Al-Qaida is nothing if not opportunistic. Its leadership watches the news carefully. It tracks how stories play. It adapts its tactics. Now, counterterrorism experts are worried that al-Qaida and its affiliates will be inspired by Somali pirates.
“Potentially, piracy is a platform for their activities,” says Robert D. Kaplan, a fellow at the nonpartisan Center for a New American Security. “There are already al-Qaida affiliates in Somalia. If they can make contact with pirate federations, then al-Qaida can use piracy as a form of terrorism.”
In recent months, al-Qaida has strengthened its ties with a Somali terrorist group called al-Shabab. And experts worry that group, through clan ties or family connections, could give al-Qaida an opening to the pirates.
“We should assume that al-Qaida will try to morph in whatever direction possibilities emerge,” says Kaplan. “And, remember, al-Qaida lives off weakly governed states in an Islamic cultural setting, and that perfectly describes Somalia.”
Right now, most experts say the Somali pirates trolling the waters of the Indian Ocean are criminals, motivated by money. And so far, according to Bill Braniff of West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, al-Qaida has tried to distance itself from those kinds of operations. They like to see themselves as fighters with a higher calling.
“Being too closely associated in a very public way with illicit activity is not very helpful to them,” says Braniff. “Al-Qaida has used illegal and criminal activity in the past to fund its operation. But it doesn’t want to capture headlines with this kind of behavior; al-Qaida just wants it as a means to an end. In the end, it is as political violence and propaganda; it isn’t to make money.”
The al-Qaida leadership was noticeably quiet during the latest standoff between the pirates and the U.S. Navy. There were no supportive video messages, no cry about the U.S. infidels attacking fellow Muslims. Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, says that is because al-Qaida is trying to lay low.
“In general these days, al-Qaida is remaining very quiet,” he says. “And I see it as part of an overall pattern of their working with local affiliates and not being front and center as they once were.”
The concern is if that changes. “If these ideologues can make contact and work with pirates … down the road in a few years you could have pirate attacks that are not just criminally motivated but ideologically motivated as well,” says Kaplan.
There’s another possibility: that al-Qaida finds a way to get a share of the millions of dollars of ransom money that the Somali pirates have been taking.
Hoffman says that even without a formal relationship with the pirates, al-Qaida reaps benefits from all the lawless activity along the Somali coast. The pirates have become a distraction.
“The more that is on the new Obama administration’s plate in terms of international security challenges, the better for al-Qaida,” says Hoffman, “because it means attention can’t be riveted to Pakistan and Afghanistan as the president has promised.”
Even before the American ship and its captain were seized, the Obama administration had started to focus on terrorism in Somalia. The failed state has become a breeding ground for terrorists. Terrorism experts say it is no accident that if you put a pirate and an al-Shabab fighter side by side, they are remarkably similar. Both are young, unemployed and highly impressionable. The pirates answer to warlords; the jihadists follow ideologues. The difference between them is so slight, experts worry they will start working together.