Monday, April 26, 2010

Somali Pirates vs. Al-Shabab

I know, it sounds like the set-up for an episode of Spike TV’s Deadliest Warrior, but it is a real-life showdown unfolding in Somalia as an armed force from the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic militant group al-Shabab (“The Youth”) are closing in on the port of Haradheere, a stronghold for Somali pirates. You might remember the story of the pirate stock exchange established last year in Haradheere that let residents “invest” in pirate missions; much of the town’s economy relies on piracy – both in provisioning the pirate missions themselves and in the money pirates spend once they receive ransom payments for the ships and crews they capture.

And according to the Associated Press, therein lies the problem. Like their counterparts throughout history, Somalia’s pirates tend to spend their booty on various vices – drug and alcohol use and prostitution are all commonplace in Haradheere today thanks to the free-spending pirates. All three vices also run against al-Shabab’s extremely strict interpretation of Islam, and they’re heading into the port city to restore their idea of law and order.

But according to the Voice of America, al-Shabab’s motivation to move against Haradheere may be less about religion and more about revenge. In the past two months, pirates have been very active off the coast of Somalia. Among the prizes they’ve taken were a ship allegedly transporting weapons from another al-Qaeda franchise (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP) in Yemen to their fellow al-Shabab insurgents, along with nine small Indian-owned cargo vessels called dhows that were transporting loads of charcoal from southern Somalia, which is largely under al-Shabab control. VOA explained that the export and sale of charcoal is one of the ways al-Shabab earns hard currency from abroad to fund their insurgency.

Despite an international presence of up to two-dozen warships operating off the coast of Somalia, the pirates have been undeterred. Without a functioning government for two decades, much of Somalia today is a lawless place. It’s also a place with few options for young men trying to earn a living, which makes the big ransom paydays of open sea piracy attractive to many young Somalis, since a successful capture-and-ransom of a large ship can earn the pirate crew several million dollars. According to the Washington Post, Somali pirates received $60 million in ransom payments last year, an increase of $5 million from 2008. Pirates are believed to be currently holding 20 ships and approximately 250 crewmembers, most will eventually be ransomed and released, though the process may take months. And the pirates are becoming better organized and bolder; this year pirates have launched attacks up to 1,000 miles from the coast of Somalia.

There have been some reports that al-Shabab would like in on the piracy market, but a complex structure of clans and alliances have made it difficult for outsiders like al-Shabab to gain access. So the move on Haradheere may be an attempt to take over the business by force. According to reports, rather than engage in an armed battle with al-Shabab, many of Haradheere’s pirates are said to have fled the city, likely heading for another pirate port, Hobyo, about 70 miles further up the Somali coast. This isn’t the first time that al-Shabab has moved on Haradheere; in 2008 al-Shabab forces occupied Haradheere for five months before retreating and later staged a raid on the city in an attempt to free a hijacked Saudi oil tanker. But in each case al-Shabab eventually left and the pirates quickly got back to business as usual.
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