In February, four Americans were held for ransom by Somali pirates and executed. The pirates have the viciousness, skills and assets to bring havoc to the seas for a price, and Islamist terrorists are willing to pay. The U.S. commander for Africa predicts that Al-Qaeda will team up with the pirate gangs, as terrorist groups see maritime targets as a weak point for their enemies.
The U.S. commander overseeing Africa, General Carter Ham, confirms that the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, al-Shabaab, is making money from piracy off the coast of East Africa. He predicts that Al-Qaeda will directly become involved with the Somali pirates if the problem is not tackled. Pirate activity sharply increased in 2008, coinciding with advances by al-Shabaab. The partnership between the pirates and terrorists is usually not one of ideological affinity, but of business and sometimes, coercion. For example, in February, al-Shabaab members forced a group of pirates to give them 20 percent of what they earn from ransoms. “They demanded we allow six of their fighters to board each of our hijacked ships. We have not left our houses…Worse, we are constantly receiving threatening text messages,” one pirate said.
In April 2008, a group of Somali pirates got paid a $1.2 million ransom to let a Spanish fishing vessel and 26 hostages go free. Al-Shabaab received five percent of the payment. Predictably, such payments to the pirates encouraged them to continue their profitable practices. There have been dozens of hijackings, hostage-takings and raids since, appeasing the pirates and indirectly financing terrorists. In April 2009, former ambassador to Ethiopia and expert on East Africa, David H. Shinn, said that al-Shabaab sometimes receives a protection fee from the pirates of 5 to 10 percent. If the group trains the pirates, it earns 20 percent. If the Al-Qaeda affiliate finances the entire operation, the commission is as high as 50 percent.
In July 2009, Somali officials said that al-Shabaab was hiring pirates to smuggle in members of Al-Qaeda to the country. It was said that up to 1,000 foreign jihadists had been brought in that year. In some cases, the jihadists view the pirates as soldiers defending Islam. In 2008, a leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula said to the Somali pirates, “[T]ake caution and prepare yourselves…Increase your strikes against the Crusaders at sea and in Djibouti.” A spokesman for al-Shabaab praised them for “protecting the coast against the enemies of Allah.” Another group tied to Al-Qaeda, the Ras Kamboni Brigades, said they are “part of the Mujahideen” even if they are unsavory “money-seekers.”
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