Austin Bay

Pirates, Iran's corrupt tyranny of mullahs and now international cyber attackers all seek to exploit economic and psychological choke points.

Geography provides Somalia's pirates with a throat to choke. Somali pirates pursue a strategy of attacking vulnerable cargo ships as they approach or exit a global maritime bottleneck, in this case Egypt's Suez Canal, which connects the Red and Mediterranean seas.

The Gulf of Aden, where the majority of Somali pirate attacks occur, lies between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Sea lanes to and from the Indian Ocean meet and narrow in the Gulf of Aden, making it a grand geographic funnel for the Red Sea and Suez.

Cargo vessels connecting Asian and European economic powers (India and China to Western Europe) face an expensive choice: either take the long, slow route around Africa's Cape of Good Hope or take the Suez shortcut but risk attacks by pirates operating from Somalia's convenient (and police-less) shores. The pirates, like wolves eyeing a cattle herd gathering in a valley pass, try to select the most vulnerable targets.

Now move north, and once again geography aids outlaws. The Bab al Mandaab, the strait connecting the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, splits Yemen (on the Arabian peninsula) from Djibouti and Eritrea (in Africa) and further constricts shipping traffic approaching Suez.

Straits have always posed problems for mariners. Odysseus had to squeeze his ship between Scylla and Charbydis, figurative monsters portraying the literal threat of narrowing cliffs, shoals and whirlpools. Today's literal monsters include sea mines and anti-ship missiles.

No, the Bab al Mandaab hasn't been closed by mines and missiles -- not yet. However, in late spring 2008, Eritrea suddenly launched a brief border war with Djibouti over waterfront property. Eritrea, like Iran, is at odds with the United States and United Nations. It has a variety of reasons, some legitimate (for example, Ethiopia reneged on a border demarcation agreement), some less so (Eritrea supports Somali Islamists in league with al-Qaida).

In May 2008, after meeting with Eritrea's president, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that Iran and Eritrea shared "common views" on regional and global issues and were prepared "to resist" the hegemonic system. The hegemonic system is the American-led global system, which relies on cargo vessels passing through narrow straits.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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