Pacific Maritime Magazine - Marine Business for the Operations Sector

Piracy & Maritime Terrorism: A 35 Year Retrospective


Captain Graham began giving weekend seminars for the California Maritime Academy’s Continuing Education Department to those interested in the maritime matters in 1975, while on leave from the Navy to attend law school. The most popular topic over each sixteen-hour session on everything encompassed by international maritime law was “piracy”.

Over the intervening 35-plus years, the pertinent law has evolved in some respects and changed not at all in others. What follows is the second part of Captain Graham’s own legal “take”, his own opinions, his own view of this precinct of the maritime world. The previous chapters of this series can be found on the web at

To introduce the topic of the law relating to maritime terrorism, I have been reading the following passage to audiences from Outlaws of the Ocean by G.O.W. Mueller and Freda Adler since discovering it in 1985:

“The pirates of old were terrorists. Not only did they seize ships and all persons and property aboard, not only did they murder, rob, and rape, but they also did so by creating fear and panic among their intended victims and seafarers everywhere. When a pirate ship approached a merchant vessel, the dreaded skull and crossbones, the Jolly Roger, or similar flags were flown from the mainmast. All the pirates were topside, dressed in fear-inspiring, grotesque outfits. They would make a deafening noise, with drums, trumpets, the rattling of chains, cutlasses and sabers, firing guns and pistols, emitting fierce battle cries. When the victims were frightened, the battle and plunder were half won.”

This memorable passage is insightful in making the connection between piracy and maritime terrorism and supports the conclusions made hereafter in this article. As a poignant footnote, it should be recalled that “black” remains the fashion color of choice for those in the trade of terrorism, having similarly been used with great effect by “The pirates of old…” The various designs of the black Jolly Roger flags used by notorious pirate captains more often than not portrayed the stock in trade deadline, demand, or ultimatum shown as the allegorical hourglass juxtaposed with a skull or severed body parts.

Until recently, the criminal codes of most countries did not even address terrorism, much less maritime terrorism. Students of history will remember there was a time toward the mid-19th Century when individuals who claimed allegiance to no nation and wanted to disrupt modern civilization went around the globe and, as anarchists, threw bombs and committed assassinations. Bombings of facilities and railroads became rather commonplace, but the result was domestic legislation against disruption of railroads, etc., and no unified international response.

A working legal definition of terrorism was slow to mature. The WWI Era had produced, “Terrorism is viewed as stateless crime directed against all [nation-] states.” When the League of Nations drafted its Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Terror in 1937, only one nation ultimately adopted it and its definition of “criminal acts against a state and intended or calculated to create a state of terror in the minds of particular persons or the general public.”

Terrorism instead became the precinct of writers of fiction and thrillers with movie plots occasionally staged in the maritime domain. INTERPOL, the International Chief of Police Organization, assumed a modest law enforcement role by promoting a number of bilateral agreements for the exchange of intelligence and technical assistance against terrorists, but, on balance, the world community just didn’t think much about terrorism or maritime terrorism other than the occasional airplane hijacking.

In my graduate seminars and undergrad international maritime law classes, I felt obligated to present the concept of maritime terrorism following any discussion of piracy. It was somewhat of a “John the Baptist, voice crying in the wilderness” message that the potential loomed for an over the horizon maritime threat. To relate the threat in more familiar terms, I read the working premise of an educational film making the college rounds, “If You Were The President”:

“Dawn – somewhere in the North Atlantic. Terrorists hijack an oil tanker with 30 crewmen aboard…loaded with enough dynamite to destroy the ship. The tanker moves slowly into New York Harbor and drops anchor off the tip of Manhattan. The terrorists threaten to kill their hostages, dump the oil, and blow up the tanker and half of lower Manhattan unless their demands are met.”

To enhance the message, I also conjured up three maritime terrorist scenarios for consideration. (I thought they were all products of my imagination until a well-read undergrad advised me that one was the plot of an Alastair McClain novel). The potential for much mischief in the maritime world would follow from any of my three simplistic examples:

1. Sabotage of a connecting pipeline from a deep-water roadstead to the on-shore terminal. The result? Mass media coverage; minimal risk; potentially devastating environmental consequences; and collateral punishment of a multi-national corporation.

2. Threatening to blow up an offshore occupied platform unless some political accommodation was made or a monetary extortion was successfully effected. Loss of life coupled with a potential $2 billion dollar structure at risk were negotiating chips for terrorists who didn’t even need to be near the site to advance a real threat.

3. Without warning a near shore maritime target is totally destroyed. Terrorists claim credit after the fact and threaten a similar fate for maritime targets in the area. A paralyzing fear results among the local maritime industry workforce, who foreseeably does not choose to suffer indiscriminate injury and simply do not report to the waterfront, effectively closing an important port.

Following the twin truck bombing of US Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon (1981-1983), the military legal community received anti-terrorism training and was expected to provide guidance to military commanders. The terrorism threat was considered entirely land-based with the only maritime scenario being an ultra-light as a vehicle for deploying a tactical nuclear weapon in the direction of a super-carrier off the coast of a Middle Eastern nation. As this didn’t occur, the threat didn’t seem real. Military maritime targets were, in fact, being victimized at the time, but again they were large, slow-moving military cargo hulls in the Straits of Malacca and the legal premise involved was asserted to be piracy and not maritime terrorism. At that time, the marine environment was otherwise generally thought to be a terrorist-free zone.

In August, 1984, the world witnessed the first “modern” instance of maritime terrorism when the Red Sea was mined indiscriminately and no nation took credit. The mines were at first thought to have been released by an Egyptian submarine, which was then amended to an Iranian submarine, and then perhaps credited to those who simply meant harm to patrolling US warships or multi-national tanker traffic. Gestures in shipboard security for bombs aboard vessels or other waterborne threats appeared in the operating manuals of commercial carriers thereafter, but piracy was still deemed the primary threat and definitely the maritime crime that captured the imagination of the general public.

Then came the hijacking of the Achille Lauro in September 1985 with the shameless killing of a wheelchair-bound American citizen. This maritime outrage hit the United States exactly where it wasn’t expected, and the Country responded with legal predictability…Congress passed a law (prompting one critic to assert, “If the terrorists don’t get you, the lawyers will.”) The International Maritime & Port Security Act, P.L. 99-399 of August 27, 1986 re-designated the most over-worked, over-tasked federal law enforcement agency, the Coast Guard, to accommodate its several front taskings. These also included updating some WWII Era authority about the Coast Guard’s Domestic Port Facility Safety Program and re-discovering the McCarthy Era’s Magnuson Act of 1950, which authorized the President to take necessary measures to safeguard vessels, harbors, ports, and waterfront facilities in the US against destruction, loss, injury, sabotage, or subversive acts. To the credit of the Coast Guard, they met the Congressional mandate using the model of the Captain of the Port (COTP) and Port Readiness Committees to involve other public agencies and stakeholders. However, the spike in maritime threat consciousness from the Achille Lauro event faded over time. Even the Navy’s 24/7 Anti-Terrorist Alert Center in Washington set up in the aftermath of the hijacking quit answering the phone.

Operations Desert Shield and Storm did not re-introduce the terror from the sea threat. (As I was in the process of being recalled, I received a telephone request to help with a Fortune magazine article not on maritime terrorism, but on the impact of piracy worldwide. It was so popularly received that the article was reprinted in 11 different languages by Reader’s Digest.) Public and commercial mariners received trendy theoretical training in C3 (Command, Control, Communication networks); contingency planning; and preparedness training through prevention, planning, and punishment. However, it was well understood that the criminal justice system of the coastal nations where most acts might occur wouldn’t even deal with a terrorist incident.

Next month I’ll talk about how nations address maritime terrorism with treaties and legal code.


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