The reason Abdulwali Muse will stand trial in New York’s Southern
District Court, we are told, is that the court has a lot of experience in
trying those who have attacked U.S. targets abroad. The 19-year-old Somali
is accused of being the ringleader of a group of pirates who seized the
U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama cargo ship in the waters off East Africa, before
a dramatic U.S. military rescue operation. Unlike previous pirate suspects
who have been handed over for trial in Kenya, Muse was brought to New York on Monday night and is expected to be arraigned in Manhattan soon. But even if the young Somali broke the law and kidnapped Americans, putting him on trial in New York will do nothing to stamp out the piracy that is plaguing the Somali coastline. If anything, it will turn Muse into a martyr, prompting an escalation of violence on the high seas by his peers, who will rally more Somalis to their cause , and jeopardize U.S. national-security interests in East Africa.
The competence of the Southern District Court is not in question. But the
guiding principle in dealing with the Muse case ought to be enhancing the
effort to stamp out piracy and stabilizing the failed state in which it has
festered. From that perspective, bringing Muse to stand trial in New York is
a terrible idea.
Somalia’s pirates are not viewed as criminals by their own communities.
They’re a symptom of a unique set of local problems: the collapse of
the Somali state and the absence of the rule of law and government
authority as well as the absence of any prospect of making an honest living. Even if he is guilty as charged, Muse
is not some pathological individual who has transgressed his community’s
norms. There are hundreds of young men just like him all along the Somali
coastline, calling themselves “coast guards” who protect Somali waters and
“tax” foreign shipping to compensate for the fact that foreign fishing
fleets, unmolested by any Somali state authority, annually plunder hundreds
of millions of dollars of fish from Somali waters and also for the fact
that unscrupulous foreigners have used the coast to dump toxic waste. None
of this excuses piracy, of course, and many of these claims are spurious, since the prime beneficiaries of booty extracted by pirates are land-based warlords, many of them associated with the now deposed U.S.-backed government. Still, the plight of Somalia’s coastline certainly helps explain why the phenomenon is so widespread and why the pirates
are viewed by many Somalis as folk heroes. Putting Muse on trial in New York
won’t change that; it will simply reinforce an already negative prevailing
view of the U.S.
Even those Somalis who take a dim view of piracy will not have forgotten
that the last time the country produced a political authority with a
willingness and capability to stamp out piracy in the form of the
Islamic Courts Union, which drove out the feuding warlords and brought a
modicum of peace and stability to Mogadishu in 2006 the U.S. backed an
Ethiopian invasion to topple that authority because it was sheltering a
handful of al-Qaeda suspects. But the U.S.-backed Transitional Government
propped up by the Ethiopians was not only unable or unwilling to tackle
piracy; the government itself was untenable, and it subsequently collapsed.
Somalis’ hopes for stability now rest with a process of reconstituting a
government in which the Islamists play a central role though this is
opposed by the more radical, al-Qaeda-aligned breakaway youth militia known
as the Shebab. The fact that the deployment in the area of more than 20 warships from around the world has done little more than contain the problem
of piracy, and then only temporarily, underscores the reality that the only
hope of eliminating the problem lies in establishing a government deemed
legitimate by a majority of Somalis, and therefore capable of enforcing its writ.
A New York trial for Muse is unlikely even to prompt others to refrain
from acts of piracy. There is no fear of America among young Somali gunmen,
who demonstrated that attitude in the most grisly fashion in the streets of
Mogadishu in 1993, during the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident. That
event has achieved mythic status in the Somali imagination. Instead, the
trial is more likely to prompt Muse’s peers to seek symbolic retribution
possibly even prompting them to make his release the condition for
freeing some future group of hostages they capture on the high seas. Until
now, the Somali pirates have scrupulously avoided harming their captives;
their capture has been simply a business transaction. That may soon change.
An escalation in the confrontation between the pirates and the ships of richer nations will present a golden opportunity to
the Shebab to exploit popular nationalist sentiment and turn the business of
piracy into a coastal jihad.
A more likely way to turn local sentiment against piracy would be, for example, to put those responsible for holding a shipment of food aid destined to
feed the starving in a famine-plagued region on trial in an African
court. Somali piracy needs a Somali solution beginning with the
creation of a political order capable of enforcing law and order and
protecting Somalia’s sovereignty, and offering young Somali men alternative
livelihoods. Putting captive pirates on trial may be part of the solution to
the piracy problem, but it will only be effective if the courts and laws are
seen as legitimate by the communities from which the pirates hail. Putting
them on trial in New York may satisfy the desire by many in the U.S. to send
a harsh message to those who dare mess with Americans. But it only raises
the likelihood of more, and more dangerous, pirate attacks.
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