In February, four Americans were held for ransom by Somali pirates and executed. The pirates have the viciousness, skills and assets to bring havoc to the seas for a price, and Islamist terrorists are willing to pay. The U.S. commander for Africa predicts that Al-Qaeda will team up with the pirate gangs, as terrorist groups see maritime targets as a weak point for their enemies.
The U.S. commander overseeing Africa, General Carter Ham, confirms that the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, al-Shabaab, is making money from piracy off the coast of East Africa. He predicts that Al-Qaeda will directly become involved with the Somali pirates if the problem is not tackled. Pirate activity sharply increased in 2008, coinciding with advances by al-Shabaab. The partnership between the pirates and terrorists is usually not one of ideological affinity, but of business and sometimes, coercion. For example, in February, al-Shabaab members forced a group of pirates to give them 20 percent of what they earn from ransoms. “They demanded we allow six of their fighters to board each of our hijacked ships. We have not left our houses…Worse, we are constantly receiving threatening text messages,” one pirate said.
In April 2008, a group of Somali pirates got paid a $1.2 million ransom to let a Spanish fishing vessel and 26 hostages go free. Al-Shabaab received five percent of the payment. Predictably, such payments to the pirates encouraged them to continue their profitable practices. There have been dozens of hijackings, hostage-takings and raids since, appeasing the pirates and indirectly financing terrorists. In April 2009, former ambassador to Ethiopia and expert on East Africa, David H. Shinn, said that al-Shabaab sometimes receives a protection fee from the pirates of 5 to 10 percent. If the group trains the pirates, it earns 20 percent. If the Al-Qaeda affiliate finances the entire operation, the commission is as high as 50 percent.
In July 2009, Somali officials said that al-Shabaab was hiring pirates to smuggle in members of Al-Qaeda to the country. It was said that up to 1,000 foreign jihadists had been brought in that year. In some cases, the jihadists view the pirates as soldiers defending Islam. In 2008, a leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula said to the Somali pirates, “[T]ake caution and prepare yourselves…Increase your strikes against the Crusaders at sea and in Djibouti.” A spokesman for al-Shabaab praised them for “protecting the coast against the enemies of Allah.” Another group tied to Al-Qaeda, the Ras Kamboni Brigades, said they are “part of the Mujahideen” even if they are unsavory “money-seekers.”
According to Jane’s Intelligence Review, the pirates and terrorists work together in arms trafficking, and the Somali pirates are helping al-Shabaab develop maritime capabilities. Al-Shabaab is using hijacked cargo ships to train its operatives in their use. This poses a serious threat to maritime traffic, and a successful attack would have a major economic impact. The Somali Prime Minister made the point in March, “Why bother with a small plane when you can capture a tanker?”
It is hard to understand why there is debate over whether there is a link between the pirates and terrorists. As the Long War Journal said,“The pirates and terrorists are often one in the same, or if not, are in close cooperation.” The Al-Qaeda affiliate in the Philippines, Abu Sayyaf, has worked with another affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyah, to give their operatives scuba diving training and other instruction for maritime attacks. India’s intelligence service has confirmed a linkage between terrorists and pirates in the Indian Ocean. Lashkar-e-Taiba has set up a branch in Karachi, Pakistan specifically devoted to maritime terrorism.
Joseph Tenaglia, CEO of Tactical Defense Concepts, a maritime security group, told FrontPage that”Jihadist groups have come to see piracy as a lucrative means to fund their activities.”
“There are reports of illicit funds emanating from piracy in Somalia moving through banks in Yemen to other Middle Eastern countries. There have been several reports of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps involvement in piracy and threats to shipping vessels in the region,” Tenaglia said.
According to an associate of Tactical Defense Concepts with extensive experience in the Middle East, “Al Qaeda in the Yemen has a growing interest in hijacking tankers in particular because it would give them independence from relying on donations.”
Targeting al-Shabaab in Somalia is necessary, but it will not put an end to the growing threat of piracy and terrorist involvement in the activity. As long as it remains a profitable endeavor, it will be attractive to criminals and terrorists alike. One of the problems is that crews are rarely armed to defend themselves.
“The fact is that an armed vessel has never been taken by pirates,” Tenaglia said. “Increased violence and resulting financial losses are causing a change of opinion. Many shipping companies are finally giving their vessels armed protect, usually with trained security teams.”
The reason piracy is increasing is simple: It is very profitable. The key is to stop allowing it to be so lucrative by ending ransom payments, allowing vessels to defend themselves, and retaliating against the pirates and their terrorist allies. The pirates have the potential to assist terrorists in carrying out an attack on shipping lanes that puts the world economy into even more of a panic. And if that happens, everyone will wonder why we didn’t anticipate it sooner.
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