December 1, 2009

Pirates, smugglers and terrorists

Martin Murphy’s Small Boats, Weak States, Dirty Money: Piracy and Maritime Terrorism in the Modern World (Columbia/Hurst) is a detailed and exhaustive investigation of piracy, smuggling, maritime robbery, and maritime terrorism. Although he delves into some historical aspects of piracy, his central focus is the development of modern piracy, and the use of maritime terror by modern terrorist organisations.

Dr Murphy investigates the legal and definitional problems of piracy in some detail. He locates the rise of modern piracy in decolonisation, and in the development of modern maritime law. With the collapse of the great European empires, successor states acquired legal responsibility for the maintenance of order within their territorial waters. Unfortunately, these successor states often lacked either the capacity or wherewithal to control criminal maritime activity. At the same time, the need to express and reinforce sovereignty limited the degree to which colonial successor states could request or accept assistance from major states. Accordingly, Dr Murphy argues that maritime piracy tends to increase as the interest and capability of local states (and local sub-state actors) to police their areas decreases. Maritime piracy in Southeast Asia, for example, declined after Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore began to pay attention and devote resources to the problem.

Poverty certainly creates opportunities for recruitment of pirates, but poverty alone cannot create piracy; lack of state authority enables the success of pirate organisations. Moreover, successful piracy creates a negative feedback loop by empowering criminal organisations and separatist groups.

Dr Murphy’s analysis of the social and organisational networks that pirates and maritime terrorists occupy is sophisticated, well argued, and readable. He argues that piracy is, because of some definitional issues, probably more widespread than most analysts acknowledge. Robbery in port, for example, does not count in piracy statistics, even though it makes up a substantial percentage of all criminal maritime activity. Similarly, distinctions between “public” and “private” purposes, which has traditionally been the manner in which piracy has been distinguished from war or terrorism, often serve to obscure the extent and scope of piracy.

The chapters on terrorism detail the long history of terrorist attacks in the maritime arena. The author has little patience for formulations of the maritime terrorism question that treat such terrorism as an unrealised potential; terrorists have used the maritime arena for years, and have done so effectively. Speculation about what terrorists might do is less useful, in Dr Murphy’s account, than analysis of what they have done thus far. Like piracy, maritime terrorism is an essentially local phenomenon, usually performed by local actors with local grievances. The Tamil Tigers remain the prototypical maritime terrorist groups, but various other terrorist organisations have resorted to the maritime arena. These campaigns have often lacked the flash associated with other terrorist campaigns (major events such as the seizure of the Achille Lauro and the bombing of the USS Cole excepted) but have nevertheless been as effective as any other terrorist campaign.

Dr Murphy’s conclusion regarding piracy is that it represents an irritant to international trade, but is also a genuine threat to the stability of the states and regions that it afflicts. Piracy helps maintain criminal syndicates and other illicit actors that undermine state authority, and which can limit the development and effectiveness of domestic institutions. Similarly, he is sceptical of some of the more alarmist warnings about maritime terrorism and details why certain maritime terrorist scenarios discussed in the media are practically implausible. Nevertheless, the book is not reassuring regarding the threat of maritime terrorism; terrorist use the maritime arena regularly, and will continue to do so in the future.

This is the best one volume discussion of illicit activity in the modern maritime arena. It is an exceedingly helpful corrective to the conceptions of piracy and maritime terrorism that occupy the public conversation. Dr Murphy’s account is too complex and detailed to summarise in this relatively short review; many of the arguments that he makes bear additional analysis and discussion. Most who have any interest in piracy and illicit maritime affairs will find something of use in the book. Academics will be pleased by the organisational and anthropological analysis, while policymakers and policy executors will find the detailed accounts of piracy, smuggling, and terrorism extremely useful.

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