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Building a curative response to sea banditry

by Mark Valencia and Nazery Khalid

KUALA LUMPUR — Although the conditions for piracy and terrorism to thrive are similar, their objectives are different. The motivation for piracy is old-fashioned greed while terrorists are predominantly driven by political and religious ideology. Moreover, pirates usually want to grab their booty and disappear; terrorists want as much publicity for their acts as possible.

Conflation of the two groups results from the common political and economic circumstances under which both piracy and terrorism tend to thrive. Since the war on terror began, there has been a noticeable tendency to lump criminals and political/religious extremists at the source and in the solution.

However, there is no credible evidence thus far to support speculation of a nexus emerging between pirates and terrorists. In fact, the two groups may view each other as a problem because each stimulates increased surveillance and enforcement against the other. Prescribing the same remedy for what are essentially two distinctly separate phenomena is not helpful in blunting the threat.

Not long after 9/11, the United States seemed to suggest that it would patrol the Malacca Strait with its own vessels if, in its opinion, littoral states were not capable of securing shipping traffic from their threat of piracy. Had this been carried out, it could have opened a new front for violence in the region, worsening the security situation in the area.

Far from ridding the crucial waterway of the scourge of piracy, the presence of foreign warships in the area could well have served as a lightning rod for terror groups eager to attack Western forces. Such a proposal — long on controversy but short on wisdom — would have provided a catalyst for terrorism.

It is time that the discourse on and response to piracy and terrorism be undertaken in a more nuanced manner liberated from the post-9/11 maritime security framework. By insisting on lumping the two together, policymakers could be misled into recklessly wielding a wand of solutions in the mistaken belief that a generic approach would be sufficient to combat their threats.

What is urgently required to neutralize the threats of piracy and terrorism go beyond a “smoke ‘em out of their caves” solution. To attack the problem of piracy at its root, there should be more concerted efforts at assisting nation- and capacity-building.

Piracy is largely driven by political disorder and poor socio-economic conditions. By addressing these issues, one of the major causes of piracy can be mitigated. Although organized crime syndicates responsible for major ship hijackings may not be curtailed by economic development alone because of the potentially lucrative returns, promoting nation-building efforts and assisting the development of a coast guard and internal security apparatus may significantly undermine the syndicates.

The sharp increase in pirate attacks on merchant ships and hostage-taking in the Gulf of Aden is a growing cause for concern. The increasing boldness of pirates operating in this waterway — one of the world’s most renowned maritime chokepoints through which much of its oil supply passes — is worrying.

Pirates have gone beyond taking hostages, cargo and vessels for ransom, and have gone further out to sea and hijacked even larger ships not usually known to be prime targets. The Nov. 16 hijacking of Sirius Star, a Saudi-owned supertanker, shocked many because of the operational nous of the Somali pirates who pulled it off.

Questions are now being asked if there could well be a possibility of pirates operating off the coast of Somalia, described as a failed state, doing the bidding for terrorists known to operate inland. The shambolic socio-economic and political conditions in the country provide the kind of environment conducive to dissident groups’ seeking haven and to the foment of terrorism. The toothless response of the international community to recent spate of incidents — despite the presence of coalition forces and the occasional intervention by some nation’s navy — emboldens the pirates as they roam the Gulf of Aden.

While pirates and terrorists, as stressed earlier, have different motives and ways of operating, the probability of terrorists operating in Somalia and carrying out hijackings to raise funds for the operations should not be dismissed. The hijacking of the Saudi supertanker raises the specter of demands for astounding sums of money, surpassing what have been seen before.

One can only shudder at the horrendous prospect of the hijackers — be they terrorists or pirates — killing all the crew members and discharging 2 million barrels of crude into the sea if their demands are not met.

The possibility of collusion between terrorists and pirates in a place like Somalia may well pose a genuine challenge to the earlier hypothesis that the two groups operate in parallel. Both groups thrive in the area thanks to a convergence of many factors including the absence of law and order and of a resolute response from the international community.

Urgent, decisive action is needed on a broad-based scale involving a mandate from the United Nations to allow coalition forces and navies to take the pirates head on. However, to just “send in the marines” to tackle the growing menace of piracy is to treat only the symptoms of the scourge. Even when a pirates’ lair is stormed, there is no guarantee that attacks will not recur.

Unless efforts are made to restore a modicum of stability in Somalia and to get its socio-political order back on track, there is little chance that the activities of bandits at sea will cease and we won’t be able to dismiss the possibility of a linkage between them and terrorist groups.

Policymakers and security agencies confronted with the challenge of piracy and terrorism should acknowledge the fact that while it is necessary to treat the symptoms, prevention is still better than cure.

Without a thorough understanding of the complexity and wide dimensions of the two threats and the multiplicity of factors involved, the response thereto will just be corrective rather than curative in nature. As the saying goes, when the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems look like nails.

Mark Valencia is a consultant at the Maritime Institute of Malaysia. Nazery Khalid is a senior research fellow at the Maritime Institute of Malaysia. © 2008 OpinionAsia (www.opinionasia.org)