Mounting concern about the twin threats posed by pirates and Islamic insurgents operating in Somalia has led Britain and other EU nations to consider the feasibility of air strikes against their logistical hubs and training camps, the Guardian has been told.
The issue has been rising up the agenda of David Cameron’s National Security Council in recent months, reflecting anxiety in the west about piracy, but also the ambitions of some leaders within al-Shabaab, the clan-based movement that is fighting against Somalia’s western-backed transitional government.
Though the “war games” remain on the drawing board for now, the disclosure that they have been under serious scrutiny shows the depth of unease about the situation within the British government, which is hosting an international conference on Somalia in London starting on Thursday.
According to sources, the international coalition that has been spearheading the fight against the pirates drew up contingency plans in the summer of 2010, and again last year, for what was termed “over the beach” air strikes against Somali camps.
The UK has also considered plans for attacking targets in places where al-Shabaab and the pirates appear to co-exist, particularly in southern Somalia.
But though the military advice is that any attacks would be relatively straightforward, and may only involve small numbers of heavily-armed helicopters flown from warships, planners have also flagged the likelihood that civilians could be caught up in any fighting.
That has been one of the prime considerations militating against pre-emptive military action, though sources said that situation could change.
“We don’t have the assets in place,” said one senior official in Whitehall. “That does not mean we could not get them in the air quickly. You have got to think long and hard. You have got to be absolutely sure [about the targets].”
The official said that a short, sharp strike might “interdict” potential terrorists and pirates, but would not be a solution to either problem in the long term.
Another source added: “There was no political will on this to begin with, but that has been changing. We know where the camps are, where they set up and where they launch from.”
Building up Somalia’s own security forces and coast guard would be far preferable, but they are far too weak at the moment to be considered for such operations, the source said.
It is believed the British, Dutch, French and Americans would be the most likely to support military action, if the need arose.
The US is already taking great interest in Somalia and has begun missile strikes from unmanned drones against members of al-Shabaab, which is said to have growing links with al-Qaida affiliates in other countries, and is attempting to “export” violence to other countries in Africa.
The group claimed responsibility for twin bombings in Uganda two years ago that killed 74 people as they were watching coverage of the World Cup in South Africa. In recent months statements said to have come from the group’s leaders have proclaimed greater links with al-Qaida’s goals of global jihad.
Up to 200 foreigners, including 40 Britons, are know to have travelled to Somalia in the past six years seeking al-Shabaab’s training camps, in the same way that extremists went to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1990s.
Some have been caught and are facing trial in the region, but intelligence agencies say it is only a matter of time before one of them attempts to bring terror back to their homeland.
With words that seemed to echo the reasons for invading Afghanistan, Cameron recently said that Somalia was a “failed state that directly threatens British interests”.
The head of the British military, General Sir David Richards, also appeared to hint at the potential for military action in a speech shortly before Christmas. “Treating the causes of instability and terrorism at source is better and cheaper than dealing with the consequences, as Somalia’s piracy demonstrates,” he said.
Thursday’s conference, which will be attended by the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, will focus on the international efforts that will be needed to drag Somalia out of its present chaos and how to extend the transitional government’s influence beyond Mogadishu.
A new intelligence centre, based in the Seychelles, to help co-ordinate the fight against Somali pirates was announced on Tuesday by William Hague. The foreign secretary said it would “help the international community to target the kingpins of piracy and ensure piracy does not pay.”
During the conference, a new international “stability fund” is expected to be agreed, with the UK giving £20m to some of Somalia’s most deprived districts. The money will help to set up markets, reopen schools and hospitals, as well as securing water supplies.
It is expected that the UK will also announce new support for Somalis who have been forced to flee their homes, with a package of healthcare, food and sanitation assistance for 150,000 refugees in Kenya.
In Ethiopia, 100,000 refugees also will be helped over the next three years.
Andrew Mitchell, the international development secretary, said: “Over the last year I’ve met Somalis in camps in Mogadishu and border areas who have known nothing but war, hunger and extreme poverty.
“Britain provided thousands of tonnes of food, water and medicine to help meet people’s basic needs and that help will continue.
“But this conference gives us a chance to do much more by breaking the cycle of instability and agree a practical way forward that will improve things in the longer term.”