September 09, 2010

Smoke on the water

There will be no need, really, to bring up shipping again in this piece, because the certain impact of these events on the industry will be obvious to anybody who has not spent the last decade or two on another planet.

There is a covert war in progress right now. Instigated by the US against Al Qaeda linked groups, this is not being waged just in Pakistan or Afghanistan- where, as American analyst Paul Pillar says, “most of Al Qaeda is on one side of the border while our troops and the counterinsurgency are on the other side”- it is happening in Yemen, Somalia, Kenya, North Africa and a few other places across the African continent. And in central Asia.

This is why. The US knows that Al Qaeda has partly (even substantially) melted away from AfPak into Yemen and Somalia and beyond. The reasons are obvious (and, if I may repeat myself, predicted)- there was too much heat in AfPak and the Al Qaeda long term strategy is also to choke trade- particularly oil- moving in the Indian Ocean. Besides, terrorists do not seek territory but havens, and weak or anarchic states are obvious choices. It is so in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is so in Yemen and Somalia. It will be so elsewhere in future.

A recent Somali story: Ismail Haji Noor, a government official, is reported arriving in Hobyo last month. What he does is this: he calls the Somali pirates brothers, gets photographed with them and asks for their help to fight the Al Qaeda affiliate Al Shabaab. Shabaab controls huge areas of Somalia, by the way, and even most of the capital Mogadishu, with the US backed government writ running in just a few streets of the city. The New York Times has this to say about the Somali government’s new alliance with pirates: “Mr. Noor stood on a beach flanked by dozens of pirate gunmen, two hijacked ships over his shoulder, and announced, “From now on we’ll be working together.” He said the Shabaab was a much greater threat than the pirates were: “Squished between the two, we have to become friends with the pirates. Actually, this is a great opportunity.” For Mr. Noor, maybe; for most of the rest of us it is a threat.

Other reports say that pirates are cordoning off villages along the northern coast to stop the Shabaab coming up from southern Somalia. They also say that some other rival pirate groups in Somalia have agreed to split ransoms with the Shabaab and the Hizbul Islam in exchange for protection and patronage. Pirates are now aligning themselves with either the government or terrorist groups, choosing sides in the long running civil wars in that country. They have used ransom booties to finance thousands of heavily armed militias. Some of these are organised into infantry divisions of a few hundred men each; they are armed with heavy machine guns and anti aircraft guns, in case you visualised a ragtag group traipsing around with just assault rifles. Kalashnikovs are now passé. Everybody is diversifying these days, it seems; it pays better. Not that piracy has stopped; this year promises to be another great year for that growth industry.

So, if I understand all this correctly, a US backed government (there is a parallel with the US’ alliance with Pakistan here) is backing pirate groups on one hand while the US fights the same pirates alongside other coalition navies at sea not far away. Meanwhile, other pirate groups are getting into bed with terrorists linked with Al Qaeda. Sounds like an orgy to me, with nobody knowing who is doing what with (or to) whom.

Will it be a matter of time before Shabaab diversifies into piracy- and maritime terrorism - all on its own? Will we see more MStars, this time off Somalia? Will things get uglier for crews? The Shabaab is particularly savage on land- you know, smashing people with rocks while applying their hardline version of the Sharia law and stuff like that. Will it take its barbarity to hostage crews? Will we be able to negotiate for the release of ships and crews in the same way as we do now- by getting overpriced ‘consultants’ to drop small bales of dollars on to the deck of hijacked ships, or will things get messier?

In this ever-widening conflict, the US has reverted to its old cold war ways of clandestine wars. Even while backing the Somali government that now backs criminals, it has now a wider covert war in full swing. The main event is Yemen, of course, where suspected Al Qaeda training camps and operatives have been regularly targeted. Covert ops, cruise missiles with cluster bombs from US naval ships steaming offshore, Harrier jets and UAV strikes are tactics of choice there right now, but I can bet commando teams, ‘trainers’ and ‘advisors’ are on the ground there and across Africa- and, by some reports, even in the southern ex Soviet republics, dealing with ethnic or religious elements that are problematic to US interests. Reports suggest that military strikes in Somalia have been approved by the US – and clandestine operations are reportedly being run from Kenya. But this conflict goes beyond that. Mauritania, Mali, Sudan, Tajikistan, Iran, Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and other areas of North Africa is where the shadow war is also being fought. Nothing is official, but some old players are back in action in the US, including Michael Vickers, who was key in the CIA covert war in Afghanistan during the Soviet era.

To give you some further food for thought, some other interesting tidbits from the wider region follow- do consider their possible impact on trade through the Indian Ocean. However, I suggest you sit down with a martini (vodka, not gin) and a map of the Indian Ocean showing all its bordering countries before reading further. Many sailors will have the geography in their heads: for them, just the martini is prescribed. Strong.

All set? Then join these dots:

• In the Ugandan capital of Kampala, at least 15 Pakistanis were arrested after terrorist strikes in July. Amongst them, Muslim preachers whom the Ugandans accuse of spreading radical Islam to others who took part in the three synchronised bomb attacks where 74 died. Al Shabaab from Somalia claimed responsibility for the bombings that targeted foreigners.
• The FBI is reportedly investigating whether Al Shabaab has received training in Pakistan.
• In August, eleven people were killed when the bombs they were making blew up prematurely in Mogadishu, the Somali capital. They were assembling a car bomb and another smaller roadside bomb. Amongst the would be terrorists killed were two Indians, three Pakistanis, one Algerian and one Afghani.
• The attack on the VLCC MStar in Hormuz in end July has long been confirmed as a terrorist attack. Surprisingly (or perhaps not so), there is deafening silence from the UN, the IMO and almost everybody else on that one. What do we plan to do, I wonder. Surely the plan can’t be to stick our heads in the sand forever?
• The fact that Indian coastal security agencies now say that the eight Somalis detained in May on the Lakshadweep islands close to the Western Indian coast are pirates.
• Reports of more than a dozen piracy attacks within four hundred miles of Lakshadweep, according to the same security sources as quoted in the Indian Express.
• Elements in the Pakistani establishment continue to fund, arm and train terrorists who then spread across the globe. Well known and now (finally, and once again) universally and publicly acknowledged, but still demands repetition.
• Somali based Al Qaeda training camps now believed to be attracting increased numbers of radicalised youth from the North American continent. Ditto for Yemen. Déjà vu all over again, eh?

And so on and on and on. The fact is that there is a ring of fire around the Indian Ocean rim today- and I am not even talking of Chinese designs yet (or again). Ignore this at your own peril: there will soon be much more smoke on the water if you do.

What do we tell our mariners now, as we send them out into a massive ocean that is looking increasingly like a war zone? Well, I for one have just one thought for them, and that too for the few that -because of widespread Draconian alcohol policies- still dare or hope to mix a drink at sea.

That thought is this: I do not know how you like your martinis, gentlemen, but you are likely, in the not so distant future, to get them shaken and stirred both.


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