September 01, 2011

Maritime Jihad: last call for the incompetent

Viewed in conjunction with other intelligence reports, the interrogation of the nine foreigners- five Yemenis, two Tanzanians, one Kenyan and one Somali- at Porbandar after the Indian Navy's operation against the vessel 'Nafis-1' 170 miles off Mumbai two weeks ago have confirmed that there exists a strong linkage between pirates, terrorists and elements in Pakistan- and beyond. Actually, linkage is too mild a word, because the pirate-terrorism nexus is fast becoming a seamless conspiracy that includes countries thousands of miles away from the Indian Ocean. 'Somali piracy' and 'maritime terrorism' are interchangeable terms, or soon will be.

This is what intelligence officials across the world know is happening today: Abu Yakoob is the head of the maritime wing of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). He is based in Karachi where he trains Somali pirates and other assorted terrorists for, amongst other things, the advancement of Pakistan's proxy war against India. On the other side of the Indian Ocean, the Al Qaeda linked Al Shabaab is using pirated ships for training its operatives in maritime terrorism. It is also financing pirates or extorting protection money. The Shabaab is simultaneously using pirates and pirated ships to smuggle Al Qaeda operatives into Somalia. It is also training wannabe Somali pirates. (Going rates are 5 to 10 percent for protection, 20 percent for training and a 50 percent commission if the Shabaab finances a pirate operation.) And the Shabaab continues to use pirates and pirated ships for gunrunning into Somalia.

Across the Gulf of Aden, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is providing logistical and ideological support to the Shabaab by smuggling people and arms into the country. The Yemeni island of Socotra is being used as a logistical midway point. Ransoms are being moved through banks in Yemen and in the wider Middle East. Almost on the other side of the world, far away from all this, An Al-Qaeda affiliate in the Philippines- Abu Sayyaf- and the Indonesian Jemaah Islamiyah, are meanwhile training cadres in, amongst other things, scuba diving training for maritime attacks. Lest you wonder why I bring this up, let me remind you that Manila gave definite warnings to the US about the 9/11 attacks many years before they took place; there was a Pakistani connection there too. We are now being warned about maritime terrorism but we still have earmuffs on.

Governments across the world- and in India- know what is happening, of course. They know that the LeT seeks to be an umbrella terrorist organisation operating out of Karachi, close to the oil rich Middle East and its archenemy India. They know where the piracy/terrorism business is going. More tankers will be attacked. The Al Qaeda, through the Shabaab, will increasingly finance piracy to fund its terrorist activities. Somewhere down the line, it will unleash its maritime terrorists on the world's merchant fleet- trained by now to navigate and manoeuvre ships and take them to inflict maximum and spectacular damage to the global economy and the environment. Crews will not be needed to navigate any longer, so they will be executed as soon as ships are taken. Of course, some nationalities- including Indian- will be tortured properly first.  

Governments know all this, and I suspect so does some of the shipping industry. The problem is that governments will not do anything greatly different from what they are doing today- unless the situation becomes economically untenable. Mariners will be exposed to greater and deadlier risks long before that happens. A gradual escalation of violence, as in the last few years, will mean that this will play out over months, maybe even years. Which is why the bigger question to ask is this: Forget governments. What is the industry doing about this writing on the wall?

Armed guards are now being seen as some sort of solution. Not for long, I suspect. Already, ships are now being hijacked from 'safe' anchorages and otherwise attempted to be swarmed by small flotillas of pirate skiffs. Pirates/terrorists are showing us their tactical superiority and adaptability once again.

Another problem is that of attitude. Shipping has seen the piracy problem almost completely through the only prism it uses- financial. The costs connected with ships held up for months, ransoms, escalating insurance premia, the cost of guards, negotiators and security companies are big economic blows indeed, but they are miniscule once I throw terrorism into the mix. Imagine the impact on trade, freight rates and premia if I am right; imagine the impact of crews flat refusing to sail through a vast ocean riddled with terrorism. Shipping succeeded in sweeping the MStar terrorist attack under the carpet; this will be tough to do with the large volume of crap that shortly promises to hit the fan.  

The industry has lost the plot at every stage of the piracy threat. All along, it has failed in doing the one thing it really has to do, which is to pressurise governments across the world- through the increasingly moribund IMO, or better still, directly at the slightly less iffy UN- to solve the problem of the failed States of Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen. Or begin to, at least. Terrorism is thriving there, and threatening the very lifeblood of the global economy. They are surely more important to the world than Libya, even if they have less oil.

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