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The senator and the pirates: Kirk warns of al-Qaida links in Somalia

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 10, 2011 - WASHINGTON - Rejecting a mundane fact-finding jaunt, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., spent much of his Easter break visiting sweltering African prisons, talking with ship captains and interviewing the modern-day Blackbeards who terrorize the Somali coast.

Refering to a dangerous stretch of that coast as "PirateLandia," Kirk says he became convinced after dozens of interviews in Somalia and East Africa that piracy in the region is worsening at an alarming rate. He also believes that part of the ransoms collected from hijacking cargo ships is being funneled to an al-Qaida affiliate called al-Shabaab that runs terrorist-training camps.

"The situation is spinning rapidly out of control," Kirk told the Beacon on Tuesday. "About a third of the [pirate ransoms] -- roughly $50 million -- has been paid to al-Shabaab, which operates the largest terror training camps on earth."

Over the past three years, the senator said, the number of pirate attacks has tripled, with the pirates now holding 20 merchant ships with an estimated 480 Western and allied sailors hostage in the ships' holds. He released an aerial photo showing an area off the Somali coast with a dozen hijacked supertankers and cargo ships at anchor.

"Each one of them contains its own humanitarian tragedy of between 10 to 30 hostages held in the holds of those ships for upward of a year," said Kirk, who is a Naval Reserve intelligence officer with extensive knowledge of military intelligence.

Studies have estimated that the cost of piracy -- when ransoms, insurance and the costs of naval forces, imprisonment and diversions are included -- is more than $12 billion a year. Last month, $11 million, the largest known ransom ever paid, was given to Somali pirates who had hijacked a massive oil tanker.

"Between 2005 and 2011, this has become a hundreds-of-million-dollar business."

Why would a senator from Illinois be interested in piracy? "I've generally found that junior members [of the Senate] can make the most difference if they see a new issue that no one else is working on, introduce the public to the problem and propose solutions," Kirk explained.

Visiting Pirates in Prisons

During his trip -- the first by a U.S. senator to Somalia since 1991 -- Kirk and staffers from the Senate and the U.S. Navy held discussions aboard U.S. and Chinese warships patrolling pirate zones, and they talked with officials in Kenya, Djbouti and Bahrain about possible deterrents.

Kirk also visited Somali and Kenyan prisons where some modern-day Blackbeards are held. One vivid memory, he said, was meeting pirate Abshir Abdillai "Boyah" of the notorious Darood clan at Somalia's Bosasso Prison.

"He's considered the second-most important pirate, with between 25 and 60 vessels captured," Kirk recalls. Boyah's pirate clan "started out boarding foreign fishing vessels near Somalia and asking them why they were fishing in their home waters. Then they realized that they were the only 10 guys on the [boarded] ship with AK-47s. So rather than talk to the fishermen, they took them hostage."

Kirk said he was astounded at how many pirates said openly that they would return to piracy after their release from prisons. "In the Shimo le Tewa prison in Kenya, some of the pirates said: 'Once you've got your first $100,000 ransom, you'll never go back. We are dedicated to piracy,'" Kirk recalled.

"We asked, 'How much money is enough?' And they said, with the pirates in [their homeland], there's no amount of money that's enough. First you take care of your family, then you buy cars, then you buy palaces. And you just go on from there."

With the potential rewards of piracy seeming to outweigh the risks, Kirk said, the number of pirates in the region has grown from about 100 in 2005 to more than 2,000 today.

Pirate Clans Linked to Somali Terrorists

Following the death of Osama bin Laden, Kirk said the U.S. government is now "worried about two al-Qaida chapters: one in Yemen called al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and the other in Somalia," a militant organization called al-Shabaab.

"The Somalia branch actually has the largest number of troops and the greatest level of organization," said Kirk, estimating in his reporton the piracy trip that al-Shabaab's forces number about 8,000, some of whom are trained in suicide attacks, kidnapping and assassination.

"I would say that Al Shabaab is divided between taking over Somalia and also waging jihad on the West," Kirk told the Beacon. With pirates now holding two dozen big ships and hundreds of hostages, he said, "their multimillion dollar ransoms have become a major source of funding for Somali al-Qaida affiliates."

While the U.S. and Western allies have enough influence to help stop pirates from creating bases in northern Somalia and Mogadishu, Kirk said that "in central Somalia, there is about a 100-mile stretch, which -- for lack of a better term -- I would call 'PirateLandia.' It's a place of hundreds of millions [in ransoms] and human tragedy."

While no U.S. ships are currently in the hijacked area, Kirk pointed to two recent hijackings as evidence that American vessels are targeted: the hijacking of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama and the more recent murder by pirates of the American family and crew of the S/VQuest, a private yacht hijacked in February.

"The crew of the Maersk Alabama will tell you that they've been attacked several times since their dramatic days" of the hijacking -- and being freed by Navy commandos.

Working with Hillary Clinton to Toughen U.S. Stance

Kirk said he plans to meet soon with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has expressed unhappiness with the situation, to try to agree on a tougher approach to deter the Somali pirates.

"I very much want to work with her to build consensus about a new harder-line policy," he said, adding that "Secretary Clinton and I are working closely together."

Because Congress has not evidenced much interest in piracy, Kirk said he plans to give presentations this week "introducing the Senate to the problem" while he and his staff meet with Clinton and the administration of President Barack Obama, who used to hold Kirk's Senate seat.

In his report, Kirk outlined several policy proposals he plans to advocate: Those steps include banning ransom payments, giving naval commanders more authority to attack and disable pirate "mother ships," and blockading the three primary pirate ports and shorelines.

"I propose banning ransom payments, which is a tough call," he said. "But we've now gone from five to 500 hostages. And as Thomas Jefferson realized, eventually you have to say no. The only question is when you're going to say no. Is it at 50 hostages, is it at 500, or is it a 5,000?"

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.