For Somalia, it was just another long weekend of mayhem. Shortly after midnight on Friday, Nov. 7, pirates seized a Danish cargo ship in the Gulf of Aden; on Saturday night an aid worker was shot and killed as he walked home from evening prayers in a village 270 miles (435 km) from Mogadishu; on Sunday, fighting between insurgents and African Union peacekeepers left at least seven dead in the capital, and a senior government official was killed in the south of the country; and in the early hours of Monday, bandits crossed the border into Kenya, where they kidnapped two Italian nuns. Somalia is not so much a failed state as a didn't-even-try one. It hasn't had a government since 1991, when warlords took over and embarked on a series of intractable clan wars that have produced one of the world's worst humanitarian crises: hundreds of thousands dead and 3 million people desperately in need of aid.
But aid is almost impossible to deliver in a place as remote, dangerous and complicated as Somalia. Those who try to help too often come to grief: according to the United Nations, eight of its staffers and 24 aid workers have been killed this year. As a result, "the humanitarian space is effectively closed," says Ken Menkhaus, the U.S.'s leading expert on Somalia and a professor of political science at Davidson College in North Carolina. The 3,000 African Union peacekeepers don't stray far beyond their base in Mogadishu for fear of being slaughtered by insurgents--remember Black Hawk Down? (See pictures of Somalia's Pirates.)
Offshore, a growing flotilla of warships from the U.S., Russia, the European Union and India has been trying to keep Somali pirates from taking their pick of the 16,000 mainly cargo ships that pass through the Suez Canal annually. There are several gangs of pirates; armed with Kalashnikov rifles and traveling on small fishing boats and skiffs, they have attacked more than 80 ships and hijacked at least 30, collecting anywhere from $18 million to $30 million in ransom, according to the British strategic think tank Chatham House. Big paydays have made them progressively bolder: one gang is still holding on to the MV Faina, the Ukrainian freighter carrying a consignment of Russian tanks that was hijacked on Sept. 25.
As the navies of the world are rediscovering, catching pirates on the high seas is next to impossible. So far, the warships have warded off some pirate attacks but not enough to scare the gangs. "We hijack ships every opportunity we get," says pirate commander Sugule Ali, speaking by satellite phone from the bridge of the MV Faina.
Somalia's problems have spilled beyond its borders, with a constant flow of refugees being smuggled in by leaky boats to Yemen and even more walking south to Kenya. There are more than 200,000 people crowded into the world's biggest refugee camp, at Dadaab, 62 miles (100 km) south of the frontier; some 5,000 new refugees arrive every month.
But Somalia's most dangerous export is terrorism. Before the Bush Administration's Iraq digression, Somalia was target No. 2 in the war on terrorism, behind Afghanistan. After all, it was a Somalia-based al-Qaeda group that killed 224 people in the twin bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998. But it wasn't until the end of 2006, when Somalia was invaded by the U.S.-allied Ethiopia, that American covert missions targeted the embassy bombers. One of the masterminds, explosives expert Abu Taha al-Sudani, is now dead, as is Aden Hashi Farah Ayro, an Afghanistan-trained former leader of al-Shabaab, Somalia's homegrown Islamist militia.
But as in Afghanistan, such successes are undermined by resentment of U.S. military activity and civilian casualties--and the blowback empowers the extremists. Al-Shabaab (Arabic for Youth) now controls much of the south of the country, in the manner of the Taliban: on Oct. 27, 1,000 spectators gathered at a sports stadium in the port of Kismayo to watch al-Shabaab stone to death a 13-year-old girl, Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow. Amnesty International says al-Shabaab arrested her and convicted her of adultery after she complained she had been gang-raped.
Al-Shabaab is taking its brand of terrorism to new territories. On Oct. 29, members detonated five car and suicide bombs outside U.N., Ethiopian government and local administration buildings in the autonomous northern regions of Puntland and Somaliland, killing more than 30 people. "They are willing to expand their war," says Menkhaus. "And Ethiopia, Kenya or Djibouti are next."
The one encouraging development in Somalia is the emergence of Iraq-style Awakening militias made up of moderate Somalis, who have taken on al-Shabaab in street battles in recent weeks. If Ethiopian and African Union troops withdraw as expected in the next few months and Somalis increasingly have to fend for themselves, the chances are that this will grow into a full-scale conflict. Still, an Awakening would also offer Somalia's best hope of keeping its extremists in check. Perhaps only in Somalia could the prospect of more war be a sign of hope.