The Overstated Threat

By Commander John Patch, U.S. Navy (Retired)

No Link, No Evidence

A critical contemporary myth to debunk is the alleged nexus between piracy and international terrorism. Serious scholars and analysts view with circumspection any assertions of this linkage. For instance, a recent International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) forum revealed that there is "no evidence terrorists are gaining any benefit from piracy"—the real threat being organized criminal activity, not terrorism. 1 The institute cites a study emphasizing the importance of not exaggerating the extent of either threat. Piracy, it maintains, is essentially a localized problem: "It is a nasty headache where it occurs, but its real effects on world trade and the movement of people are negligible." The study concludes there is no great risk of terrorists posing as pirates or adopting their methods either to seize a ship for hostages or to use the vessel itself as a weapon by igniting volatile cargo. To be sure, maritime terrorism is clearly a proven method of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, but piracy cannot be plausibly conflated with it.

A 2008 RAND study reached similar conclusions. It detailed the causes for piracy in the last decade: local corruption, increased maritime traffic, small arms proliferation, lax coastal/port security, increasingly difficult maritime surveillance, lingering effects of the Asian financial crisis, and the denser traffic through congested choke points. RAND did not list terrorism, because "the presumed convergence between maritime terrorism and piracy remains highly questionable. . . . To date, there has been no credible evidence to support speculation about such a nexus emerging." 2 RAND further assessed that the objectives of the two actors remained entirely distinct. A recent piracy incident seems to support this: during the September 2008 hijacking of a Ukrainian freighter—the Faina —off Somalia, the pirate leader admitted via phone to a New York Times reporter that the group wanted "just money." 3

Marginal Impact

Piracy of course has costs, both human and economic. Crews are kidnapped, injured, and occasionally murdered. Time is money in international shipping; delayed or stolen cargoes, waylaid vessels, and idle crews all mean lost profits and possible liabilities. Second-order effects in markets affected by piracy also have uncounted costs. Similarly, the potential consequences of an environmental disaster from mishandled or abandoned vessels with hazardous cargo could be severe. While impossible to quantify, the positive reinforcement that highly visible piracy successes have on would-be criminals is also a factor. Yet, the most significant systemic costs come from increases in vessel and cargo insurance premiums—especially for marine business in high-risk regions.

Overall, however, the consequences to maritime commerce are surprisingly minimal, though precise figures on the losses in commercial shipping are not available. The Center for Strategic and International Studies estimated that in 2001, piracy cost the industry $16 billion, but some analysts dispute this figure and it pales beside larger estimates of total global maritime trade, regardless. 4 A 2006 assessment of the risks of piracy indicated shipping industry losses were relatively small in relation to the total volume of ocean transports. 5 The study IISS cites above asserted "truth be told, losses are so low that there is little incentive for the shipping industries even to make a serious collective effort to tackle it." 6 So why all the hand wringing over piracy?

Widely Held Misperceptions

Even as the facts fail to support allegations of terrorist linkages or dire economic consequences, governments, pundits, and the media continue to hype the "threat." For instance, the U.S. National Strategy for Maritime Security relates that pirate groups could employ capabilities to board and commandeer large underway vessels to facilitate terrorist acts. 7 This seems a poor basis for guiding decisions on how America is to address piracy. Regrettably, many apply similar logic to organized drug smugglers, with the apparent intent of exaggerating the threat. The U.S. Coast Guard's recent adoption of a risk-based threat assessment process that includes analyzing the likelihood of specific terrorist methods, targets, and attack consequences appears to be a sounder decision-support model, easily applied to piracy.

Notwithstanding the lack of any clear evidence, government officials and respected journals continue to make spurious claims. British maritime authorities in 2006 dismissed allegations of a piracy-terrorism nexus in a House of Commons report, responding that the report's conclusions were "not based on informed and corroborated intelligence." 8 A recent Foreign Affairs article claimed "the scourges of piracy and terrorism are increasingly intertwined: piracy on the high seas is becoming a key tactic of terrorists." 9 Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) piracy expert Charles Dragonette roundly disputed the article as "uncritically repeating myths, half truths, and unsupportable assertions of an alleged nexus of piracy and terrorism." 10 The result, however, is a persistent blurring of the line between piracy and terrorism.

Another factor contributing to the confusion and ignorance surrounding piracy is the lack of a standard and comprehensive piracy definition, especially as it applies to high seas and territorial waters. Any act of maritime crime occurring within a sovereign state's 12-nautical-mile limit (the vast majority of reported incidents) simply is not piracy. As such, no state except the sovereign has any legal authority to address criminal acts against shipping in its waters. The resultant muddying of piracy and maritime crime reduces the accuracy of available piracy statistics.

The International Chamber of Commerce's non-profit International Maritime Bureau (IMB) Piracy Reporting Center also has a relatively loose definition that allows incidents both within and outside 12 nautical miles to qualify as piracy. 11 For instance, the IMB records reports of perceived small boat shadowing in high-threat areas as attempted pirate attacks, even though incident specifics are almost never confirmed. Similarly, an attempt by Greenpeace to board or thwart legal maritime activity also falls under the IMB piracy definition. Piracy data over different periods can also appear to support differing conclusions. Statistics for the past decade show a relatively consistent number of incidents per year, suggesting no increase, but a regional spike in one area can be hidden by a drop in another—Somalia versus the Strait of Malacca, for example. 12 Prudent maritime analysts should scrutinize piracy reporting, data, and statistics; claims that piracy is "spiraling" are usually unsubstantiated.

A second concern with IMB reporting is possible bias. Its Piracy Reporting Center seeks to raise awareness of hotspots, detail specific attacks and consequences, and investigate piracy incidents and armed robbery at sea and in port. While a noble cause endorsed by the United Nations, the center's raison d' e tre is trumpeting the "piracy threat." Just as well-intentioned humanitarian aid groups occasionally exaggerate the scope or intensity of a crisis for effect—to draw more international attention and resources—so, too, is the IMB vulnerable to bias. Further, the bureau is almost exclusively funded by maritime shipping companies and insurers, with vested interests in keeping piracy in the headlines. 13 Profit-oriented businesses loathe implementing costly preventive measures, naturally preferring that international organizations, national law enforcement agencies, and armed forces take care of the problem instead.

The international shipping industry thus has a specific interest in exaggerating the global threat of piracy. Apparently capitalizing on the heightened 2008 media attention on Somali piracy, shipping organizations from all sides of the industry issued in September what they described as "a crisis call" to the International Maritime Organization and the UN to take "real and immediate action" to tackle piracy in Somalia, urging more nations to commit naval vessels to the area to deal with the threat. 14

Only the Symptoms

Gray hulls bristling with weapons and sensors designed for conventional war are simply ill equipped to handle piracy—and are better assigned elsewhere. The recent situation off Somalia is a telling example. By late October 2008, the month-long saga of the pirated Belize-flagged motor vessel Faina , loaded with T-72 tanks, showed no signs of resolution, though six warships monitored the situation from the horizon. Astoundingly, this equates to roughly one destroyer or cruiser per pirate, but no appreciable ability to resolve the crisis. The presence of Russian crewmembers on the Faina prompted Moscow to send the frigate Neustrashimy with marine commandos at best speed from the distant Baltic Sea. NATO, the European Union, and India all promised to also send warships to help U.S. Navy ships patrolling the Horn of Africa region—potentially the largest anti-piracy flotilla in recent history. 15 On 12 November, British and Russian naval forces halted a pirate attack in the Gulf of Aden. British sailors killed two pirates in a firefight before the pirates on boad a dhow surrendered.

Five-inch guns and Harpoon missiles, however, are simply not the right weapons to confront pirates holding dangerous cargo or hostages. Even with an exceedingly rare UN ruling to allow foreign warships to take actions within a sovereign's territorial waters, the group of powerful warships near the Faina could do little to influence events. In the few instances when maritime force has been effectively applied, such as the 2008 commando operation rescuing French citizens or the 2007 U.S. Navy destruction of pirate skiffs, these strictly military actions rarely address the cause of piracy itself. A notable exception was the 2006 U.S. Navy operation involving American and Kenyan law enforcement officers, including a detailed forensic investigation resulting in the detention and subsequent sentencing of Somali pirates in a Kenyan court.

In recent months, the disadvantages of keeping expensive warships occupied with marginal-gain low-end missions such as piracy became apparent. The U.S. commander of Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) stated in September that the international shipping industry must take on more responsibility to protect vessels against pirate attacks rather than rely on the U.S. Navy. 16 This likely reflects the appreciation that maritime powers do not have the resources to handle both conventional naval requirements and what is essentially a law enforcement mission. NAVCENT also seemed to signal its limitations, admitting that despite the presence of Coalition warships, "criminals still successfully targeted several vessels in the region." Notably, the Middle East Royal Navy commander commenting on the September NAVCENT statement emphasized, "we do what we can, but the solution to this problem is clearly not at sea, but ashore in Somalia."

Source of Piracy is Ashore

Pirate cells, especially more organized groups, require a network of support on land. Logistics, communications, weapons, money exchange, and marketing of stolen goods are all requirements managed ashore. Pirate groups usually exploit local villages or communities, but sometimes—as in Somalia—these provide the support network itself, or at least benefit significantly. Yet, targeting pirate infrastructure inland is no easy task: sovereignty, laws of armed conflict, and rules of engagement typically prevent unilateral actions. This is especially frustrating off Somalia, as no national police or armed forces exist. Some argue the piracy-terrorism nexus justifies more liberal military action in Somalia, but as noted earlier, such logic is both faulty and dangerous.

Informed analyses all similarly conclude that a holistic strategy to address piracy requires both sea- and land-based measures. Studies consistently show that the combined effects of regional economic crises and inadequate legal and security systems cause regional growth trends in piracy. A natural corollary is that law enforcement and intelligence services operating on land can more effectively identify and target piracy infrastructure ashore. 17 Yet, these studies conclude that because of the inherent tension between securing shipping lanes and respecting state sovereignty, most anti-piracy initiatives are ad hoc. 18

The Somalia example again illustrates the inefficacy of solely sea-based anti-piracy efforts. The Officer of Naval Intelligence reported in 2006 that Somalia's Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) seized control of Harardhere, the coastal village at the center of piracy. The courts' spokesmen asserted they were in full control of the village, the era of banditry and piracy was over, and the actions of pirates were unlawful, unacceptable, and un-Islamic. 19 After locals were threatened with swift administration of Sharia law, piracy abruptly ceased off Harardhere—until Ethiopian forces pushed UIC elements from the region. It is ironic that Ethiopian military operations designed to oust the radical Islamist threat reintroduced an era of significant Somali piracy.

A Recognized Structure

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) remains the recognized international body with the mandate to establish a global anti-piracy plan. The organization provides an accepted, common framework for action and represents the best hope for establishing and sustaining an international regime to eliminate piracy. Existing international conventions that support anti-piracy measures, such as the Law of the Seas, Safety of Maritime Navigation, International Ship and Port Facility Security Code, and the Safety of Life at Sea Convention, are initiatives born out of the organization's forum. Regional initiatives, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, can work through the IMO to ensure localized multinational efforts contribute to a global anti-piracy effort. Benefits include increased capacity building, law enforcement interoperability, standard reporting procedures, global maritime information center support, and improved cooperation among coast guards. Since these efforts inherently involve law enforcement and regulatory agencies, however, they are usually inappropriate for armed forces. In fact, the Coast Guard (with its law enforcement responsibilities unique to the armed forces) is the lead maritime agency in the U.S. delegation to the IMO.

While law enforcement agencies are inherently more prepared to deal with maritime crime, naval forces still have a role in supporting them. Most states simply do not have the wherewithal to provide for persistent territorial or exclusive economic zone (EEZ) patrols. Regional multination initiatives, such as Coalition Task Force 150, bolster nearby state efforts in piracy hotspots with presence and response forces. Such multinational maritime forces also reinforce international regimes, especially when participating navies enter into local agreements with law enforcement to eliminate the perceived sanctuary of territorial waters. One method periodically used is to embark law enforcement detachments (LEDETs) from both flag and host nations to support local law enforcement operations (including forensics, detainee handling, evidence chain of custody, etc.). U.S. Navy warships periodically host U.S. Coast Guard LEDETs during counterdrug and embargo enforcement operations. The importance of the onboard capability to conduct the full scale of law enforcement operations—that ultimately address the source of piracy ashore—cannot be overstated.

Commercial Sector Has a Role

Multinational shipping corporations, insurers, and vessel masters must all bear some of the burden of responsibility to deter and hinder pirates. Indeed, the commercial sector enjoys huge profits facilitated by maritime security; it also has the means to act against piracy. The IMO promulgates standard, proven anti-piracy practices. Yet vessels and shippers routinely ignore them. For example, ONI makes periodic unclassified threat assessments that the State Department and IMB incorporate into special warnings to mariners. In the Somali case, ONI urged mariners to avoid the piracy-prone areas by at least 200 nautical miles as early as 2005. Considering that numerous pirated vessels were well within the 200 miles when seized, it seems clear some masters chose to ignore the warnings at their peril (presumably to avoid excess fuel costs of indirect routes).

Evidence indicates ship owners are clearly not doing enough to protect their vessels and crew and must invest in anti-piracy systems, such as ship-wide alarm and surveillance systems, anti-boarding devices (electric fences, interior-locking armored doors, long-range acoustic devices, water cannons, etc.), and even armed guards in high risk areas. Recent press reports indicates that private security contractor Blackwater USA is offering services to protect shipping off of Somalia. Of course, these measures are expensive, thus often not implemented. Somalia again offers a patent lesson, as ONI reports that foreign-controlled (usually Asian) fishing vessels continue to operate freely in Somalia's unregulated EEZ, taking advantage of the failed state's lack of regulation. These vessels are easy targets; Somali pirates, as well as quasi-official regional authorities, occasionally seize them. ONI reports that in several cases, hijacked fishing vessels served as pirate mother ships to conduct additional attacks. 20

Rigorous flag-state enforcement of maritime security regulations is one method to compel commercial anti-piracy measure compliance. Companies often choose flags of convenience, however, for low cost and lax enforcement. Still, the 2005 piracy attempt against U.S.-flagged Seabourn Spirit serves as a testament to anti-piracy best practices. The cruise liner, carrying several hundred vacationers, escaped hijacking by Somali pirates. The attack failed because the captain reacted to the approaching vessels immediately, heading out to open sea at full speed, and conducting evasive maneuvers to prevent a boarding. The pirates gave chase, fired rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons at the liner, and did not break off until the Seabourn Spirit employed a long-range acoustic device, which generates focused, painful noise. In theory, if mariners heed warnings and regulations and implement prudent anti-piracy measures, this could eliminate the market for Somali pirates, making the practice unprofitable.

Piracy Threat in Context

In its current form and scope, piracy threatens no vital U.S. national security interests. It is in no way comparable to legacy threats that shape national strategy, such as terrorism or weapons of mass destruction proliferation. Hence, it is inherently disingenuous to inflate the piracy "threat" to justify either force structure or maritime strategic underpinnings.

As such, maritime policy and strategy deliberations and crisis course of action planning efforts should consider this reality. In this context, more U.S. anti-piracy options emerge—including no military response at all. America has long championed freedom of the seas, but it is perchance time that the many flag states and private companies enjoying the benefits of the global maritime commons contribute to the costs of keeping it secure. Because the U.S. Navy lacks the resources to effectively accomplish even a fraction of its assigned missions, treating piracy for what it is—criminal activity—should lessen the demands on an already overtaxed American Fleet.


1. Martin N. Murphy, "Contemporary Piracy and Maritime Terrorism: The threat to international security," interview with Dr. Patrick Cronin, International Institute of Strategic Studies.

2. Peter Chalk, "The Maritime Dimension of International Security: Terrorism, Piracy, and Challenges for the United States," RAND Corporation, 2008, xiv. Graham Ong makes similar conclusions in "Ships Can Be Dangerous Too" Institute of Southeast Asian Studies working paper , 2004.

3. Jeffrey Gettleman, "Somali Pirates Tell Their Side: They Want Only Money," New York Times , 30 September 2008.

4. John J. Brandon, "Piracy on High Seas is Big Business," Pacific Forum, CSIS, 30 March 2001. $16 billion likely represents less than .1 percent of the annual global value of maritime cargo, vessels, and insurance.

5. Munich Re Group, Piracy—Threat at Sea: A Risk Analysis , September 2006, p. 7.

6. David Osler, "Lloyd's List - Sharp perspective on clear and present danger," The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 17 August 2007.

7. U.S. Government, National Strategy for Maritime Security , September 2005, p. 5.

8. United Kingdom, House of Commons—Transport Committee—Piracy. 8th Report of Session 2005-2006, London, The Stationery Office Ltd., 2006 and the separate "Government Response."

9. Gal Luft and Anne Korin, "Terrorism Goes to Sea," Foreign Affairs , November/December 2004.

10. Charles Dragonette, "Lost at Sea," Letter to the Editor, Foreign Affairs , March/April 2005.

11. Major Frederick Chew, Singapore-Navy, "Piracy, Maritime Terrorism and Regional Interests," Australian Command and Staff College Geddes Papers, 2005, p. 74.

12. International Maritime Organization, "Reports on Acts of Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships," Annex 5, 13 April 2007.

13. ICC IMB, "Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships: 2007 Annual Report," January 2008.

14. David Osler and Sandra Tsui, "Shipping unites in crisis call' to Mitropoulos for piracy action," Lloyd's List, 18 September 2008.

15. Jamey Keaten, "8 EU States Mull Anti-piracy Force," Associated Press , 2 October 2008. Belgium, Cyprus, France, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden volunteered ships. Like the United States, UK forces were already over-assigned and unavailable.

16. "Navy Calls on Industry to Tackle Piracy," Associated Press , 23 September 2008.

17. Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, "The Threat to the Maritime Domain: How Real

Is the Terrorist Threat?" Economics and Maritime Strategy: Implications for the 21st Century , U.S. Naval War College, National Security Economic Papers No. 2, 8 November 2006, p. 88.

18. Nathanial Gronewold, "Soaring prices spur worries about piracy, marine terror," IISS, June 2008.

19. David Pearl and Charles Dragonette, "Worldwide Threat to Shipping Mariner Warning Information," Office of Naval Intelligence, 16 August 2006.

20. Pearl, "Worldwide Threat to Shipping Mariner Warning Information," Office of Naval Intelligence, 13 February 2008.

Commander Patch is a retired surface warfare officer and a career intelligence officer. He directed the National Maritime Intelligence Watch at the Office of Naval Intelligence and is an associate professor of strategic intelligence at the U.S. Army War College.




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