When it comes to describing Somalia, one of the few words you would expect a sane person to use would be "paradise." But a few years ago, in Kenya's port city of Mombasa, that was exactly how one man remembered for me the Somalia of the 1970s: as an economically vibrant, politically stable and culturally inviting country. Today it is better known as one of the most lawless places on the planet, fraught with warlords, famine, religious extremists - and pirates.
How Somalia got to this point and how piracy has come to flourish in the seas off the Horn of Africa are what drives U.S. journalist Peter Eichstaedt's new book, Pirate State: Inside Somalia's Terrorism at Sea. A former senior editor with Uganda Radio Network, the author knows East Africa well (his previous book looked at child soldiers in the Lord's Resistance Army). In this work, he introduces us to pirates, gunmen, security officials and others trying to cope with the situation, going beyond the headlines, and the hyperbole, to investigate the root causes of piracy off Somalia, while also examining the broader implications that the situation poses to the world.
As Eichstaedt shows, the spectacular growth of piracy can be traced back to Somalia's descent into anarchy that began almost two decades ago. In the years that followed, a variety of elements capitalized on the country's chaos. Local warlords carved out clan-based fiefs on land, while foreign vessels appeared offshore to illegally harvest fish and dump toxic waste into the same seas.
The rape of the ocean by foreigners was one reason some Somalis began attacking vessels in the 1990s, and it continues to be used as a justification for piracy today. While Eichstaedt acknowledges this as a motivating factor, he goes to lengths to dispel its lingering rationalization. The notion that today's pirates are just simple fishermen forced by foreign exploitation to pillage ships falls apart as the author reveals how organized the situation has become. For behind those young men hijacking ships in the Indian Ocean lie criminal gangs tied to Somali warlords and politicians, entities intent on illegally generating tens of millions of dollars from the sea each year. In the words of a Somali negotiator for pirate gangs, "Angry fishermen [are]not the reason and cause of piracy. It is a purely selfish business."
One of the book's strongest sections comes when Eichstaedt travels to the sprawling Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya to see how those displaced by the fighting in Somalia feel about the situation in their homeland. These snapshots of refugee life reveal an overwhelming sense of despondency about Somalia, and most fear returning. Many of these exiled Somalis also voice contrasting views about the international community's responsibilities: Some blame it for creating - or even fostering - the crisis, while others feel outsiders are the only solution to end the lawlessness.
The desire to reach a more hopeful, peaceful place - such as the United States - resounds within Dadaab. So, too, does a fear of how Somalia is being torn apart even further by extremist groups. The same chaos that allowed pirates to flourish has also given rise to Islamist insurgents, some of whom have ties to al-Qaeda. Eichstaedt traces the growth of the largest such group, al-Shabaab, meeting with a former fighter and appraising the potential for Somalia becoming a new Afghanistan.
At times the book seems rushed, condensing some of the author's experiences into just a few pages or paragraphs. And he does not speak personally with any victims of pirate incidents, relying instead on media reports. But Eichstaedt more than compensates by introducing us to those affected by Somalia's anarchy and those perpetuating it. As he makes abundantly clear, Somalia is today a paradise only for pirates, warlords, criminal gangs and extremists.
Daniel Sekulich is a journalist and the author of Terror on the Seas: True Tales of Modern Day Pirates.Report Typo/Error
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