In the seas off the Horn of Africa, a multinational naval task force is engaged in regular firefights with pirates seeking to disrupt shipping in the Gulf of Aden. Our reporter asks if a link between the dramatic rise in piratical activity with Islamic insurgents in Somalia has led to the opening of a new front of the 'War on Terror'.
On balance, the Gulf of Aden, despite being one of the world's most strategically important waterways, is not a very nice place to be. As well as summer temperatures regularly soaring well into the 40s, the area is known for its unpredictable weather which can close in at a moment's notice. Furthermore, Somalia's lack of any efficient, centralised government has meant that her unpoliced territorial waters have become rife with illegal fishing, dredging and the discharging of toxic materials. Somalia's once diverse coastline is rapidly becoming an ecological disaster which, thanks to the very considerable dangers involved in going there, has gone largely unreported and unmonitored.
Weather and illegal fishing, though, ought to be the least of your worries, should you happen to find yourself cruising through these busy straits, for the Gulf of Aden boasts more recorded piratical activity than almost any other seaway in the world. Pirates operating out of Somalia, where the country's lawless coastal wildernesses and unregulated cities provide ample cover for the small skiffs favoured by the pirates, have come to terrorise this area in recent years. Initially, these freebooters seemed to work independently as little more than opportunistic maritime muggers; recently, though, there has been a sharp rise in attacks. More alarmingly, there is some reason to believe that the extremist Islamist militants who have come to dominate large parts of Somalia may now have a hand in promoting this activity.
In 2005, there were only two serious attacks in the Gulf of Aden. Even though one of them involved an ambitious and mercifully unsuccessful attack on a cruise liner with rocket propelled grenades, this activity kept to the general pattern that had emerged over the preceding decade: sporadic, opportunistic attacks on soft targets by disorganised, poorly-equipped and disparate bands of pirates. In 2006, the same was true. A handful of largely unsuccessful attacks were launched by different bands in different areas of the Gulf. On the whole, their targets were yachts and freighters but, on one occasion, two US warships received fire in an engagement which did not end well for the pirates.
Generally speaking, these bands of pirates were Somali fishermen angry at the illegal fishing activity that was damaging their livelihood. Amongst them, certainly, were more hardened career criminals but, on the whole, piracy off Somalia in the earlier years of the first decade of the twenty-first century was a limited, local affair which, in most cases, was motivated simply by a desire to protect the dwindling fish stocks off the Somali coast on which the fishermen relied. The small boats used by the fishermen could never hope to compete with the industrial trawlers that had arrived illegally in Somali waters; the only form of redress available to the Somalis was force.
In 2006, the brutal Islamic Courts Union took power in Somalia and piratical activity subsided considerably. Despite being driven by a violent ideology of extremist Islam, the Islamic Courts Union took action against the warlords who had torn the country apart in years of internecine conflict and attempted to rebuild some of Somalia's shattered infrastructure. An important element in this campaign was the prevention of piracy and the disbanding of the pirate crews that had sprung up around the coast. When ICU troops captured Haradhere - a major hideout of Somali pirates - in August, 2006, piratical activity in the Gulf of Aden almost subsided to nothing.
The Islamic Courts Union, however, did not last long. In December 2006, Ethiopia (certainly sponsored and encouraged by the United States) invaded Somalia and overthrew the ICU, replacing them, in theory, with a more moderate transitional government. In effect, Somalia was returned to a state of petty fueding and guerrilla warfare as the remnants of the ICU began to wage a fierce paramilitary campaign against the Ethiopians and forces loyal to the transitional government. It is under these conditions that piracy in the Gulf of Aden has, once again, begun to flourish.
Piracy of any kind is distressing in such a busy shipping lane, but is not unusual: West Africa, the Caribbean, the Indonesian archipeligo and the Philippines are all areas that suffer from similar patterns of activity. In 2007, though, in the vacuum left by the removal of the ICU, the pattern of attacks suddenly began to change. Better-armed groups of pirates using faster, better-equipped ships started attacking soft targets such as pleasure yachts and freighters far more frequently. Before, these sorts of attacks had been relatively rare, attacks on fishing trawlers being far more common. Now, though, it seemed that the pirates' aims had changed. No longer were these fishermen defending their livelihood; now, heavily-armed militiamen began to take hostages, demand ransoms and steal goods. Piracy was no longer a defensive operation, but a financial one.
So far, in 2008, there have been at least 9 serious attacks reported, the most recent being on September 2nd when a French couple sailing through the Gulf were kidnapped from their luxury yacht only to be rescued shortly afterwards by French commandos operating from the frigate Courbet. This sudden and alarming increase in pirate activity in the Gulf has alarmed the international community and there have been calls to strengthen the multinational 'Combined task force 150' that has been charged with combating the problem.
More alarming still, though, is that what used to be a limited operation against piracy has now been turned into a front of 'the War on Terror'. US forces operating as part of the touchingly-named 'Operation Enduring Freedom - Horn of Africa' have regularly engaged pirates and have started to consider combating pirate activity as part of their regular brief. Suddenly, suspicion is rife that proceeds from piracy off the Horn of Africa are funding the Islamist insurgency in Somalia. This is a controversial suggestion, but the change in targets and the increased frequency of attacks might seem to support it.
If it is the case that the Islamist insurgency in the country has resorted to piracy then it would fit a long-established pattern. Ever since the 1980s, elements with a strong Islamic fundamentalist motivation have hijacked conflicts already in progress as proving grounds for their recruits, and testing areas for newly devised tactics. In the wars in Nagorno-Karabakh, Chechnya and Bosnia, extremist Islamic forces sometimes sponsored by groups linked to Al Qaeda entered wars that were already in progress, often as much for the sake of propaganda as anything else. Thus, secular conflicts over ethnicity or resources suddenly became religiously charged and highly unstable as a result. Another favourite tactic has been to attack soft, economic targets: from the 9/11 attacks, to the London and Madrid bombings to the attacks on oil pipelines in Iraq, insurgents have long appreciated the value of disrupting economic and financial infrastructures. As such, the Gulf
of AdenEurope to the east via the Suez Canal. Even the threat of piracy has caused insurance and equipment costs for ships using this sea lane to rocket; a successful attack can prove infinitely more lucrative.
The extent to which the new generation of Somali pirates can be linked to the country's 'Islamic insurgents' is open to debate, of course. Thinking at the highest levels, though, seems to make that link, albeit tentatively. Perhaps what we are seeing in the Gulf of Aden is a conflict that is about to be hijacked by a cause with which it has never previously been associated. How NATO acts over the next few months will be vital: storming in, all guns blazing and attempting to destroy the pirate networks by force will not prove successful. Besides, memories of the last time US troops were engaged in Somalia still run deep in the States and no president, not least a new one, will risk a repeat of the Mogadishu debacle. This problem has to be treated with sensitivity and respect. If the international community can unite to protect Somali waters from the many illegal fishing, dredging and disposal operations that are destroying the legitimate livelihoods of many of the country's coastal communities, they may find themselves with an unlikely ally against the pirates. Otherwise, the dark spectre of a naval Iraq represents an important, untapped resource: a seaway up and down which hundreds of unprotected cargo ships and cruise liners travel each week linking looms large.
Ben Snook is a writer and researcher. Although he lives in London, he is currently in the final stages of a PhD in tenth-century history and literature at Selwyn College, Cambridge. His collected thoughts can be found at Your Correspondent Writes. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2008 Ben Snook