The war in Somalia is at a pivot point. If you read the latest Report of the Secretary-General on Somalia to the United Nations Security Council (PDF), you will find things do appear to be getting worse, not better. There are no territorial advances by the TFG, while security and humanitarian problems appear to be deteriorating within Somalia. Civilian casualties are up as are the use of IEDs, but fewer AU troops are being killed. Noteworthy the report explicitly claims "Mortars also impacted regularly near the United Nations common compound and the UNICEF compound," which is a new development over the period of the report suggesting perhaps territory is indeed being conceded to al-Shabab. The gist of the report is simple - we are losing, which is why the report notes more troops are being sent.
But there are signs that more than just soldiers to boaster the TFG in Mogadishu are heading towards Somalia - indeed if you study events and trends unfolding it does appear that a new military force is emerging in Somalia.
Mercenaries on Land
Yesterday I briefly mentioned the 'mystery helicopter' attack in the southern Somali town of Merca. I have gone over every known warship in the region, and the only ship I could find that could have potentially carried out the operation was the Spanish amphibious vessel SPS Galicia (L51). Not likely.
The event as described in multiple news stories suggests a single unmarked helicopter either green or gray made a single pass firing unguided rockets that missed the target house. The US and all European nations have denied it was them, and AMISOM does not have any helicopters in Somalia. I know many defense reporters in the Pentagon, and if it was us we would know by now. The same is true in Europe - this kind of thing doesn't stay secret. It only leaves one possibility - the TFG is now using private security firms.
Bob Woodwards new book revealed that the CIA is operating a 3000 man secret army broken in to Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams, and when asked to respond to this the White House basically replied with an answer that suggested we - as Americans - should be proud of this development. For all the political rhetoric otherwise, the Obama administration has been remarkably aggressive in how they fight war - they support the use of CIA army's, they have expanded the use of drone strikes, and despite campaign rhetoric otherwise - the Obama folks love private mercenary firms.
We are moving past the point of "probable" that private mercenary firms are heading to Somalia - indeed we have pictures they are already there. CEOs of private security companies don't hang out with the TFG for free - it is a solid bet that a deal has already been made.
The African Union has been unable to field the 8,000 troops pledged - and more troops have to come from somewhere if the TFG is going to survive. To make things worse, the AMISOM is digging into defensive positions, meaning no one is actually out chasing al-Shabab around Somalia. The west isn't stupid, governments see the TFG is losing. The mercs are indeed coming (and have probably already arrived) - so expect a lot more 'mysterious' activities in Somalia beginning sooner rather than later.
Mercenaries at Sea
Private security firms aren't only going to Somalia on land - indeed they are getting boosts from just about everyone at sea. The biggest development is the announcement by Jardine Lloyd Thompson Group (JLT) that they intend to field private security forces to protect merchant ships against pirates. The article notes that insurance costs including damage and ransoms has now cost maritime insurance companies $300 million over the last 3 years. The article sensationalizes the development as a 'private naval force,' but I asked CDR James Kraska about it and he believes this is simply local security on ships with an extra capability of small boats to extend the defense ring around ships.
Also worth noting is the newly formed Somali Navy, which is claiming it will attempt to make an impact against piracy as well. From a strategic perspective, if I was the United Nations I would be encouraging the newly formed Somali Navy to concentrate on illegal fishing vessels around Somalia - because the strategic communication benefits of that activity enhances the credibility of the TFG. That strategic communications tactic is successful in Puntland, for example.
Mothership From Hell
Have you heard the story of the MV Legula? Pirates were able to board the ship on September 25th, but the crew was able to secure themselves in the ships citadel, which also happened to be the main engineering space. By not being captured and by preventing the ship from moving, the pirates eventually abandoned the vessel. Chalk up another for Force Recon, because clearly those pirates knew what happened to pirates on a foreign ship without hostages or control of the ship.
Interesting story - but so is the rest. Following the incident, multiple sources leaked that the pirates who attacked MV Legula used the South Korean supertanker SAMHO DREAM as the mothership for that operation. Today NATO appears to have validated those sources.
In the northeast there are several mother ships operating east of 55E, including the MV SAMHO DREAM which may be operating in company with two unidentified fishing dhows which may correlate with media reports concerning the pirating of two Iranian dhows near 60 degrees. There is also activity at 60 degrees east probably linked to the last known location of the FV TAI YUAN 227. Pirates frequently force these pirated vessels and crew to be mother ships, thereby extend their range and increase their endurance. The area south of 3 degrees south off the Tanzanian coast is also very active with 3 recent incidents noted and the MV ASPHALT VENTURE pirated in this area today. This area is likely to remain active for some time due to the prevailing weather conditions.I'd be very curious how Admiral Roughead would characterize NATO's alert of a 319,000 dwt supertanker carrying an estimated $190 million worth of crude being used as a mothership for pirate operations 900nm from the coast of Somalia in the context of the role and responsibility of the United States Navy. I'm just saying - I think there is an interesting question the CNO should be asked regarding this development.
Masters should note that the Tai Yuan 227 is a white hulled fishing vessel, approximately 50 metres long, with the registration numbers BH3Z87 painted in large black letters on the hull.
VLCC SAMHO DREAM is probably being used by pirates as a mother ship in operations near the shipping lanes, approximately 190 nm SE of Socotra Island. The SAMHO DREAM is a 319,000 dwt, crude oil tanker, approximately 333 metres long, with an orange hull and white superstructure.
Pirates on these vessels represent an active threat to merchant shipping and any small boat observed in the open ocean more than 300Nm from the Somali coast should be considered to be a potential pirate vessel.
And while we are asking interesting questions to the CNO, I'd also like to hear his take of the latest hijacking.
A maritime security alert has been issued for the Indian Ocean following the reported hijacking of a Panama-flagged vessel with 15 crew members on board.Xarardheere? Interesting, because that is where the New York Times has reported that Al-Shabab has established their maritime organization. Apparently the al-Shabab navy just took their first prize on the high seas.
The 3,884 dwt MT Asphalt Venture is believed to have been traveling to Mombasa and is now en route to Xaradheere in northern Somalia, reports GAC Protective Solutions.
NATO Shipping Center reports that at "282000 UTC a merchant vessel was reported pirated in position 07 07S 041 02E." It says that position is in the close proximity of a pirate action group sighted and reported in an earlier NATO report.
So we have reached the dreaded crossroad where piracy intersects with terrorism. Will the vessel be used for terrorism operations, or will they seek a ransom payment? If the ransom is paid, it will be done knowingly that the payment is directly supporting al-Shabab, an organization listed by the US State Department as a terrorist organization. In other words, the insurance company that pays the ransom must violate US law to free the ship and crew...
The hijacking of the MT Asphalt Venture is something new - something we haven't seen before (but suggested was coming only a few weeks ago). This hijacking represents the first time an organization listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization has participated in maritime piracy off Somalia.
I think there is another interesting question the CNO should be asked regarding that development. While we are at it, what does the SecDef have to say about these things? How about members of Congress on the campaign trail? How about the President himself? Seems to me now that al-Shabab is pirating ships off Somalia, that might be news.