NATO and EU see rising risk of piracy militant link

By Peter Apps, Political Risk Correspondent

LONDON (BestGrowthStock) – NATO and European Union forces see a growing risk Islamists and militants may muscle in on Somalia’s profitable piracy industry, senior officers said on Tuesday, but saw no direct evidence yet of a link.

That is a relief for shipowners and insurers who frequently pay ransoms and who would face additional restrictions under counterterrorism legislation if a link were proved to Islamists Al Shabaab or other Al Qaeda-linked groups.

Pirates in small skiffs operating from Somali beaches have wreaked havoc with Indian Ocean shipping in the last half decade, hijacking ships and sailing them to pirate anchorages for ransom despite many navies sending forces to the region.

“Basic logic suggests that the more money there is, the more appealing and interesting it would become for funding Al Shabaab and others,” Major General Buster Howes, operational commander of EU naval force Somalia (EUNAVFOR) told Reuters in an interview. “The longer it goes on and the more the ransom is increased, the risk of a nexus occurring is probably increased.”

Islamist courts all but eradicated piracy when they briefly ran Somalia in 2006, viewing it as un-Islamic, but military officials say this has not been repeated when Islamist forces took over pirate areas more recently. Howes compared the situation to the complex relationship between the Taliban and opium farmers in Afghanistan.

Any proven link would likely prove a game changer in terms of U.S. policy, analysts say — even if the Islamists or militants were only using piracy as a revenue tool rather than a method to mount attacks. It could bring targeting of onshore pirate camps.

The commanders of the EU and NATO Indian Ocean antipiracy taskforces said attacks on ships were again picking up after the summer monsoon season, perhaps to their highest level ever.

NEW PIRATE SEASON

“We do not have specific evidence of a current link but there is a concern that a link might be established,” said Rear Admiral Hank Ort, chief of staff at NATO headquarters in Northwood, west London. “It is early days for this piracy season … but generally speaking we can see there is more activity.”

Ort said greater effort was being put into tracking pirate ransoms — particularly by civilian agencies such as Interpol — but so far the evidence was that the money was not going far beyond Somalia and Somali expatriates in Kenya.

He said a proven terror link would make relations with the shipping industry “very difficult.” It would make ransom payments all but impossible, possibly demolishing the fledgling piracy risk insurance industry and worrying shipowners — as well as possibly imperiling some 350 mariners held hostage.

“Nobody wants to pay a ransom — that is absolutely clear,” Peter Hinchcliffe, secretary general of the International Shipping Federation, said on the sidelines of a Somali piracy event at his headquarters in London. “But if a shipowner feels he has no alternative to paying a ransom to get the ship and crew back, there is no other option.”

At worst, he said, shipowners might refuse to let their vessels transit the region — sending the cost of shipping Persian Gulf crude and Chinese goods to Europe skyrocketing.

That prospect has led some analysts to suggest Western powers might choose to conceal any militancy link, but EUNAVFOR’S Howes said this was not the case.

“We are not dissembling,” he said. “Without going into the details of how we pick up intelligence, there are lots of technical ways in which you could show a link. There are all sorts of smoking guns which we haven’t hitherto detected.”

(Editing by Ruth Pitchford)

NATO and EU see rising risk of piracy militant link