Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Al-Qaeda in Somalia: Naming names

At a barely noticed conference earlier this month in Kampala, Uganda, the African Union's Special Representative for Somali - Wafula Wamunyinyi - is quoted as saying that the presence of al-Qaeda in that country is real, something about which the world, "[S]hould be put on notice."

He claims that individuals have been recruited to the Somali-based group al-Shabaab from nations such as the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Kenya, Uganda and the Sudan. These foreign fighters, according to Wafula, now number 1200, half of whom he claims are Kenyan.

In the SperoNews report, journalist Martyn Drakard details some of those involved in the command structure of the Somali Islamist group, based on information from the AU Special Representative:

"Wafula listed the foreigners holding important positions within Al Shabaab as Sheikh Mohamed Abu Faid, Saudi born, who is the financier and current 'manager' of the group. The head of security and training operations is Abu Musa Mombasa, who arrived recently from Pakistan to replace Saleh Ali Nabhan who was killed in US military operations. Abu Mansur Al-Amriki, an American, heads the finance and payroll department of the foreign fighters, while Mohamoud Mujajir, a Sudanese, is in charge of the recruitment of suicide bombers, he said. Also on the list is Ahmed Abdi Godanem an Al-Qaeda graduate from Afghanistan, and Abu Suleiman Al-Bandiri, a Somali of Yemeni descent."

There is no doubt that foreign fighters have been aiding al-Shabaab: A senior member of that organization admitted as much back in May, as AFP reported, though Sheikh Hussein Ali Fidow categorized those fighters differently: "Those who say our Muslim brothers are foreigners are wrong. They came to assist their brothers in Somalia."

Brethren of the coast, indeed. The American mentioned above - Abu Mansur Al-Amriki ("the American") - is reported to have been born Omar Hammami and raised as a Baptist in Daphne, Alabama (near Mobile), before taking up an extreme form of Islam and leaving the U.S. to, eventually, end up in Somalia. Saleh Ali Nabhan - the head of training new fighters - was killed in mid-September by US Special Forces (see my earlier post about this here).

The biggest problem in dealing with piracy in the seas off Somalia is addressing what's going on ashore, and identifying those who are aiding in the destabilization of the region is of paramount importance. None of the information here is classified or secret, but it is a telling sign that there is intense intelligence-gathering going on in the region. Knowing the names of these individuals is (if correct) a big part of the proverbial intel iceberg.

Hostages as commodities: It's not just Somalia to be concerned about

There was a lengthy item by Nicholas Schmidle of The New York Times posted a week and a half ago, entitled "The Hostage Business", that's well worth a read. It's about the situation facing those seized by criminals in Nigeria and in it Schmidle quotes the now former inspector-general of the Nigerian National Police, Mike Okiro, as figuring that, "[T]he total amount of ransoms paid in Nigeria between 2006 and 2008 exceeded $100 million."

Assuming Okiro means a two-year period, that's about $50 million annually that has been paid to free hostages. By comparison, most analysts figure Somali gangs gain somewhere in the region of $80 million a year from ransoms (though the Kenyan foreign minister said, a year ago, that the figure could be as high as $150 million).

But even if both the Nigerian and Somalian figures are inflated - which is not unlikely - the point is that while everyone's been worrying about the money being garnered by pirates off the Horn of Africa, their west African brethren having been making similarly massive amounts from the taking of hostages.

Of note in Schmidle's article is the seemingly tempered view that the captors may be taking to their prisoners. Nigerian pirates - and land-based criminals - have had a reputation for ruthlessness and violence that Somali criminals have avoided. The former have been known to main and injure in the past, such as cutting off the ears of mariners. But with the bounties now being paid by firms, these west African criminals appear to have realized what the Somali pirates have long known: A live hostage is far more valuable than a dead one.

And, as the article explains, the money made from ransoms is fueling a mini-economic boom, of sorts, as criminals build homes and buy SUVs. Kind of like in Somalia.

Though many of the kidnappings being discussed in the article occur ashore, the threat that is posed to mariners working in the region is still serious. And unless addressed, we could be looking at two fronts in the battle to combat piracy: East and West Africa.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Somali pirates free crew after seven months in captivity

AFP is reporting that that the Maltese-flagged, Greek-owned vessel MV Ariana has been freed after being hijacked off Somalia over seven months ago. The vessel's crew of 24 Ukrainian mariners - including two women - is reported to be preparing to get underway after a ransom said to amount to $2.5 million was paid to the pirates. One can only imagine what it must have been like for the crew to spend such a long time in the hands of pirates (the vessel was seized on May 2 while en route to Brazil from the Middle East with a cargo of soya beans).

The likelihood that any of the criminals who captured the Ariana will ever be prosecuted is unlikely. The New York Times posted a Reuters item on Thursday about the difficulties surrounding the setting up of an international court to deal with piracy. And though no one will say it, the crux of the matter is that nobody really cares enough to amend any statutes or jurisdiction about criminal acts like piracy and sea robbery into the 21st century. We'll spend millions deploying naval vessels and personnel to the region and fob off the main prosecutorial work of dealing with suspected pirates to places like Kenya, but not establish clear cut, international parameters and practices to effectively convict pirates.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The logisitcal nightmare of prosecuting pirates

In my last post, I talked about the comments of retired US Navy Rear-Admiral Terence McKnight, who was somewhat critical of the way that piracy off the Horn of Africa was being presented. In his talk at the US Navy Museum in Washington last week, McKnight also was quoted in Defence Professionals as saying that prosecuting detained pirate suspects is a "logistical nightmare".

He said that, "Since there is no competent government in the area of operation the pirates have to be transferred to courts that will accept jurisdiction. This requires transportation, jailing for the pirates, the gathering and securing of evidence, security escorts for the pirates and witnesses to testify in the trials, and so on."

There's an interesting piece related to this from the London Times that was posted today, by journalist Tristan McConnell reporting from Mombasa, Kenya. McConnell looks at a court case currently ongoing relating to an attack by suspected pirates on a vessel in late May of this year.

Based on my research, we should not rely on Kenya to be the judicial clearing-house for the successful prosecution of piracy convictions. The Somali system of rule of law must be reinforced, and the international community must fill the gap in the meantime. Dealing with "hostis humani generis" requires a transparent judicial system, and an international admiralty court is one option.

Is the media over-publicizing piracy?

My colleague EagleSpeak recently posted a piece highlighting comments made by retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Terence McKnight, in which he said that the piracy problem in the Gulf of Aden is "over publicized". By this, the former commander of Combined Task Force 151 (the international counterpiracy operation in the region) was referring to the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which thousands of people have been killed and injured and millions more affected by the ongoing fighting, situations that McKnight presumably feels merits more attention from the media and the general public than some Somali pirates harassing passing vessels. (You can read the source of EagleSpeak's post at Defence by clicking here.)

Military commanders, especially retired ones, often make comments critical of how the media has been covering events in war zones - or elsewhere - and McKnight's thoughts are not without some merit. After all, until the Maersk Alabama was attacked earlier this year, many North Americans cared little about the situation off the Horn of Africa (HoA). And quite often the media will glom onto something currently considered "sexy" in the hopes of attracting an audience, only to discard any serious follow-through because they've moved on to the next item of interest. To a degree, it's the ADD nature of news gathering and the audience who consumes the output: One moment it's troop surges or economy and the next it's Tiger Williams late night driving abilities. And, in the face of little real, factual information gleaned from on-the-ground investigation - something which is becoming rarer and rarer - you often end up with superfluous pieces that are merely trying to fill a void. It's something I commented upon earlier this year regarding the hijacking of the Arctic Sea incident in European waters.

But is the scourge of piracy off the HoA being over-hyped by the media? I don't think so. Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia are all different situations, each replete with its own history and different levels of instability. My issue with McKnight's comments are that they seem to infer a quantitative differentiation between Somali piracy and the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as though the number of casualties or personnel involved automatically make one theater of operations more important than another.

It's not about a body count and it's not about the numbers. Dealing with piracy and dealing with Somalia is about national and international obligations. It's about reminding people, as EagleSpeak rightly points out in his own post, that there are several hundred people currently being held hostage by Somali pirate gangs, people whose lives are at risk. The same can not be said about Iraq or Afghanistan - there are not hundreds of foreigners being held captive in those places by insurgents. In fact, I dare say that if there were so many foreign hostages being in either of those countries, there would be a greater sense of outrage by many people. (And, yes, I know that many citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan are facing dire threats, but I am here focusing on the impact of piracy operations on mariners.)

Dealing with the problem of piracy off the HoA is also fundamentally about dealing with Somalia and the eight million people trying to survive there, people who have been forgotten and written off by most nations for the better part of two decades, to say nothing of the many millions more who live in the surrounding regions. If that's not as worthy of media interest as the plight of the Afghan or Iraqi people, then what else is? An "Octo-Mom"?

And, by the way, I would also mention that McKnight's comments about over-publicizing the issue were not, in fact, widely reported in the media.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Somalia's navy commander tempers his criticisms of international counter-piracy efforts

Just over a week ago, the head of the Republic of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) naval forces was quite critical of the way the international community has been dealing with piracy in the region. As I noted in an earlier post, Admiral Farah Omar Ahmed felt that foreign warships were "pretending" to watch over pirates, while, instead, engaging in illegal fishing themselves, or aiding private vessels doing likewise.

The idea that personnel on warships doing counter-piracy work have the free time to fish is wrong, as I've said before. Nations as diverse as the United States, Canada, Great Britain, France, Spain, China, Russia, Japan, Iran and India have, among many others, been expending millions upon millions of dollars to dispatch forces to the region to try to stem the tide of pirate attacks. But the international community has also been providing great aid to both the shaky TFG as well as to ordinary Somalis living outside that political entity's control. Which perhaps explains why the admiral chose to recently temper his inflammatory comments.

Talking to reporters in Mogadishu Monday night, Adm. Farah Omar Ahmed is quoted in Newstime Africa as saying that the problem in combating piracy is really one of a lack of communication between his Somali naval forces and those of the international community. “The cooperation between Somali government and the international community to fight piracy is too little, while pirates are stepping up their attacks so this seems that the international campaign against Somali buccaneers will produce nothing,” Admiral Ahmed says in the report.

So apparently the onus, in his opinion, is back on us - the international community - to deal with the problem. His comments also coincide with the decision by the United Nations Security Council to renew for another year the authorization of member States and regional organizations (such as NATO or the European Union) to continue their efforts to fight piracy off the Horn of Africa. Agreed to unanimously by the members of the Security Council, the resolution allows for forces to, "[E]nter the strife-torn country’s territorial waters and 'undertake all necessary measures that are appropriate in Somalia' provided they have the transitional government’s consent." The last part of the UN statement means that foreign warships are still supposed to make a formal request to the TFG to come closer than 12 nautical miles. Hopefully, Admiral Farah Omar Ahmed will be amenable to any such requests, which are certain to come up in the near future.

Regarding the amount of aid that flows into Somalia from the international community, it may surprise many that even with the country's lawlessness, it is considerable. A couple of weeks ago, the African Development Bank offered up a grant of US$2 million to enhance the public management sector in Somalia, a portion of which is intended to improve the financial/banking elements. And on Monday, the United Nations said it would be seeking $689 million for humanitarian projects intended for 2010. That's right, $689 million. And that's down from this year's request, which is $849 million.

If interested, the official website of the TFG can be accessed by clicking here.

Another mariner killed by pirates off West Africa

The BBC is reporting that another pirate incident in the Gulf of Guinea has ended in the death of a mariner. Details are still thin, but the Panamaian-flagged tankship African Prince was apparently boarded by pirates last week while steaming near Lagos, Nigeria. The pirates took control of the tanker and her crew of 29, but the Ghanaian navy was able to respond to the hijacking. After shadowing the vessel, the Ghanian authorities were able to intercept the African Prince and rescue the crew of Nigerian and Pakistani mariners.

However, all of the pirates managed to escape and one member of the tankship's crew, an unnamed chef, was found dead, having been badly beaten by the boarders. The rest of the crew are helping authorities investigate this incident while heading their vessel back to Nigeria. The African Prince seems to have left Tema, east of Accra, earlier today, under escort from the Nigerian navy. The tankship belongs to the Nigerian National Petroleum Company and is thought to have been transporting some 5000 tonnes of refined oil at the time of the attack.

This murder comes just a week after another seafarer was killed by suspected Nigerian pirates, in similar circumstances: In last week's incident, the tanker Cancale Star was boarded while sailing off Benin (due west of Nigeria and east of Ghana) and, in the course of being aboard, the pirates beat the chief officer so badly that he later died of his injuries. Four other crew were injured, one seriously.

Counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden declared a success: EU Naval commander

Well, here's one way to put a positive spin on the current situation in the seas off the Horn of Africa: Rear Admiral Peter Hudson, operational commander of the European Union's Naval Force (EU NAVFOR) in the region, today told journalists in Kenya that the military efforts to deal with piracy off the Somali coast have been successful. Beneath the headline "Operation to fight piracy a success", Nairobi-based media outlet The Nation has the British Royal Navy officer referring to the fact that there have been no successful hijackings of vessel in the Gulf of Aden since the end of July. The last officially reported seizure in the Gulf was the Turkish-owned cargo ship MV Horizon-1, captured on July 8 and released by Somali pirates on October 5, after a ransom reported to be at least $1.5 million was paid.

RAdm Hudson went on to say that over 50 vessels and 300,000 tonnes of food have been safely escorted through the Gulf by naval forces. Part of the EU NAVFOR's mandate is to protect humanitarian aid shipments intended to help alleviate the situation ashore in Somalia.

While the British commander's perspectives might be technically correct in terms of the decrease in successful pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden/Red Sea waters, it seems a bit early to categorize the broader situation in the region in the same way. Not that the admiral is saying so verbatim in the report, and perhaps some of the blame for this positive spin comes from the writer of the post getting carried away, with an opening line that goes, "The military operation targeting piracy off the Somali coast has been termed a success."

But coming within days of the seizure of the supertanker Maran Centaurus and other recent attacks - successful ones, no less - off the eastern coast of Somalia, it does seem a tad odd to hype the situation in the north while pirate operations have clearly been shifted into the western Indian Ocean. Piracy off Somalia is a bigger problem than just the Gulf of Aden. Anyone remember a certain (premature) "Mission Accomplished" incident?