July 14, 2011

Somalia plus Yemen equals AfPak plus piracy

Shipping often complains that the world is seablind, referring in exasperation to the public's poor comprehension of all things maritime, especially to the criticality of seaborne trade to their lives and economies. Judging by the same yardstick, shipping is no better, except that it is 'shoreblind' instead. For it largely ignores, or underplays, events around the world that forebode sledgehammer blows to its future.

For more than two and a half years now, I have repeatedly warned of developments on the ground in Yemen and Somalia that would have a huge negative impact on maritime security in general and maritime piracy and terrorism in particular. One would have thought that the hundreds of people in shipping smarter than I am would have come to the same conclusions and drawn up a plan to counter this rising red tide. Alas, our contingency planning seems to be confined to doubtful checklists on far less important matters.

In a banging-head-against-brick-wall mode, let me try once again.

Aden is by far the most important port in Yemen and a major container transhipment hub. It is today surrounded by roving gangs of Islamist militia fighters, many linked to Al Qaeda, who have already captured two other major towns, looted armouries, robbed banks, attacked prisons and stolen arms and military equipment. Parts of the army and police have simply run away. One who hasn't, at least at the time of writing this piece, is General Muhammad al-Somli, who says that he cannot rule out the possibility that Islamists will take over Aden. There are reports that Zinjibar, east of Aden and the capital of neighbouring Abyan Province, captured by the Islamists a month ago, is being slowly turned into “another Taliban state like Afghanistan,” according to one senior Yemeni official. South Yemen, for the time being at least, has been handed over to the Islamists, assorted fighters- and the AQAP.

The US has stepped up drone attacks in Yemen- and has extended them across the now infamous Gulf of Aden to neighbouring Somalia. Why? Because, say US officials, American military and intelligence officials view Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia as a greater threat to the United States than the group of operatives in Pakistan who have been targeted with hundreds of drone strikes directed by the CIA in recent years. Somalia is a major training ground for the Al Qaeda, they say, expressing alarm because many Europeans and American citizens are being trained there. The Al Shabaab- another Al Qaeda affiliate- is a more potent enemy than it was last year.

Other developments in Somalia- the terrible drought and consequent famine that- combined with the two decade long collapse of the State- has displaced a quarter of its population (the UN says); the resignation of its President and escalated fighting in Mogadishu and surroundings between Shabaab and US backed African Union soldiers included- all point to even more anarchy in that country in the coming months. Anarchy is often touted as the main reason for the proliferation of piracy, so it follows that greater anarchy will equal greater piracy. Piracy linked with terrorism, by the way. All linked to the AQAP- the most dangerous Al Qaeda franchise on earth today, the Americans tell us. With Al Shabaab reportedly taking a cut of pirate ransoms. With the island of Socotra being used by pirates to refuel and rearm-obviously with Yemeni complicity; it is their island, after all. With AQAP having often declared its intention of disrupting shipping by choking the Gulf of Aden at the Bab-El-Mandab straits- and presumably the Straits of Hormuz, where the tanker MStar's terrorist bombing has been swept under the carpet by shipping.

Even a first grader should be able to connect the dots. So why don't we?

The IMO is probably fatigued after electing a new head. A good man, many say. Maybe so, but we do not need a good man. We need an efficient organisation that is honest, knows what it is doing and acts in time. We need an IMO that is proactive and ahead of the curve when it comes to piracy issues, not one that just amends its Best Management Practices after every changed pirate tactic. (On another issue, environmentalists allege that the organisation is too 'closely aligned with vested interests to ensure effective implementation of emissions reduction measures'; small wonder that the EU is taking unilateral steps here.)

Also, there is no real industry effort to pressurise governments to act to protect shipping against piracy. Armed guards, long overdue and -even now- niggardly sanctioned, are a stopgap measure, at best. Longer term, any industry cannot protect itself against terrorism without active support from governments; we fail to generate that support. Worse, we do not even really try.

Generalising, I know, but shipping can be safely written off as effete when it comes to taking any worthwhile initiative against piracy or maritime terrorism. It is a reactive setup; it shows no initiative. It does not manage or pre-empt threats, it administers them instead. It- like its seafarers- is often hostage to many. To the multibillion dollar insurance and security industry that it has indirectly spawned. To its western and commercial bias. To its own blinkered concentration on short-term gains. To the absence of a long-term strategy. To its managers' deliberate ostrich-like behaviour. To its inertia and lack of imagination. To its subtle racisms that disregard the torture of it's mainly- if I can be politically incorrect- Third World employees. In addition, to its shoreblindness, that refuses to connect the dots of geopolitical events and threats even when they are the writing on the wall.

I want this time to be different. I want the industry to first recognise the greatly increased menace from Somalia and Yemen today. I want it to then unleash whatever clout it has, nationally and internationally, to pressurise the international community- including another iffy organisation, the UN- to act concertedly against these threats in Yemen and Somalia.

Because, for our own sakes, we have to do more about piracy than just compile statistics on it.


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