THE BLOG

Somalia: A Terrorist-Piracy Nexus?

Co-authored with Joseph Szyliowicz, a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.

Piracy, like terrorism has been a scourge of mankind for centuries and, though its practitioners, real (Blackbeard, Anne Bonny and Henry Morgan) and mythical (Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribean movie stories) have achieved heroic stature in popular culture, its contemporary manifestations represent a major threat to the global economy and to national security.

Significant strides have been made in recent years towards combating piracy, especially off the coast of Somalia, but a robust international grand strategy is urgently needed in order to forestall an ever more dangerous global threat as pirates develop ever more sophisticated organizational structures, many of which are already linked to criminal gangs and even, in some cases to terrorist groups.

Their activities already impose heavy financial and human costs not only on the maritime industry but also on the countries from which they operate. Heretofore, the area around Somalia has been the most dangerous area but significant progress has been made in reducing piracy there. Last year, pirates succeeded in capturing 13 vessels, compared to 49 in 2010 and 28 in 2011, according to the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Part of that success can at least be partially explained by the European Union's heavy naval presence around the Horn of Africa, in the Gulf of Aden while improving intelligence sharing with NATO, the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), the UK Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO), and the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) Piracy Reporting Center. Additional measures implemented by shipping companies such as providing more armed security aboard merchant vessels while securing the ship's perimeter with razor or barbed wire have also led to the significant decrease in the number of piracy attacks. Equally important, however, was the 2009 implementation of the Djibouti Code of Conduct, a code concerning the repression of piracy and armed robbery against ships. Under the code, aside from committing themselves to abiding by various counter-piracy United Nations Security Council Resolutions, the signatories also pledged to overhaul their domestic counter-piracy legislation. As a result, a record number of pirates were sentenced by local courts around the world last year.

The significance of these developments should not, however, be overstated. First, the cost remains enormous -- in 2011, it is estimated that Somali piracy cost the global economy an estimated 7 billion USD through higher insurance premiums, security enhancements, and business disruption and earned the pirates some 160 million USD in ransoms. These figures do not include the psychological burdens borne by the captives or the costs imposed on Somalia. And, the actual costs are probably even higher due to widespread underreporting. Second, while piracy off the coast of Somalia has decreased, pirates are gradually focusing their efforts where patrols are not available for protection, now operating in the wider Indian Ocean. As pirates are extending their reach from Oman to the Maldives, they have also proven to be excellent entrepreneurs, building large well-financed organizations that are able to execute ever more sophisticated attacks such as hijacking oil tankers off the coast of Nigeria and stealing the valuable cargo. Moreover, pirate groups are becoming increasingly international and are extending their reach from national bases to neighbors -- from Nigeria, for example to Benin and the Ivory Coast, usually in cooperation with powerful local elements.

Economically speaking, piracy already presents an enormous challenge and it is conceivable that as pirates face stiffer resistance on the high seas by an increasingly stronger international naval presence, their political and ideological motivations could radicalize over time. Currently, terrorist groups already cooperate with criminal gangs to raise funds and piracy could potentially become a lucrative source of income for radical groups. A second plausible scenario is that as pirates struggle to capture more ships, pirates could resort to attacking shipping directly as criminal motivations could subside to radical ideology propagated by al Qaeda and its splinter groups.

Hence, it is easy to envision a nightmare scenario wherein terrorists, supported by a pirate group, hijack an oil tanker not just to steal the oil or collect the ransom but to blow it up in a major port with devastating economic consequences across the globe. A separate threat scenario that should not be underestimated entails terrorists capturing a liquefied natural gas carrier that can be used as a floating bomb, which can either be detonated at a major port or near a flotilla of ships in the open seas. Piracy and terrorism can also be used as means to exert economic warfare against the United States and the international community as maritime attacks offer terrorists an alternate means of causing mass economic destabilization. After all, terrorists have already attacked ships -- al Qaeda, the USS Cole (2000), Abu Sayyaf a ferryboat in the Philippines (2004) and the Mumbai attacks (2008).

Although only limited evidence exists at present for such a prospect, the piracy issue must be viewed as more than an economic problem.

This is particularly relevant for the Somalia case where the Al Shabaab terrorist group is known to have links to al Qaeda. Although, at present, such factors as clan differences and the pirates' business orientation have precluded any cooperation with Al Shabaab, a scenarios where Al Shabaab mounts a transnational attack by sea can easily be imagined.

Hence, though significant strides have been made towards quelling piracy in recent years, a broad approach that focuses on defeating piracy networks on land as well as on the seas is urgently needed. Such a strategy should be carried out in conjunction with international security cooperation that places greater emphasis on socio-economic development in order to deal with the underlying political and economic factors. The cost of neglecting a robust development strategy for Somalia could potentially be devastating for East Africa and beyond; failure to do so could also undermine the region's trading ability, at the expense of radical groups potentially seeking to capitalize on economic devastation brought by piracy.

As a first step in that strategy, we propose that Somalia be strengthened through soft policies that allow for stronger institutions, which include building a capable coast guard, and training local forces to take responsibility for their own security. In such an effort, initiatives spearheaded by the U.S. and such organizations as the African Union and Arab League and regional partners such as Kenya and Ethiopia are sorely needed. Efforts should be made to promote economic development by building a well-functioning central government beyond Mogadishu's premises. Diplomatically speaking, the Somali government also needs to be boosted. Moreover, drawing upon the Arab states' close geographical proximity and deep historical ties to Somalia, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Islamic Development Bank could play a lead role in funding urgently needed development initiatives while at the same time strengthening partnerships with tribal leaders across Somalia.

Failure to implement stabilizing measures for Somalia could also significantly hurt U.S. economic interests as it is estimated that nearly 20 percent of all international seaborne freight in any given year end up in the United States. By implementing a comprehensive strategy for Somalia, Washington will inevitably protect its economic interests by helping to secure the world's oceanic environment. It is therefore a welcoming sign that Washington is considering re-establishing a formal U.S. diplomatic presence in Somalia. However, this is only a first step; the U.S. should exercise stronger leadership in combating piracy throughout the world.

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