Piracy’s impact on global terrorism

Causing the same amount of fear in the middle of the ocean is not as easy
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By Prudence Foucault

Global terrorism’s primary goal has always been to establish terror and insecurity. Whether ideological, individual, or state-sponsored, perpetrators seek to cause fear by making seemingly secure places unsafe.

Causing the same amount of fear in the middle of the ocean is not as easy as it can be in major urban centres like Paris, London and Madrid.

Piracy should not to be confused with maritime terrorism. Broadly, terrorism is usually fuelled by political objectives; whereas piracy is traditionally motivated much more by financial outcomes. However, global terrorism can benefit from the activities of pirates and vice versa. Therefore, the two divergent criminal groups can target commercial operations for very different reasons.

Disrupting global energy supply is one obvious area where the two groups’ activities might benefit each other. Al Qaeda has long publicised its strategic view that oil installations both onshore and offshore, as well as vessels transporting oil, are legitimate targets for attack to both destabilise western economies and force western powers to commit military resources to secure the sources and routes of that supply. Insecure oil supply and the illegal trade of oil was also one of the main sources of income for the Islamic State, and the sale of illicitly gained energy products, particularly refined products, is a key financial and operational lifeline for criminal and terrorist organisations.

It’s easy to see therefore how commercial piracy that impacts upon global energy supply indirectly contributes to this strategic terrorist goal of energy volatility. At the height of the East African security crisis in 2009, seemingly no vessel was safe as mega ships fell afoul of sophisticated offshore piracy operations. Establishing the HRA with its cocktail of preventative measures including multi-lateral naval response forces, vessel hardening measures, armed security and increased vessel speeds have all but decimated the East African piracy industry. However, the problem continues elsewhere in Africa and globally where a similar integrated approach to tackling commercial piracy is still sadly lacking.

It’s easy to view the ‘hard’ measures that contributed to the collapse of East African piracy as a success story, but again there are still potential negative externalities that may benefit global terrorism. If commercial pirates can no longer make a living through piracy, they may turn to other criminal activities that can sustain a living for them – this can include recruitment to land based terrorist organisations. It has been suggested that a primary driver of the growth of Al Shabaab in East Africa, later the Islamic State in East Africa, was the recruitment of former pirates, familiar with ‘essential’ skills such as weapons handling who could now be mobilised against those that had taken away their source of income.

Similarly, where political groups have failed, it is not unusual to see its followers cross over to organised crime including commercial piracy where their skills can be put to use. For years, early militant groups like the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) posed the main threat in the Gulf of Guinea, supposedly motivated by the notable disparities in wealth apparent between beneficiaries of the expansive oil and gas industry in the Delta region and its local communities. Later, opportunistic criminal groups motivated purely by profit took their place, attacking vessels across the Gulf of Guinea, ramping up the industrialised kidnap for ransom system we see today.

Understanding the links between the two different types of organisation and how they interact will be key if the international community is to move past the concept that legal and military deterrents are sufficient to settle political division or community desperation and delinquency.

The question for ship operators must always be: what steps are we taking to mitigate the ongoing risk?

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