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Piracy News & Commentary

Piracy versus Terrorism Part 2

On January 28, the New York Times published "Backgrounder: Combating Maritime Piracy" by Stephanie Hanson. The following is an expanded version of a letter to the editor I wrote in response, but which was not published.

The article points out correctly that experts (a word much used too freely in all areas of human endeavor, and which often indicates a closing of minds, as opposed to sources of significant functional, adaptable knowledge) disagree on whether piracy is terrorism. Again, as I have pointed out before, those seeking solutions to Somali piracy must understand and maintain the distinction between piracy and terrorism. Throughout history, piracy and its accompanying violence have often been associated with political purpose, and it is tempting to define the pirate as a terrorist. For example, privateers--“lawful pirates,” so to speak--and pirates have often been used to attack an enemy’s commerce, and as such each could be defined as naval auxiliaries. Similarly, because some of the profits of piracy could be used to finance terrorism, or because terrorists use the threat of violence to frighten their prey into submission, it might be tempting to define the pirate as a terrorist. However, there is a vital distinction between pirates and those whose purposes they might serve. Pirates and privateers by definition seek to enrich themselves via armed theft at sea. Their purpose is plunder for personal profit, not plunder for political gain. Terrorists seek political gain--material profit is merely a means of financing a political end. Ignoring this distinction might seriously misdirect efforts at suppressing piracy, and turn piracy from a tool of private economy to one of dire political purpose. Even so, we cannot ignore the potential consequences of connections between Somali pirates and Islamist terrorist groups. If anything, they lend urgency to the need to eradicate Somali piracy. And there is one significant similarity between piracy and terrorism: both are best dealt with via a two-pronged approach of attacking the immediate threats while working to remove the underlying conditions that promote them.
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