Here’s a line you probably thought you’d never read: Pirates are helping terrorist groups smuggle weapons and maybe even fighters. Yeah, that’s a thing now.
“The United Nations and the United States are investigating at least two pirate kingpins for providing material support to terror groups,” according to a CNN report Monday morning. The terror groups in question, according to CNN, aren’t just a bunch of would-be militants. Instead it’s a pair of battle-hardened and dangerous groups in Somalia, the al Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab and an ISIS faction there.
Those connections come as unwelcome news for US military officials working to defeat ISIS and training the Somali military to beat back al-Shabaab, an Islamist group that has killed hundreds over the years. The anti-ISIS coalition is on track to defeat the group in its capitals in Syria and Iraq, but questions remain about the campaign’s ability to halt ISIS operations around the world — including in Somalia.
There, the US has been striking terrorists only when they threaten US-backed Somali forces. But far from American eyes, the terrorists seem to have built a working relationship with pirates that is helping them continue to refill weapons caches, coffers, and ranks of fighters, all prolonging the terror fight that has ravaged the impoverished country.
But US commanders aren’t the only ones worried by the development. Shipping companies are now frightful as pirates are increasing their abilities to raid commercial fleets as they sail around the Horn of Africa. Piracy — once thought to be a problem of the past — is making a small comeback by raising more ships than they have in the past five years.
The US continues to struggle to contain Islamist terror around the globe, and it’s never found a good solution to the piracy epidemic. Now it somehow needs to find a way to try to quash both problems at the same time.
The pirate-terrorism connection could get stronger with time
As of now, it appears that both the pirate and the terrorist groups are using each other to get money, people, and weapons either to hold territory or hijack ships. It’s a strict business deal, Joshua Meservey, an Africa expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told me.
“Pirates are businessmen. They’re in it for the money,” he said. “That’s the bottom line for them, and they don’t have any particular scruples.”
It seems like the pirates have made a dispassionate, straightforward deal with terrorists residing in Somalia. The terrorist groups get weapons and more fighters brought to them by pirates with the ability to brings materials from overseas. As for the pirates, the also get money and the terrorists don’t interfere with their work.
Somalia is located on the Indian Ocean and also borders the Gulf of Aden, which allows a direct maritime route to the Arabian peninsula — particularly Yemen — where ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates also operate. Pirates that are already going back and forth across the Gulf are natural allies to help the terrorists get what they need.
Al-Shabaab has 7,000 to 9,000 fighters and controls much of the rural areas in Somalia’s center and South. While its power is decreasing, it still has a lot of influence in the country. It’s no surprise, then, that aspiring pirates would want the implicit approval of terrorist groups to operate without interference.
And the devil’s bargain the groups have made seems to be working. Al-Shabaab has been fighting the weak Somali government in earnest since the early 2000s. To do so, it requires a reliable stream of weapons and fighters — especially since the government is being trained by the US. (Right now, there about 50 US military personnel in Somalia.) A US Navy SEAL was killed in May during in a raid against al-Shabaab.
The small ISIS contingent in Somalia’s Northeast region of Puntland needs pirate support, too. An unnamed pirate kingpin is helping the group obtain weapons and people, reports CNN. Apparently this pirate captain has been extremely valuable in helping ISIS with its logistics, and even has a relationship with Abdulkadir Mumin, the group’s leader.
So, this was perhaps a partnership that was always going to develop. The worry is if the relationship strengthens over time. That’s a possibility, Jason Warner, an African military expert at West Point, told CNN. "With the current trends indicating that piracy is once again picking up off the Horn of Africa, these relationships between pirates and Shabaab will likely reemerge as an important flashpoint.”
The return of African piracy?
The only pirates many were hoping to see this year were in the movies. But they’re making a steady comeback, mostly because they never really died down.
“The pirate networks never went away,” Meservey said in an interview. “They’re organized crime networks and those sorts of things stick around, particularly in a country like Somalia.”
Pirates hijacked their first commercial ship since 2012 in March of this year. After the hijacking, the pirates steered the Comoros-flagged, Sri Lankan-crewed vessel back to the Somali town of Alula.
The event underscored what the US military has been warning about since April: Piracy is on the rise off the coast of Somalia. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the head of US Africa Command, said, “five or six” occurred within the prior two months. “I wouldn’t say it’s a trend, but we’ll watch it,” he told US officials in Djibouti.
It was unlikely that pirates would just fade away. Not only is it an ancient profession, but it remains lucrative under the right conditions. In 2011, Somali pirates launched 237 attacks off the coast of Somalia, the International Maritime Bureau says, garnering money and attention after they made deals for the hundreds of hostages they captured. (Think Captain Phillips, but where the pirates actually get money and don’t die in the end.)
Shipping companies then started to take precautions and follow greater safety measures. That included avoiding the area completely, hiring security personnel to be on the ship, and driving faster. As a result, the number of pirate attacks plummeted.
But shipping companies got cocky after a few good years and started taking risks, an unnamed defense official told the Washington Post. Basically, some companies started to sail close to the Somali coastline again and dropped their speeds in order to save on fuel costs. That allowed fledging pirate networks to rack up some scores.
So in a world where terrorists already occupy a lot of America’s time and focus, they now have to worry about pirates, too. And if pirates start helping terrorist groups out even more, they US military should consider striking them, too, Meservey said.
“If Indeed they are emerging as an important facilitator of weapons and other materiel reaching al-Shabaab or ISIS, then they would become a legitimate military target,” he claimed.
For now, the fact the black flag of ISIS is getting closer to the black flag of pirates is scary enough.