How Lessons From Fighting Pirates Could Improve the Battle Against al Qaeda

Somali pirates don't consider themselves terrorists, but they share key similarities.


Before the motley bands of rifle-wielding toughs off the coast of Somalia accelerated their attacks on cargo ships in one of the world's busiest sea lanes, it was hard for some people to talk seriously about pirates. In fact, a number of reports on the most recent pirate attacks still include a reference to Johnny Depp.

But as the Somali marauders prove, modern-day piracy is far from the supposedly romantic business that inspired Daniel Defoe, not to mention innumerable Halloween costumes.

In fact, historians and legal experts suggest, the centuries-old fight against piracy could go a long way toward improving the fight against terrorism. There are many lessons in Britain's 18th century war on piracy that could apply to combating terrorists, they say, much as antipiracy treaties can be instructive for those seeking to send Guantánamo Bay detainees either home or to the hangman.

Of course, the Somalis don't consider themselves terrorists. According to interviews, the marauders don't consider themselves pirates, either. "Think of us like a coast guard," one told the New York Times.

Somali objections aside, the definition of piracy is widely agreed upon. Not so the definition of terrorism, despite recent efforts to codify it with greater precision in international law.

In a legal sense, says Douglas Burgess, a historian and legal scholar, there are "startling, even astonishing, parallels" between piracy and al Qaeda-style international terrorism.

"Pirates were the first historical precedent for the terrorist cell," he says. "That is, a group of men who bound themselves in extraterritorial enclaves, removed themselves from the nation-state, and declared war on civilization."

There are several other parallels. Both flourish beyond the reach of modern states and the rule of law, be it in Somalia, which hasn't had a functioning central government since 1991, the tribal regions of Afghanistan, or the Caribbean pirate states, far beyond colonial control.

The Bush administration famously christened stateless terrorists "unlawful enemy combatants" who threaten world civilization. But it was Cicero who said that "a pirate is not included in the number of lawful enemies, but [is] the enemy of the entire world."

Pirates and terrorists, past or present, have both enjoyed some type of state sponsors. One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, goes the saying. From the Arab fighters who opposed the Soviets and later evolved into al Qaeda to the privateers who became the de facto Confederate navy, nonstate actors frequently enjoy the backing of nations.

Both also leverage fear. Pirates hyped their reputations to inspire capitulation so that less blood had to be spilled during actual combat. If the target ship did put up a fight, pirate captains frequently kept a single crew member alive to tell the story and build their legends. From the scores of headless bodies arranged in Iraqi traffic circles by Al Qaeda in Iraq to bus bombings in Israel and the repeated warnings of doom from Osama bin Laden, modern terrorists also understand that fear can be one of the most potent tools in their arsenal.

There are also some interesting parallels—and contrasts—between the Bush administration's "global war on terrorism" and the British crown's war on piracy that started in 1717, says Virginia Lunsford, a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy who specializes in the history of piracy.

The British had a five-pronged strategy that, in a few decades, effectively eliminated the worldwide pirate threat, Lunsford says. The crown issued a pardon to all pirates who gave up the Jolly Roger and increased governance over Britain's far-flung colonies to restrict pirate safe havens. The British made sure other countries didn't harbor pirates and increased naval operations to fight them on the high seas. Finally, the British conducted mass arrests, trials, and executions to destroy not only the leadership of pirate bands but also any solidarity felt among pirate crews.

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