Crime Pays for Somali Pirates - by Stephen Brown

Al-Qaeda’s proxies step up terror war at sea.

When it comes to the scourge of Somali piracy, the latest incident leaves one wondering whether to laugh or cry. At the very least, it should cause heads to shake and have people asking how the West is ever going to win the War On Terror.

The military news publication, Strategy Page, reports this week that the Dutch frigate, HNLMS Eversten, was ordered to release 13 Somali pirates it had captured earlier this month. The pirates were attacking a merchant ship when the Dutch intervened and apprehended them and their vessel.

However, instead of being clapped in irons to await trial, the Dutch captain was ordered to put the pirates back on their boat and release them. In addition, the Dutch sailors’ also had to provide the pirates, who not long ago would have been hung on the spot, with food and fuel to return to Somalia. (It is a wonder they were not sent on their way with apologies for any inconvenience.)

The only consolation regarding this sad state of affairs concerned the pirates’ weapons: they were not returned. But the way things are going, Western naval crews may eventually have to do just that, or be required to supply a substitute, like cash or DVDs (The Pirates of the Caribbean might be a big hit) to keep their former captives entertained during their trip home.

Once back at their bases, one can be assured such pillow-soft treatment will see the pirates not hesitate to return to terrorizing international shipping as soon as possible. They can easily obtain new weapons in war-torn Somalia. The International Maritime Bureau estimates the pirates’ number at about a thousand, organized in well-armed groups of 15 to 20. Last year, they earned about $50 million in ransom money from ships they had seized.

In the past, al Qaeda and Islamists in Somalia have both praised Somali piracy as part of the “fight against the West.” A leader of a Somali Islamist group called the pirates “part of the mujahedeen.

“They are waging war against Christian nations, who want to misuse the Somali coast,” he said.

Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the surge in pirate attacks in 2008. It called the campaign to seize ships and hold them for ransom a justifiable “new strategy”, since “fighters who aspire to establish the caliphate must control the seas and waterways.”

Counterterrorism consultant Olivier Guitta revealed the importance of the Somali piracy campaign to al Qaeda. Guitta stated al Qaeda “intends to take control of the Gulf of Aden and the southern entrance of the Red Sea, calling the area “strategic” to the Islamic terrorist group.

Al-Qaeda’s goal in seizing control of the vital waterways around the Horn of Africa leading to the Suez Canal is the removal of Western military bases from the Arabian Peninsula. It believes sea lanes weakened by “acts of piracy” and mujahedeen attacks will accomplish this.

The Somali piracy campaign also fits in nicely with al Qaeda’s plan to disrupt the American and other Western economies. It knows Western countries derive their military and cultural strength from their economic power, hence al Qaeda’s attack on America’s World Trade Center.

Al Qaeda wants to draw America and its allies into as many security sideshows as possible in order to further drain their treasuries. The New York Times reports that after 911, for example, the Department of Homeland Security spent $40 billion on the aviation security system alone. Tens of millions more can probably be added to that sum after the Northwest Airlines terrorist incident on Christmas Day, making it an al Qaeda victory in this respect despite the plot’s failure.

On the high seas around Somalia, al Qaeda’s strategy of death by a thousand financial cuts sees Western and other countries facing, besides ransom payments and the huge expense of maintaining an anti-piracy naval presence, increased insurance costs. Ships that reroute around South Africa to avoid the Somalia region, while escaping the insurance penalty, incur higher operating bills due to the longer voyage.

Considering the importance the Somali pirate campaign holds for al Qaeda in its long-term plans, it is a wonder that Western strategists have only come up with the harmless “catch and release” tactic as its main counter measure. Resembling a form of appeasement, it has not worked and instead has led to an increase in attacks.

Statistics from the Piracy Reporting Center of the International Maritime Bureau, as reported in New York Times this week, bear this out. Pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden and along the Somali coast have increased 200 per cent since 2007.  While 111 ships were attacked in this area in 2008, 214 have been attacked this year. Only last Monday, pirates seized a chemical tanker with a crew of 26 and a Greek bulk carrier.

Strategy Page notes that although the number of attacks was higher this year, the international naval patrols established to thwart the pirates reduced the number of successful attacks from 40 per cent in 2008 to 25 per cent in 2009. The ransom demands, however, increased and the pirates are now operating off Somalia’s east coast and in the Gulf of Aden to avoid the anti-piracy patrols.

Unfortunately, one can only expect the number of pirate attacks around Somalia to increase in the future. Somali pirates know Western countries seldom use force to free ships and pay large ransoms. According to Strategy Page, Western countries also refuse to attack the pirates’ bases for fear of causing civilian casualties and to avoid becoming bogged down in a land campaign in Somalia.

The fact the pirates seldom face prosecution and are usually released make piracy in that region almost a risk-free crime that encourages attacks. More unsettling, however, is that these weak, ineffective policies on the part of Western countries indicate a moral bankruptcy that could decide the issue of this war.