- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 6, 2003

HONOLULU — Images of walking the plank aside, piracy has made a spectacular comeback in recent years. Reported incidents have increased dramatically around the world, approaching nearly 400 annually.

Worldwide there were 103 attacks on ships in the first quarter of 2003, according to the International Maritime Bureau. In some cases, though, in the charged political atmosphere, the mass media and governments have blurred the line between piracy and acts of terrorism.

Such acts can appear similar, but it is important to understand that piracy and terrorism have different causes, objectives and tactics.

A good example is the March attack on several chemical tankers in the Strait of Malacca region by assailants with automatic weapons. Some of the ships were sprayed with bullets, while others were boarded silently. A New York Times article attributed the attacks to “terrorists.” But it was later revealed that the attackers were apparently after only equipment and other valuables. In other words, they were pirates, albeit unusually bold and violent ones.

The precise definition of piracy and terrorism has been problematic for national and international policy-makers alike. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea defines piracy as violence on the high seas, i.e., beyond any state’s 12-nautical-mile territorial waters.

The problem with this definition when applied to Southeast Asia is that most sea robberies occur within the 12-mile limit. Thus such incidents are not legally considered piracy and there is therefore no international agreement regarding most “maritime violence” or “sea robbery.” Arrest and prosecution are solely dependent on the country in whose jurisdiction the crime occurs.

Uncertain or unresolved maritime boundaries in Southeast Asia further complicate the question of jurisdiction. Moreover, Southeast Asian countries jealously guard their sovereignty over territorial waters and deny cross-boundary “hot pursuit.”

Maritime piracy encompasses a wide spectrum of criminal behavior, ranging from in-port pilferage and hit-and-run attacks to temporary seizure, long-term seizure and permanent theft of a ship.

Terrorism is also a complicated concept. The working definition of maritime terrorism is that of political piracy: “… any illegal act directed against ships, their passengers, cargo or crew, or against sea ports with the intent of directly or indirectly influencing a government or group of individuals.”

Terrorism is distinct from piracy in a straightforward manner. Piracy is a crime motivated by greed, and thus predicated on immediate financial gain. Terrorism is motivated by political goals beyond the immediate act of attacking or hijacking a maritime target. The motivating factor for terrorists is generally political ideology stemming from perceived injustices, both historical and contemporary.

Piracy and terrorism do overlap in several ways, particularly in the tactics of ship seizures and hijackings. And some of the circumstances that allow piracy and terrorism to flourish are similar, such as poverty, political instability, permeable international boundaries and ineffective enforcement.

Terrorists, though, want to call attention to their cause and inflict as much harm and damage as possible. Pirates want to avoid attention and will inflict only as much harm as is necessary to accomplish their objectives.

While the tactics of combating maritime terrorism and piracy may be similar, long-term solutions may require different approaches.

Ship hijackings by terrorists are a serious threat, but there has yet to be such a case in Southeast Asia.

Because of the overlap in operational similarities, short-term countermeasures such as enhanced patrols, coordination and ship defense will be useful in countering piracy and terrorism. But long-term solutions aimed at completely eliminating piracy and terrorism may have to be fitted to the particular problem.

Local enforcement is generally insufficient, although Malaysia has increased its effectiveness in recent years. Coordinated air surveillance and pursuit would be an important adjunct, but most Southeast Asian nations — and particularly Indonesia — cannot afford the number of aircraft necessary to patrol their vast coastal region.

As a solution, the United States and other maritime powers are pressing countries to ratify the 1988 Suppression of Unlawful Acts Convention. Although the convention was developed in large part to combat terrorism, it is also being promoted as an antipiracy measure.

The SUA Convention would extend the rights of maritime forces to pursue terrorists, pirates and maritime criminals into foreign territorial waters. But some Southeast Asian countries are concerned that this provision could compromise national sovereignty. So far, only maritime powers such as the United States, Canada, major European countries, Australia, China and Japan have signed the convention.

However, if piracy and terrorism are fused into a general threat, developing countries may find outside help easier to accept and sell to the public. So it may be in the interest of maritime powers to conflate piracy and terrorism to help persuade reluctant developing countries to let maritime powers pursue pirates and terrorists in their territorial and archipelagic waters.

But it is important to take a longer-term view and attempt to address the root of these problems. Allowing minorities more political “space” could address the terrorism problem. And poverty alleviation could diminish the incentive for much, but not all, piracy.

For the recalcitrants — organized gangs and die-hard independence fighters — international assistance in developing indigenous patrols in Southeast Asian nations would enhance regional security and minimize the sensitive presence of foreign naval vessels.

• Adam Young is a degree fellow and Mark J. Valencia is a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide