The so-called Islamic State (IS) group confirmed on 30 August that one of its most prominent and longest-serving leaders, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, was killed in what appears to be an American air strike in Syria, effectively depriving the militant group of the man in charge of directing attacks overseas.
IS’ Amaq News Agency has reported that Adnani was killed “while surveying the operations to repel the military campaigns against Aleppo.” While IS holds territory in the province of Aleppo, it does not control the city, where rebels are fighting Syrian government forces. Amaq did not say how Adnani, born Taha Subhi Falaha in Syria’s Idlib Province in 1977, was killed, however it did publish a eulogy dated 29 August. A US defense official has also disclosed that the United States targeted Adnani in a Tuesday strike on a vehicle that was travelling in the Syrian town of al-Bab. The official however stopped short of confirming Adnani’s death. Such US assessments usually take several days to confirm and often lag behind official announcements made by militant groups.
Adnani was one of the last living senior members of IS, along with self-appointed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who founded the group, which would later go on to seize huge parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014. He was a Syrian from Binish in Idlib, southwest of Aleppo, who pledged allegiance to IS’ predecessor, al-Qaeda, more than a decade ago. He was once imprisoned by US forces in Iraq. He was from a well-to-do background however he left Syria to travel to Iraq in order to fight US forces there after the 2003 invasion. He returned to his homeland after the start of its own civil war in 2011. According to the Brookings Institution, he once taught theology and law in jihadi training camps. He had been the chief propagandist for IS since he declared in a June 2014 statement that it was establishing a modern-day caliphate spanning swaths of territory that it had seized in Iraq and neighbouring Syria. As IS’ spokesman, Adnani was its most visible member, often being the face of the militant group, such as when he issued a message in May urging attacks on the US and Europe during the holy month of Ramadan and as in September 2014, when he called on supporters to kill Westerners throughout the world. As the group’s head of external operations, he was in charge of attacks overseas, including in Europe, which this year have become an increasingly important tactic for the group as its core Iraqi and Syrian territory has ben eroded by military losses. Under Adnani’s auspices, IS launched large-scale attacks, bombings and shootings on civilians in countries outside its core area of operations, including France, Belgium and Turkey. According to one US official, Adnani’s roles as propaganda chief and director of external operations had become “indistinguishable” because the group uses its online messages in order to recruit fighters and to provide instruction and inspiration for attacks.
According to SITE Intelligence monitoring group, which monitors jihadist activity online, a statement in the group’s al-Naba newspaper has indicated that the group reacted by stated that his death would not harm it and that his killers would face “torment,” adding “today, they rejoice for the killing…and then they will cry much when Allah will overpower them, with His permission, with affliction of the worst torment by the soldiers of Abu Muhammad and his brothers.” A US counter-terrorism official, who monitors IS, has disclosed that Adnani’s death will hurt the militants “in the area that increasingly concerns us as the group loses more and more of its caliphate and its financial base…and turns to mounting and inspiring more attacks in Europe, Southeast Asia and elsewhere.”
On the ground, advances by Iraq’s army and allied milita towards IS’ most important possession in the country, Mosul, have put the group under new pressure at a time when a US-backed coalition has cut its Syrian holdings off from the Turkish border. These setbacks have also been due to air strikes, which have killed a number of the group’s leaders and which have undermined its organizational ability and dampened its morale.
Amongst senior IS officials killed in air strikes this year are Abu Ali al-Anbari, Baghdadis’ formal deputy, and the group’s “minister of war,” Abu Omar al-Shishani.
According to the latest data released by the International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB) Piracy Reporting Centre on Wednesday, pirates operating in Southeast Asia continue to hijack a coastal tanker on average once every two weeks in a bid to steal their cargo fuel.
Between January and June of this year, a total of 134 incidents of piracy and armed robbery globally were reported to the centre, an increase from the 116 that were reported during the same period last year. So far this year, 250 crewmembers have been taken hostage, with one fatality and nine injuries. Meanwhile eleven of the 13 hijackings that have been reported in the first half of this year occurred in waters in Southeast Asia. According to IMB director Pottengal Mukundan, “the serious attacks are the hijackings of the tankers in Southeast Asia and this year there has been a higher number in the first two quarters of this year than in the first two quarters of 2014.”
The IMB has reported that overall, attacks in Southeast Asia are greater in number than those of all the other regions combined. Furthermore, one-third of all incidents in that region occurred off the coast of Indonesia, however the IMB has noted that “the majority of these related to low-level opportunistic theft from vessels.” According to IMB figures, in the first half of 2015, there were 54 actual or attempted attacks that occurred in or near Indonesian waters, compared to 47 that were reported during the same period last year. Waters off Vietnam also saw an increase in pirate activity. In the first half of last year, there was only one incident reported in the area, however this year, there have already been 11 incidents reported. The IMB also reported a significant increase in armed robber attacks on vessels in Bangladesh, particularly in Chittagong. In the second quarter of this year, there were 10 incidents reported compared to only one that was reported in the first three months of 2015.
On 11 June, the owners of the Malaysia-flagged tanker ORKIM HARMONY lost contact with the vessel and reported the event to authorities, fearing the vessel had been hijacked. Over the following days, the vessel remained undetected until it was located on 18 June in Cambodian waters.
Military and marine police forces from Malaysia and Australia had been trailing the vessel, with Malaysian authorities indicating that they were in contact with eight of the pirates on board the vessel and that they were trying to negotiate a peaceful surrender.
On Friday, Malaysian navy and maritime officials disclosed that the hijacked oil tanker ORKIM HARMONY has been released by pirates, who fled in the ship’s rescue boat. According to officials, the vessel was now being escorted by the navy to Malaysia’s Kuantan Port. Malaysia’s Chief of Navy Admiral Abdul Aziz Jaafar indicated that after the tanker was hijacked, the pirates repainted the ship and changed the vessel’s name to Kim Harmon. One member of the 22 crewmembers on board the vessel, sustained injuries during the attack, suffering a gunshot wound to the thigh.
On 22 June, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) reported that five pirates involved in the hijacking of the ORKIM HARMONY remained at large. Last week, eight Indonesian pirates were apprehended by the Vietnam Coast Guard, just a day after the vessel was located. The group was reportedly trying to escape from navy ships and aircraft in the ORKIM HARMONY’s life boat. At a press conference on Monday, the MMEA’s deputy director-general, Ahmad Puzi Ab Kahar, disclosed that there were a total of 13 attackers involved in the hijacking, adding that the five pirates still at large are believed to have been separated from the group that was apprehended last week. According to the deputy director-general, they were responsible for manning a tugboat, which was first used to approach the vessel. The tugboat was found abandoned in Batam, Indonesia, over the weekend however there were no signs of the pirates. Ahmad Puzi has disclosed that all thirteen assailants are believed to be professional maritime criminals, additionally, he disclosed that those who are currently in custody have a high-degree of seafaring knowledge and criminal records for piracy. Malaysia is currently in the process of extraditing the eight assailants that were detained by Vietnamese authorities. The group is believed to be part of a larger piracy network that operates in Southeast Asian waters.
This hijacking is the second seizure of a tanker by pirates operating in Southeast Asia this month, and has raised concerns about further such attacks in the region. On 4 June, an oil tanker, ORKIM VICTORY, carrying diesel loaded from Petronas, was hijacked in the same area and on the same route. The vessel was later released by the hijackers after they siphoned off about 770 metric tonnes (6,000 barrels) of its cargo.
The killing of a crewmember on board a Vietnamese tanker by pirates earlier this week has marked a deadly escalation in hijackings in waters in Southeast Asia. The attack further highlights the growing threat of piracy in Southeast Asian waters and the fact that the region has developed into the new global hotspot for piracy.
On Sunday, crewmember Tran Duc Dat, 34, was shot in the forehead after pirates boarded the VP Asphalt 2, owned by VP Petrochemical Transport Co in Haiphong. According to the Vietnam Maritime Search and Rescue Coordination Centre, the vessel, which had just left Singapore, was en route to Vietnam. It was attacked at 4:30 AM local time, 60 nautical miles from Singapore waters near Aur island off southern Johor state. The attack occurred in the vicinity where the Vietnamese ship Sunrise 689 was attacked in October. According to sources, the sixteen crewmembers on board the VP Asphalt 2 were tied up as the pirates searched the ship. The hijackers fled with only personal belongings of the crewmembers. The vessel was carrying 2,300 metric tones of liquid asphalt and it is believed that the ship was likely targeted by the pirates in the belief that it was carrying oil products. The tanker has since returned to Singapore and an investigation into the incident is currently underway.
While Sunday’s killing of a crewmember is the first such incident to occur in Malaysian waters in almost two years, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) has on previous occasions warned about the growing threat of piracy in Southeast Asia, with officials reporting in October that the area accounted for a majority of piracy incidents reported globally. Ship hijackings in waters in Southeast Asia have been on the rise in recent months; with the IMB reporting at least twelve such attacks this year. According to Noel Choong, head of the IMB’s piracy reporting centre in Kuala Lumpur, “it appears groups or syndicates are targeting gas-oil,” adding “they are making a lot of money off of it. They are getting away with it. As long as there is no deterrent, they will continue to hijack ships.”
According to the IMB, in the first three quarters of 2014, there were 103 pirate attacks in Southeast Asia, out of 178 that occurred globally. The IMB has warned that “gangs of thieves armed with knives and guns” are increasingly attacking small tankers carrying either oil or diesel and hijacking them to steal the cargo. According to Mr Choong, pirates can earn US $2 million or more for each hijacked tanker that is carrying oil products.
In South East Asia, the vast majority of piracy incidents, and commensurately the level of law enforcement response and international attention, currently occur around the Straits of Malacca, in the numerous islands of the Indonesian archipelago and the South China Sea. However, Bangladesh has seen a continuing, and significant, level of piracy as well, though the most serious incidents are primarily targeted against local fishermen and similar. This has included two extremely serious incidents within the past month. Of particular concern is the pirate’s methodology – kidnap for ransom and a high degree of violence is extremely common.
Incidents against foreign vessels in Bangladesh take much the same form as in the rest of South East Asia. This involves opportunistic armed robbery against ships, almost always berthed in the Chittagong anchorage. Robbers, sometimes armed, board ships and attempt to steal stores, cargo and valuables. They commonly flee when confronted by crewmembers. The overall rate of piracy against foreign vessels however remains relatively low, with a small number of incidents each month, particularly when compared with Indonesia, by far the most afflicted country in the region. Rates have remained relatively stable and even seen a slight decrease in the past few years. A high degree of security awareness on behalf of law enforcement and shipping is widely credited with helping keep the situation under control.
It is attacks against local fishermen and trawlers in the Bay of Bengal that are a potentially a much more concerning phenomenon. There are numerous active pirate gangs that operate in Bangladeshi waters, particularly around the Sundarbans mangrove forest which was home to at least ten separate pirate gangs late last year. Other regions throughout the country, including along rivers far from the coast, are also plagued by pirate activity.
As opposed to the opportunistic ‘smash-and-grab’ robberies that target foreign vessels in port, piracy targeting local fishermen tends to involve kidnap for ransom as standard. The most common period for attacks is between April and August, the fishing season. The scale of this activity is also dramatic. In addition to regular demands for protection money, often from numerous different gangs, attacks are commonplace. According to the local District Fishing Trawlers Owners Association (DFTOA), between January 2011 and November 2012 over 1000 fishing trawlers were attacked, with thousands of fishermen taken hostage for various periods. This reportedly led to ransom payments totally $1.28 million. In August 2012, over 60 fishermen were taken hostage in a single incident, while the first 3 months of this year reportedly saw 90 attacks in one coastal region alone. Last month, (August, 2013) in two separate incidents over 30 fishermen were taken hostage. Attacks of this scale are standard, and occur monthly.
The law enforcement response to these activities is of varying effectiveness. Last year, a large co-ordinated operation between the Coast Guard and Navy led to the release of nearly 40 hostages, while police operations in the past weeks in response to recent incidents saw several pirates killed in shootouts and secured the release of two-thirds of the hostages. However, the long term effectiveness of this law enforcement activity remains doubtful – many locals report that the pirates simply remain dormant and re-emerge after the operations. Alternatively, they flee across the border into India, where a lack of regional co-operation makes it difficult to apprehend them. The Bangladeshi navy and coast guard are weak – the coast guard has only 11 boats, most nearly 3 decades old and several unusable during the monsoon season. The effect on the economy can be huge – with coastal fishing contributing 30% of the nation’s total catch, during 2012-2013 this had dropped from 108’000 metric tons to 39’000.
Particularly concerning is the high level of violence that occurs in these incidents. Pirates are usually armed, and beatings of captive fishermen are a common occurrence. Murder of hostages is also frequent, with many killed every year either during or after attacks. In a single incident in April of this year, 31 fishermen were tied up and tossed overboard to drown after being robbed by pirates.
While currently this activity does not commonly target international vessels, the trend is particularly concerning. With growing rates of low-level, violent hostage taking and piracy throughout the Bay of Bengal, combined with a lower level of international attention and a weaker law enforcement presence than in other regions of South East Asia, the phenomenon has the potential to evolve into one of substantially greater threat. Some analysts believe Bangladeshi pirates will become a threat to global shipping within the next two years. While currently the threat to international vessels does still remain relatively low, a high level of security awareness should be maintained by all vessels in the Bay of Bengal.