Counter-insurgency and counter-piracy

Can counter-insurgency combat piracy?

Counter-insurgency and counter-piracy: a strategic connection?

As the phenomenon of piracy is usually dependent on the existence of sanctuaries in failed (or failing) states, counter-insurgency can represent an effective way to confront it. Insurgencies and piracy represent two distinct security issues, but a combined approach can be part of the solution to both.

While the insurgency-terrorism nexus has been thoroughly explored in the last years, the relationship of piracy with these two phenomena is still not well understood. A direct link between transnational terrorist networks and piracy hotbeds has been highlighted earlier this year on this very website by Niklas Anzinger. He quotes Al-Qaeda’s ideologue Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, who identified the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal, Bab al-Mandib and the Gibraltar Strait as targets for an offensive maritime strategy which comprises piracy[1]. However, despite these plans, Al-Qaeda’s maritime strategy so far has consisted of a very limited number of attacks to foreign oil tankers and warships, the most famous being the bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in Aden on June 2000. The failure to build a solid connection between Al-Qaeda’s franchises and local pirate groups can be explained with Al-Qaeda’s (and, for this matter, any other terrorist group’s) unwillingness to align itself with individuals who openly engage in criminal activity. In their battle for the population’s allegiance, persuasion is as important as coercion.

Thus, terrorist and insurgent groups tend to distance themselves from pirates. These, in turn, are arguably motivated by material gains alone, and thus are more interested in perpetuating the state of things that allows their illicit business to flourish. Despite the claim of moral superiority, some analyst considered the two categories to be “remarkably similar”, in that both are made up of “young, unemployed and highly impressionable” members[2]. However, the motives of the two groups are not only different – they are conflicting.

Indeed, insurgency and piracy feed each other in a vicious circle. The conditions that help in igniting an insurgency – corruption, disruption of the local economy, and, above all, lack of societal security – are fostered by the very existence of parasitical pirate groups[3]. Collusion between piracy and terrorism would allow extremist groups to overcome practical constraints in carrying out offensive operations in maritime areas. This could be done either by merging the two entities or by establishing a division of labour where pirates are tasked with the execution of terrorist activities at sea. Yet, there is no record of such a collaboration[4]. As stated above, this is probably due to the friction in the objectives and values of the two groups. Nonetheless, piracy thrives in so-called “uncontrolled spaces”, and the solution to piracy may lie on land[5]. So, while formal affiliation of pirates to insurgent groups is unlikely, counterinsurgency can represent a valid method to tackle piracy.

In fact, pirate gangs share structural characteristics with insurgencies. They do not represent an alternative to state control – on the contrary, they scavenge the carcass of failing states. However, like insurgencies, they rely on the existence of safe havens. Denying sanctuary to these criminal groups is paramount and, especially in some theatres, could prove to be extremely effective[6]. A report by the RAND Corporation on the influence of maritime components on irregular warfare concluded that counter-piracy measures are needed in order to contrast insurgencies that take advantage of their area of operations’ geographical proximity to the sea[7]. The reverse is true as well. Population control represents the basis for any measure aimed at targeting the actions of pirate gangs that are otherwise elusive. The existence of ungoverned areas is the sine qua non condition for both insurgencies and criminal syndicates. While the first exploit grievances to advance their political aims, the second group – to which pirate bands belong – profits from the absence of the rule of law. The actions of both these groups can be considerably weakened by the enforcement of state control over the economy. This cannot be done without a direct involvement of state policing in the contrast to piracy. On this point, it should be noted that the hurdles deriving from the employment of private security contractors to protect against piracy currently outweigh the advantages of such an approach[8].

Restoring the rule of law is required in order to address the root causes of piracy rather than its symptoms. Currently, the intervention of Foreign Navies in incidents related to piracy is particularly problematic. The effectiveness of initiatives like NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield is undisputable, but constraints on the offensive actions of counterpiracy forces persist. This was recently highlighted by ECHR’s decision to sanction the French Navy for the detention of a group of Somali pirates after they hijacked two French yachts in 2008[9]. The involvement of ground forces is extremely unlikely in the current state of things. Unity of command and unity of action are difficult to achieve without a coherent and comprehensive strategy that goes beyond the patrolling of sea routes.

Meeting the conditions stated above would set counterpiracy as the tactical component of an overarching counter-insurgency strategy. This approach has the potential to eradicate – rather than just mitigate – the presence of pirates in areas outside of state control. Considering the presence of pirates as part of a wider issue can help in devising the strategies that are best fit to counter it.

Giorgio Bertolin holds a B.A. in Middle Eastern Studies and an M.Sc. in International Security. He joined CIMSEC in October 2014. He is currently studying for a PhD at King’s College London, Defence Studies Department. His main fields of interests are counterinsurgency and organisational culture.

[1] Anzinger, N. (2014) Jihad at Sea: Al-Qaeda’s Maritime Front in Yemen, available online at

[2] National Public Radio (2009) Experts Fear Al-Qaida may return to Piracy, Combatng Terrorism Center at West Point, available online at

[3] Chalk, P. (2008) Piracy and Terrorism at Sea: A Rising Challenge for U.S. Security, RAND Corporation

[4] Chalk, P. (2008) The Maritime Dimension of International Security, RAND Corporation

[5] Bellamy, C. (2012) Maritime Piracy: Return of the World’s Second Oldest Security Problem, The RUSI Journal 156 (6)

[6] Donald, D. (2012) Sanctuary, Shipowners and Paying Ransoms: Refocusing Counter-Piracy Policy in an Era of Austerity, The RUSI Journal 156 (6)

[7] Dunigan, M. et al. (2012) Characterizing and Exploring the Implications of Maritime Irregular Warfare, RAND Corporation

[8] Chalk, P. Et al. (2009) Countering Piracy in the Modern Era: Notes from a RAND Workshop to Discuss the Best Approaches for Dealing with Piracy in the 21st Century, RAND Corporation

[9] The Maritime Executive (2014) IMB Concerned Over Decision to Compensate Pirates, The Maritime Executive 24/12/2014, available online at

Re-used with the kind permission of


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