Islamic Terrorism and Piracy: Abu Sayyaf and Al-Shabaab
In January of this year, the threat level for the Sulu and Celebes Seas was downgraded by ReCaap and the Philippines government due to a lack of kidnapping incidents for the third year in a row. Kidnap and ransom in this region is mainly done by the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf who are aligned with ISIS and partly responsible for the Siege of Marawi incident in 2017.
This proposed the question of why Al-Shabaab, the leading Islamic terror group in Somalia, was not involved more in the piracy spree from 2009-2011 and why the group did not push piracy as a source of income and terror tactics considering their control of vast areas of Somalia.
This article explores why one Islamic terror group uses piracy more than the other. Whilst other terrorist groups may be linked to piracy, we shall focus on Abu Sayyaf and Al-Shabab due to their proximity to significant piracy hotspots over the past two decades.
Firstly, some background must be given to who these groups are. They are both linked by the ideology of Salafi Jihadism. This revolutionary ideology seeks to change political systems to strict sharia law emulating the times of the first three generations of Muslims following on from the Prophet Mohammad. As terrorist groups, they seek to install this revolutionary change through violence or the threat of violence and see this as the only means of achieving their goal. Piracy is, therefore, a side activity to raise funds for their primary objectives, but it is justified as attacks against infidels.
Abu Sayyaf is the primary Islamic terror group that carries out piracy attacks. They were founded in the late 1990s to start an Islamic state in the southern Philippines, specifically on the large island of Mindanao and surrounding islands. The group began to fracture, however, and resorted to kidnap and ransom to fund their activities but also for personal wealth.
For example, The group justifies such actions in relation to their radical ideology as attacks are carried out against those perceived to have done wrong to Muslims as a form of justice and to deter foreign oppressors from Muslim lands.
It can be considered a bonus that they have the potential to make money from the situation, as if the ransom is not paid, the victim would be beheaded, which serves the group for intimidation and propaganda purposes. The main period of piracy in the region was between 2016-2017 when attacks expanded.
"Piracy is, therefore, a side activity to raise funds for their primary objectives, but it is justified as attacks against infidels"
In 2016 alone, 185 crew were abducted. Deaths also rose in the region whilst piracy incidents in South-East Asia overall decreased. Six deaths were also recorded in 2016. In 2017, two Vietnamese sailors were beheaded by the group after a crew of six was kidnapped, emphasising how Abu Sayyaf combined kidnap for ransom through piracy and Islamic terror tactics.
The question of why Al-Shabaab did not engage in piracy can be answered very simply. They did. Al-Shabab profited from piracy along with many other revenue streams such as kidnapping on land, extortion of businesses and others. The Council on Foreign Relations estimates that Al-Shabab generates over $100 million on such revenue streams and links to piracy did play a part in this. However, this only came as guidance for pirates and taking portions of ransom money.
For example, the attack on the Ukrainian tanker MV Faina in 2008 was heavily coordinated by Al-Shabaab but carried out by typical Somali pirates rather than terrorist insurgents. Therefore, Al-Shabaab used pirates to its advantage. In the region, pirates threatened to sell their Western captives to Al-Shabaab as a tactic to receive their payout quicker.
For example, in negotiations for the release of Paul and Rachael Chandler, pirates stated that Al-Shabaab had offered $1.2 million whilst their asking price was $1.6 million. The fear was that if sold to Al-Shabaab, they would be beheaded. In return, Al-Shabaab would receive a cut of the pirates' income to fund their insurgent and terrorist activities.
Overall, why one group uses piracy more than the other could come down to several factors. Geography, counter-terrorism, the structure of the groups and more can all play a part. For example, Abu-Sayyaf is argued to be more of a criminal enterprise with Islamic extremism ties rather than Al-Shabaab, which is more focused on a political insurgency, so piracy is more prevalent for one than the other.
Abu Sayyaf combines piracy and terrorism to raise funds but also to spread their ideological message through media from videos of captives and their beheadings if funds are not received. Meanwhile, Al-Shabaab used Somali pirates as a revenue stream rather than as a tactic to spread their message. As Al-Shabaab has significant territorial control, the need to conduct such acts themselves is not necessary.
"Abu-Sayyaf is argued to be more of a criminal enterprise with Islamic extremism ties rather than Al-Shabaab, which is more focused on a political insurgency, so piracy is more prevalent for one than the other"
The main takeaway is that both could justify actions in their ideology and that neither group are as prolific in piracy as they once were. Counter-terrorism efforts are combined with counter-piracy efforts to combat these groups. Their territorial control is combatted whilst counter-piracy measures at sea also prevent piracy activities, whether committed by the group or as a proxy. Therefore, the ability of such groups to raise funds through piracy has been reduced drastically.
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