The seas off Somalia, and the wide channel between her coasts and the island of Socotra, have long formed a crucial conduit for trade between Europe, the US and Asia via the Suez canal.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the USA sought hegemony over Somalia and Ethiopia (with their clients switching hands after around 1980) and the Soviets seem to have constructed a base on Socotra – the use of which is, at the moment, hard to ascertain. The cold war is over, but these areas have gained new importance in the “War On Terror.”

The presence of Al Qaeda members in Somalia is not the most salient point; they can be mopped up from the US Horn of Africa base that basically consists of the nation of Djibouti: It is the control of an easy route from Africa to Asia (to thwart the movement of terrorists) across the gulf of Aden that looms larger in official minds.

Perhaps even larger, though is the economic centrality of the Suez canal route in a world dependent upon dwindling oil resources. If pipelines can be directed to Mediterranean or European termini, then oil bound for China must be transported via the canal and the gulf of Aden. Whoever controls that route, can exert pressure over China (and India) in the geostrategic future. Hence we should be aware that the US and Europe are very interested in this area, and we should read their actions accordingly.

All of this is now on the agenda, creeping up on the wings of Iraq and Afghanistan. As mentioned above, the U.S. has been present in the Horn of Africa region since 2002 as part of the War on Terror, with its small base of around 1,500 personnel at Camp Lemonier, Djibouti. Given responsibility for rooting out terrorism across “the total airspace and land areas out to the high-water mark of Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti and Yemen” and the stated “capability and will act upon credible intelligence to attack, destroy and/or capture terrorists and support networks,” the JTAF-HOA as it has been known since, has remained a low key yet significant force exerting American influence over the Gulf of Aden.

The permanence of the base at Camp Lemonier is attested by the attractions of “an AFFES PX; a Dining Facility, named the “Bob Hope Dining Facility”; a Chapel; and a fully-equipped fitness centre with a swimming pool. Living Quarters [consist] of air-conditioned tents which, depending on rank, [house] between 4 to 12 personnel.” It doesn’t look like the troops stationed there will be leaving in the new year.

Simultaneously, the US government has been sponsoring the efforts to establish a new government in Somalia proper (after the old “transitional” government failed).

At the moment, the government, which is headed by a warlord with a penchant for bloody reprisals (Abdullah Yusuf), and “elected” by a group of notables based in Nairobi, Kenya, is struggling to displace the governments of local clans (usually termed warlords, but not always so bloody). Nevertheless, Yusuf cannot appear in public in Mogadishu for fear of assasination and heads a surrogate government in the Kenyan capital. From there he also heads a coalition (the SRRC), which fought against the first Transitional Government, which the United States failed to support.

According to a State Department briefing (in March 2002), this failure of the most powerful nation in the world to assist one of the weakest to build a working government was quite simple, “Their creation was an extension of a peace process. The United States was not involved in that peace process.”

After September 11 2001, the United States found a reason to become involved, although it is striking that they remained disengaged even after the 1998 embassy bombings (in Kenya and Tanzania, and probably originating in Somalia or Comoros). So far, no international terrorists have been extracted from the Somali interior, however, although the JTAF-HOA in Djibouti have surely been looking closely for almost three years now. What have they been doing?

This month, Somalia has returned to British and American minds by the grace of television and the associated press. The occasion is not the extraordinarily rapid emergence of an Indian Ocean piracy industry, which after all has existed for hundreds of years (one of the major reasons for making Yemen a British protectorate and for the British/Italian activity in Somalia).

It was when the American Cruise liner ‘Seabourn Spirit’ was attacked by pirates wielding RPGs, grappling hooks, machine guns and, were according to one eyewitness, “sitting back, laughing and chatting, as they loaded the RPGs.”

Fortunately for the Seabourn Spirit, only one of these rockets hit its target, and failed to explode. That is, unless it was a dud, intended to scare rather than destroy. Interestingly, when the ship reached the Seychelles, it was attended by a Navy Lt named, John Stewart, who said that it was actually just “a piece of the rocket motor left in the ship. The grenade already had exploded.”

It had not exploded in the ship, as it came through the window of a cabin where two American tourists were sleeping, and they lived to tell the tale. Perhaps it exploded en route to the ship and then what was left of it went through the window somehow (I’m no ballistics expert, but it sounds implausible that a rocket propelled grenade could explode like that before reaching the ship and smashing the window without leaving some evidence on the ship?)

According to the article on Stewart, everybody seemed to expect to find an unexploded grenade. Another account has it differently however, describing how the grenade was detonated by “FBI agents” in the Seychelles – and that these agents had followed the cruise liner aboard the USS Gonzalez, stationed in Djibouti. Curiously, the same article states that “the CIA had brought in a psychiatrist from South Africa to talk to the passengers” immediately upon arrival in the Seychelles . The organisation of the American military and intelligence services is remarkable, remembering that this occurred over at most 3 days.

Also remarkable, was the ability of the (unarmed) cruise ship, full of sojourning Americans, Brits etc. to outrun hardened, brutal Somali pirates, who may still be holding more than 100 crewmembers from fishing vessels and cargo ships hostage. Since mid-March 2005, there have been 32 pirate attacks in the area and 5 in the past month – a significant rate of increase (particularly given the presence of American submarines underneath them).

According to one account, the pirates attacking the Seabourn Spirit used “fibreglass, open boats”, deployed from a “mother-ship” in a scenario redolent of James Bond, yet their speedy craft could not hamper the cruise liner, and they could only muster 1 rocket of dubious quality on target. Perhaps they intended not to conquer the ship, but to drive it away? Yet it is puzzling that such a tantalising prize as 85 foreigners and a cruise liner were passed up in favour of poor fishermen and ordinary seamen.

The Vietnam War began with an incident on the high seas that became enlarged in the telling and was subsequently found to be a canard. It is possible that the ‘Seabourne Spirit’ incident will prove likewise.

What is indisputable is that it has provoked a reaction from the U.S. government, who have this week prodded the Somali government (that remains based in Nairobi) into action. The BBC reports that an American firm “Topcat Marine Security” has been offered a lucrative $50m contract from the Somali transitional government that will, according to Mohamed Ali Gedi, the Somali PM, “defend Somalia’s territorial waters, defeat the pirates and put an end to the illegal fishing and poaching of our precious natural marine resources”, adding that “under the deal, Topcat will supply all the necessary equipment and training to help Somalia’s coastguard and special forces monitor the coastline.”

In other words, the nonexistent Somali government – using nonexistent Somali tax revenues – has contracted out the nonexistent Somali coastguard/navy to an American company, with the consent of the nonexistent Somali nation. The money will doubtless come from UN coffers, an organisation that recently committed itself to stamping out piracy (though within the African Union framework, not through private companies).

This move towards the privatisation of security in a strategically vital theatre can only strengthen the US position. It removes the possibility of an African force including regional powers like Ethiopia or Kenya dealing with the piracy situation, instead handing power over to a corporation based in the less troublesome or independent territory of South Carolina.

As a “lawless”coastline, the Somalia must also present a tempting site for one of Dick Cheney’s torture camps, a prime piece of real estate in fact, on the Suez canal route and on the doorstep of the Middle East. It would be foolish then, to delegate responsibility to anyone not responsible enough to deserve it.

Topcat Marine Security, Somali’s will be grateful to know, have zero experience catching pirates or policing African coasts. Their expertise has been honed in gaining contracts from the Department of Homeland Security, not impoverished governments, and they have no experience actually running security operations. No, they make boats, fast, open top, fibreglass hulled power boats.

They do not train non-english speaking coastguards in areas where a working government is absent, but they do sell powerful leisure craft to shallow water fishermen off the eastern seaboard. Interestingly too, and the paper trail is sparse (but revealing), their driving force, a man named Peter J Casini, has a long history of failed business ventures, stretching throughout the 1990s when he appears to have made a few fine boats, but constructed an even finer mess of a business. Even his own cousin agreed that “from what I could see and from what I was told, it [Casini’s Marine Investors Inc.] was, like, pathetic, horrible mismanagement.”

Casini appeared in court in New Jersey on one occasion to fight the (valid) claims of a customer but managed to squirm out of a fraud charge (his accuser claimed that Casini had deliberately run down one business and transferred assets to another, whilst denying any claims from customers of his prior business. It seems that the court could find no evidence of this actually occurring.)  Either way, Peter J Casini has run through 7 (mostly failed) companies since 1992, and must have generous friends and/or a very thick skin. I wonder whether the Somali government were appraised of his history during the bidding process (if there was one)?

Despite all of his failures, Peter J Casini has come out a winner in the maritime security/anti-terrorism game.

Into this strange story of a failed state, a remarkably well funded yet nonexistent government, enterprising, but incompetent pirates, impervious cruise ships, FBI agents on submarines and CIA psychologists, steps Peter J Casini, bow-tie round his neck and a magnum in his hand. As he says, he’s on a mission; “We will end the piracy very quickly, there is no question about that” he says. “There is a ship that is launching small ships 75 to 100 miles from the shore, our goal is to take the mother ship.” [from the BBC report].

What on earth is going on? The USA would certainly not hand over powers to a company with absolutely no expertise in such a critical region – and as a company with extremely close ties to Homeland Security, it can be expected that personnel from areas of government/intelligence have links with Topcat, who have profited immensely from the boom in homeland security “industries” since 9/11.

As mentioned above, sidelining African governments is also good for US interests, up to a point, in that the US forces based in Djibouti need to be friendly with Ethiopia, Kenya and Yemen. It is a worrying, if bizarre situation. What, for example, will be the rules of engagement for a private company in such waters? What if an international terrorist just happened to turn up in “Topcat custody”? And what the hell is this mother-ship anyway?

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