Will pirates join forces with Islamist militias in Somalia?
Escalation of violence could lead pirate gangs to join radical militants, including those with ties to Al Qaeda, say analysts.
Johannesburg, South Africa
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But the twin rescues this past week by the French and American navies off Somalia are unlikely to end the problem of piracy. Quite the opposite, say analysts. The pirates, they say, are likely to increase their use of violence, and that could lead them into the arms of Somalia's small but powerful Islamist militias for protection and support.
As the crew of the Maersk Alabama celebrated the return of Capt. Richard Phillips Sunday, Somalia's radical Islamists praised the dead or captured pirates as mujahideen, or "holy warriors." Meanwhile, self-described pirates told reporters by cellphone that they would be more violent with hostages next time.
"Every country will be treated the way it treats us," Abdullahi Lami, one of the pirates holding a Greek ship in the central Somali port of Gaan, told the Associated Press by phone. "In the future, America will be the one mourning and crying. We will retaliate for the killings of our men."
Escalation could radicalize pirates
With 2.5 million square miles to patrol, even the navies of 16 nations (including the US, NATO, India, France, China, and Iran) have only just begun to come to grips with the problem of Somali piracy. It is a relatively new phenomenon, the result of a complete breakdown of law and order, and of the country's economy. Hundreds of Somali fishermen and criminal gangs have gone out to the open seas for the only source of income they can find, taking and holding hostage the largely unprotected commercial ships that pass through Somali waters on their way into and out of the Suez Canal to ports beyond.
Short-term solutions, such as the current foreign naval maneuvers, may rescue ships on the high seas, but the only longer-term solution is full restoration of a stable Somali government, most experts agree. In the meantime, foreign naval operations can cause as many problems as they solve.
"The fact is that the Somali pirates had a code of conduct, although it sounds funny to people outside of Somalia to hear that," says an official with Ecoterra International, a nongovernmental organization that works with the Somali fishing community on sustainable fishing practices. It also made good business sense to keep hostages alive. More than 200 mariners are still being held by Somali pirates. To date, there have been few instances of hostages being seriously harmed by pirates. But if pirates are pushed into a corner by foreign navies, they might become more ready to shoot.
"We fear that this escalation spiral, which we've seen in the past few months, will push the pirates into a readiness to shoot," says the Ecoterra aid official. "I foresee this will push some groups which use violence, and radicalize them. It could also encourage some Somali fundamentalists to take over the modus operandi of the pirates" and take on Western commercial shipping vessels as political targets.
Decision to fire on pirates