After two and a half years spent researching Somali piracy, I thought I had become inured to the sensationalist guff that the topic inevitably seems to inspire. Then a very special piece of hysterical twaddle, such US Senator Mark Kirk's (R-IL) recent report on piracy, comes along to rouse my dulled sense of outrage. In his fifteen-page brief, Kirk paints a grossly distorted portrait of the threat posed by Somali piracy, which he seems to view as the latest in a series of historical crises aimed at upsetting American hegemony. Indeed, his report is peppered with apparent references to US history; Kirk's colour-coded "Somali Political Control Map" labels political factions as "Unionist" and "secessionist," he warns of the danger to "American and allied shipping" that conjures up images of German U-boats, and he counsels a return to the "tradition of the Jefferson Administration" and its Barbary war. Even in his description of the handful of rescue operations carried out by US and "Allied" navies, which he refers to (without any hint of facetiousness) as "notable battles against pirates," Kirk demonstrates a markedly exaggerated perception of the scale of the problem.
There are over four thousand words in this report (and a whole slew of numbers) but Kirk's entire agenda is laid bare in his first paragraph, highlighted in bold: "Unless our policy becomes more aggressive to attack pirates," Kirk writes, "we will see a huge increase in terrorism from Al Qaeda affiliates that feed off pirate ransoms." The rest of the report adds nothing in support of this thesis, but rather supplies ledgers of unsourced stats and unrelated assertions whose only seeming purpose is to convince his readers that they are looking at a legitimate piece of research. After sifting through the chaff, it eventually becomes clear that the weight of Kirk's entire argument rests on a single unsubstantiated claim by the Kenyan government that 30% of ransom money (more than $50 million, apparently) is "funneled to the East African Al Qaeda/Al Shabaab Islamic terrorist groups." This is the same government, mind you, that announced that the pirates had pulled in $150 million in 2008, a figure roughly fivefold larger than the reality.
Senator Kirk maps out his strategy, Bossaso.
As I argue in my book, links between pirates and terrorists undoubtedly exist, but they tend to be isolated and non-systematic—opportunistic individuals with Islamist ties who happen to dabble in piracy investments on the side. A prime example is thuggish southern warlord Yusuf Mohammed Siad "Inda'adde," a pirate financier who alternatively calls himself a TFG minister, a Shabaab potentate, and an Independent, depending on the expediency of the moment. Somali political relationships, unfortunately, are not so clearly defined as Senator Kirk's neatly chequered map would have us believe.
Shabaab militias began pushing north into Mudug in the spring of last year, driving many pirates in Harardheere north to Hobyo (since then, disgruntled Hobyo locals have forced the pirates even further north). In the aftermath, there has been some convincing evidence that the pirates still operating in the Harardheere region have reached informal "profit-sharing" arrangements with Shabaab leaders. Yet to say that Kirk is sensationalizing Islamist-pirate links would be an understatement. I do not know, nor care to speculate on, what sort of political manoeuvrings Kirk is involved in, for which lobbyists' marching band he is beating his anti-terror drum, or whether he has simply trained himself to see the rest of the world as a breeding ground-in-waiting for anti-American extremism. His motivations are not that important. Fear-mongering hucksters like Senator Kirk will always exist, seizing upon any scrap of evidence and attempting to peddle it as whole-cloth. We can only hope that once Kirk's moment in the media spotlight has passed, wiser heads within the Obama administration will fling his half-baked opus into the dustbin, where it belongs.