Saturday, 13 December 2008

Al Qaida behind ship hijackings in the Gulf of Aden?

Terrorist group reported to have claimed responsibility. US Navy asks owners to protect themselves.

[Mumbai, 23 September 2008]: In a revelation long suspected but one that will nevertheless have huge consequences for the world maritime fleet, the Al Qaida is reported to have claimed responsibility for hijackings of ships for ransom in the Gulf of Aden and off the Somali coast over the last year.

The Middle East Times’ Oliver Guitta reports that “Al Qaida has claimed responsibility in a communiqué for piracy operations that took place during the past year, off Yemen (and Somalia). The communiqué stressed that "orders were given to the Mujahedeen to monitor maritime waterways, particularly in the Arabian Peninsula." Maritime terrorism requires, according to the document, "a new strategy which permits mujahedeen" to hijack commercial, tourism and oil vessels. According to this strategy, "fighters, who aspire to establish the Caliphate, must control the seas and the waterways."

The Al Qaida strategy seems to be a simple one: Control one of the key shipping lanes in the world; 20000 ships and a large part of the oil trade use the Gulf of Aden annually to transit into the Red Sea and the Suez. Finance operations with ransoms running into millions of dollars. “Al-Qaida believes that "the enemy will not be able to protect its bases scattered on land in the Arabian Peninsula, and subject to mujahedeen attacks, if its waterways were weakened by acts of piracy" says the Middle East Times, quoting the unconfirmed communiqué.

Marex had reported the ascendance of Al Shabaab, a terrorist linked group, in Somalia in its last issue (article on the Stolt Valor hijacking). This organisation is now in control of much of Somalia’s coastline. Attacks in the last few days in areas of Mogadishu, the Somali capital, have also been blamed on them. The organisation, which is almost certainly funded in part by hijackings, has taken over key ports and cities in Somalia, including Kismayo in the South. Born when the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) Somali government was overthrown by US backed Ethiopian and other forces, Al Shabaab is now a major force in war torn and warlord controlled Somalia. Critics accuse the US of collaborating with warlords in the past to keep the ICU out of power.

Across the waters, in Aden, the situation is not much better. The US Embassy in Sanaa was attacked again recently. Aden, like Pakistan, has often been accused of flip flopping with respect to terrorism. The USS Cole was attacked in Aden harbour in 1980. In 2003, the Yemeni regime had a non aggression pact with Al Qaida in place. Osama Bin Laden’s family migrated from Yemen. The Hyundai Fortune was attacked and destroyed in the Gulf of Aden in 2006.

Though pressure from the US and internal politics has made the Yemeni government change to an anti terrorist stance recently, including the killing of at least one Al Qaida leader and a crackdown on many others, the fact remains that Yemen is unstable. Therefore, like Pakistan and Somalia, it is a breeding ground for terrorism.

The Yemeni coast guard has formed units to police pirates recently. 16 boats have been imported from Australia; up to 60 marines would be aboard each one of them. They will have artillery and advanced communications.

In other developments, Reuters has reported from London on Monday that the U.S. Navy says that “allied warships were doing all they could to thwart piracy in the strategic Gulf of Aden, but shipping companies should take their own measures to protect their vessels and crews.”

It quotes Combined Maritime Forces commander, U.S. vice admiral Bill Gortney as saying,
"The coalition does not have the resources to provide 24 hour protection for the vast number of merchant vessels in the region. Shipping companies must take measures to defend their vessels and their crews," he said in a statement, urging merchant ships to employ their own security teams.

It must be stressed that the Al Qaida communiqué has not been widely reported, and Marex has not been able to confirm this development from other sources. Nevertheless and clearly, threat perceptions of the crisis have to change quickly and dramatically within the international community.

With powerful coalitions throwing up their hands admitting defeat and asking owners to take measures to protect their crews and ships themselves, the situation looks bleaker by the minute. If Al Qaida is indeed directly involved, how long do we have before a major catastrophe involving a VLCC?

Meanwhile, maybe we can ask seafarers to throw the ISPS code book at the pirates.

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