Piracy on the high seas has grown considerably, reports a new study, but there is little evidence terrorists are using pirates to aid and abet their activities.
Acts of piracy—boarding a ship to commit theft or another crime —between the years 2000 and 2006 increased 68 percent in comparison with the previous six years, according to the RAND Corporation study. There were 2,463 actual or attempted acts of piracy in that time frame, a quarter of which occurred around the Indonesian archipelago. Other locations where piracy is common include off the coast of Bangladesh, Somalia, the Gulf of Aden/Red Sea, Nigeria, Tanzania and Peru.
Pirates steal, on average, between $5,000 and $15,000 in loot per raid.
The study identified seven factors why piracy is now so commonplace: the explosive growth in maritime traffic, narrow and congested chokepoints, the difficulty of surveillance at sea, poor coastal and port-side security, corrupt officials, widely available small arms, and the Asian financial crisis.
The last factor accounts for why piracy occurs so frequently in Southest Asia, says the report. Many people were "pulled" toward piracy because of declining economic opportunities while cash-starved governments did not have the revenue to invest in adequate coastal monitoring regimes.
Terrorist attacks also rose in this time span but modestly, according to the report. The most notable attack was the 2004 bombing of the Phillipine SuperFerry by the Abu Sayyaf group with elements of the Rajah Soliaman Movement and Jemaah Islamyya. The attack killed 116 people and is considered the worst terrorist attack in maritime history and fourth worst terrorist attack since 9-11.
Terrorists have found their sealegs, according to the report, due to the same seven factors, listed above, that pirates find so appealing.
Nevertheless, piracy and terrorism don't seem to be merging.
"The presumed convergence of maritime terrorism and piracy remains highly questionable," writes Peter Chalk, the study's author and a senior political scientist at RAND. "To date, there has been no evidence to support speculation about this nexus."
The study notes that pirates and terrorists have different motivations. Pirates seek financial gain from their activities, while terrorists, in the form of jihadists, want to inflict maximum economic damage against the maritime shipping industry in their continual war with the "West." The two's interests are therefore antithetical: pirates want to sustain sea trade, so they can profit off of it, while jihadists want to destroy it to hurt Western economies, says the study.
Fears still persist among governments, international organizations, and shipping interests that a nexus could develop between piracy and terrorism. Chalk says there have been "persistent, though unverified" reports of political extremists boarding vessels in Southeast Asia in an effort to train for a maritime attack comparable to 9-11.
But by paying too much attention to the threat of terrorism, says the RAND Corporation, the United States has ignored the threat of piracy "despite its proven cost in terms of human lives, political stability and economic disruption."
The report recommends the United States can make the world's oceans more safe by strengthening the maritime security initiatives created after 9-11; conduct regular threat assessments for better, more informed security collaboration; redefine existing multilateral security arrangements to shift attention to maritime security; and persuade private shipping interests to invest in defensive technologies.
While piracy and maritime terrorism cannot be completely defeated, Chalk writes, “we can rationally manage the threats within acceptable boundaries.”