14 February 2010

AQAP and Shabab: A 2010 Naval Alliance?

In mid-2008, al Qaeda’s al Ikhlas media published an article calling for the establishment of naval jihad cells. The article highlighted the waters off Yemen as being of supreme strategic importance to Western interests.

This week Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) urged Harakat Shabab Mujahideen (HSM) to join them in an effort to reclaim the Bab al Mandab Strait for the lands of Islam. I initially discounted this commentary as utterly ridiculous; both groups lack any kind of legitimate naval force. After sitting back with a phenomenal pre-deployment glass of Glenmorangie “Extremely Rare” 18 year old scotch, I began to re-think what it would take for AQ to actually reclaim, or at least severely disrupt foreign interests in the strategic “Gate of Tears”.

An AQAP-HSM coalition would not have to actually block the 18-mile wide sea corridor; they would likely find it quite difficult with a combined maritime task force operating in the area. Instead, all they have to do is conduct some kind of operation that permeates a far greater psychological threat internationally. Three of the most viable offensive operations available to an AQ maritime force include:

1. Attack against naval forces while docked in Djibouti, similar to the USS Cole attack in Aden. This is the least likely of three potentially viable possibilities I offer due to the difficulty (read: perceived difficulty, I’ve never been there) of breaching port defenses.

2. Suicide attack using pirate “mother-ship” techniques. The techniques and procedures for Somali pirates are constantly evolving and could easily be manipulated to support a suicide attack against either a naval or civilian vessel in open water. There is a plethora of open-source reporting on the links between southern Somali pirates and HSM, which lends credence to this method for maritime offensive operations. The downfall is that this is unlikely to cause the psychological impact that AQAP-HSM requires to effectively shut off the Strait.

3. Homemade sea mines. This is the most dangerous, and arguably the easiest, option available to AQAP-HSM in the Strait. HSM has maintained the capability to conduct IED strikes for years now, so the transition to a waterproof-version would not be a giant technological leap. A mined Bab al Mandab Strait would take weeks to clear and have the sufficient psychological impact necessary to close the Strait off from all foreign vessels. Indigenous fishermen using wooden boats would be able to travel through the minefield with very little threat of detonation, so the impact on locals would be negligible. It would also be relatively cheap and require no real complex planning or scheme. That’s the real beauty of all of this. AQAP-HSM just have to evoke a psychological response, they don’t have to actually sink any ships (although it wouldn’t hurt their cause).

“A naval minefield is a significant physical and psychological threat that can cause attrition to enemy ships and submarines or limit ship movements by forcing delays and diversions because of perceptions and fears, both real and exaggerated.” (Doctor, 1998)

These scenarios are unlikely in the near future. HSM will have their hands full in the near-term countering the TFG offensive underway in and around Mogadishu. If the TFG offensive sputters by the Spring, which is highly likely, it may provide the necessary breathing room for an expanding AQAP-HSM partnership to open a maritime front.


  1. There are three problems that the militant Salafists would have in my opinion.

    1. The first is that both are currently engaged in fighting their own enemies who are very close at hand. Despite what we sometimes think, these groups do not exist simply for the purpose of launching terrorist attacks. They have to be able to maintain their existence and keep a steady supply of recruits and resources and, despite hype, AQAP isn't an imminent threat to the existence of Yemen that can launch attacks elsewhere.

    2. At least a large amount of the major shipping would involve locals and nearby nations including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Eritrea and Yemen. True, this might not cause great concern for local people but it would bring a huge amount of angry attention from Muslim nations and the people of those nations. It's one thing to bomb an American naval ship, it's another to kill dozens of Muslims on a cargo ship.

    3. Lastly, Somaliland. A break off part of Somalia that includes part of the straits, it's actually quite stable and isn't under the control of Salafists. Of course that isn't stopping piracy and the like, but it does means that they can't act freely.

    Personally I consider a blockade of that nature to be a long term threat, something to worry about if either group effectively wins their war.

  2. If we have we a naval expert ready to post, I would be interested in his/her thoughts on this.

    1. Mine engineering and construction technology is extremely challenging. The art and testing of mine Leak Proofing, BY ITSELF, is very sophisticated science… almost certainly beyond the capabilities of these particular opponents.

    2. Western navies have been effectively sweeping mines for several hundred years.

    Thus the Threat is minimally probable and the defense against the Realized Threat is well known.

  3. One of our analysts notes that a naval capability composed of suicide boats, per the USS Cole, is credible against unarmed vessels.

  4. A. From AQ strategic perspective, an AQAP-HSM alliance would pair well with the recent Al Shabaab-Hizbul Islam (Ras Kamboni Camp) merger. Read more about the ASMM merger and its spreading tentacles:
    (1) http://al-sahwa.blogspot.com/2010/02/terrorists-dream-about-islamic-state-al.html;

    B. Also, we must consider the messages of OBL and the possibility that AQCL really does directly authorize plots/plans/attacks:

  5. How hard would it be to rig a speedboat or 10 with remote control, to ram selected shipping? Im thinking lowtech off-the-shelf tech.

    Also, dont forget that while the main focus may very well be fighting the near enemy, the smart lads of jihad v 2.1 are quite capable of setting up projectgroups of tech-savvy individuals.

  6. I spent a couple years working the mine countermeasures problem in the AG. First, mining a strait would make for a difficult time for all shipping until MCM vessels could hunt and clear the mines. During my time in AG in the late 80's actually conducting minecountermeasures ops, we did not sweep for mines. Instead we hunted for them and neutralized them individually. Once we got an area hunted, we would sometimes run a sweep. Hunting takes time. Second, many sea mines are fairly unsophisticated. In the days prior to the 1991 Gulf War, MCM's were finding some interesting designs that were cheap and possibly effective. In the Cold War, a Soviet freightor dropped some material into the Northern San Francisco Bay. The littering caused a big panic that caused some delay in opening the shipping channel while USS GALLANT hunted the "mine." McKnife

  7. @ Martin K. The Germans actually did try that in the First World War, if technology had advanced just a bit further they might have been able to break the British blockade and possibly could have changed the ultimate outcome.
    It probably is very viable today, using store bought toys you can make a decent bomb. The problem would be keeping a supply of them, expensive but not too difficult.
    However the third point in my first post applies there. They would need to control the area of the straits or at least be safe in it to do that, and currently they don't have that. If they tried to send off the boats from a long way away they couldn't precisely target them and they risk the boat going underwater. You could of course launch the boats from a mother ship the same way pirates do, but that creates a target and negates the point of using 'drone' boats.
    Point to watch: the Tamil Tigers. At their height the Tigers had a very dangerous naval section called the Sea Tigers that probably could pull it off. If either group found some way to find those members that could change the situation. However, this is very hypothetical. In all likelihood most members of the Sea Tigers are either dead, imprisoned, or in hiding a long way from the Horn of Africa. Also they don't have much reason to train Muslim groups. Also the entire situation is hypothetical because so far neither group seems to be actually trying anything like this.

  8. Could the Anonymous poster speculate on who might have been feeding mines into the AG (Persian Gulf or Red Sea?)?