April 30, 2009

In the wake of the Maersk Alabama, worrying signs

Is it time to link Somalia to the wider war on terrorism?

In the recent past, this magazine has published a fair bit on the links between Somali pirates and Al Qaeda. Events in the last few days have reinforced these concerns. Now that the drama surrounding the Maersk Alabama hijacking and Capt. Richard Phillips rescue is over, one question that begs to be asked is, ‘What does the shooting down of the three pirates and the statements coming out of Washington and Somalia mean for piracy in the region? Has the game changed?’

Some of it undoubtedly has. Even as the Alabama saga was playing out its final act, a US Congressman on a visit to Somalia escaped a mortar attack on his aircraft as it was preparing to take off from Mogadishu. Although diplomats maintain that there is no connection between the two incidents, others are not so sanguine. Another less publicised recent event has added to the uncertainty: a new maritime boundary agreement between Somalia and Kenya, one that has been severely criticised in Somalia with many saying that the government has signed away Somali territorial waters to Kenya, a Western ally. As we know, given the exploitation and degradation of the Somali coastline mainly by Western countries, this is a sensitive issue.

In Washington, President Obama said, after the Alabama incident, that he is determined to stop piracy off Somalia. "We are going to have to continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks. We have to continue to be prepared to confront them when they arise. And we have to ensure that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes," he said, without giving any details as to how he intends to do so.

Meanwhile, in Somalia, some pirates claim that they will seek revenge for the pirate killings in the Alabama incident. Should we be more concerned about the safety of the 250 odd hostage seafarers of many nationalities who remain captive there? I hope not: although we all know that ransoms are actually paid for ships and cargoes and not really for the crews, killing hostages would, from the point of view of the pirates, generate too much heat and threaten to kill the golden goose.

Other reports from Mogadishu say that militant Islamists, many of whom hitherto said they would stop piracy, are now calling the pirates ‘national heroes’ after the shooting down of three pirates by US snipers during Capt. Phillip’s rescue. Hassan Turki calls them ‘helpers’ in the Islamist’s war against the West. Turki, who is the leader of the Islamist ‘Ras Kamboni Brigade’, has recently joined other hardline groups to form the Hisbul Islam (Party of Islam) in Somalia. Referring to the long standing Somali complaint that Western countries have exploited Somali fishing grounds and dumped nuclear waste off the Somali coastline, Turki called the pirates ‘religious fighters’ because they are fighting these Christian countries, and said that Somali piracy had its roots in the movement against this exploitation.

True, the Hisbul does not speak with one voice; a part of the organisation is pro government. However, the other faction is hardline and is linked to Al Shabaab, Somalia’s most powerful Islamist group. This faction blames the Somali government for being a puppet of Western powers, and is accused by many of having links with Al Qaeda. Many also point out to the fact of terrorist training camps within Somalia and past statements made by Al Qaeda supporting piracy as extremely dangerous portents for shipping in the region: an area through which much of the world’s oil passes.

Meanwhile, insurance companies, who thought ships were quite safe if they stayed far away from the Somali coast, are revisiting this assumption as the pirates’ strike range increases dramatically, thanks to the use of ‘mother ships’, either their own or hijacked ones. Shipping companies, already hard hit by the ongoing financial meltdown, find themselves in a difficult situation. Some had decided to avoid the Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal and go around the Cape of Good Hope instead, but with Somali pirates hitting ships hundreds of miles to the South and East of Somalia, this option seems meaningless. Besides costs connected with days and weeks of extra steaming, insurance premia are rising substantially for this region too.

I believe that the international community will be forced to link the piracy issue with the war on terror sooner rather than later. Understandably, the US, mired in conflicts in Iraq and AfPak and hamstrung by the financial crisis, is perhaps not too keen to declare this openly. I also believe that there is a clear terrorist strategy to widen the conflict by threatening to choke global shipping and trade. The war zone already extends from Afghanistan across Pakistan, Iraq and all the way to the Turkish border, with Iran an explicit player in Iraq. This war zone is now being extended by the pirates/terrorists Southwards past Yemen and the Horn of Africa and into the millions of miles of the Indian Ocean.

It therefore suits the terrorist strategists to have an unstable Somalia locked in conflict. The rest of the world will have to redefine the Somali piracy issue and call it by its true name sooner rather than later.