In his Salon.com article titled “Our Misguided Fight Against Somali Pirates,” John Feffer from the Institute for Policy Studies asks “Those teenage high-seas renegades are not about to team up with terrorists, so why is the U.S. military devoting so much attention to them?” While Freer is correct in pointing out that the pirates and terrorists are not ideological allies, it is a mistake to assume that the pirates are not willing to become valued business partners of radical Islamic terrorist groups including those linked to Al-Qaeda.
Al-Shabaab, the Al-Qaeda affiliate labeled by the State Department as a terrorist organization, currently controls southern Somalia. The recent media attention given to the taking of an American cargo ship captain hostage and subsequent rescue will no doubt motivate this group to partner with pirates, if for no other reason than to try to steal some of the spotlight. Indeed, shortly following the incident, al-Shabaab claimed credit for firing mortars near a visiting U.S. congressman.
Already, senior Al-Qaeda member Sa’id Ali Jabir Al-Khathim al-Shihri, has instructed his Somali allies to “increase your strikes against the crusaders at sea and in Djibouti.” Earlier in April, an al-Shabaab spokesperson praised the pirates, saying they were “protecting the coast against the enemies of Allah.” The leader of the Ras Kamboni Brigades, another radical Islamic group said to be linked to Al-Qaeda, said the pirates were “part of the Mujahideen” despite being “money-seekers.” Those that dismiss the possibility of a link between pirates and terrorists underestimate the forces of radical Islam’s ability to establish relationships of convenience, and underestimate the greed of pirates with a clear will to bypass principles for the sake of profit.
At the Somali Piracy Conference on April 7, Ambassador David H. Shinn conceded there was “no evidence that piracy is directly linked to international terrorism, although many Somali groups get a cut of the ransom money.” Citing Jane’s Intelligence Review, Shinn explained that the two forces cooperate on arms smuggling, and the pirates are reportedly helping al-Shabaab develop maritime capabilities.
While the relationship is based on business and not ideology, it doesn’t make it any less beneficial to al-Shabaab. He says that they sometimes receive a “protection fee of 5 to 10 percent of the ransom money. If al-Shabab helps to train the pirates, it might receive 20 percent and up to 50 percent if it finances the piracy operation.”
Andrew Mwangura, the head of the East African Seafarers’ Assistance Programme, has also said such a link exists. He told Reuters in August that “According to our information, the money they make from piracy and ransoms goes to support al-Shabaab activities onshore.”
Nor is al-Shabaab the only radical Islamic group utilizing piracy. According to The Long War Journal, “Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, Jeemah Islamiyah, is often engaged in piracy, as are the Philippine affiliates Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Abu Sayyaf Group. The pirates and terrorists are often one in the same, or if not, are in close cooperation.”
This isn’t to say that they don’t sometimes fight one another, as all criminal and terrorist groups sometimes do. Ambassador Shinn accurately described the relationship as “fragile.” As a marriage of convenience, this relationship will fracture and subsequently heal depending on the interests of each party.
Three incidents in 2008 demonstrate this dynamic.
In April 2008, Somali pirates were paid a $1.2 million ransom to release a Spanish fishing boat and its 26 crewmembers. Al-Shabaab reportedly received five percent of the ransom, which local residents said was smaller than what the terrorist group demanded. In this case, they were business partners.
In September 2008, pirates hijacked a Ukrainian vessel which contained arms, including grenade launchers and 33 Russian T-72 tanks destined for Kenya. Al-Shabaab’s requests to receive some of the weapons from the ship were rebuffed by the pirates, who opted to take a $3.2 million ransom and released the ship and crew. Although no reports indicate that a portion of the ransom was given to terrorists, the possibility can not be ruled out. Here, al-Shabaab was rejected, but they did not declare armed conflict on the pirates, ending future deals.
These examples contrast with when pirates seized a Saudi supertanker. Sheikh Abdirahim Isse Adow, a spokesperson for the Islamic Courts Union which was allied with al-Shabaab, condemned the act saying “Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country and hijacking its ship is a bigger crime than other ships…we shall do something about that ship.” Radical Islamic militants then raided a port in an attempt to locate the pirates and the ship. In this case, pirates became the enemies of the terrorists. Despite this clash, the wounds were ultimately healed as Al-Qaeda has praised the recent pirate attacks on non-Muslim ships.
Some experts, such as John Feffer, mistake this on-again off-again relationship as meaning radical Islamic forces in Somalia won’t team up with pirates that do not attack Muslim ships. In fact, even this standard may not be consistently held, as Al-Qaeda has repeatedly attacked Muslims. Feffer describes the Islamic Courts Union, the former al-Shabaab ally from which Somalia’s current “moderate” president comes from, as a force against pirates, and even gives credit to Al-Shabaab’s condemnation of piracy as un-Islamic.
While leaders of the current Somali government may be against piracy, al-Shabaab’s condemnation is meaningless as the above information shows, and that group controls southern Somalia. When terrorist attacks can be carried out for thousands of dollars, the effect of a business relationship between some pirates and terrorists should not be downplayed.