Introduction to Maritime Piracy, Terrorism and Law

Mihir Govande

Student Editor - Vivek Sharma | Junior Editor - Vaibhav Chitlangia | Senior Editor - Rajnandini Muduli

Maritime law, also known as admiralty law, is a body of laws, Conventions, and Treaties that govern private maritime business and other nautical matters, such as shipping and offenses occurring on open water. International rules for the use of the oceans and seas are known as the Law of the Sea.[i] This article aims at understanding how terrorism and piracy haunt the seas, focusing on civil liabilities arising out of such acts. It would further aim at examining legal stances of countries like USA and India. This article inclines more towards getting readers acquainted with the problems rather than the solutions. However, the problem does have a solution, an ever-evolving solution, which will be done warranting justice in following article.


Maritime terrorism is a relatively new field. The occurrences of terrorist acts in the sea and other water bodies have been sparse. A research conducted by RAND Center for Terrorism Risk Management Policy (CTRMP) in 2003 found that seaborne strikes had constituted only 2 percent of all international incidents over the last 30 years (approximately from 1973 to 2003)[ii]. However, owing to the sheer advantage that the seas offer, it has become a critical field of study and interest amongst academicians, military experts, governments, diplomats and defence intelligentsia. With a sea cover of more than 130 million square miles, maritime terrorism and piracy has been an ever-evolving activity.

One more advantage that the seas offer terrorist interests is the complex web of jurisdictions that governs the seas. Although theoretically the nautical boundaries of sovereign jurisdictions are well defined, the same precision and clarity is seen lacking in practice. Exact maritime boundaries are neither known nor acknowledged as the confluence of such boundaries, especially amongst hostile nations, poses a tricky problem. Nations are usually wary of flirting with exactness of the boundaries in practice. This coupled with dynamism in international relations, a still developing (and at places underdeveloped) understanding of International Laws, and disputed water regions have further added to the vulnerability of the seas. These practical shortcomings have somewhat tended to the growing confidence amongst the terrorist forces towards this upcoming avenue for their interests.

The most prominent reasons for traditional avoidance of seas by terrorist is the non-alignment of the terrorist capabilities, interests and methods with the kind of role that the sea plays in the human world.

Operating at sea requires terrorists to have mariner skills, access to appropriate assault and transport vehicles, ability to mount and sustain operations from a non–land-based environment, and familiarity with certain specialist capabilities (for example, surface and under-water demolition techniques).[iii]Limited resources have traditionally precluded such options being available to most of the groups. The inherently conservative nature of terrorists in terms of their chosen attack modalities compounds the constraints imposed by limited opportunities and the lack of technical skills.

Mainly because groups are constrained by ceilings in operational finance and skill sets, most deliberately choose to follow the course of least resistance— adhering to tried and tested methods that are known to work, which offer a reasonably high chance of success, and whose consequences can be relatively easily predicted. Stated more directly, in a world of finite human and material assets, the costs and unpredictability associated with expanding to the maritime realm have typically trumped any potential benefit to the terrorists that might have been garnered from initiating such a change in operational direction.[iv]

There is seen to be a growth in awareness regarding the precariousness of this case. International community has been seen taking cognizance of the general vulnerability of global shipping as a result of largely unguarded, un-policed nature of the high seas, the inability of governments owing to lack of resources (and at times willingness) to counter the terrorist activity in the seas.

As Rupert Herbert-Burns observes[v]:

The combination of the enormous scope, variety and “room for maneuver” offered by the physical and geographical realities of the [earth’s] maritime environment . . . presents a sobering and uncomfortable reality . . . What compounds this reality further is that the commercial milieu that simultaneously affords . . . the ability to deploy, finance operations, tactical concealment, logistical fluidity and wealth of targets of opportunity—the commercial maritime industry—is itself numerically vast, complex, deliberately opaque and in a perpetual state of flux.

Civil Liability and Marine terrorism

The sea has always been crucial for the global trade and has served as medium for world trade since time immemorial. Though violence against seafarers has also existed since ages, terrorists have recently been taking notice of the same. One of the critical challenges before the law is determining the civil and criminal liability after such acts of violence. Non-uniformity of maritime laws across nations and lack of stringent international regimes are also contributing factors to these challenges.

Lawsuits filed by victims against terrorist perpetrators can be difficult to pursue, particularly when perpetrators deliberately kill themselves to perpetrate an attack, or when perpetrators are international fugitives who are impossible to locate or to investigate.[vi]

In case of ascertaining liabilities of the parties involved the following flowchart may be helpful.[vii]

* Negligence-based theories of liability typically require that defendants take reasonable care against foreseeable harms, within the scope of their duties of care.

** To the extent that commercial interests now recognize the existence of broad terrorist threats, default rules and contractual terms can be written to address and apportion those risks.


The US Scenario:

As a threshold matter, some terrorist attacks on passenger and containerized shipping fall entirely outside the jurisdictional bounds of the U.S. legal authority and are unlikely to be subject to the U.S. civil liability rules. An obvious example might be a terrorist attack on a foreign passenger vessel (e.g., a ferry), occurring in the internal waters of a foreign state (e.g., an inland waterway), and without any involvement of any U.S. national as passengers or crew. In general, a terrorist attack that has no connection to the United States whatsoever would not be subject to the U.S. laws or jurisdiction. It would instead be addressed through the legal rules and authority of the sovereign State in which the attack takes place.

The answer to ‘where the civil liability lies’ draws partly on international treaties and common law doctrines concerning jurisdiction on the high seas generally and, in particular, in relation to the acts of piracy and terrorism. The general rule regarding police and judicial jurisdiction on the high seas is (1) that it cannot be arbitrarily imposed by a State on a foreign- flagged vessel and (2) that the flag State ordinarily retains sole jurisdiction and regulatory authority over its own flagged vessels while they operate on the high seas.[viii]

Perhaps the most important exception to the general rule regarding jurisdiction on the high seas involves acts of piracy, which, pursuant to UNCLOS and international common law, can become subject to the jurisdiction of any State, regardless of the flag status of a pirated vessel, because piratical acts have customarily been viewed as “crimes against the human race”

In particular, UNCLOS defines piracy as acts involving violence, detention, or depredation committed “for private ends” (United Nations, 1982, pp. 60–61). Commentators have disputed for years over what exactly “private ends” means, but the consensus appears to distinguish terrorist acts (i.e., those politically motivated) from piratical acts (i.e., those criminally motivated), with the former falling out- side the rule of universal jurisdiction.[ix]Article 27 and 28 of United Nations Convention Laws Of Sea provide for criminal and civil jurisdiction to coastal to the ships and the personnel on board in case of any possible harm to the coastal state or disturbance to the peace of that territory.

Under the U.S. Constitution, federal courts have subject-matter jurisdiction over maritime and admiralty matters.[x] This is important partly because it means that plaintiffs in admiralty disputes are automatically entitled to bring their claims in federal court and because federal admiralty laws, as opposed to state laws, may apply to the resolution of those claims. U.S. admiralty jurisdiction in tort cases requires an allegation that the tort occurred on navigable waters and that the tort bears some nexus to traditional maritime activities. [xi]

Indian Scenario:

Indian capability to challenge terrorism at sea was well demonstrated during the capture of mercenaries who held the Maldives Minister of Education as a hostage in November 1988. Two trawlers carrying 150 People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) mercenaries landed on the shores of Maldives.[xiii] They quickly overpowered the Maldivian Militia using rockets and machine guns and attacked the President’s residence. A ‘panicked’ Maldivian government sent out calls asking for assistance and India responded with the launching of Operation Cactus and a large contingent of paratroopers made an unopposed landing in the capital Male. The island was secured within 30 minutes after the arrival of forces. Shortly afterwards, a vessel was seen fleeing Male with mercenaries and hostages including the Maldives Minister of Education. An Indian Navy maritime reconnaissance aircraft detected the ship and Indian navy vessels then captured the ship.[xiv]

Similarly, the Indian coast guard, responsible for maintaining order at sea in the IEEZ, demonstrated its capability by capturing M. V. Alondra Rainbow, a 7000-ton Panama-registered vessel belonging to Japanese owners, hijacked by pirates in the Malacca Straits.[xv]

Indian Maritime Law is an emerging and yet, an evolving field. One of the primary maritime legislations in India is the Merchant Shipping Act, 1958 (hereinafter ‘MSA’). MSA primarily deals with the entire shipping industry and hence, focuses neither on piracy nor on terrorism. However, it being the foremost maritime legislation, we do owe it a sweeping glance. Here is a brief overview of provisions under the MSA, which may be used in settling ancillary issues arising out of acts of maritime piracy or terrorism. Part IXB of MSA titled
Security Of Ships And Port Facilities Sections (Sections 344J o 344T) provides with what kind of regulations ports