Two Faces of High-Seas Crime

By Lieutenant Commander Akash Chaturvedi, Indian Navy
  • the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam - Sri Lankan separatists also known as the Tamil Tigers
  • the Palestine Liberation Organization
  • the Free Aceh movement - Sumatran separatists
  • the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Moro Liberation Front - related Filipino militant Islamic groups
  • Jemaah Islamiyah - Southeast Asian militant Islamic group
  • al Qaeda
  • Hezbollah. 4

Similarities exist between piracy and terrorism, namely their methods of deployment and targeting, with both groups threatening life and economic activities at sea or in ports. According to Stephanie Hanson, who writes on African issues for the Council on Foreign Relations, there are two key areas in which piracy and terrorism overlap. The first is legal, wherein both groups, being non-state actors, divorce themselves from their nation-states and form extraterritorial enclaves. They conduct acts of homicide and destruction against civilians for private ends. The second area of overlap is financial, with pirates known to fund Islamic terrorist organizations in Somalia and Indonesia. 5

Obviously, there are differences as well. In their purest forms, piracy and terrorism have divergent motives and (because their motives differ) each pursuit has a different attitude toward publicity. Piracy is mostly undertaken for financial reasons, terrorism for political or religious reasons; whereas pirates prefer to avoid publicity and use violence as a last resort, maritime terrorists typically aim for maximum publicity and violence. 6

But the world they mutually inhabit fosters a blurring of the lines. The sources of piracy and terrorism are getting more entangled. Especially within Somalia, links exist between pirates and terrorist groups; in addition to being a bustling pirates' nest, Somalia is one of the three main theaters for al Qaeda's mujahideen, along with Iraq and Afghanistan, according to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. 7 Modern-day pirate waters—the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the South China Sea—have become lucrative realms for exploitation by terrorist organizations as well. Using pirate tactics, they seek to extend their jihad to sea. 8

Today's pirates are trained fighters, violent and aggressive, taking to the high seas in mother ships and speedboats. Their use of satellite phones, GPS, AK-47s, anti-tank missiles, and rocket-propelled grenades hints at shared training with terrorists. With bank accounts frozen as part of the anti-terror crackdown, major terrorist groups are feeling the financial crunch and learning to rely on alternate funding sources: They're either engaging in acts of piracy themselves or outsourcing hijacking jobs to pirates. 9 In addition to fund-raising, the rogues' alliance extends to gun-running as well. The Somalian Islamist insurgency group al Shabaab is now working with pirates and local warlords to smuggle arms and ammunition. 10 In the face of massive international efforts arrayed against them, pirates and terrorists have joined hands.

With 80 percent of the world's trade cargo and 60 percent of the world's oil and gas traversing the oceanic highways, it is little wonder that terrorists regard the sea as "the next strategic step towards ruling the world . . . a strategic point to expel the enemy from the most important pillars of its battle." 11 Al Qaeda has undergone maritime-terrorism training with Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers, and al Qaeda strategist Al-Suri writes about carrying out attacks in the Straits of Hormuz and at Bar el-Mandeb by scuttling ships at choke points. 12 In addition, al Qaeda has been closely monitoring the success of the Somali pirates and showing appreciation of the pirates' achievements on al Qaeda Web sites.

Somali Terror Triangle

Somalia is the unfortunate center of a "terror triangle," a three-part recipe consisting of a failed state, piracy, and terrorism. As a failed and ungoverned state since 1991, Somalia poses a threat to international security with a host of associated problems. Lawlessness in Somalia has affected the entire region and created problems such as arms flow and other black markets, an environmental threat with toxic waste dumping along the coastline, illegal immigrants, illegal fishing, and, of course, piracy. Piracy off the Horn of Africa accounts for 48 percent of the total number of attacks reported in 2009.


Somalia's terrorist element, meanwhile, includes such radical movements as the Union of Islamic Courts, al Ittihad al Islamiyya, and al Shabaab, which share parallel jihadist ideologies, have links with al Qaeda, and are known to provide assistance to transnational Islamic terrorists. Having lost reliable bases elsewhere due to the global war on terror, al Qaeda has used Somalia not only as a transit or entry port for a safe haven, but also as a base from which to spread terrorism. 14

The implications for international security are serious, particularly in the maritime context. Somalia offers an ideal opportunity for al Qaeda and related terrorist groups to pool resources with pirates. As these existing links become stronger, al Qaeda, using pirates' expertise and training, could increasingly extend terrorism to the sea, generate money, and strengthen into a pirate-warlord confederacy. Somalia-based extremists coordinating their schemes with Somalia-based pirates pose the greatest maritime terror challenge in the near future.

An Emerging, Unified Definition

While the debate about the relative similarities and differences between piracy and terrorism is ongoing, a comprehensive definition is needed for the areas in which they indeed do overlap - in short, a definition of maritime terrorism: Any act of piracy or terrorism undertaken in territorial waters or high seas for personal, financial or political motive against military or civilian targets by non-state actors. It also includes acts of piracy conducted with the motive of passing the monetary benefits to support terrorist organizations.

Operating within a maritime-terrorism context would improve both counter-terrorism and counter-piracy actions by preventing any breach of sovereignty, ensuring concerted efforts, and providing more clear-cut legal parameters.

The implications of resolving maritime terrorism and piracy off the coast of Somalia and throughout the world involves a multi-directional approach that begins with addressing the problems on land. Such an approach entails monitoring and surveillance of Somalia as part of the global war on terrorism, with emphasis on beaches, ports, and cross-border smuggling points. 15 It may even require landing an international-coalition military force ashore in those regions that foster piracy. Parallel initiatives already being undertaken by international naval forces need to continue along with these land efforts to eradicate piracy. The aim must be to ensure that the piracy-terrorism link is not strengthened, and that it does not become a platform for terrorists in the immediate future.

Post-9/11, the international community has been faced with many new challenges, prominent among them being failed states, terrorism, and piracy. Though the efforts are on to curb these problems, they have not been synchronized. It should be understood that piracy and terrorism are no longer two different problems and need to be addressed together by accepting this merger and legally defining it as maritime terrorism. So far, despite increased efforts, the international community has not been successful in controlling or eradicating either menace. Left unchecked, pirates and terrorists increasingly will pool their resources and terror groups will hire local pirates for financial gain and to buttress their jihad's maritime element. 16 Whatever the motivation for this merger - ideology, poverty, criminality, or all of the above - the nexus of piracy and terrorism will be dangerous for both the world economy and security.

When addressing the alarming rise in piracy off Somalia, we must not overlook the emerging alliance between piracy and terrorism. To win the battles against piracy and terrorism, they need to be perceived as one battle; they need to be resolved with a unified effort, extending the global war on terrorism to include a war on maritime terrorism, with Somalia as its focal point, to prevent another 9/11 - this time at sea.


1. International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) International Maritime Bureau, Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships: Annual Report 2009 , pp. 5 - 6.

2. Stephanie Hanson, "Combating Maritime Piracy," Council on Foreign Relations background paper, available at .

3. Anne Korin and Gal Luft, "Terrorism Goes to Sea," Foreign Affairs , Vol. 83, No. 6 (November/December 2004), p. 61.

4. Ibid., p. 62.

5. Hanson, "Combating Maritime Piracy."

6. "How to Counter Pirates at High Seas," Asian Age , 14 February 2008.

7. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, "The Strategic Challenge of Somalia's Al-Shabaab: Dimensions of Jihad," The Middle East Quarterly , Vol. 16, No. 4 (Fall 2009), available at . See also Hanson, "Combating Maritime Piracy."

8. Bjorn Moller, "Piracy, Maritime Terrorism and Naval Strategy," DIIS Report 2009:02 (Copenhagen: Danish Institute for International Studies, 2009), p. 24.

9. Roger Middleton, "Piracy in Somalia: Threatening Global Trade, Feeding Local Wars," Chatham House briefing paper, October 2008, available at .

10. "In a Crisis, Delhi Has to Act Swiftly, Decisively; Not Waffle," Asian Age , 1 November 2008.

11. Jihadist Web site quoted in John C. K. Daly, "Terrorism and Piracy: The Dual Threat to Maritime Shipping," Terrorism Monitor , Vol. 6, No. 16 (15 August 2008), available at .

12. Ibid; see also Martin N. Murphy, "The Unwanted Challenge," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , Vol. 134, No. 12 (December 2008), pp. 49 - 50.

13. Ken Menkhaus, Somalia: State Collapse and the Threat of Terrorism (New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 8. ICC International Maritime Bureau, Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships , pp. 5 - 6.

14. Menkhaus, p. 52.

15. Ibid., p. 75.

16. "Piracy and Terrorism at Sea: A Rising Challenge for U.S. Security, " RAND research brief, 2008, available at 

Lieutenant Commander Chaturvedi recently graduated from the Marine Corps University's Expeditionary Warfare School in Quantico, Virginia. A surface warfare officer specializing in missiles and gunnery, he has held various gunnery-officer posts on Indian Navy guided-missile destroyers and missile corvettes, and has commanded a torpedo-firing and recovery vessel.


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