Terrorists as Pirates
“The Dread Pirate Bin Laden” argues that, legally, terrorists should be treated as pirates under international law:
More than 2,000 years ago, Marcus Tullius Cicero defined pirates in Roman law as hostis humani generis, “enemies of the human race.” From that day until now, pirates have held a unique status in the law as international criminals subject to universal jurisdiction—meaning that they may be captured wherever they are found, by any person who finds them. The ongoing war against pirates is the only known example of state vs. nonstate conflict until the advent of the war on terror, and its history is long and notable. More important, there are enormous potential benefits of applying this legal definition to contemporary terrorism.
President Bush and others persist in depicting this new form of state vs. nonstate warfare in traditional terms, as with the president’s declaration of June 2, 2004, that “like the Second World War, our present conflict began with a ruthless surprise attack on the United States.” He went on: “We will not forget that treachery and we will accept nothing less than victory over the enemy.” What constitutes ultimate victory against an enemy that lacks territorial boundaries and governmental structures, in a war without fields of battle or codes of conduct? We can’t capture the enemy’s capital and hoist our flag in triumph. The possibility of perpetual embattlement looms before us.
If the war on terror becomes akin to war against the pirates, however, the situation would change. First, the crime of terrorism would be defined and proscribed internationally, and terrorists would be properly understood as enemies of all states. This legal status carries significant advantages, chief among them the possibility of universal jurisdiction. Terrorists, as hostis humani generis, could be captured wherever they were found, by anyone who found them. Pirates are currently the only form of criminals subject to this special jurisdiction.
Second, this definition would deter states from harboring terrorists on the grounds that they are “freedom fighters” by providing an objective distinction in law between legitimate insurgency and outright terrorism. This same objective definition could, conversely, also deter states from cracking down on political dissidents as “terrorists,” as both Russia and China have done against their dissidents.
Recall the U.N. definition of piracy as acts of “depredation [committed] for private ends.” Just as international piracy is viewed as transcending domestic criminal law, so too must the crime of international terrorism be defined as distinct from domestic homicide or, alternately, revolutionary activities. If a group directs its attacks on military or civilian targets within its own state, it may still fall within domestic criminal law. Yet once it directs those attacks on property or civilians belonging to another state, it exceeds both domestic law and the traditional right of self-determination, and becomes akin to a pirate band.
Third, and perhaps most important, nations that now balk at assisting the United States in the war on terror might have fewer reservations if terrorism were defined as an international crime that could be prosecuted before the International Criminal Court.
Ross Anderson recognized the parallels between terrorism and piracy back in 2001.