hijacked ship, Somali pirates
Associated Press
Members of Somali militia of al-Shabab

Somali Militants Join Pirate Fight

November 24, 2008 10:58 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
A group of Somali militants, officially designated a terrorist group by the United States, pledged to rescue a Saudi oil tanker held just off their country's coast, though their motives remain unclear.

Somali Militants Enter Pirate Picture


The cast of characters involved in the increasingly tense standoff over vessels seized by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean widened this weekend with the inclusion of a militant group that has reportedly launched an effort to retrieve a Saudi oil tanker.

The group, al-Shabab, is an offshoot of a militant Islamic group that ruled Somalia in the latter half of 2006.

According to CNN, the group sent five armored vehicles to the town of Harardhere, where the oil tanker has been held just off the coast since it was seized earlier this month.

Although some local residents have said the offensive was launched because the ship, holding 2 million barrels of oil, belonged to an Islamic country, others have suggested that they intend to share in the vessel's ransom.

The al-Shabab group is the latest to join the pirate fight that has seen a collection of vessels seized and over $30 million in ransom paid out this year alone, including an international flotilla of UN ships, and most recently direct attacks from the Indian Navy.

On Nov. 18, the Indian navy's INS Tabar sank an alleged pirate "mother ship" in the Gulf of Aden following a string of recent pirate attacks, the Associated Press reports.

Noel Choong, the head of the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, said, "It's about time that such a forceful action is taken. It's an action that everybody is waiting for," according to the Associated Press.

The pirate ship reputedly fired on the Indian ship first, and then the Tabar returned fire, sinking the ship.

Choong said that more headway could be made against the pirates if other countries followed the example of India's INS Tabar, but "patrolling warships are hampered by a lack of a mandate to bring the hijackers to justice," AP reports.

The Sirius Star—an oil tanker built in South Korea, staffed by an international crew and owned by Saudi Aramco—was the most recent victim of Somali pirates. Pirates attacked the ship on Nov. 15, and still hold the 25-member crew hostage.

The oil tanker, stretching the length of an aircraft carrier, is the largest vessel yet to fall prey to the pirates. It was also further from the African coast—450 nautical miles—than any other ships hijacked by Somalis, the Los Angeles Times reports. The pirates usually seize ships no more than 200 miles from the shore. “I’m stunned by the range of it,” Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The pirates were able to hijack the tanker despite the United States, EU and Russian warships patrolling the waters in response to recent piracy.

The audacity of such a raid surprised many observers, and security specialists are worried that pirates may one day raid or sell to terrorists a tanker holding pressurized liquefied natural gas, or LNG. Candyce Kelshall, a specialist in maritime energy security at Blue Water Defence, said, “An LNG tanker going up is like 50 Hiroshimas.”

“Our presence in the region is helping deter and disrupt criminal attacks off the Somali coast, but the situation with the Sirius Star clearly indicates the pirates’ ability to adapt their tactics and methods of attack,” said U.S. Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, commander of the Combined Maritime Forces.

In October, pirates captured a Dutch ship with a largely Russian crew. That raid came just two weeks after a NATO-led flotilla of ships arrived in Somali waters to curb criminal activity on the high seas, and after a shift in British policy allowed for direct, aggressive contact with the pirates.

According to The New York Times, the active flotilla includes ships from the United States, Germany, Greece, Turkey, Italy and Britain. NATO spokesman James Appathurai told the Times of the difficulty of the protective force’s task: “This is obviously a very, very complicated thing they are trying to do. There are a host of pirates, but they don’t identify themselves with eye patches and hook hands that they are pirates.”

Over the summer the United Nations approved a resolution allowing other navies to patrol and police Somalia’s waters, and in late September, Somalia’s foreign ministry authorized other governments to act on the troubled country’s soil.

Somalia’s president Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed has urged his citizens and other countries to fight piracy.

“I call on the Somali people to fight against the pirates. I also call on the international community to act quickly on what is happening in Somali waters as well as on shore,” he said during a press conference.

Where's the Money Coming From?

Gerald Posner of The Daily Beast recently published a blog entry on the possible sources of funding for the pirates. He indicates that the U.S. Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) has traced the money trail to Somali and Emirati expatriates who live in Dubai.

Posner writes: "The businessmen backing the pirates arrange for the complex multibank transfer of ransom funds, disbursing the money through dozens of institutions around the globe within hours. They take a hefty cut before sending the pirates’ share through hawala, an underground cash-based Islamic banking system that leaves behind no written or electronic records that investigators can follow."

Allegedly, the United Arab Emirates has not yet heeded calls to track down the financiers, saying that more evidence is needed.

Background: Pirates active this year

Earlier this October, one pirate was killed and two were wounded in a shootout aboard the Wail, a Panamanian ship that was hijacked by Somali pirates, Reuters reports. One member of the Puntland coastguard was killed in the conflict.

In September, pirates captured the Faina, which was loaded with tanks and other weapons. Ransom talks have been ongoing, although at one point the pirates threatened to blow up the ship.

Related Topic: The pirate life

Somali pirates live the high life in their country, according to a recent BBC article.

“They have money; they have power and they are getting stronger by the day,” says Abdi Farah Juha who resides in the regional capital, Garowe. “They wed the most beautiful girls; they are building big houses; they have new cars; new guns,” he says. “Piracy in many ways is socially acceptable. They have become fashionable.”

The crews, which consist of former fishermen, ex-militiamen and technicians, are able to garner a substantial amount of money in a poor country that been racked by war. The average asking ransom price for a ship hijacked in the Gulf of Aden is $2 million. UK think tank Chatham House indicates that pirates have collected about $30 million so far in 2008.

The lucrative venture has even tied some warring clans together, the article claims. The men, who usually range from 20–35 years old, appear to be flocking to piracy more than ever.

But resident Mohamed Hassan notes, "This piracy has a negative impact on several aspects of our life in Garowe.” They flood the local economy with U.S. currency and their proclivity for drug and alcohol use upsets their neighbors, according to Hassan.

Opinion & Analysis: Solving the problem of piracy

David Axe, writing on Wired’s Danger Room blog, said foreign navies can’t be everywhere at once, and other ideas, such as putting mercenaries on commercial ships, are fraught with problems.

“In short, there’s no easy seaborne solution to piracy. Experts stress that ending piracy requires law and order on land, where pirates have their bases. But law and order for Somalia, which has lacked a functioning central government since 1991, is no doubt years and years away,” Axe wrote.

Axe also wrote a Popular Mechanics piece that examines what commercial ships can do to protect themselves, and suggests the hijacked Ukrainian freighter may encourage more governments to help patrol the Somali coast.

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