Daniel Abbott edited a book of essays on fifth-generation warfare in the 21st century. The Handbook of 5GW is now available for Kindle. I wrote the chapter on “Piracy, Human Security and 5GW in Somalia,” excerpted below.
The “fourth-generation” of war entailed irregular combatants fighting for an ideological cause, seeking to remake society according to their ideals. Fifth-generation war, or 5GW, now coalescing, is less clearly ideological but just as sweeping in its goals. 5GW is when a party exploits or encourages an existing or emerging crisis to achieve strategic goals that those most directly involved in the crisis might not even be aware of. 5GW is a form of stealthy proxy war.
“The systematic alteration, or replacement of, an existing rule set is your strategic goal,” Thomas Barnett wrote of 5G fighters. “You’re not happy with things the way they are, so you make those around you unhappy enough that they too, are unhappy with the ways things are. Shock them hard enough, and you can trigger their own movement toward new rule sets that move the pile for you.”
Where fourth-gen combatants might blend in with the surrounding populace most of the time, they still periodically emerged to form military-style units. 5G fighters, by contrast, remain “subtle actors.” They may never once wear a uniform or carry a rifle. Their weapon is the desperate population of a society on the brink; their major tactic is unrest; their goal is to undermine the established order in the interest of changing it, or just leaving it in ruins.
No continent poses less of a traditional military threat to the United States than Africa. But in an age of 5GW, where subtle actors can exploit humanitarian, economic and other crises to undermine the power and legitimacy of the industrial state, no continent poses a greater non-traditional threat. An increasingly volatile Africa begs for greater U.S. intervention and risks corrupting that very intervention, turning American strength into weakness.
For America, 5GW in Africa is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t proposition. There are no easy answers to Africa’s worsening crises, and there is no consensus on how, or whether, the United States should intervene. Doing anything might make the continent’s problems worse. So might doing nothing. And despite its distance and its still-tiny slice of world trade and military power, in the age of 5GW, a suffering Africa is a threat to the United States.
The nearly 20-year-old conflict in Somalia is the perfect example of 5GW in Africa. Persistent political and humanitarian crises, and a disastrous early U.S. intervention, gave rise to seething and spreading anti-Americanism, escalating economic warfare by way of sea piracy and a campaign of secretive U.S. intervention whose benefits, and costs, are unclear. The conditions were ripe for exploitation by a subtle actor aiming to overturn U.S. designs for Somalia.
Washington fought to keep Islamists out of Somalia, in the interest of preventing terrorists from taking root in the country. But the Islamists hijacked muddled U.S. efforts and strengthened their cause. After years of fighting that left hundreds of thousands dead, in February 2009 Islamists took advantage of the escalating chaos, and growing frustration in Washington, to reassert control of the country, essentially inflicting an indirect battlefield defeat on America.
Skulls, Bones, GPS
In 2009, thousands of Somali pirates employed by sophisticated criminal enterprises threaten some two million square miles of ocean, including all of the Gulf of Aden and vast swaths of the Indian Ocean. In 2008 pirates seized more than 40 large vessels headed to and from the Suez Canal, ransoming them for an average price of more than $1 million.
With access to GPS, satellite phones and commercial satellite imagery — not to mention small arms and rockets readily available across Africa — pirates have managed to capture large cargo ships and even supertankers. Pirates’ surprising success has had the effect of driving up insurance rates for shippers and forcing some companies to abandon the Suez Canal route between Europe and Asia, in turn raising consumer prices at a time when most consumers have less to spend.
Around 20 warships from a dozen navies have deployed to combat piracy, but they can only hope to mitigate the threat. “I don’t think we’ll ever stop pirates,” said U.S. Navy Rear Admiral James McKnight. “We will do our best to bring the numbers down.”
That’s because ending piracy requires law and order and a measure of prosperity on land, at the source of the problem. Fundamentally, Somali pirates are aggrieved fishermen whose livelihoods suffered from Somalia’s collapse in 1991, McKnight explained. In the absence of any Somali authority, “for very many years … countries were coming in and fishing in their international waters, stealing their fish. And so what they did is they started pirating some of these fishing vessels and they figured out that, hey, we can go for bigger fish. And so they went for bigger vessels.”
Piracy “is beyond a military solution,” said Roger Middleton, from the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. Pirates’ continued success demonstrates the power of the individual and the impotence of old-fashioned military force in this age of powerful, accessible consumer technology. A few thousand plugged-in pirates have rendered ineffective the combined might of the world’s navies, and undermined the notion that the traditional state can protect its interests with displays of force.
That’s not to say they did it on purpose. “We just want the money,” Sugule Ali, a pirate spokesman, told The New York Times. Indeed, pirates have no clear or stated political aims. Their intent is only to get rich, but their effect is rattle the very foundation of the state. In this way, pirates are a 5G threat. Somalia’s Islamists are the subtle third-party actors benefiting from the havoc pirates wreak.
For Islamists seeking to rewrite the global order, one country at a time, piracy might represent a form of economic warfare that, in World Wars I and II, was executed by submarines targeting merchant ships. Piracy has a similar effect, albeit less severe, and at much lower cost and risk to both the attackers (the pirates) and those hoping to benefit from the attacks (the subtle actor).
Ironically, Islamists and pirates are, ultimately, incompatible. Sharia law comes down hard on bandits on land and sea. An established Islamic order has no place for pirates. But Islamist still in the phase of sowing chaos, from which their new order might eventually emerge, might find pirates a useful, temporary, proxy weapon. “My idea of the aggressive 5GW warrior is that he’s uncommonly cool with that sort of ambiguity,” Barnett wrote. “[That's] a stance that can only be justified by the long-term perspective.”
Continued in part two.