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Somalia: Damned if you do and damned if you don't

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3 October 2008 09:37

Guest blogger: Jim Terrie is a risk management consultant and former Africa analyst with the International Crisis Group.

Australian photojournalist Nigel Brennan, along with his Canadian associate and a Somali fixer, were kidnapped on 23 August and are still being held hostage in Somalia. Their captors are demanding $2.5 million for their release. Meanwhile, offshore, Somali pirates carrying out one of an increasing number of ship hijackings hit the jackpot when the Ukrainian ship they captured turned out to be carrying a load or armaments that included tanks, light weapons and ammunition.

Both events are symptoms of the dysfunction of the Somali entity ('state' would be a stretch) since 1991. In this anarchical setting, kidnapping and piracy are increasingly the core businesses for the various clans and sub clans.  This is both good and bad news.

As long as a ransom is paid, hostages like Nigel Brennan should be released unharmed. This has also been the case for hijacked ships, although for the Ukrainian arms ship, the high profile and the consequences of the cargo getting ashore mean that, unless the pirates back down, the incident will be resolved by force.

The bad news is that the payment of ransoms is fuelling the business, creating greater incentives and providing perpetrators with greater capabilities. More worryingly, cooperation with or sub-contacting by terrorists is not out of the question.

Given the lack of any reliable authority in Somalia, there seem to be few options other than using force to deter and where possible intervene – as the French have done twice recently to rescue hostages. However, using force in Somalia is problematic for a number of reasons. The first is that only a limited amount of force can be brought to bear — perhaps a few warships plying the long coastline or pin prick strikes where sufficient intelligence and opportunity exists. Secondly, the various armed groups welcome the chance to fight — whether it is their neighbours or foreign forces. Thirdly, Somalis are highly resentful of foreign interference in their country and the civilian deaths that often result.

Kidnapping and piracy will remain the norm. The problem for outsiders, whether they are governments, humanitarians, journalists or passing ships, is whether to accept the risks or to steer clear and leave Somalis to themselves, in the knowledge that this may do little to improve things. However, when terrorists find sanctuary or kidnapping and piracy occurs, countries have little option but to respond — often with force – in the knowledge that doing so may also make things worse.

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