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Inside Islam


Somali Pirates and the Islamist Jihad

April 20th 2009

Piracy - Somali Pirates Land
Somali Jihadi Pirates

As the news of the successful US Navy SEALS rescue of Captain Richard Phillips, who was taken hostage by Muslim pirates off the coast of Somalia last week, slides off the headlines into oblivion, we can begin to look more deeply into the matter of piracy off the East African coast.

What is clear is that US government is treating the matter as a criminal case because officials have “found no direct ties” between the East African pirates and regional or international terror groups.

But in fact, those labeled as mere “criminals” are actually Jihadist Muslim pirates, and they make that clear to anyone who will listen. To begin, Somali pirates do not think of themselves as “pirates,” but instead consider themselves devout Muslims protecting Somalia against the infidel West. As one pirate put it to a Reuters journalist just days ago, “We are Muslims. We are marines, coastguards -- not pirates."

According to a recent report on Radio Garowe, the Puntland community radio station in northern Somalia, Muslim pirates have been praised for “protecting the coast against the enemies of Allah” by Sheikh Mukhtar Robow (“Abu Mansur”), a terrorist leader and spokesman of the radical Islamist and al-Qaeda linked al-Shabaab al-Mujahedeen group (designated by the US State Department as a Global Terrorist Organization). On April 12, Sheikh Hassan Abdullah Hersi al-Turki leader of the al-Shabaab-linked Mu'askar Ras Kamboni (also designated by the US State Department as a terrorist) said on Somali radio: “I can say the pirates are part of the Mujahedeen [religious fighters], because they are in a war with Christian countries who want to misuse the Somali coast.” 

According to a Reuters interview last summer with Andrew Mwangura, head of the East African Seafarers’ Assistance Programme, “the entire Somali coastline is now under control of the Islamists…According to our information, the money they make from piracy and ransoms goes to support al-Shabaab activities onshore.” In other words, the actions of Muslim pirates off the coast of Somalia help support the larger Jihad taking place in East Africa.

Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in his March 19, 2009 audio tape to the people of Somalia praised the efforts of insurgent Somali Jihadist groups, saying that they are engaged in “a war between Islam and the international Crusade,” and he described the Somali Jihadists as “one of the important armies in the Mujahidin Islamic battalion, and are the first line of defense for the Islamic world in its southwestern part.” The transcript of the audio has just been released by the NEFA Foundation.

None of this is actually new. On March 10, 2009, before the recent pirate attack pushed this issue to the front pages because of an attack against a U.S.-flagged vessel, Somalia was already a national security concern. As part of the “Annual Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community” Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee about the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Somalia and the surrounding region, as well as the rise of al-Qaeda and its allies in East Africa. As Blair succinctly put it: “We judge the terrorist threat to US interests in East Africa, primarily from al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic extremists in Somalia and Kenya, will increase in the next year as al-Qaeda’s East Africa network continues to plot operations against US, Western, and local targets and the influence of the Somalia-based terrorist group al-Shabaab grows.” Lt. Gen. Maples highlighted al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda’s long alliance and elaborated on the Intelligence Community’s concerns: “Cooperation among al-Qaeda inspired extremists throughout the region strengthens al-Qaeda’s foothold in Africa.” Maples also made it clear that intelligence analysts expect that al-Shabaab will sometime soon officially merge with al-Qaeda. The declassified testimony has been released.

There is even growing concern about the rise of Islamist fundamentalism among the Somali-expat community in the United States. A CBS news reported on March 3, 2009, at least 20 Somali-American men in Minneapolis, which has a Somali expat community of some 70,000, left the U.S. in 2008 to join the ranks of al-Shabaab, to be trained in their terrorist camps in Somalia and wage Jihad. For example, Shirwa Ahmed, a graduate of the University of Minnesota, joined history as, according to FBI director Robert Mueller, the first recorded case of a US citizen becoming a suicide bomber -- he detonated himself in northern Somalia on October 28, 2008 murdering at least 30 civilians.

The threat of Muslim piracy as Jihad is as old as America. In a 1786 meeting in London Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, met with Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja, the Tripolitan ambassador to Britain on the issue. The American ambassadors to France and Britain respectively, Jefferson and Adams met with Ambassador Adja to negotiate a peace treaty and protect the United States from the threat of piracy from the Barbary States. The Barbary States, modern-day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, are collectively known to the Arab world as the Maghreb (“Land of Sunset”), denoting Islam’s territorial holdings west of Egypt.

The two future United States presidents questioned the ambassador as to why his government was so hostile to the new American republic even though America had done nothing to provoke any such animosity. Ambassador Adja answered them in unmistakable terms which was reported to the Continental Congress: “that it was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Musselman [Muslim] who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”

The candor of that Tripolitan ambassador is admirable in its way, because it certainly foreshadows the equally forthright declarations of, say, the Shiite Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the 1980s and the Sunni Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, as well as the thousands pronouncements of their minions, admirers, and followers. America’s Barbary experience took place well before Western colonialism entered the lands of Islam, before there were any oil interests dragging the U.S. into the fray, and long before the founding of the state of Israel.

America became entangled in the Islamic world at its birth and was dragged into a war with the Barbary States simply because of the religious obligation within Islam to forcibly bring belief to those who do not share it. Historically speaking, the confrontation was not with “radical” or “fundamentalist” Muslims but with the Islamic mainstream a world away more than two centuries ago.

The Islamic basis for piracy in the Mediterranean arises from an old doctrine relating to the physical or armed Jihad, or struggle. Although the piratical activities of Barbary genuinely degenerated over the centuries from pure considerations of the glory of Jihad to less grandiose visions of booty and state revenues, it is important to remember that the underlying religious foundations of the institution of piracy remained central. Even after it became commonplace for the pirate captains or their crew to include renegade Europeans, it was essential that these former Christians “turn Turk” and convert to Islam before they could be accorded the honor of engagement in “al-Jihad fil-bahr” that the holy war at sea.

In fact, the peoples of Barbary continued to consider the pirates as holy warriors even after the Barbary rulers began to allow non-religious commitments to command their strategic use of piracy. The changes that the religious institution of piracy underwent were natural, if pathological. Just as the concept of Jihad is invoked by Muslim terrorists today to legitimize suicide bombings of noncombatants for political gain, so too al-Jihad fil-bahr, the holy war at sea, served as the cornerstone of the Barbary states’ interaction with Christendom.

Times change, and centuries of failure and military disadvantage have shifted the institution of Muslim piracy from being primarily al-jihad fil-bahr, or the holy war at sea, to the more rewarding notion of al-jihad bi-al-mal, or the financial holy war (raising money for Muslims and jihad warriors). Muslim pirates of centuries ago had very old-world aspirations and even more old-world tools and technology. Fundamentally however, little has changed about their motives or their strategy.

What has changed in two centuries is the Western world. The United States seems to have lost the ability to effectively fight today's Muslim pirates. Somalia has been a “failed” and lawless state since 1991, so it has become all too convenient to blame the intelligence establishment’s inability to point to clear, unambiguous and unimpeachable links or alliances among the pirates, tribal warlords, village chieftains, and known terror-networks. As long as the pirates are officially perceived as nothing more than organized criminal entrepreneurs making the most of Somalia’s lack of security and police infrastructure, Jihadist Muslim piracy will continue.

Many observers feel the scourge of Muslim piracy cannot be defeated through defensive policing of the Gulf of Aden or the Indian Ocean or precision strikes, soft power, smart sanctions, or carrot and stick approaches, or, really, any other related half-measures. They argue that the situation cause for overwhelming offensive force to crush the Jihadists at sea and on land, back in their strongholds.

The same policy debates took place in our history during the rapid development of the nascent American Republic, and then continued to plague presidents Washington and Adams. homas Jefferson’s parsimony got the better of him, and it was not until President Madison finished the job in 1815 that the Muslim pirates of their age ceased to threaten American interests.

President Obama has been known to emulate Lincoln. To defeat Muslim piracy, he may have to emulate Madison.

Washington-based Joshua E. London is the author of Victory in Tripoli: How America’s War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation (John Wiley & Sons, September 2005). Buy it here. London is co-director of the ZOA Division of Governmental Relations.

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