MULLAHS VS. PIRATES: SOLUTION, OR NEW PROBLEMS?

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"For Somali Pirates, Worst Enemy May Be on Shore," in the New York Times on May 9, featured an interview with Puntland pirate boss Abshir Boyah, who claims to have hijacked more than 25 ships. Boyah says he's worried because Islamic clerics would like to cut off his hands as an un-Islamic thief, and drive him and his ilk out of town and out of business. His solution? Let the mullahs find jobs for his hijacking crews that pay nearly as well as their booty does now -- and help senior pirates like him form a Somalian coast guard.

To me, Boyah comes across like he's toying with his interviewer and baiting the clerics. The pirate groups are armed to the teeth with AK-47s and RPGs that they can use ashore just as well as at sea. They may be an irreligious lot, but that doesn't mean they aren't united and motivated by a significant shared set of values: Boyah describes piracy like the sport of hunting, and negotiating as a "religion." Pirate leaders feel deeply obliged to support their families and clans. Social prestige plus materialist dissipation in this life can be cherished by some just as much as a sure path to Heaven in the next life is cherished by others. Somali culture in general puts high stock in not backing down from conflict and confrontation, even when things do turn deadly.

Many of the pirates recently arrested in their skiffs and dhows by international naval forces were quickly set free, making the threat of prosecution no real deterrent. Withholding foreign aid and charity is problematic; economic sanctions usually strengthen the grip of tyrants and warlords. One wonders whether the Puntland clerics mean business about any crackdown, or are just talking tough, holding out (negotiating?) for a take of the big pirate prizes.

For the West and other interested parties to look to local Muslim clerics to diminish Somalian piracy will likely prove ineffective. Counter-terror experts are concerned that Islamo-fascists such as al Qaeda might hire or infiltrate the pirates, or study and adapt ship hijacking tactics themselves. If mullah militias do go after Boyah's crowd, the pirates will surely fight back, leading to more civil war all along the strategically located Somali coast. The chaos would create a power vacuum into which could pour nautical suicide bombers led by fanatical leaders. The beef of Puntland clerics is with piracy-financed spending on sinful liquor, illegal drugs, and illicit sex. To let this benign moralist agenda be replaced by al Qaeda's purpose of destroying whole societies would be a grave error indeed.

I still think a relevant tactic might be for a task force to warn pirates and civilians to flee inland, then raid their lairs from seaward to burn their boats, and withdraw. Then let ex-pirates and local clerics confer on the job creation and maritime security issues Boyah half-joked about, with help from abroad.

-- Joe Buff

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