Maritime Terrorism and Piracy: a Danger to Maritime Security

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • The Concept of Maritime Terrorism, Piracy and Armed Robberies of Ships
  • Extent, Causes and Consequences of Piracy and Armed Robbery of Ships
  • Somalian Pirates and Incidents of Piracy off the Somalian Coast, the Red Sea and Arabian Sea
  • Maritime piracy in West Africa
  • Extent, Causes and Consequences of Maritime Terrorism
  • Similarities and Differences between Piracy and Maritime Terrorism
  • Role of Private Maritime Security Companies
  • Conclusion


Maritime law is the fundamental branch of law that regulates commerce and navigation on the seas or other navigable waters. The area of law governs how people interact and do business on the waters of the world and is also known as admiralty law. Maritime law mainly governs activities on international waters and the law of sea is a body of international law governing the rights and duties of states in maritime environments. It is the public law counterpart to admiralty law. Maritime terrorism research center defines maritime terrorism as "the use or threat of violence against a ship (civilian as well as military), its passengers or sailors, cargo, a port facility, or if the purpose is solely a platform for political ends" and the piracy is the practice of robbery or criminal violence by ship or boat- borne attackers upon another ship or coastal area, typically with the goal of stealing cargo and other valuable items or properties. Its practical aspects can be understood by an example if we have a trade to be made where in vessel will be used in order to make this transaction possible we require maritime law, similarly the tariffs and jurisdictional will be determined by law of seas as well as admiralty law (aspect of maritime law) and then to protect the ship from theft and such piracy (as defined in UNCLOS) we need the law of sea. Links between the maritime terrorists and pirates are limited as the objectives of both the groups differ but the attacks generated pirates and maritime terrorists have potential to affect the globe trade. Pirates have financial motives where as the maritime terrorists have political motives. Although the cooperation between these two groups is impossible but could be dangerous against our maritime security.

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The Concept of Maritime Terrorism, Piracy and Armed Robberies of Ships

Both United Nations International Maritime organization and International Maritime Bureau uses the definition of piracy as described in United Nations convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS).

"Piracy consists of any of the following acts:

  1. Any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed:
  2. On the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft;
  3. (Against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;
  4. Any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft;
  5. (Any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in subparagraph (a) or (b)".

Armed robbery of ships is defined by Resolution A 1025 (26) as:

  1. Any unlawful act of violence or detention or any act of depredation, or threat thereof, other than an act of piracy, committed for private ends and directed against a ship or against persons or property on board such ship, within a State's internal waters, archipelagic waters and territorial sea;
  2. Any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described above".

According to Ranstorp and Wilkinson, terrorism is defined as "The systematic use of coercive intimidation usually, though not exclusively, to service political ends. It is used to create and exploit a climate of fear among a wider group than the immediate victims of the violence, often to publicize a cause, as well as to coerce a target into acceding to terrorist aims".

The maritime environment is only one of the areas of operations where terrorists use coercion to further their political aims.

Maritime terrorism has no internationally agreed upon definition. Legal scholars have agreed on an operational definition for maritime terrorism based on Articles 3 and 4 of the 1988 Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation (SUA), even though the SUA Convention does not refer to terrorism specifically. Maritime terrorism is defined as:

  1. Any attempt or threat to seize control of a ship by force;
  2. To damage or destroy a ship or its cargo;
  3. To injure or kill a person on board a ship;
  4. To endanger in any way the safe navigation of a ship that moves from the territorial waters of one State into those of another State or into international waters.

The Maritime Co-operation Working Group of the Council for Security and Co-operation in the Asia-Pacific (CSCAP) focuses its definition on terrorism:

  1. Within the marine environment;
  2. Used against vessels or fixed platforms at sea or in port, or against any one of their passengers or personnel; and
  3. Against coastal facilities or settlements, including tourist resorts.

For statistical purposes, the IMB does not distinguish between piracy, armed robbery of ships or maritime terrorism.9 As IMB statistics were used in this study, no distinction is made between piracy and armed robbery of ships when referring to statistics.

Piracy was almost eliminated by the end of the 19th century, but increased again in the 1970s and 1980s. In many Third World countries, this period was known for liberation wars against former colonial governments. Many of these wars had a maritime dimension and as result, several maritime terrorist attacks were recorded.

Extent, Causes and Consequences of Piracy and Armed Robbery of Ships

An increase in piracy and armed robbery can be explained by absence of crime fitting institutions or strong navies to counter piracy and change in Socio- economic conditions in a region. The problem could turn out to more dangerous if there is lack of will to report the incidents.

Somalian Pirates and Incidents of Piracy off the Somalian Coast, the Red Sea and Arabian Sea

In 2011, 176 attacks were launched by Somalian Pirates due to this 25 ships were pirated but with the help of security teams attacks were decreased to 75 in the year 2012. Pirates were using mother ships to launch three to four speedboats (headed by four to eight pirates) allowing them to operate from the Somali coast and to avoid naval developments. At least five mother ships with speedboats in a tow operated in this area and cover themselves among many fishing vessels.

The amount of violence and financial losses occurred differ due to the type of attack but geographical area also matters. In most of the cases, vessels were crushed and hijacking was the main motive of the attacks that took place in Red sea and Gulf of Aden. Automatic weapons and rocket- propelled grenade were used in Somalia attacks.

Maritime piracy in West Africa

n 2008, second highest incidents of Piracy and Armed robbery were recorded on the high seas surrounded by Nigeria. Militants in Nigeria existed completely on criminal as well as political deeds. The prominent among all was MEND which portrays itself as resistance movement fighting for human and social rights But the Nigerian Government believes activities of this group to be purely criminal. MEND included thousands of members as its members. It had potential to attack with hundreds of "war boats" from their bases in the Niger delta. Most of the attacks in Nigeria occurred in territorial waters In 2009 and 2010, 47 hijackings were reported and in the year 2011 and 2012, 20 hijackings were reported against Nigerian pirates where 40 attacks were reported in 2008 in which 27 vessels were boarded and 5 were hijacked. All these attacks were violent and crew members suffered through major injuries.

Extent, Causes and Consequences of Maritime Terrorism

There is no particular Maritime terrorist organization in present world. Maritime terrorism is one of the areas of operation for terrorists groups. Attacks in the sea are not simple operations but they have many difficulties. Concealment during surveillance is much more difficult than that on land. In January 2000, Al Qaeda's affiliate, the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army (AAIA), implemented a new strategy to attack United States targets including maritime targets. Boats loaded with explosives could be remotely detonated or used as suicide weapons by ramming other vessels. This attack failed due to the suicide boat overloaded with explosives sank in the Port of Aden.

In October, 2002 an oil tanker was carrying crude oil off the coast of Yemen was exploded with a small boat loaded with bombs. Ninety thousand barrels of oil overturn into water, resulting into huge financial losses for Yemen.

In 2004, the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) bombed Philippines superferry carrying 899 passengers, by placing a bomb in a television set; this resulted into killings of hundreds of people. The ferry company, Sulpicio and William, Gothong and Aboitiz (WG&A) lines, received a letter prior to the explosion, asking one million dollars for the safe use of waters of Mindano. The slow progress of ships provides sufficient time to a victim country to deal with maritime attacks but a fear always exist that a terrorists could come up with a nuclear, biological or radiological device, chemical, weapons or substance to target destination through the use of cargo containers.

Similarities and Differences between Piracy and Maritime Terrorism

During the beginning of 90s, terrorism was very commonly used expression once in a while among scholars of international relations. It is very important to distinguish between Piracy and Maritime Terrorism when we have to deal with Maritime security. All terrorism is characterized not only by a specific purpose (political), it causes more substantial damage than acts of piracy and the number of victims in a terrorist attack can be much higher. Both the Piracy and Maritime terrorism have similar nature of the methods and means of committing these crimes, the terrorists in their acts pursue different goals than pirates. Like the other forms of terrorism, Maritime terrorism also aims to intimidate and frighten society and to influence the decisions of authorities or International organizations, mostly of political nature. Thus, the main purpose of Maritime terrorism is to achieve political benefits. Violent acts of terrorism have impacts on third parties for the purpose of forcing them into behavior that is advantageous to criminals while the pirate criminal activity terminates with the seizure of ship, the people and their property but the terrorists criminal activity begins only at that moment; the attainment of their goals is not connected with the behavior of victims of the attacks in the course of violent action but the behavior of the third parties is affected by the violent actions. Terrorism intentionally creates fear, depression and tension amongst the victims and appears to be formed by the Socio-psychological factors that affects the other people and forces them to fulfill the demand of terrorists. Maritime terrorism and Piracy are serious threats to the maritime security but the maritime terrorism has evolved from the Piracy. The best distinction between pirates and terrorists is their motives, mostly financial in case of pirates and political in case of terrorists. But in several cases these distinctions has proven to be blurred as in the case of MEND in the Niger Delta, Nigeria, where kidnappings of oil workers had both financial and political goals.

Generally the pirates make simple tactics but terrorist always makes complex tactics. There exist certain similarities between piracy and maritime terrorism, both of them took place in maritime environment and their actions are always planned. In both cases, the actions are planned against civilians. Both the pirates and the terrorists need funds to strengthen their operations.

Role of Private Maritime Security Companies

The Private Maritime Security companies are hired by the merchants in order to protect their ships from pirates. Many new maritime security companies have been formed in this field since 2008 and the existing Private Maritime Security Companies have refocused on maritime security. Although the provision of lethal force by these private maritime security companies rather than government services neither new or even unexpected on land it seems to be more sophisticated on the oceans and in international waters. In twenty first century, there should be no threat and the government should also provide the required security. Merchants usually say that "Ships with no armed guard is captured by the pirates". It is conception that is used to employ the lethal force and the clients have no other options. This is another armed group that needs to be regulated. On the whole, the security industry is occupied by the military, police and trained professionals which favors the interests of shipping companies. Although the provisions and use of weapons at sea for self defense is legal but some other contradictory laws comes into force when these security teams start heading towards the port. Maritime security providers have been arrested and jailed in Somalia, Egypt and Kenya. Nowadays, Private Maritime security companies has become necessity in view of emergence of piracy and armed robbery at sea. The work performed by navies and police in maritime environment, same work is performed by these private services and that is providing risk assessment, advice on improvement of security of vessel, providing anti- piracy training, provision of armed or unarmed guards to protect/ escort vessels and deterrence and ward-off attacks.


Piracy and maritime terrorism is a serious issue and danger to the safety of navigation, society and well being as well as the relation between the different states. Today, piracy and maritime terrorism are similar in their nature of actions and focuses to attack and destroy vessels, steel cargo and other valuable things and take hostages etc. Every act that leads to violence has a special meaning for terrorists and for pirates; the only thing that matters is their profit. The impact of these attacks would affect the world economy and environment, especially in world hub ports or chokepoints are targeted. The operation is influenced by the Socio-economic and political climate of the country of pirates and terrorists. The acts of terrorists organization affects world trade as some of them operate on local scale and some on global scale. Pirates usually have fear of their own lives but in recent years it has been repeatedly seen that terrorists prefer suicide attacks. Both groups have different motives but they commonly use same tactics to attack. There is need of taking preventing measures by paying attention towards pirate's tactics and geographical operational areas in order to detect potential terrorists.

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