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Last week Somalia Report examined the contract-based attempts (and rumored attempts) to defeat piracy on land. The for-profit projects ranged from robust 1000 man armies with full air, vehicle and sea support like the Puntland Marine Police Force (PMPF) based in Bosaso to Bancroft Global Development’s well intentioned repair of an orphaned skiff abandoned in Mogadishu harbor to Halliday Finch’s yet to be funded income sharing plan. At the end of the day, the reality of land based piracy via contractors is still in the pitching and planning stages. The only concrete action has come from the recent establishing of a PMPF post in Eyl and even more realistically from local communities forcing out pirates by themselves.
That positive dynamic of locals pushing out pirates and waiting patiently for outside anti piracy to set up bases (and seen in Eyl and Qaw) is about to dramatically change. Normally the pirates were the unwanted violent elements but now a series of incidents is changing the fishing villages’ view of western attempts to fight pirates.
In this report we investigate and dramatic escalation in air operations along the coast that have resulted in death and injuries on fishermen, not pirates. A recent unidentified attack on fishing skiffs 5 kms from Gumbah has confused and scared local fishermen. Was this violent attack anti-piracy or anti-terrorism?
Incident in Gumbah
Gumbah is a small fishing village made up of a scattering of two dozen small buildings just north of Hafun and south of Bargal on the Bari coast of Puntland. For the last two years residents have been used to pirate gangs coming and going. The town has water from a river and it’s far enough from Puntland security forces for pirates to operate with impunity. The residents of Gumbah do not like the pirates, but they have no one to turn to when they see them gathering to prepare vessels for new hijacking missions.
But at 20:30 local time on April 16th, locals were terrified when the sound of rockets and loud explosions erupted. Eyewitnesses insist that two helicopters flew over fisherman night fishing and lit up the night, by either dropping parachute flares or turning on high intensity spotlights to lite up the targets, immersing the area in a ‘blue light’. At 21:00 the helicopters returned and fired at least seven missiles at the small skiffs just offshore.
Farah Said Jama, the mayor of Gumbah, confirmed that on that evening, at approximately 21:00, a lone helicopter (not two as reported by local residents) appeared from over the horizon and approached the shores of Gumbah where the evening shift of local fishermen had just put out their nets. Without warning, the helicopter fired seven missiles, striking two boats and injuring two villagers – one in the arm and the other in the leg, according to the mayor. The other fishermen cut their nets and made for the shore. It was unclear as to how the injured made their way back to safety.
The attack followed the sighting of a modern naval vessel off the coast, but it is unknown if the vessel was the launch pad for the helicopters.
The mayor confirmed that Gumbah had been visited by as many as three helicopters at a time over the past thirty days. Details will emerge as an investigation gets under way, but from the mayor’s standpoint, the attack was unwarranted and unwanted. Innocent people were injured by what he feels was a lack of proper target identification.
Meanwhile, Puntland officials also condemned the attack.
“The forces claiming that they protect the pirates in the sea have targeted civilians in Gumbah district. This is totally unacceptable," the director general of the ministry of marine resources, ports and fisheries of Puntland Abdiwahid Mohamed Jo’ar told RBC in Bosaso.
Fishing and Pirating
The confluence between fishing and pirating is subtle. Pirates often steal fishermen's skiffs and press gang them into taking them out to sea where they prey on dhows to use as motherships. Gumbah has had at least 6 skiffs stolen by pirates.
It is officially fishing season and Somalis often fish at night out of small boats. Although the coasts of Somalia may look barren, a 1999 study estimated that there is at least one fisherman for every two miles of Somali coastline. Fishermen leave their homes in small towns to base themselves out of rustic camps up and down the Somali coastline. They live in patched together domed huts (much like IDP camp housing) keep their skiffs and fuel at water's edge and many carry weapons to protect themselves from having their gear or catch stolen. Some dive for lobster, others use rudimentary hooks and bait, others use nets.
The artisanal fishermen that work the coast typically offload their meager catch to small Yemeni dhows that are identical to the motherships hijacked and used by pirates. Some go to towns like Bargal and Eyl where battered trucks transport their catch in refrigerated containers mounted on the back. It’s a hard life with stocks diminishing not from toxic dumping or factory fleets but from overfishing the littoral regions.
The confirmed sighting of RPG launchers, ladders, long ropes or heavy weapons would indicate that a fishing camp might be a pirate base camp considering fair game for expanded European Union mandate that allows attacks on equipment 2kms inland. But it is highly unlikely the fishermen in skiffs off Gumbah would not be engaged in pirating so close to shore. But that is not to say that piracy is interwoven into the daily activities of these small coastal towns.
Gumbah is a pirate launching center and there are pirated ships offshore. Officials from Bander Beyla like Abdinur Yusuf Issa Bakeyle, the former mayor, now work for Yulux. These connections are both financial and clan based. When pirates need to dock ships offshore, get supplies or hire men, certain influentials can make it happen. Although this part of piracy remains invisible, the accumulation of equipment is easy to spot.
There are clear differences between a pirated dhow (usually indicated by an excessive amount of skiffs and fuel carried on board) and one picking up fish. Even pirates caught in the act can quickly turn into innocent fisherman by tossing weapons or boarding ladders into the sea. International forces have made mistakes and word spreads quickly amongst Somali fishermen.
But Monday’s attack was new. This was a methodical attack on small skiffs not the two hijacked dhows being prepared for launch by Yulux and Aragosto. The attack was located just off shore causing casualties amongst fishermen in small skiffs, forcing many residents to flee the area.
“Many local families are fleeing now from Gumbah because they fear more airstrikes. It was dark so we couldn’t see what kind of aircraft, but we could hear two,” the mayor told Somalia Report.
Meanwhile, alone in his opinion, the governor of Bargal, Bargaal Ahmed Gurey, denied the event and said that aircraft arrived near Gumbah to see if any pirates were operating in the region. Using bright lights, the aircraft (or helicopters) lit up the area did not find any suspects. Shortly thereafter, the helicopters left the area, reported the governor.
This story was consistent with an earlier visit by US helicopters to Hafun who landed to ask officials about al-Shabaab refueling their skiffs and heading north.
Anti Piracy or Anti Terrorism?
Which nation launched the attack remains unknown, but the aircraft, whether fixed wing or not, are likely American from ships or Puntland forces based on land and their mission was likely intercepting al-Shabaab fighters who have been fleeing towards Yemen and northern Somalia.
EU NAVFOR, the international coalition tasked with anti-piracy off the Horn of Africa as part of Operation Atalanta, announced last month that they would begin land based operations, but an official source who spoke to Somalia Report said EU NAVFOR was not involved in the attack.
The same source pointed fingers at the US claiming the only aircraft carriers in the region, capable of launching aircraft, were American. Once again the term “aircraft” could also apply to helicopters.
NATO also operates off the Somali coast, as part of the anti-piracy mission, and has ships with helicopter launching capability. For example, the brand new French Flagged FS Dixmunde is actually an amphibious assault ship with the capability to launch helicopter attacks. Depending on the configuration the Dixmunde can launch landing craft, up to 70 vehicles, 18 heavy or 35 light helicopters and contains an entire operational command and assault unit. Overkill both tactically and politically for a two helo attack on fishermen.
What was not mentioned was that Gumbah was in the cross hairs. The sight of the hijacked 107meter long MT Royal Grace appearing off the coast of Gumbah did not make the fishermen any less nervous. Navy ships were tracking the vessel since the chemical tanker had been hijacked off Oman on March 2nd and was now moving about 20kms offshore between Harfun and Ras Beach. The pirate Ise Yulux had finally grabbed a UAE owned chemical tanker on after some hard luck in the past.
Local sources have their version as well. They claim the attack on skiffs came from NATO forces seeking to disrupt two pirate groups, headed by Isse Yulux and Liban Abdirahman aka “Aragosta”, preparing two hijacked dhows as motherships to launch more piracy missions. Technically, the new EU mandate to attack pirates “assets” 2kms inland does not cover attacking people, only equipment. But an unusual clustering of armed men and technicals in this remote spot would be easy to spot and provide a clear target.
Shona Lowe, NATO Spokesperson, denied NATO was involved. “NATO Forces have not been involved in any land-based attack,” the spokesman told Somalia Report.
With EU NAVFOR and NATO both out of the picture, that leaves the attackers as likely US forces or Puntland's own forces, the Puntland Intelligence Service (PIS) specifically, which is supported by the CIA.
This is the first time that violent attacks came from anonymous nations that weren’t either in hot pursuit of kidnappers, such was the case with the French military pursuing the hijackers of Le Ponant, or the Americans directly engaged in clandestine anti-terrorism operations against al-Shabaab or al-Qaeda such as the offshore US Navy shelling in Bargal in 2007.
Hard Times in Hafun
Towns on and around the Ras Hafun peninsula just south have gone in a different direction. Hurdiyo was where the MV Dover and other ships were kept, Las Anod is now a launching point for pirates and the town of Hafun recently formalized its relationship with pirates with the recent marriage between pirate Aragosto (named after the lobster he used to catch) and a daughter of the mayor of Hafun. Probably the most recent and public union between pirates and government. Isse Yulux has a wife from Bargal and another from Hafun as well.
Hafun, just south of Gumbah, is the most easterly point of Africa, a tiny hook of rock and sand that was historically known as a stop over for fresh water and local meat. Its shallow lagoon was not a port but provided harbor for small shallow draft fishing boats. The Italians built a salt processing plant on the spit but it provided little in profit. The factory is more famous for being bombed by British planes than any salt it produced.
A number of Somalis were forced to move to Hafun and coastal villages in the late 70’s by Siad Barre in an effort to create a stable source of food and employment in the fishing industry. Ambitious fish processing factories from Bosaso to Eyl to Hafun sit abandoned.
Despite this socialized attempt at creating industry Hafun is yet another ancient shrinking littoral fishing village that has fallen on hard times. The remaining residents work as fishermen selling their goods to Yemeni dhows who dock off shore, pay cash and move the locals hook and net caught catches northward. Hafun would not be that much different than fading ports like Eyl or Hobyo except for one major incident.
On Sunday morning, December 26, 2004 the third largest earthquake ever measured moved the entire earth one centimeter. Although the news focused on 100 foot waves and the destruction in South East Asia, thousands of miles away on the south facing spit of Hafun, the sea pulled back and dropped alarmingly. Within minutes a 5 to 7 foot wall of water literally washed the tiny town away. Over 160 residents vanished, over 800 homes were destroyed and half as many damaged. Only 19 bodies were ever found. Hafun had been a refuge of fishermen turned pirates before the tsunami.
International money trickled into Hafun, providing a modicum on income and supported out of work fishermen. When the fishing season came in October, the few replacement boats, nets and motors did not revive the already destroyed fishing industry. Isolated from the main towns, with the lack of fish, tools, money, lack of hope created an ideal environment for pirates. Although the main pirate groups operated out of Hobyo and kept their ships northward along the coast, it was Isse Yulux and his capture of seven Danes that turned the tide and piracy industry in earnest.
Isse Yulux, Pirate, Murderer, Bumbler
The most active pirate in the Hafun and Gumbah region is Isse Yulux, a commander and now financier of piracy missions. He is best known for the conjoined ransom of the MV Dover and seven Danes, including a family of five and crew of two, taken off the pleasure yacht SY ING in February of 2011. Jan Quist Johansen, his wife, Birgit Marie, and their three teenage children were seized along with two Danish crew members on Feb. 24 as their 43-foot yacht was taken by force.
The Danish family was moved onto the Dover and the Dover was moved up and down the Bari coast between Rasu Bina and Hurdiyo as negotiations were held. He called his group the “Ali Zwahila” and has put the $3 million ransom from the Dover to good use. He quickly assembled new sea crews and has tried find another multi-million dollar catch.
Yulux is a local businessman turned pirate commander. One of his four wives is from Hafun while another is from Bargal. His core crew consists of Abshir Gardheere, investor/commander, Gacan Barwaaqo, commander, Mohamed Gani, vice commander and holder, Goonya Cade, holder, and Mohamed Nur, holder. Eleven members of Yulux’s group are ex-soldiers of the Puntland Government, eight were former fishermen from the Bari Coast, three were businessmen, one was a teacher of private school and one was a taxi driver in Bosaso. Yulux provides the funds from previous ransoms but is a wanted man for the ambush and murder of five Puntland security forces who were killed when they were sent to Hul-Anod Village to rescue the then kidnapped Danish family on March 11th of last year. Puntland security forces in ten trucks drove from Qhardo to the coast but were ambushed by pirates.
in late 2004 Yulux, of the Dashishle and Ali Jibrahil subclan, set up a roadside restaurant called “Yulux” in Tulo Iise, located at 20 kms east of Kobdhexad. At that time he was already wanted for killing members of the Dashishile clan in Bosaso. His eponymous truck stop, restaurant and camp were popular and gave Yulux the funds to invest in some maritime adventuring.
In 2007 he began investing in piracy with the Japanese ship MV Golden Nori captured by long time friend and fellow Xiriiro villager, Gulled Abdullahi. The hijacking only 8 miles from the coast ended badly as US Navy ship sunk the pirate's skiffs and chased the ship to Bosaso. The pirates bolted for shore with the crew and released them after an one million dollar ransom. It was the first time a US Navy ship was authorized to chase pirates.
Yulux finally hit it big with the grab of the MV Dover. Despite his role as an investor, Yulux is considered an "action man" and takes part in hijacks.
Gulled hired a negotiator for the Danish family, Yusuf Ahmed Jama Shire, from Warsengelli of Nuh Omar Subclan. Shire worked with German national Julian Bauer who operates under the name “Ecoterra” to negotiate the ransom. The asking price to the Danish government was originally $5 million but only $3 million was paid. The ransom was paid for the Danish family before the Greek owned Dover was released. The ransom was handed out in Xiriiro with former Puntland government officials present.
Gulled took his share and flew to Addis Ababa where he underwent medical treatment. Gulled used his vut of the ransom supported his Ali Saleban and Ali Jibrahil in their past and recent battles against the Ugadh Saleban in Rako Raho village. Yulux has used his ransom gains to buy land and built properties in Bargal and his home town of Xiriiro.
Gulled and Yulux own the largest houses in Xiriiro town but he was still small time. Yulux, while energetic, has not achieved the success of other groups. In January his crews snagged the Indian crewed Savina al Salaam, a livestock ship traveling from Bosaso to Oman. The pirates moved the ship towards Qandala but quickly found the care and feeding of 3620 live animals aboard the battered ship not conducive to the piracy model. They abandoned the ship two days later without ransom demands.
On February 21st of this year of this his group thought they had better luck when they commandeered the MV Leila, a light blue cargo ship on its way from Oman. This ship appeared to have more ransom potential than the animal carrier but it was not to be. The MV Leila is a roll on, roll off (RoRo) carrying a mish mash of used cars, mundane cargo and raw materials. The thirty-year old French built ship was flagged in Panama but was actually chartered by a group of Somaliland businessmen to go to Berbera in Somaliland.
Initially the ship landed in Bargal but was sent away by the locals. In March Yulux attempted to use the ship as a mothership to try for a bigger grab but the ship was quickly shadowed by international forces eager to catch him in the act. The pressure from local businessmen rather than London based insurance negotiators proved his undoing.
Somaliland traders were impatient to get their goods and Yulux’s dreams of a multi-million dollar ransom soon degraded into angry demands for the release of his jailed pirate associates and a token payment for “expenses” of only $150,000. Puntland’s anti-piracy head Mohamed Raage took part in the negotiations along with local elders. After its release, the Leila was spotted in Bosaso harbor and was on its way to Berbera.
Yulux and Aragosta also seemed to have very bad timing. Sheik Fuad Shongole had publically announced his arrival in the Golis hills and Sheik Atom had just announced his imminent departure from Kismayo. Al-Shabaab’s preferred method of travel from the south to the north is by fast skiff, dhow or charcoal carrier and usually at night. Reports of armed fighters refueling along the coast (and specifically Hafun) had put additional scrutiny on maritime movement along the coast. The week before US helicopters had landed at Hafun to look for evidence of Soangole and al-Shabaab movement or refueling. Residents along the coast are terrified of the influx of al-Shabaab and are quite vocal about identifying their movements to both Somalia Report and local authorities.
Ise Yulux is currently aboard the MT Royal Grace which is moving between Hafun and Bargal.
Increased Aerial Activity
Over the last year, three separate incidents of fishermen being killed have been documented by Somalia Report through interviews with families. These testimonials indicate that the Kenyan, US and other navies have been involved in the deaths of fisherman who were mistaken as pirates or been held against their will on pirated vessels. Many pirates press gang fishermen into crewing their hijacked dhows.
Adding to the residents’ fears is a dramatic uptick in aerial activity along the coast of Somalia. These flights range from at least four CIA-owned and operated Mi-17A’s flown by American contract pilots (one is a female) ostensibly on behalf of the US-trained Puntland Intelligence Services (PIS) but actually based out of Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. There are regular flights along the coast by photo recons from ship-based French and UK Puma’s looking for pirate camps and unusual activity. Carrier and ship-based US Navy helicopters are out in force looking for migrating al-Shabaab from Kismayo and the aforementioned US helicopters reportedly landing in Hafun to directly interrogate locals on recent refueling of al-Shabaab skiffs heading from Kismayo to the Puntland ports of Eelayo and Qaw.
This does not include the fear of JSOC Reaper activity over the Golis mountains, Bosaso and the northern coast as well as ELINT and Reaper flights over the southern and central coasts. Although anti-piracy drone flights from Seychelles were suspended, aerial drones monitor al-Shabaab and al Qaeda movement. Locals cannot see these flights but they know that wherever al Qaeda and al-Shabaab travels, the US anti-terrorism program goes with them.
There are also smaller, more visible ship-launched drones that emanate from NATO, US and EU ships along with aerial recon of pirated ships and pirate groups by more traditional aircraft.
The skies have become crowded, the locals have become nervous and the violent actors, both good and bad, are becoming confused. For example, the US legally and openly supports the African Union, AMISOM and support nations like Uganda and Kenya. Its activities inside Puntland and Mogadishu are less clear. The PIS (now renamed to the PIA) is funded, supplied and trained by the CIA using American contractors who openly train a few kilometers past the Bosaso airport and maintain a Hesco fortress in the port city. Their aggressive high speed convoys of Toyota technicals irritate the locals and the very American style of Rambo-esque gear clearly indicate who is in charge. In addition, the PMPF is now a common site around Puntland with their lumbering blue 6 wheel drive Kamaz trucks and the much more ragtag Puntland Security Forces are getting ready for Sheik Atom's onslaught against Bosaso. The windswept Bosaso airport is getting busy with UN, khat, charter, the PMPF, and supply flights.
Prescott Support Company delivers cargo on its civilianized Lockheed 382G Hercules and RAM Services rotate personnel with a Saab business jet. Both fly into Somalia and Djibouti on a regular basis to deliver weapons and equipment. Two US trainers provider training and US pilots and crew operate Mi-17A helicopters in support of ground and air operations ostensibly against al-Shabaab. General Director of Puntland Fishing and Sea Resources Ministry Abdi Wahid Joocaar told Somalia Report that he condemned the foreign attack in Gumbah and pointed out that these locals had not been engaged in piracy. He supported NATO and Puntland’s agreement that encourages foreign forces to coordinate with local forces but he strongly condemned uncoordinated air attacks.
Somalia continues to be is a recipient and victim of both internal and external forces. While regions like Somaliland, Puntland and even Galmadug begin to take their first steps to fight piracy through law enforcement, international forces like the EU, France, the UK and the US appear to be taking an increasingly robust sea-based military engagement. For example when the SV Quest was hijacked, the US engaged the USS Enterprise and three other warships were tasked to shadow the tiny yacht. The French launched attacks inside Somalia to capture or kill pirates after the Le Ponant incident and in March of 2011 the EU declared Somalia a triple threat to global stability through “Terrorism, piracy and the proliferation of weapons”.
None of the foreign attacks were coordinated with local Somali forces.
This hard line stance led to the March 23rd decision of the EU to "Target pirates and their infrastructure” within 2kms of the Somali shoreline. This effectively beefed up Operation Atalanta’s mandate from escorting WFP ships, deterring piracy and monitoring fisheries activities to conducting preemptive attacks. Something that is fraught with legal questions.
The initial EU mandate was supposed to target equipment but not people but clearly people are being targeting and by association the communities and leaders are concerned that these off shore aggressors do not possess or need rule of law to determine guilt of piracy from behind a rocket sight. Although Puntland, Somaliland and Galmadug have laws against piracy, the TFG does not. International forces have simply operated as they saw fit in the case of hostage rescue, piracy in progress and piracy related interdictions on sea. Attacking Somalis on land without coordination with the host nation is a new chapter that is about to be written.
Nervous Somalis along the coast can now say they are being attacked by foreign forces who were originally brought into the region to protect aid headed for Mogadishu. France is a major part of Operation Atalanta with Spain, Germany, Italy, Portugal and the Netherlands providing token support. What should have happened is that international forces in combination with Puntland land forces should have surrounded and arrested the pirate clustering and in one stroke eliminated two major groups. They didn’t. Instead fishermen are becoming increasingly nervous about plying their trade at sea.