Can You Be a Pirate on Land?

Only if you’ve already become a pirate on the sea.


Is there such a thing as land pirates?

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Two days after U.S. special operations forces rescued a pair of aid workers from Somali abductors, news surfaced that another American, surfing journalist Michael Scott Moore, had been “kidnapped by Somali pirates.” But the crime didn’t happen anywhere near the surf. Moore was on land, driving to a Somali airport, and his captors were described as 15 men in two SUVs. Can you commit piracy on dry land?

Not as it’s defined in international law. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea defines piracy as “any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft.” Specifically, the law applies to piracy “on the high seas or in any other place outside the jurisdiction of any state.” So even if they were swinging cutlasses and flying the Jolly Roger from the windows of their Land Cruisers, Moore’s assailants weren’t legally acting as pirates when they captured him. They would be more accurately described as carjackers, kidnappers, gangsters, or bandits.

Why, then, do news accounts refer to them as pirates? Because they arr. The kidnapping was reportedly carried out by a gang whose leader is a well-known pirate commander. The commander, Ali Duulaye, is thought to have helped hijack a Seychelles-flagged fishing vessel in December. A pirate source told the website Somalia Report on Saturday that Moore was being held on land, alongside two hostages taken from that vessel, though he has apparently since been moved. Somalia Report’s editor, the Canadian journalist Jay Bahadur, tells the Explainer that the proliferation of armed guards on vessels plying the Arabian Sea has forced pirate networks to focus more on land-based operations of late.

In theory, this shift to terra firma could pose legal complications for countries such as the United States as they attempt to rescue hostages. The prohibition on piracy is one of the oldest and clearest in international law, dating to the time of Cicero, who declared pirates the common enemies of all—“hostis humani generis.” That phrase forms the basis for universal jurisdiction: Because pirates operate outside of national boundaries, any country is legally permitted to arrest and prosecute them. In practice, universal jurisdiction is rarely invoked: Few countries take the trouble to go after pirates unless it’s their own citizens who are being held. In that case, they may simply assert their inherent right to protect their own people abroad.

The trickier legal issue is carrying out military operations on another country’s soil, which can be a violation of sovereignty whether the targets are pirates or not. That’s unlikely to constrain the United States if it believes it has a chance to free Moore, however. Somalia’s internationally recognized government wields little authority beyond the battle-scarred capital, Mogadishu, which is the reason pirates proliferated there in the first place. Plus, the United States is a key ally in the Somali government’s long-running fight with the Islamist insurgent group al-Shabaab.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

And check out the Explainer’s take on other pirate queries, including whether pirates really said “arr.”

Explainer thanks Eugene Kontorovich of Northwestern University and the Institute for Advanced Study; Jay Bahadur, author of The Pirates of Somalia; and James Kraska of the U.S. Naval War College.