because they prioritize military force over state reconstruction diplomacy and real development, much more effective long-term antidotes to terrorism, piracy and insurgency.

There have been fourteen distinct attempts to build a new government in Somalia in the past 17 years since the collapse of a U.S.-supported Cold War era dictator. The current effort has stumbled into something potentially successful, given the new president is a pragmatic Islamist himself, who sees the need for an inclusive process of state-building and who can deal directly with jihadist hardliners in ways that previous secular leaders could not. We can't afford to just sit back and wait and see if it succeeds. We must engage. If we do not, terrorist and piracy threats will only proliferate.

The first challenge is rooted in security. The insurgency will be defeated primarily by political, not military means. News reports suggest that some Pentagon officials are advocating more military strikes inside Somalia. Airstrikes during the Bush administration occasionally took out one or two targets on the ground but inspired hundreds more Somalis to join the jihadist insurgency. Absent a state-building strategy, muscle-flexing military approaches are counter-productive for counter-terrorism.

The second challenge is governance. A nascent transitional administration led by Sheikh Sharif Ahmed requires support. In our travels over the years in Somalia, we have found that the basics most Somalis are looking for are security and services, primarily education. We should start there.

In fighting terrorism on land and piracy at sea, U.S. national security interests will be better secured if we aligned ourselves more with the interest of most Somalis in better security and effective governance. Helping to build the house and using the back door will be much more effective than barging into the front door of a house that has yet to be built.

John Prendergast is co-founder of the Enough Project ( David Smock is a vice president at the U.S. Institute of Peace (

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