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Danger at Sea: When Pirates Become Islamists

When do pirates become hardcore Islamists? Very soon. At least that is what I predicted a few weeks back on PajamasTV, discussing the situation off the coast of Somalia with PJTV host Bill Whittle and fellow commentator and military strategist Austin Bay.

The best unfortunate model of how pirates become jihadists is Abu Sayyaf — the State Department-designated terror organization in the Philippines. Decades ago, Abu Sayyaf was called the Moro National Liberation Front — a regional band of violent Muslims who wanted to separate from the predominately Catholic Philippines. Enter the jihadists from Afghanistan with the idea of dying by the sword. Abu Sayyaf began blowing up ferries and kidnapping and beheading people in the name of global jihad.

The situation in Somalia is heading in that same direction. The crisis there has continued to deteriorate all month, with fighters from the terrorist organization al-Shabaab gaining control of town after town. “They’re expanding their reach,” Jennifer Cooke, head of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told the Voice of America. With this reach comes al-Qaeda’s ideology. “They’ve seized a number of key port towns — Merka, Kismayo — and are really driving the chaos that is engulfing Mogadishu at this point.”

As soon as the jihadists seize Eyl the situation will become drastic for the fate of the hostages held there. Eyl is pirate central, the port city where the crews and their ships — including a Ukrainian cargo vessel laden with arms and a Saudi supertanker with two million barrels of crude oil on board — are being held. If the pirates come under the al-Shabaab sway, they will likely shift from wanting booty to wanting blood. This is the way of the jihadist’s sword.

On Tuesday, the United Nations is holding a meeting on piracy. A draft resolution has been circulating among members, one which proposes to allow countries to chase pirates onto Somali soil. But the commander of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, told the Associated Press this was a bad idea because civilian casualties “cannot be overestimated.”

But civilians are already quietly being killed. The pirates released a Greek chemical tanker in mid-December; three crew members of the MV Action had been killed. Andrew Mwangura, head of the Seafarers Assistance Program in Kenya, told reporters the crew members had died “under questionable circumstances.”

The Pentagon says it has no plans to enter Somalia by land. It is, however, allegedly weighing options of using air power there. Since no civilian casualties are mentioned as far as air strikes are concerned, one must assume the Pentagon is considering taking out al-Shabaab strongholds and not going after the pirates in Eyl.

Either way, Somalia remains a hornet’s nest for the West. It is the place where Osama bin Laden first got the world’s attention; bin Laden claims his organization trained Somalis how to shoot a Black Hawk helicopter down. And in a 2006 speech, bin Laden made it clear that he sees Somalia as a graveyard for Americans:

We will continue, God willing, to fight you and your allies everywhere, in Iraq and Afghanistan and in Somalia and Sudan until we waste all your money and kill your men and you will return to your country in defeat as we defeated you before in Somalia.

Al-Qaeda’s historical links to Somalia should not be underestimated. Mohammed Atef, al-Qaeda’s former number three, lived in Somalia before he was killed by a U.S. drone in Afghanistan in 2001. Maulana Masood Azhar, a key suspect in the recent Mumbai attacks and founder of Jaish-e-Mohammed, spent time in Mogadishu in the 1990s. Al-Shabaab makes no bones about the fact that, like Abu Sayyaf, foreign fighters make up a significant part of its brood:

“In our network of al-Shabaab we have foreign fighters who have come all the way from the different parts of the world in order to sacrifice their souls in the will of their creator,” says the group’s spokesman, Sheikh Mukhtar Abu Mansoor.

As the group gets stronger, its threats become louder and more political. In September, al-Shabaab posted an animated video banner of a commercial airplane being targeted by a shoulder-fired missile at the airport in Mogadishu. The Long War Journal translated the accompanying warning:

[The airport] is officially used by Somali infidel officers and elite members of apostate countries. Dead and injured soldiers of the Ethiopian, Ugandan, and Burundi invaders are flown from the airport. … American and Jewish intelligence personnel land there and take scholars and innocent people captive.

The word around Washington is that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to bring to the United Nations table a Bush administration proposal to send peacekeepers to Somalia to stop piracy and stave off the rise of the jihadists there.

But the two problems are quickly becoming one problem that is exponentially more dangerous. The pirates are about to become jihadists and Somalia is about to explode.