The BBC is reporting that the Somali insurgent group al-Shabaab has finally confirmed what many had long suspected, that is that the Islamist fighters are aligning their local efforts with al-Qaeda's broader campaign of "international jihad". As well, the report says that Shabaab has forged an alliance with the Ras Kamboni Brigade, another Islamist group based in the southernmost part of Somalia, close by the border with Kenya. The Kimboni Brigade had previously been allied with Shabaab's main rival, Hizbul Islam, so these mergers change things a bit in the Horn of Africa, and we should be concerned.
Well, first off, this observer believes there will be a decrease in traditional piracy based out of ports in the southern part of Somalia, that is from Mogadishu to the Kenyan border (the land controlled by the Islamists). This hasn't been the main staging area for most attacks of late, and if Shabaab and its allies are serious about their intents of imposing their views of Koranic law (and why should we doubt that?), then it follows they will curtail further operations against shipping for the time being, if only to do what they say they aspire to. That's good, right?
Not really. It also opens up the potential for further external funding from al-Qaeda sources. Instead of looking to ransoms from hijacked ships (a small amount to begin with), Shabaab could see funding for its operations come from a more stable source - al-Qaeda supporters around the world. As Iraq and Afghanistan continue to fall off the international community's radar, the need for Qaeda to continue their misguided campaign create some sort of trans-national, extremist caliphate may push them into a new theater of operations. A southern front, if you will, one that happens to be in a venue in which many supporters can be found in Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, Egypt and even Kenya. So there may be more money and supporters available to bolster Shabaab.
Secondly, this public call of intents may very well increase the possibility that foreign fighters will add to the numbers already believed to be in Somalia today. It is not inconceivable that someone in Pakistan's Northwest Province is not today telling impressionable young men that they should take the fight against the infidels to a new place. Glibly, it's like , "Go south, young man, to a place you can make a better impact." Watch as fighters leave the tumult of the Middle East and Central Asia for the easier pickings of jihad in East Africa.
Finally, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that if you put a bunch of avowed al-Qaeda fans close to one of the most important sea lanes for global commerce, something bad may happen. We know what al-Qaeda is capable of, on at least four continents. And the only place they have effected large-scale maritime operations to date has been in the seas off the Horn of Africa (viz USS Cole and MV Limburg). If pirates can attack a supertanker or cruise ship for money, why couldn't suicide bombers do the same, albeit with a different goal.
And what does all this have to with piracy? It's simple: The international community has been struggling badly for years to deal with maritime criminals attacking shipping opportunistically. Are we prepared for, say, three skiffs laden with explosives aiming for a box ship in the Gulf of Aden or a supertanker near the Seychelles, piloted by individuals with no intent on boarding and hijacking?
I don't think we are.
The inadequacies of dealing with "conventional" piracy are serious. The shipping community, the international naval community and the nations of the world are hiding themselves in the sand about this. I hate to be the pessimist here, and will offer up some ideas shortly, but I worry that something bad's about to happen.