Terrorism and the changing maritime battlespace


In the complex and intertwined modern global system, national economic wellbeing depends greatly on international trade. Much of that interaction is tradeoriented. An important amount of such activity takes place in the maritime environment - in ships and in ports. Furthermore, the trade that moves in ships and through ports is connected to other environments and other modes of the supply chain that fuel the interconnected economies of the participating nations. It is therefore important that nations maintain and improve their ability to interact in the world market place. This includes their ability to use the oceans and their tributary waters.

The maritime environment is an important part of the modern battlespace that has been changed by the advent of strategic terrorism. As such, the vulnerability of maritime container traffic around the world has attracted increasing attention.

In the absence of any threat, even an important sector of a nation’s economy that has known vulnerabilities would do little to inspire heavy investment in protection and security. However, there are real and serious threats to the global maritime sector. The UK Royal Navy’s First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Sir Alan West, reiterated earlier announcements in August 2004 that there is solid intelligence to show that AlQaeda plans to target merchant shipping in an effort to disrupt world trade. According to Adm West: "What we’ve noticed is that AlQaeda and other organisations have an awareness about maritime trade… they’ve realised how important it is for world trade in general… we are aware that [AlQaeda has] plans and [that] they’ve looked at this."1

There are threats to shipping and maritime infrastructure, as well as threats to national security, that could arrive via maritime means. It has been possible for criminal organisations to successfully smuggle drugs and people via merchant vessels into Western countries for financial gain. It follows that it is possible for terrorists to infiltrate a merchant vessel in a foreign port, at sea, in territorial waters or in a home port, with plans to damage the port, harm other infrastructure or transport the containerised threat inland. The terrorists could work alongside organised criminal elements or independently. The threat weapon could be physical (such as a collision or blockage); explosive; toxic; or even nuclear or biological.

The traditional openness of the maritime transport system leaves numerous opportunities to be exploited. The increase in piracy and maritime crime on the world’s seaways is well known and yet is surprising by its magnitude: in 2003 pirates staged 454 attacks, continuing a series of annual increases; 311 ships were illegally boarded; and 92 people were confirmed killed or missing.2 The main areas for piracy are the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea; however, the Horn of Africa and the Caribbean have also experienced numerous attacks.

For many years, criminals have taken advantage of the relative anonymity of maritime transportation (compared with air travel, for instance) to smuggle arms, drugs and illegal immigrants. However, transnational crime has been joined in the circle of maritime threats by terrorism (and in some cases is linked with it). Such a link drastically increases the threat potential. The chemical tanker Dewi Madrim was hijacked in early 2003 by pirates who used the ship as a practice platform for learning navigation and pilotage. They also kidnapped officers in order to gain expertise on conducting a maritime attack.3

A recent maritime threat assessment from the Australian government stated that AlQaeda and its associated groups, Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines and Jemaah Islamiyya (JI) in Indonesia, "are known to have a capacity to conduct significant terrorist attacks, including against maritime interests".4 Australian security expert Alexey Muraviev has stated that terrorists have the operational capabilities to mount a terrorist attack at sea - "and that can be transport ships, that can be container ships, LNG [liquefied natural gas] carriers, chemical carriers, as well as coastal and offshore infrastructure. [They can attack] by deploying suicide scuba divers, by using sea mines".5

There have been two wellknown terrorist successes against shipping targets: the suicide attack by a small boat on the USS Cole that was alongside in Aden in October 2000; and the atsea attack on a French oil tanker Limburg in the Gulf of Aden in October 2002. The small boat attack from sea on a vital Iraqi oil facility by terrorists in April 2004 signalled a new tactic focused on maritime infrastructure.6

Moreover, the dual attack on the port of Ashdod, Israel in March 2004 by Hamas and Fatah terrorists shows that port facilities can be attacked from land or sea.7 Both methods have been used recently and therefore are likely to be familiar to modern terrorists for future operations.

Furthermore, a number of maritime terrorism plots have been uncovered over the past two years, from the arrest in 2002 and subsequent conviction of three Moroccobased Saudi terrorists who were planning to attack US, British, and Israeli ships in the Strait

of Gibraltar to the seizure of a ship off Sicily carrying an AlQaeda cell thought to be planning attacks on Italy.8

It is well known that AlQaeda owns a number of cargo ships, approximately 20 of which are mediumsize to large vessels that are capable of reaching North American shores.

Closer to North America, in August 2003 US federal prosecutors claimed that AlQaeda "sought to buy access to commercial shipping containers bound from Pakistan for Port Newark".9 The decision to close down the large Alaskan port of Valdez when the US assumed a high security alert level in late December 2003 was an important event. Based on serious warning information, the US Coast Guard acted to protect a North American port from terrorist attack - either by air or sea.10

It is apparent from the above that terrorism and other threats to maritime security are at sea and active. A number of Western democracies have been mentioned as potential targets by Osama bin Laden and his followers. Citizens of Australia, Canada, Italy, Spain, the UK and US have been highlighted and prioritised as preferred targets in an April 2004 AlQaeda memorandum.11

The nature of the beast

It is important at this juncture to describe why the terrorism that AlQaeda represents is new and different. AlQaeda and its affiliated groups have changed the battlespace. By coming from nowhere, striking at civilians using civilian means of transportation as weapons in a strategic, military way, the terrorist has altered the ways in which nations think about domestic security.12 Bruce Berkowitz, a US author and expert on intelligence and terrorism, has delineated the main features that distinguish the new kind of warfare - "strategic terrorism":

  • a global network consisting of small, semiautonomous cells capable of operating with little centralised control to achieve the strategic goals of the parent organisation;
  • the use of unconventional WMD (such as hijacked airliners) to inflict huge casualties, cause enormous physical damage and attract as much publicity as possible;
  • a synergetic alliance between terrorist network and one or more authoritarian nations that provides the network with logistics and funding for its nonattributable army; and
  • information superiority, in both its ‘soft’ (an alluring ideological message to recruit and motivate foot soldiers) and ‘hard’ (secure global communications for logistics, financial support and command and control) forms.13
  • Most of the terrorist organisations that came to prominence in the past were characterised by a local, tactical focus; restraint in the use of violence; and the desire to end up at a bargaining table of some sort. Strategic terrorism in the form of AlQaeda is different, according to one analyst: "AlQaeda, on the other hand, represents a transnational threat - one very different in kind from that posed by the IRA [Irish Republican Army] or even newer groups such as Hamas. AlQaeda has potentially thousands of members and no interest in bargaining with the US or its allies. Instead, it seeks to cripple them, by inflicting mass casualties if possible, potentially with weapons of mass destruction [WMD]."14

    In dealing with the topic of security, three key lessons from the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and its aftermath become clear:

  • The terrorist has found seams in Western organisational structures by striking at the local level while using a federal or strategiclevel apparatus with strategic aims. The modern terrorist focuses huge destructive power at a local target for maximum sensation.
  • The terrorist ‘owns the timeline’ in domestic security operations. The onus is on the defending government or governments to disrupt this timeline.
  • Only through the mastery of information and a swift reaction can terrorist attacks be prevented.
  • Even more worrying is the protean nature of strategic terrorism. AlQaeda is constantly evolving and has demonstrated "a surprising willingness to adapt its mission", according to analyst Tim Weiner. "This capacity for change has consistently made the group more appealing to recruits, attracted surprising new allies, and - most worrisome from a Western perspective - made it harder to detect and destroy."15

    Myriad effects of a maritime terrorist attack

    A seaborne terrorist attack could kill thousands of people and cost billions of dollars by causing the closure of one or many major ports in its aftermath. The global maritime trading system has already shown this vulnerability during the 2002 port labour strikes on the US West Coast. Admiral James Loy, Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security, observes: "Their [AlQaeda’s] ultimate goal is attacking our economy."16 As recently as September 2004, US intelligence agencies passed on warnings to allies about a plot to "hijack an oil tanker or freighter and turn it into a floating bomb" in the Strait of Malacca, a bottleneck region for shipping.17 The information was intercepted from JI communications revealing "a new tape either carrying Bin Laden or his deputy’s message was on its way, and that it was intended to trigger a major terror attack".18

    It is therefore apparent that the brand of strategic terrorism that Western governments are facing today is not only a strategic but also an agile, amorphous, and deadly form of warfare that affects the economic, financial, security, military, and political sectors of targeted states.

    The new form of warfare known as strategic terrorism, as well as more traditional threats, have the potential to destabilise international trade. It also has the potential to disturb the environment, disrupt internal interaction and threaten human life, including the lives of innocent noncombatants. Since nations desire to maintain and improve their ability to operate in the maritime environment and support its linkages, they find themselves challenged to protect what they have set in motion. They desire maritime security.

    Adaptability is a crucial factor

    In order for national governments to respond to this challenge, they have to comprehend the new battlespace and react to its changed shape. According to Berkowitz, modern terrorist organisations "can attack from many directions, disperse their assets worldwide, and use a variety of unconventional tactics" to attack targets and evade intelligence and law enforcement efforts. They can "organise themselves in ways that take advantage of geographic, political, and bureaucratic boundaries - that is, they often try to slip between the cracks where the authority of one intelligence or law enforcement organisation ends and another begins".19

    Since the struggle against these threats does not focus on sovereign states in particular, the battlespace becomes a combination of the local and federal, the domestic and international, the sensational and commonplace. As one analyst says: "Precisely because their consuming hatred of the West and its values, their asymmetric deployment of weaponry of mass destruction, their obscure command structure and embedded cellular network, their widespread transnational linkages and selfsacrificing ethos, AlQaeda and its affiliates present a security threat of exceptional complexity, resilience, and peril to open and democratic societies in Europe and North America, to ethnically plural developing countries in East Africa and Asia, and to the established authorities in the Arab and Muslim lands."20

    It is clear that, in common with guerilla warriors, terrorists hold the initiative: they own and control the timeline for their operations and nonterrorists must strive to disrupt that timeline and prevent the mission from being achieved. Since the battlespace is informational and ephemeral, nations will not neutralise the threat through overpowering physical means but through information superiority and the ability to react decisively.

    To prevent a terrorist event in this battlespace, governments will have to depend more on brains than on brawn. They will have to collaborate internally and externally to fills the gaps that have been created by strategic terrorism.

    Captain Peter Avis of the Canadian Navy is seconded to the Canadian Privy Council Office as a military adviser on national security

    1 Interview by Stefano Ambrogi with Admiral Sir Alan West in ‘AlQaeda plans to Target merchant shipping,’ Lloyds List maritime newspaper (5 August 2004).

    2 John Kerin, ‘Navy shifts from battles to piracy’,The Australian (6 February 2004).

    3 Joseph Farah, ‘AlQaeda plans highsea terror,’ Joseph Farah’s G2 Bulletin (13 October 2003).

    4 Statement issued by the office of the Australian Attorney General to Cargo Security International (30 April 2004).

    5 Alexey Muraviev in Alison Caldwell, ‘Expert issues maritime security warning,’ ABC Online website (29 March 2004).

    6 Matthew Fisher, ‘Insurgents attack Iraqi oil facilities,’ The Ottawa Citizen (25 April 2004).

    7 ‘Suicide bombing at Ashdod Port,’ Isreali Ministry of Foreign Affairs website (14 March, 2004). Available at www.mfa.gov.il

    8 Tim Weiner, ‘World ports struggle to meet US security standards,’ International Herald Tribune (25 March 2004).

    9 Ibid.

    10 Zaz Hollander and Wesley Loy, ‘Valdez tanker port shut down,’ Anchorage Daily News (1 January 2004).

    11 Captain Peter Avis, ‘Surveillance and Canadian Maritime Domestic Security,’ in Canadian Military Journal Vol.4, No.1 (Spring 2003).

    12 Bruce Berkowitz, ‘Intelligence and the war on terrorism,’ in Orbis: A Journal of World Affairs Vol.46, No.2 (Spring 2002).

    13 Jonathan Stevenson, ‘How Europe and America defend themselves,’ in Foreign Affairs Vol.82, No.2 (March/April 2003).

    14 Jessica Stern, "The Protean enemy" in Foreign Affairs Vol.82, No.4 (July/August 2003).

    15 Weiner, op. cit.

    16 Phillip Sherwell, Massoud Ansari and Marianne Kearney, ‘AlQaeda terrorists plan to turn tanker into a floating bomb,’ Daily Telegraph (12 September 2004).

    17 Ibid.

    18 Bruce Berkowitz, ‘Spying in the postSeptember 11 world," in Hoover Digest (Autumn 2003).

    19 Berkowitz, ‘Intelligence and the war on terrorism.’

    20 Martin Rudner, ‘Hunters and gatherers: the intelligence coalition against Islamic terrorism,’ in International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence Vol.17, No.2 (Summer 2004).




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