On the heels of Capt. Richard Phillips' dramatic rescue from pirates in the Gulf of Aden, Rep. Donald Payne (D-NJ) met with Somali leaders on Monday — and came under fire as he departed the capital, Mogadishu.
Members of the Islamist group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack in which mortar shells were fired at Payne's plane. Payne was unharmed. He tells NPR's Robert Siegel that the attack was "an act of desperation" from extremists who want to prevent Americans from helping Somalia's fledgling government to succeed.
"They want to send a message that American officials, aid workers should be fearful and stay away," Payne says. "That's because I think they, too, know that with some support, the new government can succeed."
Somalia's unity government has been in place in Mogadishu since January, but it doesn't have control over most of the country. The Somali pirates operate in the vacuum of a failed state. "And so the more that the fear mongers persist, the vacuum will remain," Payne says.
Payne says the Somali leaders he met with want to see an end to piracy. "They said that the pirates do not represent Somalia," Payne says. "There is no incentive for the government, and they see piracy as a great deterrent to their success."
Payne, who is also the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, says the Somali government could help suppress piracy off the Horn of Africa. But the group that fired on his plane, Payne says, wants to "see the new government fail."
Without a strong government, the country has faced major difficulties.
"What's happened in the country, of course — there's virtually been no employment because there's been no government," Payne says. The situation has allowed lawlessness to flourish.
On top of that, he notes, foreign vessels have depleted fish in the area, and foreign ships have used the waters off the coast of Somalia as dumping grounds for toxic waste for years. "No one wants toxic waste in their country," Payne says.
Some experts trace the rise of piracy in Somalia, in part, to fed-up fishermen who organized to fight illegal fishing and dumping, before discovering the lucrative benefits of piracy.
The U.S. Navy has said it will pursue the pirates where they live, which means towns in Somalia. Payne calls any foreign strikes on Somalia soil an "ill-thought-out policy."
"I think that the policy of constructive engagement [is] where you deal with the government, and let them deal with their internal problem," Payne says. The Somali government, he says, doesn't want Americans to come run any nation-building programs.
"They want technical assistance," Payne says. "They need financial support, and they'll take care of it for themselves."