We shouldn't be surprised, but still, there it is -- according to this Reuters story spotted by Galrahn, U.N. officials say that ransoms paid to free hostages taken in at-sea hijackings are ending up in the hands of extremist militant groups, including the Somali terror network affiliated with al Qaeda. That could prove that international shippers are effectively supporting terrorism when they pay to release their crews, and that could increase the pressure on international navies to ... y'know ... do something about it.
I've written before that piracy, as it's practiced on the Horn of Africa, is effectively a perfect problem, a parasite on the underside of civilization that would take too much effort, energy and risk to brush off. Pirates don't molest enough vessels or cargo for shippers to put a real effort into avoiding them, and it has become cheaper and easier just to pay to release captive crews than to urge world governments for a long-term solution. In order to permanently end the pirate attacks, you'd have to establish an effective government in Somalia that could take away pirates' safe havens, or you'd have to be willing to send in a lot of troops, and kill a lot of people, and even occupy the outlaw towns and anchorages that now support the pirate economy. Russian and Chinese naval leaders, among others, have made periodic noises about doing this sort of thing, but nobody wants to be the first. And given the comparatively small taste of world shipping harmed by piracy, why stick your neck out?
A coalition of international warships patrols the waters off the Horn of Africa, but commanders pull their pockets inside-out and shrug their shoulders when they're asked about piracy. Too much water for us to cover, they say. Too few ships -- and the way these guys adapt their tactics, you could have a World War II-sized navy out here and there'd still be hijackings we couldn't stop.
But if the U.N. has proof that pirate ransoms help traditional land-based terrorists -- who world governments actually do care about -- that could bring added pressure on shippers not to deal with them, and on navies to start taking care of business. Galrahn wrote that this week's Reuters report was something the Obama administration hoped wouldn't come out, because it might force officials to act:
Piracy just took a strange turn, and it would be nice to hear from someone whose title begins with "Admiral" or whose name is [Navy Secretary] Ray Mabus. Do people realize that it is a big damn deal that the United Nations would casually discuss the connections between Somali pirates and Al Shabaab? No government has ever officially claimed such a link exists. This would mean piracy is a direct funding mechanism for Al Qaeda, and every ransom payment is illegal.Maybe. But what government is going to make a case against a company paying off pirates to free its crew members or vessels? In many cases, these same governments have helped facilitate the ransom payments. And given the political pig sty the Obama administration walked into over Libya, does it seem likely the president will order a Marine Amphibious Ready Group into Somalia to clean up the pirate archipelago? In all likelihood, the Reuters revelations will end up leaving the world's governments exactly where they've always been in this pirate situation: Stuck.
We appear to now be at a point in time with piracy where if a company tries to free captured mariners with ransom money, the company would be subject to prosecution for illegally financially supporting global terrorism. That's a pretty big deal, and really bad news if you are a hostage.