Return of the Princess in Somalia

November 27, 2008

The tale of the brutal Somali pirates has taken something of a twist these past few days. The twist is, at least two sets of pirates have begun to appeal to their American sugar-mama, a woman from Virginia who it is claimed, has built up “a network of clan and sub-clan leaders in every region of the country” and who the bloodthirsty pirates regard as a respected Amira, or female leader. Pirates holding the Saudi oil tanker, the Sirius Star, have draped a banner over the side of the vessel and demand to negotiate with what military.com calls their “American benefactor.”

A business associate of this modern hero claims that she “is greeted like royalty in Somalia, adding that the Somalis like her because she identifies their needs and comes up with solutions so they can support themselves” while “she is reportedly known in Somalia as Amira, or “Princess” in Arabic…[she] has talked to the Somalis about being responsible for their own security and being their own coast guard.”

But who is this latter day Lawrence of Arabia, come to bring peace and happiness to the Somali people, and who has supposedly developed such cosy ties with elements of the country’s clan elites? It’s none other than Michelle Ballarin, the CEO of Select Armor.

Don’t remember Select Armor? Well, if you’ve been reading my GNN blogs for a while, then you might. If not, then you need to look back and check up on their history. You can’t understand the rise of the Islamic Courts and the “Ethiopian” invasion to dislodge them without a glance.

The basics are as follows. In 2006, it emerged, via the Observer newspaper and the newsletter Africa Confidential, that a couple of U.S. based private military companies – Select Armor and ATS Tactical – were planning an intervention in Somalia. The reports quoted Ballarin as claiming to have had meetings in Virginia with intelligence agencies. Documents that came to light involved Select Armor trying to persuade the Ugandan government to use their “end user certificates” to circumvent a UN arms embargo on Somalia.

In other words, Ballarin and her collaborators were planning to send arms into Somalia, using third party documentation, in breach of international law. No wonder the documents referred to “thos fucks at the UN” who had been snooping on Select Armor.

The reasons for Ballarin’s scheme seem to have been related to propping up the Transitional Government in Somalia. When the reports surfaced, a U.S. backed gang of warlords had recently attempted to take Mogadishu under the absurd name “the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism.” Hundreds were killed as the warlords attacked using heavy weapons, in an attempt to remove an Islamist coalition who had recently taken power in the capital. Peacefully, it should be added.

ATS tactical were partners in the plan, which sought to lure the Islamists into a self-defeating battle, while avoiding “another Dien Bien Phuu” – where French forces became surrounded by Vietnamese nationalists in a remote fortress and were hopelessly outgunned. The Ethiopian/U.S./mercenary invasion of late 2006 and early 2007 avoided that scenario, and the Islamists scattered.

I think we can assume that the whole enterprise was planned and executed by a branch of the U.S. state, in conjunction with their pseudo-private business chums. And what a brutal scheme it has been. Somalia is the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world” according to Refugees International. Thousands have died and many, many more have fled. The Transitional Government and the Ethiopian occupiers have been industrial in their savagery – as I pointed out when discussing a shocking report from Human Rights Watch last year. U.S. air raids have killed few terrorists, while massacring shepherds and other innocents. Many have been rendered to Ethiopian jails, where conditions are far worse than Guantanamo.

The state of Somalia has disintegrated again, under close U.S. supervision. What we didn’t know until now, was how deep U.S. involvement remained through the worst of the insurgency and the occupation. Ballarin – the nominal head of the operation – has built a network of loyalists in the Somalian interior and clan system. Presumably she has done so with the assistance of many intelligence operatives and the Transitional Government. Who knows how many atrocities that we thought the Ethiopians or Somali government had committed were actually committed by Ballarin’s friends?

It looks like the pirates that have captured the Sirius Star and the MV Faina (carrying weapons, probably to Southern Sudan) are connected to U.S. intelligence as well. How else to explain their bafflingly loyal and dedicated allegiance to Ballarin? This was anticipated in 2006 as well. Mainstream media briefly reported the extraordinary story of Top Cat Marine Security. The Virginia based company, which investigator Kathryn Cramer traced to an oddly empty office), “won” a contract to perform “coast guard” duties for the Transitional Government of Somalia. It received the contract back in November 2005, over a year before the Ethiopian invasion. That was well before the “Islamic Courts” rise to power.

It’s almost as if the entire conflict was planned in advance. But surely not. It’s all so oddly familiar. Top Cat was granted the contract to fight a wave of piracy, in which a U.S. cruise liner was attacked. The express goal of the coast guard, according to Top Cat’s CEO, Peter Casini was to “end the piracy very quickly, there is no question about that” by attacking a mother-ship that had been launching smaller attack boats “75 to 100 miles from the shore.”

Piracy on that level and against such ambitious targets then abated until 2008, when we now see a host of businesses lining up to land even bigger contracts to fight them. Blackwater International, for example. We also see what may well be U.S. controlled intelligence assets virtually paralysing trade through one of the world’s great shipping lanes. Controlling the seas of Somalia were always paramount in the operation. The people and the ecology on the mainland were negligible.

But what of the future? Ballarin is quoted by military.com as aiming to “to recruit 500 men and women to serve as a Somali coast guard operating out of Berbera, the country’s major port.” Berbera was an old U.S. Cold War base, and the U.S. military has been linked to a move to renovate it in the recent past, if they haven’t already been doing so.

The only problem is that Berbera is in Somaliland – which is effectively independent of Somalia. Moreover, Somaliland and its immediate neighbour to the east, Puntland, have had testy relations in the past few years. The current ruler of Puntland, an ex-petrol station owner in Canada called Mohamed Muse Hersi, has recently arrested a radio journalist from the territory for claiming that he was planning an attack on Somaliland. Hersi covets areas of the province of Sool, where Australian, Canadian and Korean interests have been prospecting for oil since the Ethiopian invasion.

This information turns a great deal of the coventional narrative about Somalia’s “piracy problem” on its head. There are, of course, those who are angered by illegal fishing, toxic dumping and the various atrocities meted out as part of the U.S. directed Somali intervention. What looks likely, though, is that these people are being outshone by hired guns and showmen who are either being used, or employed, by an agent of the U.S. state. Ballarin is, without a doubt, such an agent. There is no other way she could have been involved in the invasion and the occupation as deeply as she has been.

What isn’t clear is the underlying reason for the U.S. and its hired goons to adopt such a strategy. Rather than working with the Islamic Courts and building a viable Somali state, the U.S. has totally demolished it.

There are no great energy resources at stake – as far as we know. There are probably oil and uranium reserves in the north, and U.S. firms still exercise options on oil contracts signed under the last national government in the late 1980s. If the country is reunified, those contracts will be alive again (particularly benefiting Conoco, whose Mogadishu HQ hosted the U.S. military brass during “Operation Restore Hope” in the 1990s). But reunification is unlikely.

Then there is the shipping angle. We have seen the past week how important the Gulf of Aden is to shipping – and an Islamist government in Somalia could conceivably have used it as a choke-point – but only at huge risk to its economy and its survival. Certain Islamic powers would not have been happy either, making that an unlikely strategy.

Of course, with a solid government in Mogadishu and Somalia’s regions, the practice of piracy might abate – removing a convenient cover for foreign governments to shut down the Gulf, but this is pure speculation. Moreover, a solid government might prevent the dumping of toxic waste by foreign powers or the decimation of Somalia’s fish stocks. Again, pure speculation.

And those contracts for shady Virginia crooks? Or Christian warriors wanting to blast Islamic fishermen to smithereens? Or hapless Indian navy captains wanting to flex their military muscles by exploding Thai fishing boats? Or British mercenaries running a half-arsed “coast guard” out of the port of Bossasso? Or Top Cat Marine taking $16 million from the world’s poorest people? Or Dyncorp training the Somali military and the African Union peacekeepers? And Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni wanting to deflect attention from his dictatorship by keeping some peace? Or Ethiopia’s leader Meles Zenawi wanting to crackdown on his restive Somali minority by brutalising their brothers in Somalia?

I would, it is true, be lying if I said that there wasn’t any reason for some in this world to want Somalia divided and at war.

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