The Out of Towner
Connecting the Dots: The Yemeni crisis and piracy in the Gulf of Aden
By Nima Khorrami Assl
Since the failed assassination attempt on Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his subsequent arrival to Saudi Arabia, where he is receiving medical treatment at a military hospital, anti-government protests have surprisingly continued to paralyze the country. Meanwhile, a rather loose ‘coalition of necessity’ between various separatist and Islamic movements, some with links to AQAP, has emerged that has successfully seized the momentum and taken control of at least two cities in southern province of Abyan including its capital Zinjibar.
Already, some 54,000 people have fled Abyan to seek refuge in the neighboring Aden. After days of slow military planning, Yemeni warplanes were reported to have bombed southern cities on 6th July but failed to loosen the militants’ grip on Abyan. Instead, there are reports, though hard to confirm, that militants have captured a military base and surrounded another one. This is why General Ali Mohsen, who defected from Saleh’s government and joined protesters in March, has publically asked for outside intervention. “Propagandas might take place against the country. It could put the country into a severe security stalemate. The entire region will be affected security-wise”, he claimed in an interview with the CNN.
That the current instability in Yemen can lead to a bloody civil war and thus endanger the unity of Yemeni state is neither a new statement nor an underreported prospect. What requires more attention thus is the regional implications of a civil war in Yemen and its ramifications for anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden in particular.
Despite an international naval presence in the region, Somali pirates have been exploiting political turmoil in Yemen to pick up fuel, and possibly other supplies including weapons and food, from the Yemeni island of Socotra. According to Michael Frodl, a consultant at C-Level Maritime Risk Consultancy, since the beginning of uprisings and popular protests in Yemen, Socotra has been effectively turned into the most “important refueling hub” for hijacked merchant vessels used as “mother-ships”.
Given the strategic location of Socotra, pirates’ ability to use it as a fueling hub has two distinct operational advantages. Not only a free access to the island enables them to refuel more frequently and that stay out at sea for longer periods, but they can also expand their operational domain from the Gulf Aden to India’s western waters, the Omani coastline, and, worst of all, the Strait of Hormuz.
What is more, there are concerns that ongoing social turmoil and its negative economic effects on the already deprived population of the south, might lead to the revival of on old profession in southern Yemen: piracy. Socotra and the Gulf of Aden have both been favorite stomping grounds for pirates for centuries and until the early 1990s, long before the emergence of Somali pirates, the real threat in the region used to come from Yemeni pirates. There are real concerns today that the ever diminishing sate authority in the south and the deepening economic crisis might very well facilitate cooperation between Yemeni pirates and their Somali counterparts.
It is in the face of these potential threats, and indeed some other, well-known ones such as the AQAP and its cooperation with Islamic extremist groups in Somalia, that the international community, regional states, and moderate Yemeni politicians “relaxed attitude” towards the current crisis in Yemen is so puzzling.