Saturday, August 18, 2007

Realistic assessment of the current state of piracy

Some analysis in a new book, reviewed here:
Martin Murphy’s short work Contemporary Piracy and Maritime Terrorism: the Threat to International Security works well as a summary of the latest developments and the state of expert opinion on these issues, based on both academic and media sources. Piracy, he maintains, is essentially a localised problem.

It’s a nasty headache where it occurs, but its real effects on world trade and the movement of people are negligible.

Truth be told, losses are so low that there is little incentive for the shipping industries even to make a serious collective effort to tackle it. So long as there are littoral states where lawlessness prevails, there will be piracy.

Nor is maritime terrorism a major threat, with occurrences few and far between. This is probably because it is not nearly so attractive to militants and militias as is widely supposed. Murphy reels off a list of why this should be so.

Terrorists could get more bang for the buck (quite literally) in attacking oil and gas terminals or refineries than by turning their attentions to tankers. Cruiseships, with many internal structural subdivisions, are quite hard to sink. Liquefied natural gas is actually difficult to ignite, while the terrorist potential of liquefied petroleum gas is limited by the small quantities in which it is carried.

As for the Tom Clancy-style nuke-in-a-shipping-container scenario, Murphy argues that boxes are “frequently misplaced, stolen, delayed, dropped, broken open, left out in the sun, drenched with seawater, lost overboard and set on fire”.

Possession of a working nuclear device would be a high prize for a non-state actor. Would they really want to commit it to the tender mercies of contemporary containershipping?

In short, Murphy’s outlook is that it is essential to get both brands of violence at sea in perspective.

That perspective should be a broader problem that Murphy dubs “maritime disorder”, best tackled by that combination of surveillance of activities at sea and intelligence-gathering, as brought together in the concept of Maritime Domain Awareness developed by the US Coast Guard.

This can be regarded as an insurance policy for the future. As the author points out, circumstances can change. It isnecessary to be prepared for situations in which the problem becomes more acute.

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