Terrorism Goes to Sea

 The USS Cole is towed away from the port city of Aden, Yemen, into open sea on October 29, 2000. Department of Defense


Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, security experts have frequently invoked a 200-year-old model to guide leaders contending with the threat of Islamist terrorism: the war on piracy. In the first years of the nineteenth century, Mediterranean pirates, with the support of the Barbary states of northern Africa, would capture merchant ships and hold their crews for ransom. In response, the United States launched the Barbary wars, the first successful effort by the young republic to protect its citizens from a ruthless, unconventional enemy by fighting a protracted struggle overseas.

Such experts, however, fail to realize that the popular perception that the international community has eliminated sea piracy is far from true. Not only has piracy never been eradicated, but the number of pirate attacks on ships has also tripled in the past decade-putting piracy at its highest level in modern history. And contrary to the stereotype, today's pirates are often trained fighters aboard speedboats equipped with satellite phones and global positioning systems and armed with automatic weapons, antitank missiles, and grenades.

Most disturbingly, the scourges of piracy and terrorism are increasingly intertwined: piracy on the high seas is becoming a key tactic of terrorist groups. Unlike the pirates of old, whose sole objective was quick commercial gain, many of today's pirates are maritime terrorists with an ideological bent and a broad political agenda. This nexus of piracy and terrorism is especially dangerous for energy markets: most of the world's oil and gas is shipped through the world's most piracy-infested waters.


Water covers almost three-quarters of the globe and is home to roughly 50,000 large ships, which carry 80 percent of the world's traded cargo. The sea has always been an anarchic domain. Unlike land and air, it is barely policed, even today.

Since many shipping companies do not report incidents of piracy, for fear of raising their insurance premiums and prompting protracted, time-consuming investigations, the precise extent of piracy is unknown. But statistics from the International Maritime Bureau (

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