Analysis: Could piracy and terrorism find a volatile mix in the Somali Basin?


Somali Islamist group Al-Shabaab, which the US has charged is an Al Qaeda proxy in the region, is on the rise. Questions remain about the extent and depth of the organisation’s ties to Al Qaeda.

However, should the group face more intense fighting and the need to meet larger payrolls the group may well face tough decisions over whether to  maintain a continuing opposition to the use of piracy.

This could bring it into direct confrontation with the US and others powers, something it may be keen to avoid.

A London based security expert who monitors Somalia says there is no evidence of active co-operation between Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab. 

Omaru Sisay, an Africa expert at political risk forecasting firm Exclusive Analysis says there are no signs that Al Qaeda has operational control over Al-Shabaab.

His colleague Anna Murison, who follows Jihadist groups around the world says, “to date there is little clear evidence of jihadist involvement in piracy, although the equivocal nature of remarks on the subject by Al –Shabaab leaders leaves the door open to the possible adoption of the tactic (piracy).”

One reason why piracy has been condemned more in political than in moral terms by al-Shabaab leadership is that they take the view that it could provide a pretext for a US invasion of Somalia, she says.

At the moment Al-Shabaab is focused on fighting on land to extend its area of control in Somalia. While there are no signs that Al-Shabab is planning acts of maritime terrorism, there is nevertheless, “a distinct risk that as the US and Kenya increase their activities against Al-Shabbab that it may hit western assets at sea,” says Sisay.

Al-Shabaab last week called on foreign militants to join them after US Special Forces killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, who is suspected of responsibility for an attack on an Israeli owned hotel in Mombasa and an attempted missile attack on an El Al airliner.

Al-Shabaab`s use of foreign fighters remains controversial in Somalia as it opens the movement to criticism by pro Transitional Government supporters that it is a puppet of foreigners.

If it does wish to attack western assets and comes under increasing financial pressure piracy, despite the risks, it could look again at its opposition to piracy, say the analysts.

At the moment there are signs of a debate on piracy among jihadists, with some seeing a strategic advantage to be gained, while others reject the idea.

Statements collated from jihadi web sites around the world show support as well as opposition to the use of piracy as a weapon.

On one site a jihadi supporter is quoted as saying, “They (the pirates) could be working for the good of the mujahedin.”  

Another says, “from a strategic point of view, these operations are very effective.” 

But other supporters of jihad are quoted as disagreeing with this support for piracy.

“Piracy is nothing but theft on the seas, whatever its motive…” and from another, ‘the so-called pirates seem to me to be an American plan.”

There is currently no sign of an alliance between Al-Shabaab and any of the four main pirate groups from the towns of Eyl, Hobyo, Harardheree, and Marka says Sisay. 

Of these, the most active is from Eyl, a coastal village in the semi-autonomous northern region of Puntland, some distance from Al-Shabab`s operational area in the south and central part of the country.

Sisay says but there is a clear risk that should financial pressures on the group increase, it will abandon its opposition to piracy and offer protection to pirates in return for a share of what it receives in ransoms.

The large numbers of Somali fishermen with who are experienced sailors and know the waters also means that the Somali Islamist group could set up its own maritime operations with relative ease, he says.

For more on this and related maritime security topics, consider attending defenceWeb`s Maritime Security Africa 2009 conference October 13 to 15 at the Radisson Hotel at the Waterfront in Cape Town.

For the full programme and costs click here.

To book a seat contact Maggie Pienaar on [email protected] This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it or +27 (0)11 807 3294