Homeland Security

Pirates or Naval Al Qaeda or Both?
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By B Raman
Issue Vol 24.2 Apr-Jun 2009 | Date : 07 Jan , 2011

I have been in receipt of the following message on April 8, 2009, from ECOTERRA International, which disseminates a periodic “Somali Marine & Coastal Monitor”: “Danish owned and US-American operated MV MAERSK ALABAMA, a container ship of 14,120 gross tonnage under US-American flag with a 21 men crew of at least 20 US-American nationals, who are said to be all unarmed according to the company that owns the vessel, had been sea-jacked this morning at 07/30 on the Indian Ocean off the capital of Somalia, Mogadishu and about 280 miles (450 kilometers) south-east of Eyl, a town in the northern Puntland region of Somalia.

The vessel was en route to Mombasa, Kenya, when it was attacked about 500 kilometers (310 miles) off Somalia’s coast, the statement issued by Maersk Line Ltd. said. The 20 unarmed crew members fought back against the four hijackers and hours later regained control of their vessel, according to second mate Ken Quinn. Quinn, sounding harried in a terse mobile phone call to CNN, said the crew had released one of the pirates they had tied up for 12 hours. But the hijackers were refusing to return Captain Richard Phillips. “Right now, they want to hold our captain for ransom and we’re trying to get him back,” Quinn told the US network. “He’s in the ship’s lifeboat,” he said, explaining the four pirates had taken the lifeboat off the Maersk Alabama and that Phillips was in touch with his crew via ship’s radio.


“So now we’re just trying to offer them whatever we can. Food. But it’s not working too good.” Quinn added: “We have a coalition (vessel) that will be here in three hours. So we’re just trying to hold them off for three more hours and then we’ll have a warship here to help us.”The message continues: “Quinn said that all four pirates were on the lifeboat, after sinking their own boat after they seized the container vessel. Earlier, the crew took one pirate hostage, trying to swap him for their captain, but the deal went wrong, he told the American CNN news channel. Though the ship is the sixth seized within a week in the dangerous region around Africa, Cdr Jane Campbell, a spokeswoman for the US Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, said it was the first pirate attack “involving US nationals and a US-flagged vessel in recent memory.” No American merchant vessel has been attacked by pirates since 1804 during the North African Barbary Wars. US President Barack Obama’s chief spokesman said the White House was assessing a course of action. Press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that officials there were monitoring the incident closely. Said Gibbs: “Our top priority is the personal safety of the crew members on board.”


The White House offered no other immediate details about what actions it was considering. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said there has not yet been any communications from the pirates for ransom. But he would not go into military plans. “I’m not going to speculate on any future military actions,” Whitman said, when asked what the US military may do. Whitman said there are still no US Navy ships within view of the vessel, and instead they are still “hundreds of miles away. “The nearest US Navy warship was about 300 nautical miles away at the time of the hijacking,” other US-American government sources said. No action has been taken so far, a spokesman for the US military’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain said first, according to CNN.“There is a task force present in the region to deter any type of piracy, but the challenge remains that the area is so big and it is hard to monitor all the time,” 5th Fleet spokesman Lt Nathan Christensen said. US Army Lieutenant Colonel Elizabeth Hibner, a Pentagon spokesperson, said later on Wednesday that the US Navy destroyer Bainbridge was en route to the scene. The cargo ship is directly owned and operated by a Maersk subsidiary in Norfolk, Virginia, Maersk spokesman Michael Storgaard said. “We have very strict policies on the vessel … crews are trained to handle these types of situations,” Storgaard said from Maersk’s headquarters in Copenhagen, Denmark. Cdr Jane Campbell, a spokeswoman for the US Navys Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, said it was the first pirate attack “involving US nationals and a US-flagged vessel in recent memory.” No American merchant vessel has been attacked by pirates since 1804 during the North African Barbary Wars.

The message further adds: “5th Fleet spokesman Lt. Nathan Christensen  said US-flagged ships are not normally escorted by the military, unless they request it from the US Navy. The 155-metre (511-foot) vessel had been due to dock in the Kenyan port of Mombasa on April 16. The hijacked boxship is run out of the huge merchant and naval base of Norfolk by Maersk Line Ltd., a division of Denmark’s A.P. Moller-Maersk Group and was carrying emergency relief to Mombasa, Kenya, when it was hijacked,” said Peter Beck-Bang, spokesman for the Copenhagen-based container shipping group A.P. Moller-Maersk, but analysts wondered, since relief food is usually shipped as bulk and not by a rather expensive container-ship.  Though the shipping company has had some Defense Department contracts it was said this time not to be on a Pentagon job when attacked, a governmental statement read. The high seas standoff drew an expression of concern from Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, who called on the world to unite to “end the scourge of piracy”.

The  message clarifies that the information contained in it  came from “own sources, AFP, AP, Al-Jazeera, Pentagon, White House, et al”. An earlier message of April 6, 2009, from ECOTERRA INTERNATIONAL had said: “With the latest captures and releases now, still at least 17 (18 with an unnamed sole Barge which drifted ashore) foreign vessels with a total of not less than 297 crew members accounted for (of which 110 are confirmed to be Filipinos) are held in Somali waters and are monitored on our actual case-list, while several other cases of ships, which were observed off the coast of Somalia and have been reported or had reportedly disappeared without trace or information, are still being followed. Over 134 incidents (including attempted attacks, averted attacks and successful sea-jackings) have been recorded for 2008 with 49 fully documented, factual sea-jacking cases (for Somalia, including presently held ones) and the mistaken sinking of one vessel by a naval force.


For 2009 the account stands at 52 averted or abandoned attacks and 14 sea-jackings on the Somali/Yemeni pirate side as well as one wrongful attack by friendly fire on the side of the naval forces. Mystery pirate mother-vessels Athena/Arena and Burum Ocean as well as not fully documented cases of absconded vessels are not listed in the sea-jack count until clarification. Several other vessels with unclear fate (also not in the actual count), who were reported missing over the last ten years in this area, are still kept on our watch-list, though in some cases it is presumed that they sunk due to bad weather or being unfit to sail.  In the last four years, 22 missing ships have been traced back with different names, flags and superstructures.”

Despite the deployment of anti-piracy patrols from a number of countries including India, China and Japan, the Somali pirates continue to operate with virtual impunity and have been collecting millions of dollars in ransom money. The vast area involved, the inability of the international community – due to legal and operational reasons–to undertake land-based operations against the pirates in Somalian territory and the suspected (by me) lack of co-ordination among anti-piracy patrols from different countries have come in the way of effective and deterrent action against the pirates, who are becoming more and more audacious and innovative.

Also read: India in the neighbourhood

A number of questions remain unanswered: Are different pirate groups operating autonomously of each other or is there a common command and control? Who are the leaders of the different pirate groups and where are they based? Apart from the pirates themselves and their leaders, are there any other beneficiaries of the ransom money? Since Al Qaeda has been very active in Somalia for over a decade, does it have any links with the pirates and is it financially benefiting from the ransom payments?

The possibility of links between Al Qaeda and at least some of the pirate groups needs to be taken seriously. Ever since 9/11, Al Qaeda has been wanting to organize a major act of maritime terrorism to disrupt word trade and movement of energy supplies. Many of these pirates–if well-trained and well-motivated by Al Qaeda–could provide a new source of oxygen to it. The time has come to treat the campaign against the Somali pirates as seriously as the campaign against Al  Qaeda.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

B Raman

Former, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai & Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat. He is the author of The Kaoboys of R&AW, A Terrorist State as a Frontline Ally,  INTELLIGENCE, PAST, PRESENT & FUTUREMumbai 26/11: A Day of Infamy and Terrorism: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.

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