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TematicheMedio Oriente e Nord AfricaPirates of the 21st century: the modern threats shaping...

Pirates of the 21st century: the modern threats shaping our world

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Piracy dates back 2000 years to ancient Greece when the Greeks faced challenges in commerce. During the Roman era, ships loaded with grain and dates in the Mediterranean were often attacked by pirates. Piracy remained widespread in the Middle Ages and subsequently thrived between 1620 and 1720, becoming the golden age for pirates who profited greatly from these activities. Over time, the governments of European powers began to encourage these attacks on ships and the collection of valuable goods. The classic notions of pirates originated in the 17th and 18th centuries when Caribbean pirates gained influence.

The main hotspots of contemporary piracy include the Gulf of Aden, now associated with the Houthi rebels in Yemen and the notorious Somali pirates; Southeast Asia; the Gulf of Mexico; and the Gulf of Guinea, which has recorded the majority of maritime kidnappings globally. The motivations behind contemporary piracy reflect the same socioeconomic issues that have driven men to piracy for centuries. Pirates often come from the lower echelons of society, offering opportunities to those who otherwise have no path to advancement. It serves as a form of escape and redemption. Often, pirates take passengers hostage and demand large sums of money for their release. The Strait of Malacca, located between the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra, has historically recorded significant levels of piracy due to its strategic position and heavy maritime traffic. However, in recent decades, regional efforts and international cooperation, such as joint patrols and bilateral agreements, have helped reduce the incidence of piracy in this area.

The Houthis in Yemen

Numerous and indiscriminate attacks by the Houthis on commercial and oil ships in the Bab el Mandeb Strait in the Red Sea constitute the core of international crises involving strategic routes between the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea – representing 12% of global trade – and the relations between the Gulf States, the Middle East, and the Horn of Africa. The Houthis (al-Ḥūthiyyūn) are a predominantly Zaydi Shia armed group, originating in the late 20th century in Yemen, becoming actively anti-government in the 2000s. The group has formed an armed organization named ‘Ansar Allah’ (Partisans of God) or ‘Believing Youth’ (al-Shabāb al-Muʾmin) counting about 100.000 affiliates. The name derives from the founder Hassan Al Houthi, but the group lacks internal homogeneity. Since 2020, the Houthis control two-thirds of Yemeni territory, home to about 33 million people. This creates additional obstacles under international law considering the definitions of pirates, privateers, terrorists, and political forces opposing the leadership in Sanaa. Yemen borders Saudi Arabia to the north and Oman to the east. Despite the presence of underexploited oil and natural gas fields, the country is one of the poorest in the world. Remittances from expatriates account for 40% of the gross national product, while limited infrastructure and persistent violence hinder development. Since 2015, the Houthis have consolidated their control in Yemen torn by internal political strife, also receiving military support from Iran, mainly aimed at countering Saudi influence. The conflict in Yemen has been often oversimplified as a sectarian war between factions supported by Wahhabi Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, a narrative that does not match the complexity of violence driven by regional and international interests.

Elizabeth Kendall, an expert on contemporary Yemen, argues that the link between the Houthis and Iran was initially instrumental to Yemen’s objectives. Iran primarily sought to position itself as an important ‘sponsor’ of the armed group before escalating violence led, since 2020, to the deployment of drones and ballistic missiles of clear Iranian origin. Yemen now seems on the brink of a new fragmentation. The Houthis present themselves as authentic patriots and loyal defenders of the Yemeni nation – even minting their currency: a new 100 ryal coin – opposing other armed groups such as Al Qaeda and governmental political-military factions that have often betrayed local populations.

Recent attacks in one of the global ‘chokepoints’ in the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean have proven to be extremely misguided calculations. The repercussions on international supply chains – with insurance claims up to two million dollars for passages through the Bab el Mandeb Strait – could cause severe economic and commercial crises. Prolonging journeys by twelve to fifteen days, forcing ships to circumnavigate Africa, could increase costs up to 1 million dollars per route and inevitably slow down delivery times of goods. However, the Houthis maintain their genuine belief that God is on their side, thus fueling their seemingly indomitable militancy.

In the Horn of Africa, the Somali coast is perhaps the most well-known for modern piracy, where this threat has been present since the outbreak of the Somali civil war in the early ‘90s. 

Al Shabaab in Somalia

Al Shabaab in Somalia is considered the new piracy threat, not only in the Horn of Africa but along the East African coasts extending to Mozambique. On the morning of Saturday, October 29, 2022, a double terrorist attack in downtown Mogadishu—a Somali capital of just over two million inhabitants located in the coastal region of Benadir—resulted in the death of over 100 people and injured another 300. Statements from President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud (1955-), a moderate Islamist linked to the Somali branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, during his visit to the attack site, revealed a more dramatic toll than initial estimates, which reported nine deaths and an unspecified number of injuries. Before any official claim of responsibility for the brutal terrorist act, Somali authorities pointed the finger at the terrorist group Al Shabaab, which has bloodied Somalia and the Horn of Africa for years. 

To contextualize the presence and relentless actions of the jihadist group Al Shabaab, it is necessary to consider some events in recent Somali history. The power vacuum left by the end of General Mohamed Siad Barre’s (1919-1995) tyrannical regime in 1991 ushered in a prolonged period of political instability, exacerbating internal tensions and plunging the country into chaos. Somalia descended into a deep humanitarian crisis that prompted U.S. and UN intervention in 1992. During the ‘Restore Hope’ mission, the Battle of Mogadishu on October 3rd-4th, 1993, was a large-scale conflict marked by its intensity and high casualty numbers. The mission quickly proved a failure, and international contingents withdrew, defeated within a few years of the operation’s start, leaving behind a country ravaged by poverty and violence.

Somalia was subsequently labeled a ‘failed state’, lacking a stable central government and control over its territorial waters, with different areas managed by sectarian groups and militias that fought among themselves, further threatening an already exhausted civilian population. Beset by famine and drought, Somalia’s wealth has always been concentrated along the Indian Ocean coastlines. These shores are polluted by toxic waste dumped with impunity by many international ships, destroying one of the world’s richest biodiversities. In the latter half of the 1990s, the first politically and militarily structured organizations of political Islam emerged, supported by funding from Saudi Arabia. The tradition of Somali Sufi Islam was increasingly overshadowed by the growing influence of more radical Islamist movements. Among the most significant groups was Al Ittihad Al Islami, officially operational from 1983, a militant Salafi-Wahhabi organization that united various Islamic movements following the dissolution of Jamaaca al Islaamiyah, primarily present in the country’s south. In the early 2000s, the old guard of Al Ittihad Al Islami pursued a strategic shift towards strengthening the political front, abandoning armed attempts to establish an Islamic state. New members deemed this approach too moderate, already dissatisfied with rapprochement with the transitional national government. The result was the internal secession of Al Shabaab from Al Ittihad Al Islami, reorganizing in early 2006 as the military wing of the Union of Islamic Courts. Piracy in the Horn of Africa initially stemmed from actions deemed ‘patriotic’, aimed at drawing international attention to the Somali crisis caused by the collapse of fishing, the main economic resource, along shores polluted by toxic waste. Defensive piracy soon turned predatory, peaking from 2000 to 2011-12 before decreasing but not disappearing as a threat to security and peace in the strategic area at the mouth of the Red Sea.

Today, Al Shabaab is a broad, transversal movement open to various Somali clans and transnational forces from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. The influx of foreign fighters has further strengthened Al Shabaab in regional and global jihadist campaigns, expanding their strategies, such as introducing suicide attacks. In 2013, their first official target was the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, causing 60 deaths and 200 injuries. Subsequent attacks grew increasingly brutal: the massacre at Garissa University College in Kenya, claiming 150 victims on October 14, 2017, and the October 30, 2022 massacre in Mogadishu, which resulted in hundreds of deaths. In March 2024 Al Shabaab fighters attacked the UAE military in Mogadishu as the group considers the United Arab Emirates an ‘enemy’ for its backing of the Somali government.

Al Shabaab is today one of the largest operational terrorist groups on the African continent, with a complex organization and multiple facets, posing a challenge for traditional counterterrorism strategies. Forceful actions and bombings in the Red Sea are ineffective as they do not address the roots of the formation and expansion of these groups, which continually reorganize and recruit militants and resources. 

Prof. Beatrice Nicolini Ph.D.

History and Institutions of Africa

Faculty of Political and Social Sciences

Catholic University, Milan

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