As members of Somali insurgent group Hizbul Islam stormed into the port of Harardhere earlier this week, the local pirates were not the only ones to rush out of the small town. Speculation was almost immediate: two of Somalia’s biggest problems –piracy and militant Islam—had just clashed, and the insurgents got the upper hand.The initial picture looked something like this: hardline Islamists had taken control of a major pirate haven, and the question was what was going to happen to the ships and hostages held there. The rebels, aware of this, rushed to promise that their goal was to free the Somali coast of pirates.
A different picture
Getting information out of a country like Somalia –with no effective government control since 1991—is a difficult task. What was first reported as a “pirate haven” is now revealed as a minor port of small significance for the pirates, who were holding just three of the 23 hijacked ships in Harardhere. And the treatment that the Islamists would have given the hostages will remain unknown, since the pirates have moved the hijacked ships up north to the port of Hobyo.
The militants say they will liberate any hostages and ships they might find. And Dr Jon Abbink, an expert on Somalia at the African Studies Center in Leiden, thinks that they will probably live up to their words. “If they want to improve their image in Somalia and in front the international community, they will probably release them.”
The militants’ intentions
But the real intentions of Hizbul Islam are still a mystery. As to their claim that they came at the request of the local population, to free the port from piracy, Dr Abbink finds it hard to believe. “Their behaviour is quite ambiguous. Some reports say that they took of control of the port after the local pirates refused to cut a profit-sharing deal with them.”
Last year, Hizbul Islam lost control of the important port of Kismayo to their al-Qaeda-linked opponents al-Shabaab, and some reports speculate that they might have moved into Harardhere just to get a port through which to move supplies. Dr Abbink disagrees, “Harardhere has no port infrastructure and no commercial activity comparable to Mogadishu or Kismayo, so they wouldn’t gain much profit from that”.
Influence on piracy
Reports have also speculated about the security status of the important shipping lanes that run through the Gulf of Aden. But again, Dr Abbink puts things in context: “the ports with major pirate activity are all in the north in the region of Puntland. There’s no militant control in any of these ports, so it’s impossible to know how this would affect pirate activity”.
And what about the UN-backed Transitional Federal Government? “It’s an irony. They are the legitimate government and the only ones who really want to end piracy, but unfortunately they are quite irrelevant, even in Mogadishu.”