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.

Karel Prinsloo/AP
Crew members of the Maersk Alabama wave to reporters during a press briefing at the Mombassa port in Kenya on Monday. Analysts say the twin rescues this past week could lead to more violence – and possibly alliances with Islamist militias.

The four-day hostage ordeal, with Somali pirates holding a US merchant ship captain in a lifeboat, ended in a hail of sniper fire Sunday and the safe return of the captain to his crew.

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."

Even Vice Adm. William Gortney, head of the US Naval Central Command, told a Pentagon press briefing Sunday, "This could escalate violence in this part of the world, no question about it."

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

Following just days after a similar French military rescue mission of a French yacht, in which the French commandos killed two Somali pirates, along with the yacht's captain, the US Navy rescue mission had all the drama of a Hollywood movie.

Admiral Gortney told a Pentagon briefing that the commander of the ship gave the order to Navy SEAL snipers to kill the three Somali pirates, after negotiations with them broke down. The lifeboat was within 100 feet of from the USS Bainbridge at the time, and was effectively in tow.

Admiral Gortney defended the decision at the Pentagon briefing. "He [Captain Phillips] had a weapon aimed at him; that would be my interpretation of imminent danger," said Gortney.

But unlike the 19th-century gunboat policies of Britain and the US, which stamped out the Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean or the pirates of the Caribbean, foreign naval operations off Somalia are unlikely to bring long-term solutions – nor are they designed to. The areas in which the pirates operate are too large to be patrolled effectively.

Somali government stopped piracy, then went into exile

Largely ungoverned since the fall of the government of Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, Somalia today is mostly under the control of a collection of warring Islamist militias. Its government-in-exile, led by a moderate Islamist leader, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, has vowed to contain piracy if it achieves full control of the country. Under the brief tenure of the Islamist Courts Union government in 2006, Somali piracy was, indeed, cut back nearly to zero.

But more radical Islamist groups, among them Al Shabab, which reportedly has ties with Al Qaeda, have recently praised pirates. In Baidoa, Al Shabab spokesman Muktar Robow "Abu Mansur" told reporters that pirates were "protecting the Somali coast."

"Foreign powers want to divide the country," he said, "and the pirates are protecting the coast against the enemies of Allah."

Al Qaeda-linked group could join piracy fight

"Given that people tend to look for opportunities to amass wealth, and that in the past year ransoms have ranged from $50 million to $100 million for a single ship, piracy is likely to continue," says Iqbal Jhazbhay, an expert on Somalia at the University of South Africa in Tshwane, as Pretoria is now called.

Like most other experts, Jhazbhay says there is no current link between Islamist groups and pirates, the latter primarily composed of criminal gangs with no political ambitions other than making money – although the Monitor reported in December that some of that money is flowing back to Islamists. But with so many Western naval ships off the coast, radical Islamist groups such as Al Shabab, could turn to high-seas piracy as a means for striking Western – and especially American – interests and to bring on a confrontation with the West.

With the French and American rescue missions, commercial shippers have been forced toward a turning point. "The signal has been sent that the old approach of pay ransom and move on ... isn't going to work anymore," says Mr. Jhazbhay. "The danger is that if Al Shabab want to dramatize the situation and bring another 'Black Hawk Down,' then it's likely to see that approach more often. It all depends on what the Islamists want to do next."

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