The Ukrainian Belize-flagged MV Faina arms vessel, commandeered by Somali pirates on Sept. 25, 200 miles off the Somali coast, and the big power warships close by, are stationary objects in a frozen scene, motionless as a still photo.
It is hard to explain how, a week after the Faina’s seizure, the USS Howard guided missile destroyer and several other Western warships, packed with the last word in naval military technology, are content to stand by and gaze at the Faina at anchor 7 miles from the Somali port of Hobyo.
Their arrival was greeted as international action at last to cut down the mounting hazards posed by piracy off Somalia. But nothing has happened, even though the International Maritime Bureau reports more than 60 pirate attacks off the Somali coast and in the Gulf of Aden so far this year, at least double last year’s total. Twelve ships and 259 crew members are being held for ransom. Shipping companies are thought to have paid up to $30 million in ransom this year.
And Chatham House, London, fears a humanitarian and environmental disaster in the Horn of Africa. What would happen if an oil tanker were to be seriously damaged? Or a ship was scuttled at the entrance to the Suez Canal? Ships might be forced to circumnavigate the Camp of Good Hope, substantially increasing shipping costs from Asia and the Middle East.
This scenario is not far off. Already, insurance premiums for Gulf of Aden shipping have increased tenfold. If any pirates were co-opted to terrorist networks, they might well switch from maximum financial gain to maximum damage.
At stake is more than a piracy incident
Referring to the American destroyer, the US Defense Department’s spokesman said its avowed aim is to prevent the captured ship’s cargo landing “in the wrong hands,” but he declined to comment on possible military operations.
In Moscow, a Russian Navy spokesman definitely ruled out force against the pirates.
“Some media reports quoting unnamed sources have assumed that the missile frigate Neustrashimy (Fearless) crossing the Atlantic in the direction of the Mediterranean and from there to Aden Bay immediately after arrival in the area of Somalia will enter combat,” he said.
“These claims are provocative and may harm the talks for the release of the captured crew and threaten their lives.”
Hobyo is a stronghold of the local Islamic Resistance Movement which is linked to al Qaeda. It has been fighting for nearly two years to overthrow the barely functioning government in Mogadishu, which is artificially sustained by the UN and African Union peacekeepers.
While the movements in and around the Faina are closely monitored by the surrounding vessels, its cargo of 2,500 tons of Ukrainian military hardware worth some $30 million has riveted the attention of DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror experts.
Some 33 T-72 tanks, RPG rocket-propelled grenades, ZU-23 automatic anti-air guns, a quantity of ammunition and spare parts are a veritable treasure trove for the pirates. They would be a bonanza for the Islamist terrorists on shore.
Re-enter Abdullah Fazul, al Qaeda’s notorious East African chief
Some East African counter-terror sources report that, while previous Ukrainian shipments were diverted from Kenya to Darfur, some also reached the hands of Islamic militias in Somalia, who are ruled by the notorious Abdullah Mohamed Fazul, the slippery al Qaeda chief in East Africa. He has been on the run for two decades since masterminding the 1998 attacks on US East African embassies, but this has not stopped him engaging in terrorist activity.
During August and September, Fazul was sighted in many places, including Mombasa, Kenya, and the coastal town of Malindi. There, some sources report he negotiated the purchase of part of the Faina cargo from its Kenyan buyers to share between his Somali insurgent following and the cells associated with al Qaeda in Uganda and Tanzania. He then vanished.
On Sept. 15, Ugandan security agencies went on high alert following intelligence reports that the wanted man may have been planning an attack in reprisal for Kampala’s support for the African Union peacekeeping operations in Somalia.
A Ugandan security official reported that Fazul appeared to be recruiting. The entire East African region was on alert for the capture of this key al Qaeda operative who, unlike his master, Osama bin Laden, does not keep his head down in hiding, but flits from place to place to manage his networks.
According to one theory prevalent in counter-terror agencies, Fazul was short of funds for buying the Faina’s entire arms cargo, so he traded off with a tip-off to the pirates of the approaching arms vessel, on the understanding that his men would receive part of the shipment at cut price when it was unloaded on shore.
Moscow would not mind embarrassing Yushchenko
Al Qaeda is only one element of the Faina predicament.
Moscow owns a secondary interest in the affair: the exposure of Ukraine’s pro-American president Viktor Yushchenko as engaging in unsavory arms transactions. Why else would Moscow detach the most modern large frigate in the Russian Navy to Somali waters when 17 of the crew were Ukrainian, only three Russian, and Kiev never requested assistance?
While Ukrspetsexport in Kiev asserts the cargo was a legitimate arms shipment consigned to Kenya like others in the past, sources in Mombasa reported that portions of those shipments ended up in quite different hands.
The Russian frigate has not yet arrived, but if it were able to seize the Faina from the pirates and lay hands on documents or witnesses testifying that the arms freight was not destined for Kenya but Darfur or al Qaeda, Moscow would have the makings of a big propaganda coup – not only against Yushchenko, but the United States as sponsor of Ukraine’s admission to NATO.
But the Russian Fearless is not there yet. The USS Howard was first on the scene and is not about to abandon its point of vantage on the Faina’s tail. The American crew keeps watch around the clock on every movement aboard and around the captured vessel. Military satellites have been tilted to focus on Hobyo port.
Oddly enough too Moscow was in no hurry to send a warship to the scene. Had the Russians wanted to beat the Americans to the draw, they could have detached a vessel from their Black Sea fleet which is much closer to Somali waters than the frigate’s Baltic base.
The stricken Ukrainian vessel and its captive crew will therefore continue to be trapped helpless in a painted seascape until one of the parties makes a move.