Monday, May 3, 2010

Somali Islamic Insurgents & Piracy

With the news that the Islamic militants Hizbul Islam overran the Somali coastal town of Haradheere on the weekend, the pirates who had previously been using the port as a base of operations have fled northward, taking their belongings, supporters and even their hostages with them. But now that Hizbul Islam is reportedly in control of Haradheere, there appears to be some confusion about the group itself, and whether they mean to use the port for pirating operations.

For instance, yesterday's New York Times had a piece that wondered, "whether rebels with connections to Al Qaeda will now have a pipeline to tens of millions of dollars - and a new ability to threaten global trade." Unfortunately, the article is incorrect in tying Hizbul Islam to al-Qaeda. Though Hizbul Islam has invited Osama bin Laden and foreign fighters to come to Somalia to aid the insurgent group in its efforts to gain control of the country, and though the group's leader is believed to have ties to al-Qaeda, this particular Islamist organization is not thought by many experts to be linked with al-Qaeda. It is, in fact, Somalia's other main Islamist insurgent group - al-Shabaab - that has aligned itself with al-Qaeda. (For more on the two groups, see Bill Roggio's post at The Long War Journal from last month, by clicking here.)

Some of the confusion may stem from Shabbab's brief entry into Haradheere a week ago, which first caused the local pirates to pack up and leave. But the two Islamist groups are currently not closely allied and have not been working together for some time, and it would appear that Hizbul Islam's capture of the port was part of their efforts to consolidate territory over their rivals.

As well, the idea that the capture of Haradheere may signal a new piracy campaign on Hizbul Islam's part overlooks the fact that they could have engaged in active operations at any time in the past year had they been so inclined. The reality is that these Somali Islamist groups are more interested in their land-based operations than they are in any maritime criminal activities. It is believe that the insurgents receive some funding from piracy operations and rely on vessels to smuggle arms, supplies and other goods in and out of the parts of Somalia they control. As some reports have pointed out, the battle for Haradheere may have been partially the result of a failure on the pirates' part to send some of their profits to the Islamists. That is, the pirate gangs didn't want to pay protection money to either al-Shabaab or Hizbul Islam (though the pirates are known to accept protection money from some vessels operating in the seas off the Horn of Africa). So in a tit-for-tat response for not giving up a cut of the takes, the pirates of Haradheere found themselves being run out of town by better armed and organized adversaries.

The ideological foundations of groups like Hizbul Islam and al-Shabaab mean that if they engage in widespread piracy operations, they risk undermining their core supporters and any other Somalis who might be favorable to the Islamists. This is not to say these groups will completely refrain from engaging in piracy, just to point out they have other, more important issues to deal with ashore. For the time being, piracy does not appear to a priority for the Islamist insurgents.

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