Reuters today published a report that pirate money is flowing to the violent Islamist insurgent group al-Shabaab. The assumption will be that this proves the existence of a pirate-terrorism nexus. It does no such thing. Reuters, furthermore, first reported on such suspected transfers in 2008.
There is no pirate-terrorist nexus in the sense that pirates and terrorists are cooperating to achieve a common aim. In terms of motivation they remain as far apart as ever.
These are deals of convenience. It has been suspected that pirates have used the southern port of Kismayo to refuel and take on supplies. It has been known that since the middle of last year first Hizbul Islaam and then al-Shabaab had been putting the squeeze of the pirates in Haradheere which is the most southerly and therefore the most vulnerable pirate outpost. Both organizations are heavily dependent on foreign donations. These donations have dwindled significantly over the past few months, especially since the failed Ramadan offensive. Their second source of income has been ‘custom’ dues on port traffic. Hizbul Islam and al-Shabaab shared the income from Kismayo, the most important port in the southern part of the country under their control until they fell out. Al-Shabaab defeated Hizbul Islam which then attacked Haradheere in an attempt to replace its income shortfall. Haradheere is not a recognizable port but it was the best they could get their hands on.
Al-Shabaab followed them but only appears to have gained access to the town once Hizbul Islam fell apart with some of its cadres and leaders throwing in their lot with their rivals. Even then their control of Haradheere appears to be incomplete. An unknown number of pirates were reported to have left the area and moved north towards Hoboyo. Some clearly stayed. Some of these where kidnapped by al-Shabaab and forced to agree some sort of deal to secure their own release (‘the biter bit’) but reports that this involved giving a fixed twenty percent share of all ransoms as reported by Reuters previously is not born out by Reuters’ new figures. The working assumptions has been that al-Shabaab and the pirates do deals ship-by-ship and the shake-down is not even applicable to every ship. It is therefore extortion. (No sympathy for the pirates but that is what it is.)
Moreover, it is not at all clear that the money is remitted to what might be termed al-Shabaab ‘central’. Al-Shabaab has always been a coalition, just like most organizations in Somalia, and appears to have become more so in 2011. Bottom-line: al-Shabaab is under financial pressure; their is no single percentage ‘cut’ for them; the only pirate base affected currently is Haradheere which means all the centers further north are largely unaffected.
Finally, the question that still has to be answered is that ‘assuming there is a pirate -terrorist connection what is to be done’? Send in the Marines? No appetite for that. Make ransom payments illegal? Pressure for that is building in Washington but America does not have a dog in the fight: most of the hostages come from India, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Indonesia which are US friends. Does the US want to provoke rows with these countries? I don’t think so. How many innocent seafarers are worth sacrificing? Given that choice, how enforceable would any legal prohibition be? Leaving to one side the public reaction in countries such as India and the Philippines, consider the legal problems this will occasion for ship-owners and their insurers. And don’t forget that India, the country that has been amongst the most aggressive when it comes to taking down pirate mother-ships, is backing off because of the number of Indian sailors that the pirates are holding.
Photo of MV York credit EU NAVFOR: http://www.eunavfor.eu/2010/10/pirating-of-mv-izumi-in-the-somali-basin/
Photo of MV York credit EU NAVFOR: http://www.eunavfor.eu/2010/10/merchant-vessel-york-pirated-in-the-somali-basin/