Poverty is stark in Somalia. The country doesn't have a government strong enough to stop the crime. Those two things have helped make kidnapping foreigners and seizing foreign ships common in and around this anarchic state.
Somalia and neighboring Kenya rank ninth in the world for kidnapping threats, according to the British-based company AKE, which tracks threats across the world. (Somali waters, where piracy has been a persistent problem, rank fifth.) Between October and December 2011, an average of two people were kidnapped a month and held for an average of 90 days, according to AKE data.
Kidnapping aid workers has only worsened the challenges for aid agencies trying to deliver food to starving Somalis. Three years ago, the British think tank Overseas Development Institute calculated that 41 out of every 1,000 United Nations workers in Somalia were attacked in some way, including kidnapping and other threats.
Somalis get kidnapped too, said Abdi Samatar, a geography professor at the University of Minnesota. Those cases just don't get the same attention as ones involving foreigners.
Kidnappings can sometimes turn deadly: David Tebbutt, a 58-year-old Briton, was shot to death by Somali gunmen in a Kenyan coastal resort. Marie Dedieu, a 66-year-old Frenchwoman living in Kenya, died after being abducted and taken to Somalia.
What do the kidnappers want?
Exactly what they ask for: money. “In the past they’ve done quite handsomely, sometimes getting millions of dollars in ransom,” said Edmond Keller, a political science professor at UCLA.
Recent ransoms in Somalia have averaged between $250,000 and $600,000, according to AKE. That means a lot in a country where the average income is less than $2 a day.
Who are the kidnappers?
The Kenyan government has blamed Islamic militants for the kidnappings, but after an American aid worker and her Danish colleague were rescued this week, U.S. officials said they didn't think the kidnappers were linked to extremists. It's hard to know at times who exactly is carrying out kidnappings in the region.
"They are slippery characters, whether they are with Al Shabab or some other group," Samatar said. "They usually don't leave any trace."
How did things get so bad in Somalia?
Somalis overthrew a military dictatorship led by Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. But the nation's opposing clans weren’t able to agree on what to do next. Clan warfare, banditry and famine killed more than 240,000 Somalis.
The United Nations stepped in to help but failed to halt its descent into civil war before leaving in 1995. The chaotic result is that Somalia has had no central government for more than 20 years.
Somalia now has a transitional government, created in 2004 from a loose coalition of Somali leaders. But it is so weak that Somalia expert Ken Menkhaus called it “a government on paper only.” Amnesty International called it “a caricature of a government.” Corruption has been rampant and government security forces are virtually indistinguishable from clan militias, Menkhaus told U.S. lawmakers in 2010.
Things got even worse last year, when Somalia suffered the worst drought in 60 years. The United Nations has estimated more than 13 million people in East Africa need help to survive the famine. The Islamist militant group the Shabab is blamed for forcing out many Western aid organizations and stopping some Somalis from fleeing the famine. The transitional government also has been accused of blocking aid.
The U.N. returned to Somalia this week, its biggest vote of confidence so far for the transitional government. The government is supposed to carry out a road map to elections in August -- and perhaps end the brutal cycle of violence, chaos and war.
What is keeping the Somali government from being effective?
Experts give a lot of reasons. Somalia has been hobbled by infighting among different groups. The northern region of Somaliland refuses to recognize the transitional government's authority. The transitional government has also had to compete with Islamist groups like the Shabab, which now controls most of southern Somalia.
Many Somalis also distrust the transitional government because it was closely linked to the Ethiopian military occupation in 2007 and 2008, Menkhaus said. That tarnished it as “a puppet of Ethiopia.” Samatar called it "garbage in, garbage out," saying it was corrupt from its beginnings in Kenya.
And while a weak government sounds bad, it’s not bad for everyone. Keeping Somali lawless is good for criminals who want to avoid arrest, powerful people who want to avoid taxation, and private businesses that don’t want a new state to take over their business, such as seaport owners, the United States Institute of Peace wrote in a summary of an experts panel it convened on Somalia in 2004.
How does the U.S. fit in?
In the early ’90s, the U.S. tried to provide humanitarian relief and restore order to the country. But after a battle in Mogadishu ended with the bodies of two U.S. servicemen being dragged through the streets, the U.S. pulled out. The episode left the U.S. with a distaste for getting heavily involved in Somalia, though it has invested in peacekeeping forces to protect the transitional government.
More recently, the U.S. has grown concerned about ties between Shabab militias and Al Qaeda. Kenya has pushed into Somalia to destroy the Shabab and has asked for U.S. help. But Obama administration officials are wary of getting drawn into another war.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Shabab fighters march with their weapons during military exercises in 2011 on the outskirts of Mogadishu, Somalia. Credit: Mohamed Sheikh Nor / Associated Press