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Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
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Piracy versus Terrorism
By Cindy Vallar

In the predawn hours of March 2003, twelve masked men, dressed in black, boarded the Dewi Madrim.  They smashed the tanker’s bridge windows with automatic rifles while one pirate pressed a pistol to an officer’s head.  Captain Surahmat Johar said, “All of us were then gathered in one room.  They tied our hands tight behind our backs with a white, plastic wire--the kind that tightens even harder if you try to loosen it.”  Later he was taken to the bridge where one pirate steered the vessel.  “I realized that they were completely familiar with all the equipment.  Someone was expertly steering the vessel, reading the radar very well.  I remember thinking: ‘My God, he can handle the ship better than I can.’  I’d thought pirates were just a bunch of petty robbers who jumped onto a ship, robbed the crew, then disappeared.  But these pirates were totally beyond my imagination.  They were professionals.”1 Tony Tan, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister, said of the attack, “The Dewi Madrim pirates had fast boats, VHF radios, machine guns.  They disabled the ship’s radio, took over the helm, and steered the ship for an hour before their escape.”2  Tan believes the attack “was a dry run for a terrorist attack.”3

But are pirates terrorists?  A gut reaction would be yes, but few things in life are that simple.  On 22 January 1961, Captain Henrique Carlos Malta Galvao, of the Portuguese navy, and twenty-five others hijacked the Santa Maria soon after she left Curaçao.  The cruise ship’s Third Mate, Nascimiento Costa, was killed in the attack, and six hundred passengers plus the crew became hostages.  “My grandmother was…aboard the liner and I remember her telling the tales of what happened….  How all of the passengers were held at gunpoint in the ships[sic] dining hall…”4  Although labeled “the first piracy act in modern time,”5 the hijackers were deemed not to be pirates because they seized the Santa Maria to force the ousting of Antonio de Salazar and his repressive dictatorship that had ruled Portugal for thirty-nine years.

The primary motive behind a piracy attack is financial, rather than political.  This is the main distinction between pirates and terrorists.  Pirates do what they do for private gain.  “Terrorists have political motivations that are fuelled by ideology, ethno-nationalist demands, or religious fundamentalism….”6  Another difference between these two criminals is that pirates prefer to remain anonymous.  They want to make a profit, and to do so, it is better to avoid the spotlight and not leave behind traces of their crime.  Terrorists, however, want the media’s attention.  What better way to promote their cause?

Just as there are differences, there are also similarities. Pirates and terrorists employ violence or the threat of violence to intimidate their victims into complying with their demands.  Long ago when one ship met another at sea, it was common to ask each other’s country of origin.  Pirates answered “the sea,” for they gave no allegiance to any country.  They had declared war on the world, just as terrorists do today.  Like terrorists, pirates are small groups of people who live outside the protection and jurisdiction of a country.  Both hide in remote places where discovery and infiltration are difficult.

The two entities are not treated equally under the law, though.  The UNCLOS and the Geneva Convention on the High Seas preclude acts of terrorism as piracy because those acts are carried out for political ends.  If terrorists carry out an attack on the high seas, no laws or nations have jurisdiction over the crime.  If the act occurs within territorial waters, it is considered maritime violence rather than piracy, and as such how the nation deals with enforcement of its laws lies totally within that country’s discretion.

A particular concern of officials is that terrorists could hire pirates to steal a ship for them.  As Singapore’s national security czar, Tony Tan noticed something new after a piracy attack during the second quarter of 2005 in the Malacca Straits.  “In previous years when you had a pirate attack, what it meant is that you have a sampan or a boat coming up to a cargo ship, pirates throwing up some ropes, scrambling on board, ransacking the ship for valuables, stealing money and then running away.  But the last piracy attack that took place in the Straits of Malacca showed a different pattern.  [The pirates] conducted the operation almost with military precision.  Instead of just ransacking the ship for valuables, they took command of the ship, and steered the ship for about an hour, and then eventually left with the captain in their captivity.  To all of us, this is reminiscent of the pattern by which terrorists mount an attack.”7

This possibility elicits one worrisome scenario because of where it occurred.  Passage through the Malacca Straits involves a five-hundred-mile voyage along narrow shipping lanes between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.  One-fourth of world trade and fifty percent of all oil passes through this critical waterway aboard two hundred ships a day.  A Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC), slightly longer than three football fields, carries two million barrels of crude oil, which when refined is about what all the cars and SUVs in America consume in one day.  “Armed pirates at night scamper up the sides, creep aboard, take over the ship, tie up the crew; the VLCC will steam out of control down the narrow, heavily trafficked channel and collide with another ship or break up on the rocks, closing this vital commercial conduit and creating an economic and environmental catastrophe of global proportions.”8  Now suppose that instead of a VLCC, pirates hijack a tanker carrying six hundred tons of liquefied natural gas and turn it over to terrorists.  They turn it into a floating bomb and sail it into the port of Singapore.  The explosion “would cause a fireball with a diameter of 1,200 meters, destroying almost everything within this range and causing a large number of fatalities and casualties well beyond it.”9  Costs due to the closure of this port “could easily exceed US$200 billion per year.”10

In reality could this happen?  In October 2000, terrorists pulled alongside the USS Cole while it was refueling in Aden, Yemen.  They detonated a bomb that ripped a hole forty feet by forty feet in the destroyer and killed seventeen Americans and injured forty-two.  Two years later a small boat struck a French supertanker and exploded.  The ship caught fire, oil spilled, and one sailor died.  In August 2004, Admiral Sir Alan West, First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff for the United Kingdom, warned that Al Qa’eda and other terrorists had plans to attack merchant ships.11  The Naval Intelligence Agency in Indonesia concurred.  Members of Jemaah Islamiah, a terrorist group linked to Al Qa’eda, had told them that ships navigating the Malacca Straits were possible targets.12  “The discovery of plans detailing vulnerabilities in US naval fleets on Al Qa’eda-linked terrorist suspect Babar Ahmad also puts a shadow of doubt that terrorist groups have been looking at the maritime domain as a possible mode of attack.”13


1. Simon Elegant. “Dire Straits,” Time Asia (29 November 2004).
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. From e-mail correspondence and resource materials exchanged with George Bitsoli, a Lance Corporal in Third Platoon G Company of the U.S. Marine Corps that was aboard the USS Gearing, the first vessel to make contact with the hijackers and that served as the “Flag Ship” for naval forces in the area.
5. Ibid.
6. Joshua Ho. “The Security of Sea Lanes in Southeast Asia,” Military Technology (May 2005), 15.
7. “Global insecurity: private navies combat Malacca Strait pirates,” WorldNetDaily (31 July 2005).
8. John S. Burnett. Dangerous Waters: Modern Piracy and Terror on the High Seas.  Dutton, 2002, 12.
9. Ho, 16.
10. Ibid., 15.
11. Ibid., 16.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid.

Comprehensive list of sources on modern piracy

© 2005 Cindy Vallar
Originally written for No Quarter Given  -  November 2005

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