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Piracy, Maritime Terror and Policy Response

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  • July 10, 2009
    Fellows' Seminar
    Only by Invitation
    1030 to 1300 hrs

    Chair: Amb. Arjun Asrani
    Discussants: Dr. Vijay Sakhuja and Dr. Chintamani Mahapatra

    In recent years, piracy and terrorism on high seas are posing serious threats to international security and economic development. With increasing interdependence, the use of sea route for transportation has become vital. In this paper, Dr. Panda addresses three main issues: piracy with focus on Somalia and the Gulf of Eden; terrorism impacting trade through Malacca Straits; and policy response of the countries whose trade is adversely affected by sea piracy and terrorism.

    According to Dr. Panda, there exists a very thin line between an act of terrorism and piracy, primarily because both acts are undertaken to achieve private ends. Still, there are certain factors which distinguish piracy from terrorism. In terms of ends, while piracy is usually driven by financial gains, terrorism is politically motivated. The line between the two, however, is still blurred because terrorists could acquire funding for their political ends through piracy – tactically piractical, but strategically terrorist. In terms of means, while pirates are usually associated with basic tactics (e.g, boarding, theft, use of force or violence), terrorists usually aim at achieving a strategic effect. Today, piracy and maritime terrorism are no longer considered discrete. In fact, there is a complex piracy-terrorism continuum.

    Dr. Panda states that both piracy and terrorism have made the Indian Ocean and Malacca Strait region highly insecure. The Indian Ocean is home to many choke points, such as the Straits of Hormuz, Straits of Malacca, Lombok and the Sunda Straits. Any disruption in traffic flow through these points can result in grave and disastrous consequences. As far as the Straits of Malacca is concerned – the sea route transiting it and Singapore is the busiest in the world – 25 percent of world trade passes through this route every year. The criticality of the Malacca Strait is further reinforced by the increase in global economic interdependence and the consequent increase in the volume of mercantile traffic transiting the Strait.

    Terrorism and piracy have begun to engage the global community, especially due to the rise in fundamentalist forces after 9/11 and 26/11 attacks in the US and Mumbai, respectively. The importance of container security to maritime terrorism was particularly felt after the US Navy’s discovery of a group of al-Qaeda terrorists hiding inside a well equipped shipping container in January 2002. While the US is engaged in its search for terrorists and their personification in al-Qaeda on land, the prospect of a terror ship used by the al-Qaeda terrorizing the maritime arena continues to threaten tranquility at sea. After the recent 26/11 terrorist attack on Mumbai, guarding sea lanes and territorial waters has become new priorities of naval forces of many countries.

    Piracy in the Malacca Straits has historically been an unresolved threat to ship owners and mariners who ply the 900 kilometer long sea lane. The geography of the Strait makes the region very susceptible to piracy. During 1991-2001, nearly 2375 incidents of piracy were registered across the world, with South and Southeast Asia registering the highest number of incidents. The Indian Ocean area too has been invaded with merchant vessels that are suspected to belong to terrorist organizations such as the LTTE and al-Qaeda. In fact, the LTTE is suspected to own an entire flotilla engaged in dubious maritime trade. As the checking mechanism in place is flawed and entangled in legal matters, such ships are considered safe for engaging in terrorist-related activities. The Indian Ocean region is notorious for narco-terrorism as well. It is also widely believed that oil leakage at sea might create havoc with the ecology in the maritime environment which would ultimately affect maritime security.

    The recent spike in pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia has generated a great deal of international media attention. Somalia’s modern pirates represent not only a very real menace to maritime security, but also a growing threat to international commerce. The sensational nature of their crimes, while drawing the ire of the international community, has also ensured that the Somali pirates remain shrouded in mystery.

    According to Dr. Panda, instances of piracy around the Gulf of Aden by Somali pirates have increased in recent years basically because of the absence of an effective government in Somalia. In 2008, piracy off the Somalian coast has more than doubled. So far, over 60 ships have been attacked. Hijacking ships for ransom is a new model. By most estimates, the pirates took in around $30 million in 2008, although actual figures may be many times this amount. Kenya in fact claims that the pirates collected over $150 million in ransom in 2008 alone. The increased threat of maritime piracy has heightened the shipping industry’s financial concerns in the context of the current global economic recession.

    There is consensus in the international community that maritime terrorism and piracy ought to be addressed with urgency. The misuse of sophisticated technology by pirates and non-state actors calls for continuous up-gradation of technology to counter those engaged in terrorist activities. However, despite increased naval presence by major powers, patrolling one million square kilometres of open sea has so far proved to be a major challenge. The existing international law governing territorial waters also place legal constraints on countries capable of checking maritime terrorism.

    Though the UN has intervened to check the piracy menace, it has not been very effective. Still a number of unilateral, bilateral and multilateral security initiatives pursued so far have been able to become regionally successful in tackling maritime threats. Malaysia has embarked upon several regional maritime security initiatives, including the establishment of SEARCCT (Southeast Asia Regional Center for Counter-Terrorism) and hosting the IBM’s regional piracy centre. Singapore, being the most vulnerable state to any major piracy attack or maritime terrorist act, gives utmost priority in securing the sea lanes of communication (SLOC) for navigation in regional waterways. There are other regional powers as well, like the US, Japan, China and India whose interests are intrinsically embedded with littoral states like Malaysia and Singapore. In view of the overreaching security and economic interests of all trading nations, a collective security mechanism involving littorals and extra-regional players to share the burden of policing the Malacca Straits through capacity-building, intelligence and sharing of financial resources, and technology transfers seems to be the sine qua non for any attempt to securing the SLOCs.

    It transpires that regional actors have their own agendas and compulsions to deal with issues of piracy and maritime terrorism. For example, Japan’s economic interests are so huge that bolstering SLOC security is of top most foreign policy priority at the moment. Elsewhere, domestic political interests may be a factor in determining a country’s approach towards regional maritime security cooperation. There may be countries like China with great power ambition which might propel them to enhance their maritime profile. Unless a coordinated approach among countries in the region is adopted, the coming decades might see a fierce battle in the maritime security ‘chess game’ that seems to be pregnant with unpredictable consequences in shaping the geopolitics of the region.

    Point raised during the discussion:

    • The issues of piracy and terrorism should be dealt with separately. At the same time, a clear distinction between the two terms should also be made.

    • The author needs to update some of the data he has provided in the paper.

    • Although in case of policy response, the author basically concentrated on the Japanese government’s policy, the title of the paper does not indicate a case study of that country.

    • While the paper gives a lot of information on piracy, maritime terrorism does not seem to be given so much importance.

    • It is necessary to take into account how state failure led to poor governance in Somalia.

    • The paper needs to address extensively the issue of capacity building to deal with piracy and maritime terrorism.

    • The author needs to take into account the following differences between piracy and terrorism: i)While terrorism has a political goal, piracy does not; ii) Terrorism is basically land based while piracy is sea based; iii) Terrorists basically target state apparatus, but pirates do not involve in such activities.

    • The author has mentioned that terrorists may use piracy as a means to acquire money. This point needs to be elaborated.

    • Whether piracy leads to statelessness in Somalia or vice versa needs to be analyzed.

    • The author also needs to analyze why the Malacca Strait is less prone to piracy than Gulf of Aden.

    • Analysis needs to be made on the legal constraints in resolving piracy and maritime issues.

    • The author needs to take into account the military solution to piracy.

    • The author talked about the linkage between the Al-Shabab, a Muslim terrorist group and Somali pirates. But such a linkage is yet to be confirmed.

    • Although it has been mentioned that pirates do not usually have a political agenda, some pirates in Nigeria do have political goals, i.e., to bring about reforms in Nigeria.

    • The author needs to elaborate the policy difference between various agencies and governments in dealing with piracy.

    • Since the author has extensively talked about piracy in Somalia, he should consider making it a case study in the paper.

    • The LTTE case is dominant in the paper. So much emphasis on that terrorist group is not necessary as it can no longer be considered a significant terrorist group.

    • China’s growing naval presence needs to be taken into account. The author should extensively deal with the steps China has taken in response to piracy.

    • The author needs to elaborate upon how money gets transferred from pirates to terrorists, and if there actually exists a linkage between piracy and terrorism.

    Prepared by Pranamita Baruah, Research Assistant at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.