Iran Backgrounder

Author: Michael Flickinger

Iran endures as the last functional theocracy in the world, steeped in a history rich with conquest, subjugation, and cultural innovations. Popular conceptions of Iran stir images of the 1979 Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, seizure of the American embassy, and murals in Tehran depicting America as “the Great Satan.” More recent portrayals, however, offer what some speculate might be a crack in the impenetrable regime that has ruled Iran since the Revolution. Pictures of men and women adorned in green to support Mir Hossein Mosavi, leader of the Reformists and the Green Movement, chanting, “Death to the dictator” mingle with footage of Neda Agha-Soltan bleeding to death, while Basij militiamen on motorcycles beat protestors. In the span of three decades, violence once again erupted within Iran and protestors railed against the current regime with a fervor similar to Khomeini’s followers against the shah. For those who favor a less opaque and more cooperative Iran, these events raised the hope that change looms on the horizon. But does it?
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Al Shabaab

Authors: Russell Moll and Tyler Livermore


Al Shabaab is a hardline Islamist Organization that controls large swathes of territory in south and central Somalia. Founded in 2004 as the youth militancy of the now defunct and splintered Islamic Courts Union, the group rose to prominence in 2006 as an insurgency opposing the US-backed Ethiopian intervention forces. Following the January 2009 withdrawal of Ethiopian troops, Al Shabaab seized control of portions of Southern Somalia, instituting its austere brand of Salafist Sharia , and relegating the control or the internationally backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG), to “a few city blocks” in Mogadishu. Since May 2009 Al Shabaab has waged a brutal campaign against the TFG. Skirmishes between the 4,300-member African Union protectorate force and Al Shabaab became an almost daily occurrence. The later part of 2009 saw even more forceful attacks by Al Shabaab against civilian, military, and TFG targets. While Al Shabaab has pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda since 2007, its relations with regional Al Qaeda groups as well as placement of key Al Qaeda figures within its leadership have stoked western fears that Somalia could turn into a, “significant Al-Qaeda safe-haven“. Continue reading


Author: Drew Stragar-Rice

The purpose of this analysis is to track the military trends and political developments associated with Hezbollah. Of particular interest is the paternal relationship extended from Tehran and Damascus toward the “Party of God.” The implication of this nexus impacts American interests pertaining to a non-nuclear Iran, a secure Israel, and ultimately a stabilized Middle East. Through careful analysis of Hezbollah’s actions we hope to provide a better understanding to some of the most essential obstacles toward stability in the region. Continue reading


Author: Colin Clarke


Following the Al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States intervened in Afghanistan to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure in that country. Sheltered by the Taliban, a Muslim Fundamentalist group that had seized power in the mid-1990s, Al-Qaeda had used Afghanistan as a safe haven for planning the attacks on the United States. After initial successes, however, the U.S. intervention ran into serious difficulties. By the end of 2009, despite an overwhelming advantage in firepower and technology, U.S. and NATO troops operating in Afghanistan had failed to dislodge a resurgent Taliban, while Al-Qaeda had largely regrouped across the border in neighboring Pakistan. Although drone strikes from Predator aircraft kept Al-Qaeda and its allies on the run, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan emerged as a haven for terrorists from Chechnya, Kashmir, the Middle East, and elsewhere. Continue reading

Piracy Updates 2

August – September 2010

Updated by Sean Hannan

  • In the first quarter of 2010 (January 1, 2010 – March 31, 2010), there were 35 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships in the waters off East Africa, fourteen fewer than the first quarter of 2009.1 As of September 8th, 2010, there were an estimated 23 vessels and 141 crew members being held in Somalia.2
  • A group of Somali pirates stumbled into international custody when they mistook the USS Ashland for a merchant vessel and attempted an attack. On April 10th, 2010, the pirate skiff chased the USS Ashland and then opened fire on the warship. The USS Ashland is an amphibious landing ship accommodating up to 500 US Marines, and a number of amphibious landing craft and helicopters, as well as a crew of 300 sailors. US sailors returned fire, killing one Somali, and destroying the skiff. The remaining six pirates were taken into custody, and moved to Norfolk, Virginia, where the Ashland is home ported. On August 27, 2010 Jama Idle Ibrahim plead guilty to piracy-related charges – attacking with intent to plunder, engaging in an act of violence against people on a vessel, and using a firearm during a crime of violence. There had been some controversy over the charges since, it was argued that the pirates neither boarded nor took control of the vessel, and had thus not committed any act of piracy.3
  • Pirates seized control of a Malta-flagged cargo vessel Olib G on Wednesday, September 8th, 2010. The vessel is crewed by 15 Georgians and Turks and was traveling through the internationally-prescribed transit lanes off the coast of Somalia. The United States deployed a helicopter to attempt contact with the vessel, but it was unable to reach the vessel in time. The European Naval Force Somalia (EUNAVFOR) subsequently tracked the ship via radar as it transited south towards Somalia.4
  • reported that on September 9th, 2010, the United States Marines boarded and seized a merchant vessel that pirates had captured. The pirates had taken control of the Merchant Vessel (M/V) Magellan Star on Wednesday, September 8th, 2010 off the coast of Somalia. The 11 man Magellan Star crew locked themselves in a safe room onboard as the pirates boarded. At 5 a.m. local time, the United States Marine Corps 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit Maritime Raiders, a 24 man maritime special operations unit, stormed the vessel and took the nine pirates into custody without firing a single shot. The Maritime Raiders were stationed aboard the USS Dubuque (LPD-8) serving in the anti-piracy Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151). The nine pirates, according to the US Fifth Fleet, are in CTF-151’s custody and “pending further disposition.” This marks the first direct boarding action undertaken by US military forces in the anti-piracy mission off Somalia.5

  1. “REPORTS ON ACTS OF PIRACY AND ARMED ROBBERY AGAINST SHIPS: First quarterly report (January to, and including, March 2010)”. International Maritime Organization. June 9th, 2010. (accessed September 9, 2010).
  2. “Pirates seize ship with Georgian, Turkish crew off Somalia.” AFP. (accessed September 9, 2010).
  3. “Somali pirate admits attacking US warship.” BBC. (accessed September 9, 2010).
  4. “Pirates seize ship with Georgian, Turkish crew off Somalia.” AFP. (accessed September 9, 2010).
  5. “U.S. forces board pirate-captured vessel, seize control.” (accessed September 9, 2010).

Piracy Updates

Update by Sean Hannan

On September 9, 2010, 24 Marines from USMC 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) force reconnaissance platoon boarded the Magellan Star after it had been taken over by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. In what is known as a visit-board-search-seizure, or VBSS, the Marine raiders boarded the pirate-controlled vessel and stormed the ship, taking the nine hijackers into custody without firing a single shot. According to Captain Alexander Martin, USMC “As soon as the first stack [of Marines] made our way into the bridge, their hands were up, their weapons were down, they moved to their knees, and were very compliant.”1 The Marines launched from the USS Dubuque which was operating under the control of Combined Task Force 151 (CTF 151).11 A Turkish frigate had been the first to respond to the Magellan Star’s distress signal, and the USS Dubuque and USS Princeton subsequently provided additional support. The eleven Magellan Star crewmembers retreated to a safe room onboard as the pirates boarded their ship3 and White House and Pentagon officials decided to launch the raid after it was confirmed the crew was out of harm’s way.4 The successful VBSS of the Magellan Star marks the first time US military forces have boarded a ship actively controlled by Somali pirates.5

This should be viewed as both an encouraging incident, and a precedent for direct military action against Somali pirates. Permission for the force reconnaissance operators to board and retake the pirate-controlled vessel is reported to have come directly from Defense Secretary Roberts Gates.6 Consent for the mission was also developed in conjunction with other top-level Pentagon and White House officials.7 This suggests that top-level officials are aware of the type of response needed to quell incidents of piracy and armed robbery in the Gulf of Aden. Indeed, the United States has been the lead military force in taking direct action against Somali pirates, as seen by the Magellan Star boarding, as well the rescuing of Captain Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama by Navy SEAL snipers in April 2009.8 The United States continues to bear the burden of applying military force, and the United States Marine Corps has increased training in VBSS tactics in hopes of promoting readiness to conduct counter-piracy operations.9 Even before the Magellan Star incident, such training had taken place at USMC bases nationwide.10 East Coast-based Marine MEUs have been training in the use of VBSS from the air by boarding vessels using helicopters and MV-22 Osprey aircraft for fast roping onto ship decks. West Coast-based MEUs have been perfecting the art of seaborne boarding – the tactic used in the Magellan Star VBSS – using rigid inflatable boats. Both methods operate in conjunction with the US Navy, with sailors also taking part in VBSSs.11 While it is reported that the increased training is not a direct response to the number of piracy attacks off the Horn of Africa, it is a sign that more military intervention is expected.

While the root causes of piracy, such as underdevelopment and lack of domestic governmental control within Somalia, cannot be ignored, direct military action that defeats and deters acts of piracy will continue to be pursued by the United States operating under the jurisdiction of CTF 151. Military interdiction is necessary to fill the gaps while development and governmental control take hold in Somali. Hopefully, Somalis will desist from piracy as a legitimate economy develops. That development will take some time, maybe even decades to establish. The United States is preparing for a long fight. It can only be hoped that the fight is as successful as the retaking of the Magellan Star.

  1. Martin, Alex. “Pirates Beware: Force Recon Really Does Have Your Number.” U.S. Naval Institute, August 2010. (accessed September 14, 2010).
  2. “U.S. forces board pirate-captured vessel, seize control.” (accessed September 14, 2010)
  3. Ibid.
  4. Lamothe, Dan. “Conway endorses force recon after pirate.” Marine Corps Times. (accessed September 14, 2010).
  5. “U.S. forces board pirate-captured vessel.”
  6. Ibid.
  7. Lamonthe, “Conway endorses force.”
  8. “Captain freed after snipers kill pirates.” (accessed September 14, 2010).
  9. Ewing, Philip. “Marines increase training for at-sea boardings.” Navy Times. (accessed September 14, 2010).
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.

Piracy Backgrounder

Author: Sean Hannan


According to Article 101 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), piracy: consists of any of the following acts:

  1. any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed:
    1. on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft;
    2. against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;
  2. any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft;
  3. any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in subparagraph (a) or (b). Continue reading

Pirate Attacks

Authors: Beatriz Binkley & Laura Smith

Somali Pirates

Somali Pirates © Veronique de Viguerie, via The Guardian

The past two decades have witnessed a significant increase in the level of worldwide maritime piracy. With more than 50 percent of all contemporary maritime attacks attributed to Somali pirates, no other region is capable of generating more piracy-related investigations and analysis. Unfortunately, as the proliferation and success of Somali pirates continues, the organizational sophistication of pirate gangs will also increase, and the problem will spread to other areas with similarly enabling factors. Somali pirates are models for other prospective pirates to emulate. Yet they also provide case studies into how shipping companies and the international community can work to address the piracy problem. Against this background, this analysis moves beyond discussing the root cause of Somali piracy and breaks down the anatomy of attacks, looking at the possible successes and failures at different stages of the process. However, with high rewards and low risks for the pirates, the struggle to reduce piracy may be an uphill battle. Continue reading

Niger Delta Update2

  • Citing the connection between education and economic development in the Delta, the Nigerian Federal Government announced plans to provide professional development training to 150 teachers in the region.1
  • In an attempt to curb kidnapping and other crime, Abia State has offered repentant perpetrators an amnesty similar to the one offered by the Federal Government in 2009. Only those who step forward to be registered will be offered the amnesty deal, raising concerns that they may be arrested once they do. Governor Theodore Orji urged the security services to honor the agreement and not detain any willing participants.2
  • Royal Dutch Shell claimed to be intensifying efforts to clean up an oil spill on Bonny Island that has persisted since August 2nd. Fishing and commuter vessels have been unable to operate, dealing a crippling blow to the island’s economy and inhabitants. Although Shell claims to be working as quickly as it can, it has been sharply criticized by the community and environmental groups for the small scale and slow pace of its efforts.3 Continue reading

Niger Delta Update1

  • Members of the Kokodiagbene community of Delta State protested against the state government and Niger Delta Development Commission (NDCC) for persistently neglecting their development needs. Community leaders called existing programs aimed at delivering a stable water supply to the local population inadequate and asked for new solutions.1 Similar complaints have been ignored by Chevron and the Shell Petroleum Development Corporation (SPDC) in the past, and it remains to be seen what impact the new action will have on the community.
  • The Nigerian Federal Government has begun a process that would employ new techniques to monitor environmental degradation and marine contamination on its southern coast. Minister of Niger Delta Affairs Sam Ode spoke at an event in favor of the plan, stressing the role that environmental degradation plays in regional militancy.2 Elsewhere in the Delta, The Federal Government signed a Joint Venture Agreement with Titan Projects Nigeria Limited and the Rivers State government to clean up oil waste.3 Continue reading