Guest Post: Pirates are not terrorists but the prevention of both are similar

This is a guest post by Ben Little, former Navy SEAL, author of The Sea Rover’s Practice: Pirate Tactics and Techniques, 1630-1730, The Buccaneer’s Realm: Pirate Life on the Spanish Main, 1674-1688 and the forthcoming Pirate Hunting: The Fight Against Pirates, Privateers, and Sea Raiders From Antiquity to the 21st Century, and long time friend of this blog.

Regarding the argument that the pirate is a terrorist, or that piracy is equivalent to terrorism, we should very briefly examine the ultimate purpose of both terrorism and piracy. In the case of terrorism, the purpose is political, and its means, including the use of violence to create a state of terror, are focused on that end. Many analysts tend to forget that terrorists do not kill people and blow up buildings primarily to get attention. They do it to get a reaction, preferably one that will turn a local or even an international population against a government, people, corporation, other organization, or idea, which in turn helps fill terrorist ranks and helps achieve political ends. For example, Al-Qaeda must have seen the US invasion of Iraq as a gift from heaven. Attention via violence is just the vehicle. (This critical aspect of terrorism was emphasized in a course I took in "Political Warfare" taught by Army intelligence specialists at the Naval Amphibious School in Coronado in the 1980s.)

Piracy, on the other hand, is simply armed theft on the sea (and in the past, from the sea as well). It lacks a political purpose, although it can of course be used as a tactic or strategy to finance or otherwise support terrorism, unrelated criminal activity, insurgency, or even (in the past) state- or empire-building. Ideally, as Matt pointed out, the pirate would prefer that no exceptional knowledge of his activity come to light. His goal is not to become a martyr or spend his life in jail, but to enjoy his spoils. In most cases, when the pirate does use "terror," he is not engaging in terrorism, but is simply using fear make his job easier, as does any armed thief. The incitement of fear, even to the extent of terror, helps prevent his prey from fighting back, and thus makes piracy more profitable, not to mention helps keep the pirate alive so that he can spend his gains. Beyond this, the pirate has no use for fear or terror. Were he to routinely engage in violence on the level of the terrorist–in terrorism, in other words–every hand would soon turn against him. Lacking a political purpose and a political base, he would soon find himself violently ostracized, except by those who rely immediately upon him for economic sustenance. There is a good reason, for example, that Somali pirates have so far treated their prisoners well. Further, the pirate generally does not seek to destroy states or economies, although on occasion in the past he has had a hand in this. He requires functioning states and well-ordered economies, for they are the source of his prey–of his "profit by plunder," in other words.

To be fair, there are some Marxist-based historians and economists who consider piracy as the result of class warfare, and thus a form of rebellion, and thus ultimately political. However, looking at piracy from antiquity to the present, although its purpose is invariably and by definition economic–plunder or ransom–it goes no further than this, no matter its inspiration, whether of poverty, other hardship, opportunism, or a combination thereof. Indeed, some scholars refer to the pirate as a mere parasite, although this is often too simple a description. The pirate who did occasionally spout political or rebellious rhetoric seldom bothered to raise a hand in actual rebellion or in other political purpose, much less engage in what we today would refer to as "terrorism," notwithstanding his occasionally brutal treatment of his prey, including prisoners. (Much of the pirate’s brutality was brought out in the search for plunder. Other was obviously the work of disturbed minds, but some likely originated in the need to seek revenge upon a scapegoat, lending support in some instances to the theory of class warfare. Still, such "terrorism" had no further political purpose.) On the few occasions when the pirate did engage in rebellion or participate in insurgency, it was often as a mercenary, and in any case, rebellion was not his original intent, nor did it extend to what we would refer to as terrorism. Even when he threatened or bribed a local government, it was not for political purpose, but to facilitate his ability to engage in piracy.

The pirate did not and does not actively seek to overthrow governments or change the world order, neither as rebel nor as terrorist. Economic gain via armed theft for private purpose was and is his goal. The occasional political rhetoric of a minority of his ilk was typically mere rationalization or "verbalized motive," as opposed to an indication of actual purpose of rebellion or political change, and it remains so today. Somali pirate spokesmen, for example, have spouted various rhetoric about taking revenge for the illegal fishing of their waters, but the goal of Somali pirates is primarily material gain for private purpose, not the righting of a wrong.

All this being said, there are two critical similarities between piracy and terrorism. The first is in the two-pronged manner in which both are best dealt with. On the one hand, a combination of direct military (predominantly naval when dealing with piracy) and law enforcement action, including effective intelligence gathering and analysis, is required to deal with the immediate threat. In the case of piracy, this includes the protection of merchant shipping, the capture or destruction of pirates and their materiel (including mother ships), and the isolation or destruction of their bases (in the case of the Somalis, difficult, perhaps impossible without harming local populations). In parallel with these efforts, the underlying causes must be dealt with via a variety of coordinated means, including conventional diplomacy, public diplomacy, education, economic aid, amnesty programs, strengthening of local government, and other related means. In the case of Somalia, the failed state must be made to function again–an obviously difficult proposition lacking in substantive international support.

The second critical similarity between piracy and terrorism is their potential tenacity. Under the right circumstances, both can be difficult to eradicate if permitted to gain a foothold. Both are best handled in their infancy, so to speak, but both are often overlooked or ignored until they are well-established.

— Benerson Little,

One thought on “Guest Post: Pirates are not terrorists but the prevention of both are similar

  1. Thanks for this post. There is a group at American University in DC The Center on Transnational Crime and Corruption…something like that…that has been looking at the intersection of ideology and greed and how they relate to terrorism–very interesting and important…in fact, a vital difference.

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