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The Growing Threat of Maritime Terrorism


The 21st century has seen large-scale, well-organized terrorist attacks by Islamist terrorists on nearly every continent. These same terrorists and terrorist organizations have leveraged the cyber domain to support recruitment, training, and attacks. The maritime frontier, however, is perhaps the one that has continued comparatively untouched throughout the history of modern Islamist terrorism. Attacks on maritime targets currently account for less than 1% of all terrorist attacks. Since al-Qaeda’s attack on the USS Cole in 2000, there have been few significant asymmetric terrorist attacks against maritime targets. Although piracy is a continuing threat in this domain, especially in highly-trafficked strategic choke points like the strait of Malacca, there are no well-documented cases of pirates colluding with Islamist terror organizations to carry out a maritime attack. Emerging evidence suggests that these relationships are being developed and that a sharp increase in terrorist attacks on maritime targets is possible. Such attacks have the potential both to inflict heavy casualties and cause widespread economic havoc.

Background, Ideology, and the Illusive Pirate-Terrorist Nexus

When the Arab invaders swept through and established themselves in North Africa during the seventh and eighth centuries, they moved or established the regional capitals away from the coast. Modern-day Egypt’s capital shifted from coastal Alexandria to inland Cairo. Medieval Tunisia (Ifriqiya) was centered around the inland city of Kairouan until the 13th century. Fes was the capital of Muslim Morocco for over a thousand years until the French Protectorate Administration moved it to Rabat in the early 20th century. These inland placements were intentional and strategic. The Arab conquerors were not seafaring people. For them, coastal capitals were severe liabilities, too easily accessible to preying states and pirates. Inland capitals, however, nullified maritime disadvantages and forced would-be invaders to travel inland where the Arab conquerors and their Berber allies held strategic dominance. This land-based culture continues on in most regions of the Muslim conquests.

Radical Islamist geopolitics is another factor that may encourage the prioritization land-based attacks while de-emphasizing maritime equivalents. To al-Qaeda and similar groups, the world is divided into the Houses of War and of Islam (Dar al-Harb and Dar al-Islam), terms that have been in use since the first Muslim invasions. Moderate Muslims have more peaceful and nuanced conceptions of these terms. These radical group’s conceptions, however, are black and white, focusing on governments, land, and people. These groups exist to fight until all territory and persons are within the dar al-Islam and under the rule of the restored caliphate. Because these goals are land-centric, the world’s seas and oceans are merely alternate paths to their goals, of varying strategic value but of little importance in and of themselves.

Modern Islamist terrorists in the Middle East are heirs to these cultural and geographical realities. The vast majority of attacks occur inland on land-based targets. The maritime side of volatile Karachi, whose shipping processes 95% of Pakistan’s foreign trade, enjoys comparative peace in contrast to the city’s sectarian violence that has already claimed between 1,700-2,500 lives in the first half of 2013. Available evidence suggests that even the sky is more trafficked by terrorists than the oceans. Reports dating back to 2008 have already linked al-Qaeda to large-scale criminal aviation networks. Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist organizations in Africa have made connections with pirate groups but these connections have been more financial than operational. Somali pirates ransom funds often find their way into the coffers of al-Shabaab but al-Shabaab has never colluded with the pirates to execute a terrorist attack on a maritime target. Al-Shabaab, like other terrorist organizations, is concerned primarily with land territory.
Although there has been little collusion between groups and comparatively few attacks, the ideology and methodology supporting terrorist attacks against maritime targets is already in place. Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, leader of the attacks behind the deadly bombings of the USS Cole and the Limburg, developed a four-part strategy for al-Qaeda’s maritime terrorist attacks. These four parts include suicide attacks on vessels, the hijacking of ships for use as weapons against port or transportation infrastructure, attacking supertankers using explosive-filled aircraft, and attacks on vessels with underwater demolition teams. Spread by al-Qaeda, these recommendations have a far-reaching effects. Simple bomb placements or flotilla attacks (explosive-laden craft driven into the target, the maritime equivalent of a car bomb) do not require anything more than would an inland attack. In 2004, a simple eight pound bomb brought down the SuperFerry-14 in the Philippines, killing 116 in the world’s deadliest maritime terrorist attack. As the US and other governments continue to crack down on terror networks, these attack methods available to individuals and small groups will increase in use as the ideology and tactics continue to spread and their official strategies adapt.

The Threat

Maritime terrorist attacks have the potential to inflict massive casualties and wreak economic havoc. Passenger vessels, from ferries to cruise ships, offer opportunities for high death tolls, a key objective for al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Attacks on container ships, oil tankers, and other cargo ships could cause significant damage to the global economy. As 80-90% of global trade travels on such ships, strategic attacks could raise risk levels which would affect a number of trade factors that would, in turn, result in higher prices for many commodities. The economic impact would mirror that of piracy, a continuing economic strain off of the coasts of West Africa, East Africa, and South East Asia.

The threat of terrorism at sea raises new policing and prevention dilemmas for states accustomed to fighting traditional piracy. Pirates attack maritime targets for economic gain. A means of escape is essential in achieving the purpose of their attacks. As policing turns piracy within certain areas into suicide missions, pirates will cease to attack those areas. The nearly eradicated piracy off of the Somali coast is a prime example. Unfortunately the calculus for terrorist attacks, particularly suicide attacks, is fundamentally different. Terrorists on suicide missions with the goal of mass casualty or economic destruction cannot be effectively policed using tactics and strategies designed for pirates. Whereas pirates can be deterred by ensuring that they cannot escape following an attack, maritime terrorists must be deterred before an attack even takes place. This is exceedingly difficult on the expansive seas and among thousands of ships of different builds and function.


According to an anti-terror director at the Pentagon, “Indications point to an acceleration of the pace of maritime terrorism, heralding a coming campaign. The propensity of al-Qaeda for patient and intricate preparation augurs a future sustained maritime terrorism campaign, rather than a continued irregular pattern of attacks.” To counter this campaign, the US and other governments must continue seeking out terrorist networks and frustrating coordinated attacks. It must simultaneously develop and implement the means to prevent isolated attacks on important infrastructure and vessels. With proactive measures within these general policies, governments and maritime corporations can help limit the scope and intensity of maritime terrorism.

Michael Brooks

Michael Brooks

Michael Brooks is an OSINT researcher and OODA Analyst and with a background in international development and security across Central Africa and the Middle East. Currently based in Berlin, Germany, he holds a BA in International Policy from Patrick Henry College and a Masters in International Security from the University of St. Andrews.