Piracy on the high seas fascinates for its boldness and improbability. However, recent hijackings in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean go beyond notorious criminality. They are a warning beacon from the failed state of Somalia,where lawlessness may signal a new training, financing and launching site for terrorist activity.
Somali pirates have long preyed on hapless cargo ships and successfully negotiated multi-million dollar ransoms with owners and insurers. In response, Britain, Russia, the United States and a host of other nations sent warships to patrol the Gulf of Aden where most hijackings occur. Unimpeded, the pirates have reached out into the Indian Ocean, broadening the range of their attacks.
In November 2008, pirates took over a loaded supertanker carrying a cargo of over $100 million in Saudi Arabian oil. At a minimum, this escalation raises the risk of environmental catastrophe and broadcasts a new terrorist opportunity. Like Afghanistan in the 1990’s, Somalia is at once a failed state and an international time-bomb.
Long troubled by extremism and corruption, Somalia has recently seen battles between Islamic fundamentalists and U.S. and Ethiopian-supported forces. Meanwhile, Somalia has remained desperately poor and largely lawless. The Transitional Government controls the capital, but lacks authority and may not be able to maintain control as neighboring Ethiopia removes its troops by the end of 2008. Those that thrive in a lawless environment, from terrorists to criminals, are increasing their ranks and activities.
Recalling Events in Afghanistan
In March 2001, Taliban authorities, then in control of Afghanistan, carried out a highly publicized destruction of the 1500 year-old monumental statues of Bamyan, citing offense to the Taliban’s strict code of religious orthodoxy. Many in the international community were horrified at the destruction of cultural treasures and protested the disregard for international norms of respect for historical artifacts. Militant Islamic training camps were also under international surveillance, but were allowed to propagate. No serious intervention was contemplated out of respect for territorial sovereignty sacrosanct to international law.
In retrospect, had the outside world intervened in Afghanistan prior to 9/11, they might have uncovered evidence of the plot to fly planes into the World Trade Center, Pentagon and White House. They would undoubtedly have found the extent to which training camps were preparing tens of thousands of recruits for a worldwide campaign of terrorism. Later, when U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan as part of operation Enduring Freedom, they did indeed find plans and drawings of U.S. targets.
Western powers are in no mood to expend precious resources on a quagmire in Somalia after the difficulty rebuilding and securing Afghanistan and Iraq. However, all should be cognizant of the signals coming from Somali waters.
Pirates have taken millions of dollars in ransom year after year. The recent increase in their attacks now threatens to make environmental catastrophe a part of the equation. The nexus between the Somali pirates and Al Qaeda or other terror organizations is not clearly known. However, Afghanistan is instructive; those bent on destruction may see Somalia as a base and safe haven, where international laws and norms do not apply.