Terror on the High Seas Somali Pirates Form Unholy Alliance with Islamists
Warships have done little to deter Somalia's pirates. But following the latest spate of hijackings, the West plans to take a more robust approach to protecting shipping. Intelligence agencies are alarmed at the pirates' increasingly close ties to Islamist groups.
A sack filled with $1 million (770,000) in $100 bills weighs just under 15 kilos (33 pounds). Occasionally $3 million in ransom money is paid to Somali pirates for a hijacked freighter and its crew. That's nearly 45 kilos.
Delivering millions of dollars to the pirates is a hell of a job, says Jack Cloonan, a security expert from New York. "Remember, they're sitting there and they're all armed to the teeth," he says. "And you're sitting there in your rubber raft: 'Here's one for you, and one for you ... '"
Throughout his career, Cloonan has dealt with his fair share of nasty characters. As a FBI special agent, he tracked down Warsaw Pact spies and, in the wake of 9/11, al-Qaida terrorists. But transferring the money to Somalia's often drug-addled pirates is "an extremely difficult" maneuver, he says. "It would be nice if the Somali pirates would accept a wire transfer -- but they don't."
Cloonan has quit his government job and joined a booming industry. Shipping companies call on him for help when the pirates off the Horn of Africa have hijacked one of their ships.
He and his team organize negotiations -- and they know all the traps and tricks. They figure out a way to get the ransom money to Africa and ensure that the crew and freighter reach their home port safe and sound. Cloonan has liberated a number of ships over the past few months -- and there's plenty of potential for growth in his line of work.
With their small fiberglass boats, the pirates are making fools of the world's most powerful countries. No less than four international fleets of high-tech warships are patrolling the waters off Somalia's coasts, and there are frigates and destroyers from countries like China and Russia that are working independently. All of these ships have cannons or missiles, helicopters and satellite support; some could lay waste to entire cities. But this has done little to deter the pirates, with their bashed-up outboard boats and Kalashnikovs. It's a fight between David and Goliath -- except in this case, the bad guys are playing the role of David, and the good guys are Goliath.
But now Goliath is taking a harder line. Military officers are frustrated and their governments have had enough of coughing up for boats. Every million-dollar ransom bolsters the pirates. It's a dilemma: Countries that pay up will end up paying more and more.
The Americans and the French have changed course and started shooting at the pirates. Even the Germans considered freeing the Hansa Stavanger by force. Some of the strategies which experts in Washington, London and Berlin are developing resemble battle plans for a new military campaign -- and that in a war-torn country like Somalia, which has already been the site of a number of military debacles. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says: "We may be dealing with a 17th-century crime, but we need to bring 21st-century assets to bear."
And there's no time to waste, now that a new threat is emerging. Intelligence agencies have managed to deeply penetrate the pirate clans. They have inside information about the bosses, arms caches, alliances and arrangements. Experts also have reason to believe that the pirates are increasingly working hand-in-hand with Islamists, who are allies of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida. It's a terrifying alliance: The pirates supply money and arms, while the Islamists have troops and the power on land.
Map: Pirate activity in Somalia
Half a year later, an invading army from US-backed neighboring Ethiopia swept aside the Islamists -- and the pirates quickly headed out to sea again in search of new booty.
The Ethiopians have meanwhile largely retreated, but the new government in Mogadishu, which was elected in January, controls only a fraction of the country. The rest is ruled by Islamist groups, like the al-Shabab militias and a new faction called Hizbul Islam (Party of Islam).
The pirates want money and the Islamists want power -- but these interests can overlap at times. In November of last year, conflict erupted once again after the pirates seized the Sirius Star. That wasn't particularly clever. The supertanker belongs to the Saudis, who are also Muslims, and the Islamists naturally objected to the raid. A few shots were fired.
However, that couldn't really shatter the alliance and, ironically, one reason for this is that the infidels are making inroads into Somalia's coastal waters. The enemy from the outside is welding together the old adversaries. The pirates are "mujahideen because they are at war with the Christian countries," says Sheikh Hassan Turki, the leader of Hizbul Islam. And Mukhtar Robow of the al-Shabab militias praises the pirates, saying that they are defending "the coast against Allah's enemies."
Ever since American snipers shot dead three pirates to rescue the captain of the US-registered freighter Maersk Alabama on Easter Sunday, the pirates have been calling for revenge -- and they suddenly sound very much like the Islamists. The US is now "our number one enemy," says Jamac Habeb, a pirate from Eyl. "We're now out to get Americans," says a pirate named Ismail from Harardhere. "And when we have them, we'll slaughter them."
If the "fragile alliance" between the pirates and the Islamists grows stronger, writes the intelligence journal Jane's Intelligence Review, this will "increase the threat from pirate groups." According to an analysis by the intelligence experts, the pirates are far better networked than was previously thought.
One example of this can be found in the pirate town of Harardhere, close to where the hijacked Hansa Stavanger was forced to drop anchor. The gang members in this stronghold include men from all the main clans along the coast, allowing the group to move freely everywhere. The Suleyman clan calls the shots in this region, but one of the Harardhere commanders -- whose main profession is selling charcoal -- is a Saleebaan.
The gang maintains two main bases of operations along the coast, and from here it sends raiding units, each one divided into four groups. The planners prepare the hunt -- and this group reportedly also includes Sudanese and Pakistanis. Former fishermen help out with their nautical experience, while young fighters go on board the ships. The fourth group consists of negotiators who haggle over the ransom with adversaries like Jack Cloonan.
- Part 1: Somali Pirates Form Unholy Alliance with Islamists
- Part 2: Dealing with Pirates Inc.