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Why Al-Shabaab Joined Somalia's Pirates

Zeauddin Ahmed

Zeauddin Ahmed

Fri, 26 Apr 24

After being held by Somali pirates for 31 days, the Bangladeshi flag carrier cargo ship "MV Abdullah" and its 23 crew members have been released. The ship, along with the 23 sailors, was hijacked by Somali pirates on its way from Mozambique, Africa, carrying coal, to Dubai on March 12th. The vessel is owned by Bangladesh's KSRM Group.

After their release, the pirates have mentioned in a letter to the ship's captain that the vessel will be safe to proceed to Dubai. They have assured that if any other pirates attempt to attack the ship en route, they will be deterred upon seeing this letter. Furthermore, the ship received assistance from Spanish and Italian naval forces to navigate through the perilous waters of the Indian Ocean. However, a few hours after the ship's release, the police of the Federal State of Puntland in northeastern Somalia arrested eight pirates. However, no one admits to paying a ransom, but it is hard to believe that ships and sailors could be released without a ransom.

65 pirates risked their lives to capture the ship. They sometimes attack warships mistaking them for merchant ships and lose their lives. So there is no precedent for releasing any hostage ship without paying ransom. A video showed packets being thrown into the sea and some people using two speedboats to pick up the packets. According to the pirates, 5 million dollars or 55 crore Taka have been paid as ransom. A UK based insurance company has paid this amount. After confirming whether the money in the thrown packets was genuine or counterfeit, the pirates released the ship, captain, and crew. However, granting freedom in this manner will encourage the sailors to engage in piracy. Indian and European warships had sought permission to rescue Bangladeshi sailors using force, but such permission wasn't granted due to concerns for the sailors' safety. However, due to the vigilance of international naval forces, the pirates were under some pressure, which compelled them to swiftly negotiate.

Somalia is about 99 percent Muslim. It gained independence from Italian colonial rule in 1960. Following the collapse of military rule in 1991, Somalia was plunged into more than two decades of conflict and lacked an effective government. Taking advantage of this instability, trawlers from neighboring countries would come and fish off Somalia's coast, firing upon those who resisted. Somalia had no capacity to resist foreign trawlers. In order to resist the foreign fishermen, the poor innocent fishermen of Somalia gradually became pirates. Somalia's impoverished coastal communities became organized and began hijacking foreign fishing trawlers and ships through armed groups to ransom them for release. At one point, these impoverished communities even started hijacking international commercial vessels themselves, using them as a means to achieve more ransom payments.

Currently, Somalia's armed Islamist group Al-Shabaab has become involved with these pirates. Nearly 20,000 vessels pass through Somalia's waters each year, making it the busiest maritime route between Europe and Asia. Piracy off the coast of Somalia has reached its peak since 2005. Fourteen years ago, another ship owned by the same owner in Bangladesh was also released in a similar manner, freeing the sailors from captivity after 99 days. In 2011, 31 ships from various countries and in 2012, 8 ships were released, freeing the sailors from captivity. In 2011, the average time taken to release each ship was 178 days, and in 2012, it was 316 days. One ship from Malaysia took 3 years to be released, while a fishing vessel from Myanmar was freed after 5 years. During this time, 6 sailors became ill and died.

In hostage situations, there are companies that supply food to pirates and hostage sailors, later they receive a portion of the ransom after the release. Many companies ensure the protection of their vessels from pirate attacks by employing armed personnel onboard, but this increases the cost of transporting goods. In response to this situation, the vigilance of international naval forces has been increased, and since 2013, Somali pirates had been largely inactive for many years. However, with the escalation of attacks by Houthi rebels in Yemen, Western powers are more preoccupied, leading to a resurgence of Somali pirates.

Somalia is a war-torn country in Africa. In 2001, the Islamist militant group Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, abbreviated as al-Shabaab, was formed. In 2006, the organization began its armed insurgency, defeating the transitional government of Somalia and the Kenyan military coalition, taking control of various cities and ports, including the capital Mogadishu.

However, with the support of America and Europe, Kenya sent troops to Somalia in 2011 to support the Western-backed Somali government. This compelled the al-Shabaab group to retreat. Al-Shabaab continues to launch attacks in neighboring countries as well; therefore, these countries also participated in the war against Shabaab as part of the African Union forces in 2012. Al-Shabaab has faced severe economic hardship, losing control of most areas to the joint forces of the Somali government and the African Union. In need of funds, they have become involved with pirates for financial support.

After experiencing extreme economic crisis, Al-Shabaab manages to sustain their ongoing expenses through piracy. About 20% of pirates are affiliated with this armed organization. Despite enforcing strict Sharia law in their controlled areas, their main sources of income contradict Sharia principles, involving illegal activities such as extortion, kidnapping, ransom collection, smuggling, and human trafficking. In a state of war against the United States, the Taliban in Afghanistan also relied heavily on drug trafficking as a major source of income. Almost all Islamist organizations legitimize illegal income to fund their armed jihadist activities. Al-Shabaab also has legitimate sources of income. They collect tolls and taxes from their controlled areas, levy tolls on roads and bridges, and collect a 2.5% corporate jakat from businesses nearby. In times of drought, they deduct 5% from employees' salaries and collect funds for relief.

Despite Sharia law being enforced in Somalia, Islamist groups led by Al-Shabaab are engaged in domestic warfare against the Somali government. Like ISIS in Afghanistan, Al-Shabaab in Somalia also refuses to accept the internationally-supported Somali government endorsed by the United Nations and the Western world. While they adhere to Wahhabi ideals of Saudi Arabia, they maintain a close relationship with Al-Qaeda as part of the international jihad. Like Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab also seeks opportunities to strike at the interests of the Western world. Western countries also launch attacks on Al-Shabaab. In 2008, they carried out an airplane attack, killing Al-Shabaab's leader, Mualim Aden Hashi Ayro.

The extreme poverty of the country is pushing Somali youth towards Al-Shabaab. The group has abducted many Somali and Kenyan girls, turning them into sex slaves to increase the number of Islamic warriors by giving birth to children. Al-Shabaab does not accept the prevailing education system and democracy. Despite various international initiatives, complete eradication of Somali pirates has not been possible. Unbelievably, there is a stock exchange for pirates in Somalia, divided into 72 groups. With hopes of gaining more profits from ransom, substantial investments are made in this pirate stock exchange. The vast expanse of Somalia's coastline makes it challenging to ensure the uninterrupted safe and secure maritime trade routes. This leads to increased costs for businesses and commerce. In this regard, enhancing the capability of the Somali government to deter pirates on sea and onshore is deemed as an appropriate step forward.

Author: Former Executive Director, Bangladesh Bank and former Managing Director, Mint.

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