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.