Somali Islamists bent on turning their land into an international haven for Al Qaeda are using pirate gangs to offer foreign militants safe passage into the country, The Sunday Telegraph has been told.
By Colin Freeman
Sunday, July 05, 2009
The Taliban-style Shabab group , which has already siezed control of much of the lawless nation, has enlisted the pirates' services to smuggle in al-Qaeda fighters from across the Middle East, according to Somali government ministers. They claim that up to 1,000 have arrived in recent months, swelling the ranks of the Shabab in its bid to topple the fragile US-backed administration in Mogadishu.
The warning was issued by Somali's first deputy prime minister, Professor Abdulrahman Adan Ibrahim, during a visit to London last week. He is lobbying for Britain and other Western countries to give more financial help to stamp out the piracy problem along the country's vast 2,000 mile coastline.
The Shabab are requesting the pirates to bring people in for them," Prof Ibrahim told The Sunday Telegraph. "Somalia's borders with neighbouring countries are now tightly policed, so the only corridor for them is via the sea. The pirates smuggle them, and if anybody stops them, they just say they are passing fishermen."
Prof Ibrahim's visit came as Mogadishu witnessed some of its fiercest fighting in recent months, with around 20 people killed in clashes between government forces and the Shabab, which already controls parts of the capital. Residents spoke of corpses lying in the streets, including those of young children killed in the crossfire. Some were buried without being identified. "The streets were horrific," said Ali Muse, an ambulance service official. "We've transported 20 dead bodies and 55 injured in the latest fighting."
Until now, no clear evidence has emerged of co-operation between the Shabab and the pirates, despite widespread fears that some of the pirates' multi-million dollar ransom payments might be channeled to them. Last November, the guerilla movement declared buccaneering to be "un-Islamic", and threatened to attack a pirate gang that hijacked the Sirius Star, the $100 million Saudi oil tanker that was the pirates' biggest catch last year. Some believe, though, that this was simply a posture to ensure that pirate gangs paid the Shabab bribes to turn a blind eye, a theory backed by Prof Ibrahim.
"We are not saying that the Shabab is actually sending out their own people to do pirate operations," he said. "But we think they share some mutual interests with the pirates. The pirate gangs are bribing the Shabab not to attack them, and the Shabab are getting the pirates to bring in fighters."
Prof Ibrahim is now attempting to persuade the British government and others to provide funding to train a new, 1,000 strong version of the defunct Somali navy. The navy's commander-in-chief, Farah Ahmed Omar, has no boats at present, and has not put to sea in 23 years. But the government argues that building up a local force - backed by land units - will be a more effective long-term solution against the pirates than the international naval fleet offshore.
The picture painted by Prof Ibrahim of terrorists hitching rides in pirate skiffs across the Gulf of Aden is not universally accepted. Somali politicians have been accused of exaggerating the threat from al-Qaeda in the past, knowing that it wins the attention of Western governments in a way that clan feuding does not.
Roger Middleton, the world expert on piracy at London's Chatham House thinktank, said: "There are lots of people engaged in all kinds of gun running, people smuggling and other illicit activies in the Gulf of Aden. It is therefore not clear why the Shabab would specifically need pirate help to smuggle al-Qaeda fighters in."
However, many people do view Somalia as a potential new al-Qaeda bolthole. Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned recently that President Barack Obama's operations to squeeze the movement in both Afghanistan and Pakistan could see its fighters relocate to the Horn of Africa region. Already there are believed to be at least 500 fighters holed up in remote mountainous regions of Yemen, where they have been blamed for a spate of recent kidnappings and carbombings. Yemen lies just 200 miles across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia and is well within reach of pirate crews, who generally have little trouble evading foreign anti-piracy patrols .
"I am very worried about growing safe havens in both Somalia and Yemen, specifically because we have seen al-Qaeda leadership start to flow to Yemen," Adml Mullen told the US Brookings Institution in mid-May.
Last month, Mr Obama authorised nearly $10 million worth of arms and military training to help the Somali government quash the Shabab. Critics fear the US-donated weapons may end up falling into insurgent hands.
While most US estimates put the number of foreign fighters in Somalia at around 400, Prof Ibrahim said Somali government estimates put the figure at around 1,000. "We have seen people from Afghanistan, Pakistan and some other African countries like Kenya and the Comoros Islands," he said.
The Shabab was initially allied with the Islamic Courts Union, a relatively moderate Islamic movement which won some popularity in Mogadishu three years ago when it briefly imposed a degree of law and order on a city that plagued for years by warlords. It was seen as more effective than the Western-backed Transitional Federal Government, whose members had not even been able to sit in the capital because of security fears.
But when Ethiopian troops ousted the Islamic Courts Union in early 2007 and re-installed the TFG, the Shabab began a fierce insurgency, which has since returned the capital and much of the rest of the country to a warzone.
In Shabab-controlled regions, brutal intepretations of Sharia law are in place. In the southern town of Kismayo last autumn, a 13-year-old girl was stoned to death on trumped-up charges of adultery. And in Mogadishu last week, four men convicted of stealing mobile phones and guns were punished by having a hand and foot cut off each. A traditional curved sword was used to carry out the sentence in front of hundreds of onlookers.