The Gulf of Aden, which lies between Yemen and Somalia, is one of the world's main shipping lanes, navigated annually by 20,000 oil tankers and cargo vessels. Somali pirates in 2008 made it the world's most dangerous place for hijackings. Since that year, the United States, the European Union, NATO countries, China, India, and others have created or strengthened anti-piracy task forces for the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. Dozens of warships of different countries now patrol there daily, guarding international shipping.
The attacks persist despite the intensified multinational patrols. Somali pirates have carried out more than 100 attacks so far in 2010 and still hold more than 400 hostages from ship hijackings for ransom, the International Maritime Bureau says. The use of armed guards aboard private ships itself remains controversial, with opponents arguing the guards' presence serves to drive up the overall violence of the pirate attacks.
For U.S. officials, though, the piracy worry has lately been superseded by fears about terrorism: fears that the Somali and Yemeni branches of al Qaeda will join forces via the waterway between them, worries over threats by Yemen's al Qaeda branch to attack shipping, and worries about weapons and fighters for al Qaeda flowing in and out of Yemen and Somalia. This month, some security officials also expressed concern that Anwar al-Awlaki, the charismatic Yemeni-American wanted by the United States for allegedly plotting and recruiting for al Qaeda in Yemen, might escape via the Gulf of Aden.
Given those worries, the United States, Britain, and others over the past decade, and especially this year, have invested millions of dollars in aid, training, and equipment to try to build up the Yemeni coast guard's ability to protect its own shores. The aid includes seven patrol craft that the United States donated to Yemen in 2004. (Yemen bought the Austal vessels noted on the security companies' websites from an Australian company in 2005.)
The United States is also greatly increasing training, intelligence cooperation, and donations of funding and gear for Yemen's special operations forces to help them combat al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, as the group's Yemen branch is known.
Opposition activists in Yemen, as well as arms dealers there, said in interviews they are certain that the more than 30-year-old regime of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is fighting insurgencies in both Yemen's north and south, will put the donated war materiel to use against his own people. In response, U.S. officials said they have greatly increased efforts to track the end use of donated U.S. military aid to Yemen.