The Hidden Conflict With The Potential To Shatter Global Trade
Since 2017, a war has been raging. This war has remained largely ignored in the world media, because, as wars go, this war has been rather “low-level”. As well, this war is the living example of an uncomfortable truth – that the so-called “Islamic State” is not dead, despite losing its major base areas in Iraq and Syria.
While the IS was significantly damaged in the period of 2015-2019, their remnants continue to operate in Syria and Iraq, but also expanded throughout the world, as far afield as Libya, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and the Philippines, bringing under their wing such diverse groups as Abu Saayif, Boko Haram and dissidents from Al Qaeda. They actively compete with other jihadist groups for recruits and money. Most important to this story, however, is the “Islamic State – Central Africa Province (IS-CAP or ISCAP)“.
ISCAP emerged around 2018, with two wings, the first operating in the Central African states of the “Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)” and Uganda under the leadership of Musa Baluku, and in Mozambique, led by one Abu Yasir Hassan.
Following the same broad strategy as the rest of IS’s offshoots (extreme violence and torture, brutal oppression of women, use of child soldiers, etc.), ISCAP initially appeared to be focusing on destabilizing the Great Rift Valley region of Central Africa. Long unstable and prone to large-scale violence, ISCAP’s entry into this region of staggering mineral and agricultural wealth initially went rather unnoticed — Central Africa was not seen as having significant potential for the IS, and while of some concern, ISCAP was relegated to the figurative “back burner”, as there were much more immediate terrorism problems in Africa, like “Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)” and Boko Haram.
But then…Mozambique exploded. Somewhat literally.
Cabo Delgado Province is one of only two provinces in Mozambique with a majority-Muslim population (the other being neighboring Niassa Province). Both of these northern-most provinces are badly underdeveloped, economically speaking, and are grindingly poor as a result. Things seemed to be looking up, however, as the American energy company Anadarko Petroleum (now a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum) decided to launch a major expansion onshore of its previously discovered offshore liquid natural gas (LNG) fields. This would create a large number of well-paying jobs, directly, and create “knock-on” industries to support development of the region.
The future looked bright.
But then, beginning on 5 October 2017, a predawn raid was staged on police stations in the seaside town of Mocímboa da Praia that killed some seventeen people, including two police officers and a community leader. The attack quickly fell apart, and nearly half the raid force was captured. Interrogations of the prisoners indicated that the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Shabaab terror group from Somalia (also known as “Ansar al-Sunna”) had suborned some disgruntled ex-police officers to train local recruits.
Not being known for having a delicate touch, the Mozambican response was rather heavy-handed, with widespread arrests on questionable evidence, and the closing of several mosques in the provincial capitol of Pemba for “suspected connections” with “Islamic fundamentalism“. A subsequent attack on the village of Mitumbate reportedly killed some fifty people, including women and children, although it remains unclear as to what, if any, connection the casualties may have had to the insurgents.
Attacks continues apace through the remainder of 2017, and continued throughout 2018 and into 2019. Increasing numbers of people were kidnapped or murdered outright, houses, businesses and government buildings were burned, and civilians began fleeing the area, in numbers that would eventually displace an estimated 400,000 people by 2020, resulting in panicked calls to the international community for help by various national, international and non-governmental agencies.
At some point, likely in late-2018 or early-2019, ISCAP seems to have arrived in Cabo Delgado, and either displaced or absorbed the Al Qaeda affiliate. It is important to understand the implications of this event. Where Al Qaeda-aligned groups at that time rarely left the terrorist model to engage in actual guerrilla warfare tactics, the Islamic State was almost the exact reverse – while certainly not shying away from terrorist attacks, the IS usually focuses on trying to act as an “actual” army.
This difference quickly became apparent.
On June 4, 2019, “Islamist” forces attacked a Mozambican Army outpost in the town of Mitopy, reportedly killing or wounding some 30 people, and capturing equipment. Attacks continued to escalate, as Russia began delivering military equipment to the Mozambique government (Russia, recall, had intevened in Syria in 2015 to shore up Bashar Al Assad’s government against relentless IS offensives), and the “Wagner Group“, the PMC aligned to the Russian government. This did not go well…for the Russian contractors. Despite some initial successes, the ISCAP forces repeatedly hit back at least as hard as they were being attacked.
(One of the ongoing frustrations in this conflict is the lack of press freedom, which dramatically limits the range of detail available.)
This activity continued through the end of 2019, when a break in ISCAP’s offensive seems to have occurred. The cautious optimism engendered by the break was shattered when ISCAP came roaring out of the forests, in a Syria-style offensive, on March 23, 2020. ISCAP forces stormed Mocímboa da Praia and captured the town, destroying government buildings, looting banks…and then distributing much of the loot to locals, in an apparent propaganda campaign. ISCAP withdrew from the town the next day, and launched a wide-ranging offensive across the province. Worryingly for military observers at the time, this particular attack was a coordinated land-sea assault. This period also saw South African special forces units deployed to the country.
The see-saw series of skirmishes continued for the next five months, with Mozambique government forces claiming to have killed hundreds of insurgents, even as attacks increased. ISCAP forces seem to have focused on Mocímboa da Praia in particular; the reason for this focus would not become apparent until August of 2020.
Beginning on August 5th, ISCAP launched a ferocious assault that focused on Mocímboa da Praia. after skillfully isolating the town, ISCAP forces hammered their way into the town. Mozambican forces, although supported by helicopters of the the South African PMC “Dyck Advisory Group (DAG)“, were either overrun and destroyed or captured, with the survivors fleeing the town by sea in commandeered boats. ISCAP forces engaged the retreating boats from the shore, sinking a French-built HSI-32 “interceptor” vessel with fire from RPG-7‘s. After the town’s capture, ISCAP declared it to be their “capitol”, and began a series of amphibious raids throughout the neighboring Quirimbas Islands, driving local island inhabitants ashore as refugees.
Even for regular, professional militaries, these were not “simple” operations.
ISCAP would hold Mocímboa da Praia for a full year, until August of 2021, following the intervention of Malawian and Rwandan army units deployed to the country to help stem the tide. However, before pushing ISCAP out of Mocímboa da Praia, ISCAP attempted to capture the border town and port of Palma in a 12-day long battle, a murderous fight that – while ultimately beaten back by Mozambian forces – left the city largely destroyed, suspending oil and gas company operations in the area, and killing numerous civlians, both Mozambicans and foreigners.
Although, as of February of 2022, ISCAP seems to have been battered back into the forests, there have been multi-month-long lulls in the fighting before. This fight is not over.
Meanwhile, though, as Mozambique burned, other things were happening…..
Two Unconnected Events & A Brutal Attack Make Three
While all the fighting was happening in Mozambique, the rest of the world lumbered onward, as it always does. Amid all of the other things going on in the military and security spheres of that time, there occurred yet another massive, bloody attack on civilians…
On Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019, suicide bombers struck three Christian churches and three luxury hotels in the city of Coloumbo in coordinated attacks between 8:25am and 9:20am, local time; two smaller explosions occurred later in the day in other parts of the city. In total, 261 people were killed and over 500 were injured.
Based on intelligence intercepts provided by Indian Intelligence agencies, Sri Lankan officials were pointed at the “National Thowheeth Jama’ath (National Monotheism Organisation)“, or “NJT“, a radical (but minor) Jihadist group that had aligned itself to the Islamic State; while IS would claim responsibility for the attacks, based on several members appearing in a video pledging loyalty to the group, these supposed connections are tenuous, at best.
Sri Lanka’s population is less than 10% Muslim, inclusive of several different sects, which seriously calls into question how much support the NJT – a hyper-radical, Sunni-based sect – would have had. Another problem is that Sri Lanka is simply not on IS’s radar; it is well outside IS operational theaters, and committing more than “lip service” resources to an operational group there would be wasted effort, when the IS itself was under continuous attack elsewhere, and was hemorrhaging money, fighters, trainers and resources trying to defend its core territories.
While Sri Lanka is absolutely no stranger to suicide bombing attacks, having fought a blood-soaked 26-year war against the “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)“; that group, though, was wiped out quite decisively in 2009. The LTTE, however, could in hindsight be viewed as “Islamic State, Beta“, in that it created a functional government from scratch, with very little external support, as well as a functional military establishment, including an air force and a navy.
Bookmark that thought. We’ll come back to it.
As these kinds of things usually do, the Sri Lankan attacks quickly faded from the news, and the world shuffled onwards. Then, as ISCAP was preparing to launch its offensive against Mocímboa da Praia in August of 2020, a blunder of staggering incompetence happened.
At roughly 5:45pm local time, fire crews were summoned to Warehouse 12 at the Port of Beirut, Lebanon, on a report of a warehouse fire. The first crew to arrive on-scene immediately called for backup — the blazing warehouse was massively engulfed, and completely out of control. Some twenty minutes later, at 6:07pm local time, the dockside warehouse exploded in a titanic blast, registering an estimated 3.3 on the Richter Scale. The blast was heard in Cyprus and Israel, some 150 miles/240km distant, and was felt as far away as parts of Europe. Estimates of the blast force ranged from 1.5 to 2.5 tons of TNT, equivalent to a small nuclear warhead.
Despite early attempts by various terrorist groups, both inside and outside of Lebanon, to claiming responsibility for the attack, it was quickly determined to have been the result of a level of bureaucratic lethargy and incompetence, coupled to irresponsible work practices on a scale that boggles the imagination.
In November of 2013, the Moldovan-flagged cargo ship ‘MV Rhosus‘, carrying 2,750 tonnes (3,030 short tons) of ammonium nitrate bound for Mozambique (this was well before the current war there), was seized by the Port of Beirut’s Port state control officials for, according to Lloyd’s List, some US$100,000 in unpaid bills. Ammonium nitrate, while used primarily as and agricultural fertilizer, is also a significant component in explosives. As the ‘MV Rhosus‘ was deemed unseaworthy by Port state control, the ship was condemned and her cargo was unloaded in February of 2014 and stored in Warehouse 12. The crew, all either Ukrainian or Russian, were allowed to return home on compassionate grounds, as the ship owner had reportedly gone bankrupt, and was unable to either repair the ship or pay the fines it had accrued.
The ammonium nitrate cargo then sat in Warehouse 12 for the next six years, as Lebanese officialdom tepidly argued over what to do with it. During this time, in a staggering display of irresponsibility, a massive load of fireworks were stored in a section of the warehouse complex, right next to the bays holding the ammonium nitrate. Inevitably, a construction crew working on a loading door with a welding torch apparently set the fireworks alight, and as the blaze spread, the heat and pressure eventually touched off the ammonium nitrate…..
Over 200 people are known to have been killed in the blast of August 4th, and over 7,000 wounded, collapsing local medical capacity. Somewhere in the ballpark of 300,000 people were left homeless. Damages exceeded US$15 billion, a staggering sum for a small country with a wobbly economy. Numerous terro groups in the region tried to claim responsibility in the aftermath, in the end it was a disaster brought on simply by monumental levels of incompetence.
Contrary to popular belief, ocean-going vessels — even in the modern day — run aground all the time. No one is perfect. However, sometimes, all the stars will align in the worst possible way.
And on March 24, 2021, they did so.
Although developed in one form or another over the centuries, “shipping containers” as a mode of cargo shipment did not become truly widespread until the mid-1950’s, when Malcolm McLean and Keith Tantlinger perfected the “twistlock” mechanism, creating the modern “intermodal container“. At that point, real standardization became possible.
Today, contanerization is the primary mode of moving “non-bulk” freight loads via ship; somewhere near 90% of all non-bulk freight moving by ship moves in intermodal containers. The “Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit (TEU)” is the one of the standards for measuring the capacity of a container ship. The more than 9,000 vessels of this type (per UNCTAD, 2010) are typically massive vessels, with truly massive carrying capacities.
The “Ever Given“, with a capacity of over 20,000 TEUs (if loaded onto trucks, those trucks (all 10,000 of them) – if lined up nose-to-tail, all at once – would stretch from Downtown Dallas, TX to north of Durant, OK, a distance of over 100mi/160km), was transiting the Suez Canal that March day, bound for the port of Rotterdam. Although the precise details of the incident remain a bone of contention, the “Ever Given” ended up jammed hard into the banks of the canal, in one of the worst possible stretches of the canal. As a result, at least 300 cargo vessels – including five other container ships of similar size, 41 bulk carriers and 24 crude oil tankers – were stuck waiting at either end of the canal for six days.
The only alternative – the Cape Route – adds over 3,000 nautical miles to a run from Singapore to Rotterdam; some shippers were already shifting to this route when the grounding occurred, as the Suez Canal Authority has been raising transit rates in recent years, and with the collapse of Somali piracy in 2013, the Cape has been increasingly seen as a better option.
“Ita quomodo huc venisti?” (So, how did we get here?)
So — What point are we making, here? While the foregoing are certainly interesting points for study, they have little, if anything, to do with each other on the surface. However, there is a time-bomb lurking beneath the surface. The following is an example of “predictive analytics.” The key points are as follows:
- It is a given, that the “Islamic State” (IS) sees itself as the enemy of the West. It is also a given that IS operatives around the world very much watch the news. They are fully aware, at the very least, of every event outlined above. Believing otherwise is simply not a valid world-view.
- Given the IS’ proclivities for grandiose attacks, and given the fact that they have been heavily battered – being on their third leader in four years – IS is increasingly desperate to stage a major attack to regain its former prestige in the world.
- Mozambique as a theater of operations for the IS – or Al Qaeda, for that matter – makes little sense at this point, if taken as a circumstance by itself. While only roughly three days via boat from Somalia at 10 knots (11.5mph/18.5kph), the rest of the factors are out of whack: the Muslim population in the country is tiny; the country as a whole is economically depressed; language is a serious issue; and the nation’s infrastucture is rudimentary, at best. These are all significant negatives to IS’ normal mode of operation…And yet — someone is expending a significant amount of resources and manpower to secure an Islamist foothold in the country.
- Locally in Cabo Delgado, the Islamist insurgents are known as “Al Shabaab“…and, significantly, as “Somalis“. Despite insistance from certain quarters that there is no known connection between the “Ansar Al-Sunna/Al Shabaab” group in Mozambique and the similarly-named group in Somalia, the connection from the operational area in question is too significant to ignore.
- If a connection does exist, that bodes ill all by itself, as it indicates a potential thaw in relations between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, as the two have been, at the very least, “not friends” since the IS separated from the Al Qaeda orbit in 2014.
- Then, there is the curious case of the Easter, 2019 bombings in Sri Lanka. For the reasons outlined above, there was little to be gained by these attacks. While they certainly demonstrated the potential reach and influence of the IS, it gained them very little, either tactically or strategically.
- Finally, the seeming outlier points are the explosion in Beirut and the stranding of the “Ever Given”. Both were absolutely accidents, and not connected to any known terror group.
There are too many coincidences in the above points for the total picture to be some random splatter of a bizarre avant-garde art movement. Something is missing.
The Corporal and the Sea Pigeons
The problem in dealing with all “non-state actors” is that they are able to remain largely anonymous, until they surface publicly and act. There are so many possibilities, they get lost in the shuffle.
On of these actors is, potentially, a man named Hussein Farrah Aidid.
Hussein, a younger son of Somali warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid, emigrated to the United States in 1979, graduating from Covina High School, in Covina, California in 1981. After working for various firms for a few years while studying civil engineering, Hussein enlisted in the United States Marine Corps Reverse, and after basic training, was posted to Battery B, 1st Battalion, 14th Marines, based at the Marine reserve training center in Pico Rivera, California. He would eventually rise to the rank of Corporal.
Hussein was activated with the rest of his unit, and served in Operation Desert Storm in 1990-1991. Later, as Operation Restore Hope got underway in his native country in late 1992, Hussein was activated again, being assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, as an interpreter, being the only person in the Marine Corps at that time who spoke any Somali dialect, and to provide a link to his father. He would serve in this capacity only briefly, being withdrawn after three weeks, once other Somali volunteers from the United States (mostly college students) volunteered to return. The Marine Corps was well aware of Hussein’s family background, and as his father was a prominent warlord in the country’s worsening civil war, following the ouster of dicator Siad Barre, they wanted no possibility of a conflict of interest arising for the young Marine. As a result, he was not present in Somalia when US forces launched Operation Gothic Serpent in an attempt to arrest some of his father’s lieutenants, in what became known as the “Battle of Mogadishu“.
At some point between 1993 and 1996, Hussein was named as his father’s ‘heir apparent’ to the leadership of Habir Gidir clan. When his father died during surgery after being shot during a battle with rival forces, Hussein Farrah Aidid advised his reserve unit that he would be traveling abroad for a number of months, and would miss his next several drills. Traveling to Somalia, he assumed the leadership of his clan, and initially continued his father’s policies of armed confrontation with opposition forces. However, this did not last — by 1997, Hussein turned to negotiation instead of armed conflict, and actively advocated working with not only the international community, but the United States directly.
Although he would later be named to several cabinet-level posts in Somalia’s shaky transitional government, Hussein would not simply be forced out of the Somali government structure, but out of the country itself — by 2007, Hussein Farrah Aidid had been forced into exile in Eritrea, making accusations that Ethiopia was guilty of “genocide” in its intervention into Somalia and calling for the withdrawal of its forces from the country. Ethiopia stated that it intervened “reluctantly”, but with the support of the United States and the African Union (AU), and it did withdraw its forces as soon as AU troops entered the country.
This placed Aidid in the position of backing calls by the Islamist “Islamic Courts Union” group for “jihad” against Ethiopia, a call which was condemned even by Sharia-law courts within Somalia, a move that ultimately strengthened the Al Shabaab group.
Although staying well under the radar in the years since his exile, confidential intelligence sources (speaking on condition of anonymity) reveal that a potential link to Hussein Farrah Aidid is being seriously investigated. The probability of his involvement in southern Africa is considered to be high, although absolute proof has not been uncovered.
The reasons for this are as simple as “the enemy of my enemy is my friend“. While seeming to be nominally friendly to the Ethiopian government by aiding it in its ongoing conflict with the Tigray people, Eritrea is out for revenge against the Tigray, with whom it fought a sharp war in 1998-2000. There are indications that militia’s loyal to the younger Aidid are taking part in Eritrean operations, at the very least in supporting capacities.
The thinking behind the notion of Hussien Farrah Aidid siding with Islamist groups lays in the fact that he appears to have valued his personal connections to both the United States and its Marine Corps highly, but those connections have done him little good over the years, as his attempts at diplomacy and conciliation have left him in exile. While many people would regard him as a “mere corporal” (and likely make allusions to a certain Austrian of similar rank), it is important to remember that one of the core principles of leadership is the willingness to delegate – the catch being, that a leader still needs to give guidance on what to look for, in order for the subordinate to get started.
Hussein Aidid possesses exactly those abilities. In a direct sense while he, himself, was almost certainly never involved in any form of higher-level strategic planning, he would know what to look for, if he wanted to set up a training program for his loyalists. As well, being exiled to Eritrea freed him, in a sense, from focusing on his father’s form of “desert power“, and shifting to the other major form of Somali warfare…
The ability to move troops, equipment and supplies by sea is a huge challenge over any significant distance…but, if a person – or a staff – were able to think in those terms, the oceans of the world provide a nearly-uncontested avenue for movement.
Which brings us to the next puzzle piece: the Sea Pigeons.
When Sri Lanka was deep in its war against the Tamil Tigers, the Tigers maintained a naval force that conducted suicide and interdiction attacks against Sri Lankan naval and merchant vessels throughout the long war. These “Sea Tigers“, however, had another asset.
The so-called “Sea Pigeons” were a kind of “ghost fleet” of ocean-going merchant vessels, usually operating with “flexible” papers. The ships of this merchant fleet carried arms and equipment to resupply the LTTE directly, but also operated around the world, carrying legitimate cargo’s for profits like any other shipping company, profits that were a major source of funding to the LTTE. While at least ten of these ships were destroyed by the Sri Lankan Navy by 2009, no one is entirely certain how many ocean-going vessels the LTTE operated…And, while the remnants of the LTTE have struggled to keep the glimmer of resistance alive since the destruction of the main movement in May of 2009, there has been little word of any remaining Sea Pigeons.
Which brings us back to the Easter Bombings of 2019, from above.
IF Hussein Farrah Aidid was looking for a way to strike a blow that could greatly elevate his status within both the radical Islamist and African spheres…and, IF he were in contact with surviving Sea Pigeons, HOW could he entice those former guerrillas – after surviving underground for a decade – to aid him?
Getting the Islamic State to stage a significant attack in Sri Lanka – as a “sign of good faith” – could be viewed as a “down payment” to gain access to the remaining Sea Pigeon fleet.
But to what end?
Along with the Suez Canal, discussed previously, the Panama Canal is the other major choke point of international shipping, as it removed the need to use the highly dangerous route around South America‘s Cape Horn. A relatively minor accident in the Suez Canal, solved in six days, nearly unhinged world trade.
What would a pair of attacks, against both canals simultaneously, do? Especially if those attacks did not simply close the routes for a few days, but for months, if not years? But – how would such attacks play out?
In the case of Suez, simply limpet mining or scuttling one or two very large vessels in the right place[s] would be sufficient, as the ships and their cargoes would have to be fully cleared before traffic could resume.
Panama, however, is more difficult. The lock system that makes up the canal is not really susceptible to scuttling, because of the canal’s layout. A ship scuttling inside a lock, while certainly a disaster, would be relatively easily to resolve.
But — what about a ship carrying three or four thousand tones of ammonium nitrate “suddenly” exploding in the Panama Canal?
The explosion of the ammonium nitrate cargo in the Port of Beirut left a blast crater over 400ft/124m in diameter, and some 140ft/43m deep. What effect would a larger explosion have, in the tight confines of a lock system like Panama’s? At the very least, the Panama Canal would cease operations for months, if not a full year…
…And, coupled to a similar closure of Suez, world trade would be forced to make long and dangerous detours…
So — Why would this benefit the Islamic State, encouraging it to expend significant resources in an attempt to establish a base in northern Mozambique, well outside their normal operational zones?
Because, if Suez were to be closed, the shipping detour around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope has to run right past Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado region.
But — If the above is true, what would the benefit be for the surviving Sea Pigeons to help Hussein Farrah Aidid and the Islamic State? Simply put: Revenge.
The United States – as well as India – aided the Sri Lankan Navy in attacking the Sea Tiger/Sea Pigeon layover areas with satellite imagery showing those assembly area’s locations and layouts. Both the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia directly supplied the Sri Lankan government with military weapons, equipment, vehicles and aircraft for its final, apocalyptic campaigns against the LTTE. Great Britain was largely responsible for the confused and messy end of Colonialism in Sri Lanka, and was directly responsible for the ethinc divisions that ultimately led to the island’s civil war. France and the rest of the major nations of the world eagerly lined up to proscribe and hunt down the remainder of the LTTE outside of Sri Lanka, and actively worked to dismantle the group’s international financing network…And every one of these states would be critically damaged by an attack of this nature.
If any non-religious group has reason to want to destroy the West, it is the remnants of the LTTE.
And Pass The Hookah, Please
One final point to consider: Turkey.
Turkey, as we pointed out in April, was deeply involved in the creation and expansion of the Islamic State’s original form. However, once Erdogan’s plan to launch a religious war against Iran failed, he dropped the Islamic State like a hot potato, leaving it to die on the vine…except that, like troublesome weeds, it refused to die quietly.
It Islamic State learned from this. And the primary lesson it learned, was that it was just as much of a pawn in international “realpolitik” as any other group. And – like their institutional ancestors, Al Qaeda, in the aftermath of carrying the CIA’s water in expelling the Soviet’s from Afghanistan – they refused to simply go home.
Money is money, after all — and everyone’s money is good, if it buys you ammunition.
But Turkey has gone a step further, expanding its reach into Africa, but especially into Somalia and Libya where it is actively working with other major powers against Islamist militant groups, even as it plays multiple sides in Ethiopia. An attack that closed the Suez Canal would do as much, if not more, damage to the Turkish economy as it would to the wider world.
Again — the Islamic State is capable of assembling all of the above points into a strategic picture; the Freedomist is not saying anything not publicly-available. Additionally, even if the educated guesses about Aidid and the Sea Pigeons are completely wrong, if we can work through this, so can the Islamic State. In fact, any competent intelligence analyst can see it, if they do the work…as many have.
The question is: Will those the analysts work for, listen to them?
Given the increasing levels of hysteria in the world, this seems unlikely.
Time will tell. The troops are waiting.