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Piracy Is Not Terrorism: It's Something Else by Figaro Joseph

Pirates have seized more than two dozens ships off the Horn of Africa this year. However, piracy off the Horn of Africa did not make much national and international news until this October when pirates seized an Ukranian ship, Faina, carrying weapons bought by the Kenyan government. The Faina was carrying 33 tanks and tons of other heavy weaponry. Why did the Kenyan government buy these weapons? Let's rephrase the question: Against whom is the Kenyan government planning to use these weapons? This is a question worth asking and it certainly deserves an answer. This piece, however, will not answer it. Instead, this piece focuses on distinguishing between piracy and terrorism.

Who asked Figaro for this distinction? Answer: No one; but I want to respond to some of the so-called experts who keep conflating the two issues. One expert in particular is Douglas Burgess Jr. In a December 5th Op-Ed in The New York Times, Mr. Burgess made a case to the American public and the international community to view piracy as terrorism. In his Op-Ed, Burgess made a number of claims to support his reasoning, an erroneous reason, however. The reasoning is erroneous in several major ways.

Burgess asked this question: "Are the Somali pirates ordinary criminals, or a quasi-military force?" It's a good question. Unfortunately, the question does not speak to the issue of piracy or terrorism, and Burgess himself does not answer the question. The answer to the question is that the Somali pirates are not "ordinary criminals, or a quasi-military force." More to the issue at hand, piracy is not terrorism. They are two different things and are committed by perpetrators who have very different motives.

Burgess claimed that pirates and terrorists are the same by arguing that their "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 […] 'for private ends.'" This characterization or definition is not accurate.

Terrorism is usually defined as violence to human life and/or property and is intended to intimidate or coerce civilian populations and/or to influence the policy of governments. Terrorist acts, more often than not, have political motives. Piracy on the high seas, on the other hand, does not have these characteristics. Piracy, generally, is not done to intimidate a government to change policy or cause harm or frighten a civilian population. Furthermore, piracy, more often than not, has commercial, business, or monetary motives—not political.

The Somali pirates don't care about the consequences of Ukraine's, or Saudi Arabia's foreign policy. These are two of the countries whose ships have been seized by the pirates. Terrorist organizations, including as al-Qaeda, do care about the consequences of various countries' foreign policies.

In addition to his mischaracterization, Burgess offered two examples to support his claim that pirates and terrorists must be classified as one in the same. He pointed out that in the 1970s, the United Nations defined hijacking of airliners as "aerial piracy." He also pointed to the 1985 seizure of the cruise ship Achille Lauro as an example because President Ronald Reagan called the Palestinian terrorists who seized the Achille Lauro "pirates."

Again, Burgess is wrong within the context of his own argument because he conflated pirates with terrorists. Both of these cases were terrorist acts, not piracy. The United Nations defining the act of hijacking airliners "aerial piracy" does not necessarily make the hijackers "pirates." Hijacking an airliner for political reason is terrorism irrespective of the 1970s United Nations' definition. The Palestinians who seized the Achille Lauro had political motives, not commercial motives; thus, they were "terrorists," not "pirates."

Burgess is right that pirates are not simple criminals or enemy combatants; they are not international terrorists either. They and their acts are something else. Burgess' call to abandon the term "piracy" in favor of "maritime terrorism" is worth debating. However, it is doubtful that this shift alone will make prosecuting pirates or maritime terrorists any easier or more cost effective.

Piracy is illegal as terrorism, but the two are not analogous, as Burgess wants us to accept. The international community needs to revisit the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention to figure out where pirates fit and how to deal with them; their actions do represent a major problem to international trade.

Figaro Joseph is a PhD candidate at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He can be reached at fjoseph(at)


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