Jun 052008

Having a somewhat cynical turn of mind when it comes to the ‘War’ on Terrorism I’ve always been leery of those folk promoting the idea that pirates are really part of the global network of terrorism. That the terrorist network exists is certainly true, it has existed for decades since (Non-Islamic) terrorists in Germany, Japan, France, the US and Northern Ireland were trained in places like Libya for a fee, and pirates certainly exist, but they shouldn’t be confused with each other.

Old Sailor over at Marinebuzz has an enlightening 15 Reasons: Piracy Attack of a Ship is Different from Hijacking of Aircraft which in essence says pretty much what the recent Rand Corporation study Piracy and Terrorism at Sea: A Rising Challenge for U.S. Security with longer words and more syllables. You can download your own copy of the complete study here, but here’s how the press release goes:

“Acts of piracy and terrorism at sea are on the rise, but there is little evidence to support concerns from some governments and international organizations that pirates and terrorists are beginning to collude with one another…

The objectives of the two crimes remain different — piracy is aimed at financial gain while the goal of terrorism is political. Although both events are increasing, piracy is growing much faster and remains far more common than seaborne terrorism…

“The maritime environment will likely remain a favorable theater for armed violence, crime and terrorism given its expanse, lack of regulation and general importance as a critical conduit for international trade,” said Peter Chalk, author of the study and a senior political scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “While there is no quick fix for eliminating all of this, we can rationally manage the threats within acceptable boundaries.”

Chalk said the study’s findings suggest U.S. policymakers focus too much on responding to worse-case terrorist scenarios rather than crafting policies to combat lower consequence (but more probable) attacks that could strike cruise ships or passenger ferries. Just as seriously, the U.S. government has paid comparatively little attention to combating piracy, despite its proven cost in terms of human lives, political stability and economic disruption.

… The overall problem is almost certainly even greater than the figures suggest as researchers suspect nearly half of all piracy attacks are not reported, usually because of fears about subsequent investigation costs and increases to insurance premiums.

…Chalk said that a number of factors have contributed to the recent growth of piracy, including: lax port security and ineffective coastal surveillance; massive growth in commercial maritime traffic; heavy use of narrow and congested chokepoints, such as the Strait of Malacca; and competing resource requirements stemming from heightened national and international pressure to enact expensive, land-based homeland security systems following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In addition, the lingering effects of the Asian financial crisis that spurred falling wages, higher food prices and job losses in the late 1990s, directly contributed to the growth of piracy in and around Indonesia by creating an incentive for many to engage in maritime (and other types) of crime.

Maritime terrorism — attacks against vessels, sea platforms, ports or other coastal facilities — has also experienced a modest increase, particularly over the past six years when several attacks and plots have been attributed to al-Qaeda and affiliated jihadist networks. These incidents have raised concerns in the West, especially in the United States, that terrorists are now actively seeking to extend their operational reach beyond land-based attacks, Chalk said.

While the Bush administration has been at the forefront of efforts to upgrade global maritime security through such initiatives such as the Container Security Initiative and the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code, these measures are limited in scope and lack a definitive means to evaluate and audit their overall utility and transparency, Chalk said.

Overall it’s good news, given the general ineffectiveness in operations to stop piracy. But it might also be bad news: if the pirates aren’t terrorists, little more than seaborn smash-and-grabbers, will there still be the political will to address the situation?

The UN Security Council’s recent resolution on piracy may be a step forward in legitimising ‘hot pursuit’ and allowing third country forces to enter Somali waters to combat piracy. At the same time, resources, especially financial, that could be put to good use in addressing both piracy and seaborn terrorism are being diverted to shore-based projects to increase the thickness of the wall around America.

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