This week, we celebrate the Navy SEALs’ rescue of American ship captain Richard Phillips. Their action, from the night airdrop that delivered them to the waiting warships to the split-second action in which three of the pirates were killed, was what we expect from our best special operations troops.
But while we praise their skill, let’s not lose sight of who Phillips’ captors were. His Somali pirate captors are Islamic jihadists, dedicated to the same goals as Osama bin Laden and other jihadists around the world.
In August 2008, when the pirates became especially active off the Horn of Africa, Andrew Mwangura, head of the East African Seafarers’ Assistance Programme, declared that Al-Shabaab, a group of jihadists in Somalia, use piracy to fund their jihad: “According to our information, the money they make from piracy and ransoms goes to support al-Shabaab activities onshore.”
With ransoms for ships each bringing in at least $10,000 and some in multiple millions of dollars, and the pirates seizing ships at a furious rate (taking four in one forty-eight hour period last summer), piracy is a lucrative source of funding for the jihad. Journalist Stephen Brown noted in November 2008 that “security experts fear the ransom money the pirates are receiving will allow them to buy better equipment and weapons for larger operations.” And with astounding short-sightedness, European governments — with the notable exception of the French last week — have been paying these ransoms. In that light, the American refusal to do so, and the rescue of Phillips, is a welcome step in the right direction.
But now it must be followed up properly, for al-Shabaab has numerous links to jihadist activity elsewhere. Al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (“Jihadist Youth”) is linked to al-Qaeda and advocates the strict application of Islamic law. It came to the fore in that troubled nation after the 2006 toppling by Ethiopian troops of the Islamic Courts Union government that ruled briefly in Mogadishu. And Mwangura notes that currently “the entire Somali coastline is now under control of the Islamists.” Al-Shabaab now controls more of Somalia than the Islamic Courts Union did even at the height of its power, and its reach extends beyond Somalia. Some of the Somali immigrants who have mysteriously disappeared from the Minneapolis area have been recruited for jihad by al-Shabaab, which has also attracted jihad fighters from around the world to join its efforts to take control in Somalia.
Not only are the Somali pirates Islamic jihadists, but their religious identity is much more important to them than being considered the sons and heirs of Blackbeard and Captain Kidd. On Sunday, Reuters quoted one of the pirates saying, “We never kill people. We are Muslims. We are marines, coastguards — not pirates.” Hostages have reported, however, that despite this pious disavowal, the pirates have threatened to kill them on more than one occasion. And the Navy SEALs only opened fire when it appeared they were about to kill Capt. Phillips.
Counterterror analyst Olivier Guitta, exploring Al-Shabaab’s connections with al-Qaeda, explained that the group “intends to take control of the Gulf of Aden and the southern entrance of the Red Sea.” This creates an acute problem for Barack Obama. If al-Shabaab does gain control of Somalia, it will not only continue to threaten shipping but will almost certainly expand its jihadist reach beyond Somalia to destabilize the Horn of Africa and work with other jihadist elements in the area, just as it has attracted foreign jihadists to its own cause. What’s more, the Somali jihad could come to the U.S. itself. In January, Newsweek reported about al-Shabaab that “a jihadist group able to enlist U.S. nationals to fight abroad might also be able to persuade Somali-Americans to act as sleeper agents here in the United States.” Al-Shabaab’s al-Qaeda ties make it quite likely that such a thought has occurred to the group’s leadership as well.
Accordingly, counterterror analysts and the mainstream media would do well to widen their narrow focus upon maritime piracy, and consider the role that this piracy is playing in the larger jihadist initiative. Unfortunately, with the Obama administration moving away even from the language of the “war on terror,” it’s unlikely that it will consider the implications of al-Shabaab’s links with the global jihadist network.
In an April 2008 statement, al-Shabaab vowed to “throw the West into hell.” Does Obama have the vision or the will to stand against this bloodlust before it grows even more powerful? And if so, what will he do?