Wednesday, January 29, 2014

'Captain Phillips' and the Somali Pirate Jihad

I had the opportunity to watch the Tom Hanks film, Captain Phillips, the other day, and thought it provides a good opportunity to briefly comment on pop culture, as well as to correct some of the imprecisions of the movie. After my comments, I am re-posting an article on Somali piracy as an aspect of Islamic jihad.

Oh, and by the way, Spoiler Alert...

The film is named after a real person, the heroic merchant marine Captain Richard Phillips, and is based on his book, A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea. Phillips' ship, the Maersk Alabama, was hijacked by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean in Spring 2009. Phillips was abducted off the ship into the Alabama's lifeboat, and was eventually liberated by a team of U.S. Navy SEAL snipers, who took out three of the Somalis with three simultaneous shots.

The film is brave and gritty in its depiction of the harrowing events, and Hanks gives an incredibly convincing performance, so immersing himself in the role that he disappears. The American view is balanced by an earnest attempt to present the Somalis' backstory and motivations. We are given a glimpse into the impoverished world of a village of fishermen, whose desperation to survive makes them easy prey for a thuggish crime lord, who gets a gang of young men to go on another pirate raid to rake in some big money for him, and some loot for themselves.

And here is where the filmmakers frame their narrative, fastening brazen criminal acts on the high seas to poverty and African organized crime, all the while ignoring the real motivations for the huge sums of money sought in the hijacking and kidnapping.

After the Somalis seize the ship, the contesting between Captain Phillips and the Somali leader Abduwali Muse (convincingly played by Barkhad Abdi) begins. We see strong resilience, and a purposeful reserve from Muse in his efforts to see the hijacking succeed, and in his reluctance to kill Phillips. We see strength of character in Muse, and we are led to sympathy for him, especially via one stark exchange between him and Phillips, which I paraphrase:

Capt. Phillips: There are other ways to earn a living than by piracy, kidnapping and crime.
Muse: Maybe in America... Not here.

Tom Hanks, Christiane Amanpour, Barkhad Abdi
Framing the narrative in this leftist reductionist manner may play well to CNN's dwindling audience (and its Islamophilic anchors, such as Christiane Amanpour), but it excludes deeper ideological and specifically religious motivations from the Somali pirates, who threatened to "kill the infidel" if they could not reach the coast, and were reported by Reuters as proudly stating "We are Muslims."

Soon after the rescue of Captain Phillips and the successful end to the Maersk Alabama hijacking, Robert Spencer presented the true backstory on the Somali Islamic jihadists, presented by Hollywood as impoverished fishermen resorting to piracy:

by Robert Spencer, Human Events — April 15, 2009

This week, we celebrate the Navy SEALs’ rescue of American ship captain Richard Phillips. Their action, from the night airdrop that delivered them to the waiting warships to the split-second action in which three of the pirates were killed, was what we expect from our best special operations troops.

But while we praise their skill, let’s not lose sight of who Phillips’ captors were. His Somali pirate captors are Islamic jihadists, dedicated to the same goals as Osama bin Laden and other jihadists around the world.

In August 2008, when the pirates became especially active off the Horn of Africa, Andrew Mwangura, head of the East African Seafarers’ Assistance Programme, declared that Al-Shabaab, a group of jihadists in Somalia, use piracy to fund their jihad: “According to our information, the money they make from piracy and ransoms goes to support al-Shabaab activities onshore.”

With ransoms for ships each bringing in at least $10,000 and some in multiple millions of dollars, and the pirates seizing ships at a furious rate (taking four in one forty-eight hour period last summer), piracy is a lucrative source of funding for the jihad. Journalist Stephen Brown noted in November 2008 that “security experts fear the ransom money the pirates are receiving will allow them to buy better equipment and weapons for larger operations.” And with astounding short-sightedness, European governments — with the notable exception of the French last week — have been paying these ransoms. In that light, the American refusal to do so, and the rescue of Phillips, is a welcome step in the right direction.

But now it must be followed up properly, for al-Shabaab has numerous links to jihadist activity elsewhere. Al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (“Jihadist Youth”) is linked to al-Qaeda and advocates the strict application of Islamic law. It came to the fore in that troubled nation after the 2006 toppling by Ethiopian troops of the Islamic Courts Union government that ruled briefly in Mogadishu. And Mwangura notes that currently “the entire Somali coastline is now under control of the Islamists.” Al-Shabaab now controls more of Somalia than the Islamic Courts Union did even at the height of its power, and its reach extends beyond Somalia. Some of the Somali immigrants who have mysteriously disappeared from the Minneapolis area have been recruited for jihad by al-Shabaab, which has also attracted jihad fighters from around the world to join its efforts to take control in Somalia.

Not only are the Somali pirates Islamic jihadists, but their religious identity is much more important to them than being considered the sons and heirs of Blackbeard and Captain Kidd. On Sunday, Reuters quoted one of the pirates saying, “We never kill people. We are Muslims. We are marines, coastguards — not pirates.” Hostages have reported, however, that despite this pious disavowal, the pirates have threatened to kill them on more than one occasion. And the Navy SEALs only opened fire when it appeared they were about to kill Capt. Phillips.

Counterterror analyst Olivier Guitta, exploring Al-Shabaab’s connections with al-Qaeda, explained that the group “intends to take control of the Gulf of Aden and the southern entrance of the Red Sea.” This creates an acute problem for Barack Obama. If al-Shabaab does gain control of Somalia, it will not only continue to threaten shipping but will almost certainly expand its jihadist reach beyond Somalia to destabilize the Horn of Africa and work with other jihadist elements in the area, just as it has attracted foreign jihadists to its own cause. What’s more, the Somali jihad could come to the U.S. itself. In January, Newsweek reported about al-Shabaab that “a jihadist group able to enlist U.S. nationals to fight abroad might also be able to persuade Somali-Americans to act as sleeper agents here in the United States.” Al-Shabaab’s al-Qaeda ties make it quite likely that such a thought has occurred to the group’s leadership as well.

Accordingly, counterterror analysts and the mainstream media would do well to widen their narrow focus upon maritime piracy, and consider the role that this piracy is playing in the larger jihadist initiative. Unfortunately, with the Obama administration moving away even from the language of the “war on terror,” it’s unlikely that it will consider the implications of al-Shabaab’s links with the global jihadist network.

In an April 2008 statement, al-Shabaab vowed to “throw the West into hell.” Does Obama have the vision or the will to stand against this bloodlust before it grows even more powerful? And if so, what will he do?