For years the 100 to 170 nautical mile route across the Gulf of Aden between Somalia and Yemen has been well traveled.
Tens of thousands of Somalis, fleeing almost two decades of war, have been smuggled across to Yemen on highly dangerous journeys in battered wooden dhows. An equal volume of weapons is stuffed onto the boats on the way back.
Without a functioning central government since 1991, Somali authorities have limited ability to stop the exodus. The poorest country in the Arab world, Yemen meanwhile is facing two active civil wars and a growing al-Qaida insurgency. Stopping the dispossessed of other lands from entering the country has not made the government's priority list.
But the game began to change recently, with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula actively smuggling arms to Somalia’s Islamist Al Shabaab militants, and Al Shabaab announcing they would send fighters to help al-Qaida take on the Yemeni government.
With a robust and growing international piracy industry in Somalia, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula recently began speaking of a "naval jihad", calling on its followers to aid in gathering intelligence on American ships in the region and calling on Al Shabaab specifically to help al-Qaida block the narrow Bab el Mandab strait just north of Somalia.
As piracy, terrorism, human smuggling and arms smuggling increasingly intersect, authorities in Yemen, Somalia and beyond have started talking about the warming relationship between Al Shabaab in Somalia and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
Twice over the past few months Yemen's Interior Ministry has closed all the country's ports to "African infiltrators" and ordered the coastguard to be on high alert for attempts by "terrorist elements in the Horn of Africa" to enter the country by sea. The ministry has also ordered officials to count all African refugees in the country and to place them under permanent surveillance.
"These threats made by Al Shabaab are obviously part of their propaganda to demonstrate their capabilities," Yemeni Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Abubaker Al-Qirbi told The Media Line. "The appropriate steps are being taken. We will consider these threats as far as Yemen's security is concerned and we will do our best. Of course we have a very long coastline but we are building our capabilities and we know the areas of possible terrorist landings."
But with a fleet of only 25 boats, Yemeni coastguard officials admitted as recently as Sunday that they are unable to prevent the infiltration of the country's 2400 kilometer coastline, and analysts doubt Yemeni authorities have the capacity to effectively monitor the hundreds of thousands of African migrants already in the country.
"The transnational connection between Yemen and Somalia has not come into focus until recently, but now there is a lot of pressure on Yemen to cut off the ability of these fighters to enter," Dr Theodore Karasik, Director for Research and Development at the Institute for Near East Gulf Military Analysis told The Media Line. "The ease with which they can travel in and out is seen by a lot of outside countries, not just Western countries but also countries in the Arabian peninsula, as a cause for great concern."
"The trouble is that the Yemeni government will come and say we need help with this problem, just give us money and we'll take care of it," he said. "Maybe they could round up these people and kick them out, but what will keep them from coming back? How do you break centuries old trade routes or networks with the flip of a switch? This is the worry of a lot of analysts and Western governments and more needs to be done than simply rounding them up and kicking them out. It's like putting a bandage on a major laceration."
Bashir Goth, a Somali analyst and the former editor of the popular and controversial Web site Awdal News, said nothing would change without a significant boost in transnational cooperation.
"The only way that they can get arms and people across is by sea, so it will require cooperation between Somaliland, Puntland and Yemen," he told The Media Line. "If these three entities cooperate, with US help, then I think they can do a better job."
"All these NATO forces in the Indian Ocean, what are they doing?" Goth asked. "America has a base in Djibouti, and at least this is something they can help with."
Dr Stephen Steinbeiser, Resident Director at the American Institute for Yemeni Studies in the Yemeni capital Sana'a, said the degree of cooperation between Al Shabaab and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula was not yet clear.
"I'm not sure that these two groups want exactly the same things except for the ultimate goal of regional instability," he told The Media Line. "So it makes opportunistic sense that at least rhetorically they would give the impression that they are working together, but how much they are working in concert with one another is very hard to say."
"Obviously lots of Somalis have come and are coming into Yemen, and for what it's worth one sees an increasing number of Somali refugees on the streets," Dr Steinbeiser said. "Some of them are looking for work, some are running away from Al Shabaab and some may be coming to help certain armed groups in Yemen and they are being paid for their services."
"The Yemeni government clearly has an interest in keeping the movements as separate as possible, and if they could secure the coast it would go a long way and help secure international trade," he continued. "But it's not clear how to get to that point."
"As I understand, there is a lot of money set aside for Yemen," Dr
Steinbeiser said. "The problem is the government doesn't really have
the capacity to absorb it. For example let's say there is money to buy
boats for the coast guard: who will oversee that kind of operation?
Where will the equipment come from? If someone actually buys the boats,
who checks that they actually arrive in Yemen and are on patrol? Who
will get to man the boats? Will they be experienced Coastguardsmen or
friends of the elite? Will they answer to the central government or the
southern separatists? All of these problems come to light and become
very political issues very quickly."