Is Piracy Terrorism? No.

Two days ago Abu Muqawama asked whether piracy is terrorism

What? This guy seems to think so:

Are pirates a species of terrorist? In short, yes. The same definition of pirates as hostis humani generis could also be applied to international organized terrorism. Both crimes involve bands of brigands that divorce themselves from their nation-states and form extraterritorial enclaves; both aim at civilians; both involve acts of homicide and destruction, as the United Nations Convention on the High Seas stipulates, “for private ends.”

Here, meanwhile, is Bard O’Neill’s definition of terrorism:

[T]he threat or use of physical coercion, primarily against noncombatants, especially civilians, to create fear in order to achieve various political objectives.

If you can think of an alternate or better definition for terrorism, chime in. But I don’t think you’re going to find any reputable terror scholar who would say piracy is necessarily a form of terror. (Unless he or she is a ninja.) Just because the two groups have things in common — or that piracy could be used as a terror tactic — doesn’t mean piracy equals terror.

I really hate it when people throw the "terror" label around to serve their purposes. It confuses the public. If you want to make an argument that piracy should be outlawed under international law, great — knock yourself out. But don’t start confusing terms. . . .

That post generated a lot of comments arguing that yes, piracy is terrorism. There were some arguments that because piracy funds terrorism it is terrorism. That’s a lot like saying “I breathe when I sleep is the same as I sleep when I breathe.”

Let’s get something straight here: piracy is not terrorism. Recall what is the critical component of terrorism: knowledge of the act. Remember the old saying that “media is the oxygen of the terrorist.” If you don’t know an act was terrorism it isn’t and it’s simply an accident or a criminal act. Imagine if no one knew the Earth Liberation Front was behind the burning of a Hummer dealership (could have been regular ole’ arsonists) or mansions in the forest (electrical spark)?

Terrorism requires knowledge of the purpose lest no fear or concern is generated (besides mandating better fire prevention, for example). In contrast, piracy doesn’t benefit from increased knowledge of the act. Pirates would prefer what they do not become public knowledge lest navies get mobilized, shippers chart different courses, or become harder targets. Generating fear and awareness of who they are and of their activities is bad for business. 

To be sure, piracy could be many things, depending on the perspective. American privateers sent against English shipping during the Revolution intended to cause fear in civilians, namely rich people involved in trade, and take the fight to the British homeland. That fear was manifested in higher insurance and pressure on the Crown to do something. The English (probably) called it terrorism be we would definitely classify it as insurgency, but the activities were in support of a political act (as well as providing financial support to several New England towns).

Lastly, piracy is already illegal. Read The Abolition of Privateering and the Declaration of Paris for a historical perspective (that’s directly related to mercenaries). For more interesting reads on the subject, see Ben Little’s books.

7 thoughts on “Is Piracy Terrorism? No.

  1. Hi — I’m torn on this as well — but how do we explain the fact that the more media attention the pirates have gotten, the more attacks have occurred. If media coverage is the defining characteristic of terrorism, then it is pretty clear that they are “terrorists.” This seems to provide evidence of, regardless of intent, the fact that governments are treating them as terrorists, no?Also, while I understand the difficulty of terrorism in an amorphous way, if treating pirates as terrorists creates more media attention, which has in certainty resulted in more political attention, what is the downside?

  2. If Pirates are considered Terrorists, then you else can we lump into the same category? The Mafia (organized crime)? Sorry Soprano’s, you’re terrorists, too.How about schoolyard Bullies? They “threat[en] or use of physical coercion, primarily against noncombatants [other students], especially civilians, to create fear in order to achieve various political objectives [get lunch money, cut in line, etc.]”
    Aggressive drivers on the freeway? I feel threatened by them.
    It’s too easy to throw out the “terrorist” label to brand a group of people. I prefer to reserve that term for the people who really deserve the stigma associated with that branding. Pirates are criminals, not terorists. Just my humble opinion.

  3. Shawn, It’s risky to make a correlation between the rise in piracy, include their audacity, with the rise in media coverage. The rise in piracy, which has risen in more places than off the coast of Somalia, is, in my opinion, a product of success and local conditions.Pete is right about using the terrorist label. If everybody is terrorist than nobody is.
    And, for the record, I don’t see many governments actually treating pirates as terrorists or as criminals for that matter. To counter terrorism (and crime) you go to the root cause and the base that supports their activities. In this case, we’ll find the criminal behaviour stems from local economic conditions. Change the conditions and create opportunities. In this regard, these terrorists and criminals are the same.

  4. Even as the purpose or goal of the act in the larger scheme of things must be considered, the determination is in the eye of the beholder…. and, what about Shock and Awe?

  5. John Williamson, a Brit ex-pat, perpetual student, and friend, adds a distinction (via my Facebook status that’s generated a small discourse of its own) we’ve missed so far : “parrots”.

  6. I think the fundamental challenge here is the failure to distinguish “non-state actors” as something larger and distinct from “terrorism.” One could argue that para-military groups, private security companies, warlords, drug cartels, etc all use violence to achieve fear and accomplish certain political objectives, but that doesn’t make them terrorists (other than in the case of their critics making inflammatory statements for the press).

  7. There is some true hilarity to how much attention pirates get! There are all sorts of distinctions between what we commonly think of as “terrorists” and “pirates.” For example, only one is an appropriate Halloween costume. My argument is for governments treating them, legally speaking, as the same. Much smarter people than I have articulated and defended this argument here ( and here (,%20Pirates%20and%20Terrorists.pdf).Given that the terrorist label is legally and functionally meaningless in terms of international law (a point made clear in the publications linked above), I’m not too worried conflating the two labels, particularly if it results in better and more coherent policy.
    The point that we treat all sorts of non-governmental criminal groups differently is well said, but presumes that the separate categories have resulted in effective policy, a point that I would strongly disagree with. This summer’s study conducted by RAND (titled “U.S. Should Rethink ‘War On Terrorism’ Strategy to Deal with Resurgent Al Qaida,” found here: was fairly definitive on this point: “most terrorist groups end either because they join the political process, or because local police and intelligence efforts arrest or kill key members. Police and intelligence agencies, rather than the military, should be the tip of the spear against al Qaida in most of the world.”
    Oh, and I do think that governments are paying more attention to the pirating, and some have argued that the Somali pirates could even be the impetus for a rejuvenated EU Defense Force! (see Foreign Policy’s “Europe v. the Pirates,” found here:
    This of course does raise an important question, once we’ve captured all of the pirates, what will we do with all of the parrots and eye patches!

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