Originally published in USA Today, 1 March 2014
Sunday night, Barkhad Abdi, the actor who portrays the pirate leader in Captain Phillips, will exit a limousine onto the red carpet hoping for an Oscar. Two years ago, he was driving limousines in Minneapolis, scratching together a living like more than 100,000 other Somalis in America.
Abdi's story — on screen and off — symbolizes two trends. Neither is in tonight's spotlight. First, Somali-Americans like Abdi are building a 21st century American dream despite unimaginable adversity. Second, there's one small problem with the Hollywood spotlight on Somali piracy: there were no hijackings off the coast of Somalia in 2013. None.
Abdi's dramatization of Somali piracy in Captain Phillips is electrifying, but it draws attention to the fading story of piracy while obscuring the central plot line: Somalia is a failed state, a forgotten poster-child of human suffering and a geopolitical security risk. We cannot afford to ignore it.
Since 1988, Somalia has suffered a fierce civil war that ruptured into anarchy after Siad Barre's regime was overthrown in 1991. The 1993 Black Hawk Down incident eliminated the appetite for international intervention. Since, there have been various efforts to strengthen government authority. Despite some progress, the government is weak. Clan-based strongmen still profit from instability.
As Somalia festers, hundreds of thousands of civilians have died from war, famine, and disease. Millions more languish in insecurity and poverty. No surprise, then, that more than 100,000 Somalis have relocated to the United States, with more than 30,000 in Minnesota. They fled war but are creating hope. Blighted areas of Minneapolis have become booming Somali small business hubs. Last November, Abdi Warsame, a Somali-born refugee, was elected to the Minneapolis city council — a historic first.
Captain Phillips is a magnificent film, but it does not tell these stories. Instead, it showcases a symptom of the lawlessness, desperation, and poverty created by Somalia's decades-long war: piracy.
However, Somalia pirates are a dying breed. The scourge is now largely eradicated from the Horn of Africa, thanks to a multilateral fleet. Protecting ships is easy. Protecting Somalis from anarchy — and protecting the world from the deadly byproducts of that anarchy — is hard. Multilateral engagement, featuring the cooperation and resolve that made anti-piracy measures successful, would be a start.
Last month, the United Nations warned that 850,000 Somalis are on the brink of starvation. Around Mogadishu, hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Somalis live in camps where rape and abuse are common. Beyond humanitarian imperatives, a stable Somalia serves American interests.
In February, al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist group, attacked Mogadishu's presidential palace and airport, killing dozens. Last October, al-Shabaab violence spilled outside Somalia, into a Nairobi mall, killing 61 civilians.
The risk of spillover from Somalia is real. There have been no successful attempts by Al-Shabaab to strike in the U.S. but they have recruited Americans — including at least 23 from Minnesota. The first American citizen suicide bomber was recruited in Minneapolis and blew himself up in Somalia in 2008.
Somalia is a textbook example of the security challenges that define the 21st century. Terrorism thrives in lawlessness. Chaos in Somalia threatens us. The White House agrees. In January, President Obama ordered a missile strike targeting a senior al-Shabaab militant, a "surgical" attempt to neutralize the threat with minimal risk to Americans.
But Somalia needs more than missiles and drones, and it needs more than a red carpet Oscars spotlight. The international community should take three critical steps.
First, do no harm. The Somali diaspora, in places like Minneapolis, provides roughly $1.3 billion in aid to friends and family in Somalia. Aggressive money laundering investigations have forced some banks to threaten to sever ties with Somali money transfer organizations. This would be a disaster, either severing a money pipeline that prevents Somalia's total collapse or forcing financial flows into the untraceable darkness of the black market.
Second, authorize larger numbers of peacekeeping troops with a stronger mandate and push the alphabet soup of existing deployments to coordinate more effectively.
Third, Minnesota has half as many people as Somalia but 180 times the government budget. Foreign assistance — with technical expertise, military logistical support, and stable financing — could produce a tipping point.
Sunday night, the spotlight will shine briefly toward Somalia. American foreign policy should hijack that spotlight and use it for a renewed push to shore up American national security by stabilizing Somalia. They should look to the Somali-American diaspora — including success stories like Abdi — for a lesson on how to create a better life from the ashes of war.
Brian Klaas is a Clarendon Scholar and researcher focusing on African politics at the University of Oxford. Jamal Abdulahi is a policy fellow at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.