January 15, 2010

The proof of my pudding

I hate to say this but I told you so.

For more than a year, this column has underscored the criticality of linking Somali piracy to terrorism and the need to focus on Yemen as the next terrorist haven along with AfPak. I have particularly and repeatedly highlighted Al Shabaab in Somalia and its links with both Al Qaeda and the pirates who sometimes reportedly pay as much as half their takings to the Islamist outfit. I have reported Somali pirate links to elements within Pakistan, and trained Pakistani nationals having been caught in key positions on pirate boats. More later since I am getting ahead of myself here, but I am slowly getting convinced that there is, additionally, an unorchestrated conspiracy not to let piracy be linked to terrorism.

Meanwhile, consider some events of the last couple of weeks that link Somalia, Yemen and terrorism:

Danish intelligence service PET says that a Somali caught breaking into the home of cartoonist Kurt Westergaard is linked to the Somali Islamic outfit Al Shabaab that has links with Al Qaeda. Westergaard is the man whose caricature of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban was published by Jyllands-Posten in 2005; an event that sparked riots across the Muslim world and death threats from jihadi outfits. PET says that the Somali had "close ties to the Somali terror organisation Al Shabaab as well as to Al Qaeda leaders in East Africa". The Somali was earlier deported from Kenya after being linked to a plot to bomb hotels in Nairobi during Hilary Clinton’s visit last August.

And then, President Obama has declared a ‘new’ (wine in old bottle?) counterterrorism ‘partnership’ with Yemen, which has been fighting a quiet civil war completely ignored by the Indian media, but the result of which will have enormous repercussions on Indian security, besides piracy in that blighted region. Obama has announced new aid packages for Yemen and sent in his top general there, all of which is usually a precursor for greater US ‘involvement’, as Pakistan will undoubtedly testify. US officials say that Yemen is already a “far more inviting haven for Al Qaeda fighters than even Afghanistan before the Sept. 11 attacks,” and that its strategic location makes it more dangerous than Pakistan. They are right; the Mareb mountains are a treacherous region and it is no surprise that Al Qaeda fighters have a stronghold there. Many of these fighters have reportedly relocated from AfPak after the heat was turned on them there. Of course, Somalia has enough training camps of its own too, and hosts jihadis from across the region and beyond, including the UK and Europe. In addition, some returnees from Guantanamo Bay have found their way to Yemen: a halfway house, perhaps?

To add to the mess, Yemen fights Houthi rebels in a civil war that threatens to widen the conflict and draw in Saudi Arabia. Skirmishes that fall just short of battles have already taken place at the border between Saudi forces and the rebels: Yemen accuses Iran of backing the Houthis.

Obama is, no doubt reacting to the panic within his own country after the Christmas Day attempted bombing of a Detroit bound plane. The US President says, “The Yemen branch of Al Qaeda trained, equipped and dispatched the 23 year old Nigerian man accused of trying to blow up the Northwest Airlines plane.” Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, the ancestral homeland of Osama Bin Laden, was where the Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab went to learn Arabic. It is there that western officials say that he met and was inspired by American born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and other jihadis with whom he kept contact since 2007. Awlaki is supposed to be a key player in Al Qaeda, exulting at the Yemeni governments defeats in Mareb and reminding me of similar clerics in Pakistani madarsas linked to Hizbul and LeT.

"May this be the beginning of the greatest Jihad, the Jihad of the Arabian Peninsula that would free the heart of the Islamic world from the tyrants who are standing between us and victory," Awlaki has said on his website, no doubt referring to Mecca not all that far from Yemen.

Of course, where the Americans go the British must follow. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called for an International Summit on Yemen (a failing state, he says) and sent counter terrorist experts there. The UK and the US closed embassies temporarily in Sanaa last week, citing terrorist threats. Meanwhile, and interestingly for seafarers, the official British policy remains unchanged: paying ransoms to pirates is not illegal but paying money to terrorists is.

And therein lies the rub. The hijacking of ships off the coast of Somalia has become a mini industry in the UK; besides the pirates and their backers, UK based security firms are raking in the moolah. British policies actively promote piracy ransoms despite official statements decrying ransom payments; these policies have remain unchanged despite one of their own unions, ‘Nautilus’, lambasting the British Government for their stand. The maritime union’s General Secretary Mark Dickinson says, “We don’t think our members should be left as political pawns in a moral debate about whether paying ransoms is wrong or right.” He should add that part of the immorality lies in governments continuing to put seafarers in harm’s way by refusing to link piracy and terrorism.

London is the centre of business in the maritime world, and the UK is taking the lead in refusing to acknowledge this nexus. As long as a year ago, the BBC reported that a hidden mini industry of lawyers, negotiators, risk consultants and security teams based in the City of London (nearly 7,000km away from Somalia) were making as much money off piracy as the criminals that hijack ships, effectively "doubling the ransom amount." The Spaniards have since complained that London is benefiting from piracy, and the Beeb quoted an underwriter as saying that if a link were established between pirates and terrorists it could create serious problems for all parties involved. "We'd all be going to jail," he said. (The link is very much there. It just has to be acknowledged, not established.)

The British game is simple. Frown on ransom payments but do not link piracy to terror; doing so would make ransom payments a crime under British law, queer the pitch and embarrass everybody. Not doing so, however, has many advantages, the chief ones being that British security firms can continue doing brisk pirate related business and that governments around the world are not pressurised to come up with better alternatives to paying ransoms. After all, who is really complaining? Not the owners; certainly not the insured ones. Not the insurance companies. Not the international community, for whom somebody setting his underwear on fire on a flight has become a major terrorist incident but not the hijacking of hundreds of ships and the mariner deaths and injuries or even the hostage tally in Somalia that remains remarkably constant around the few hundred mark over the last couple of years.

Nonetheless, the attention on Yemen and the possible greater expansion of the war on terror into the country will have its impact on seafarers in a big way. For one, this Western engagement promises to be as long term an engagement as the one in Afghanistan, and there is no automatic assumption that the seas around Yemen and Somalia are going to get any safer in the meanwhile. For another, terrorist operatives and training camps will undoubtedly continue to expand into other areas of Africa beyond Yemen and Somalia: Sudan (on the brink of civil war again) and Kenya are probably next (Lloyd’s List says that property prices in Nairobi have soared as ransom money is alleged to be invested in Kenyan property). Meanwhile, the war zone has been widened from AfPak and will be widened further.

There is, today, an established terrorist network in Yemen and Somalia. Foreigners, including Westerners, are coming into these countries for terror training, just as they have done in Afghanistan and Pakistan; indeed, there is a clear connection between those networks. Uncle Sam is coming to town in Yemen in greater numbers now and Uncle Brown is tagging along; The Indian government is largely ignoring the potential of this new and major threat to our security, our trade and our nationals at sea. Attacks on ships off Somalia have doubled since the coalition navies started their patrols, the clearest signal that security measures are not working. Worse, the international community has no plan to protect crews and ships, and, apart from paying ransoms, neither do shipowners or insurance companies.

I can’t help thinking that maybe the Westergaard and Northwest airline attacks have done some good after all, because they have drawn international attention to Yemen and Somalia as terrorist hotspots instead of just pirate areas. Maybe the blindfolded and blindsided world will finally be forced to call a spade a spade, and a pirate a terrorist.

Then maybe, just maybe, they will have to do something about it.