Plugging the Holes in Maritime Security

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 9


On July 1, 2004, the so-called Shipping and Port Facility Safety Code (SPSC) is due to come into the effect. The initiative obliges all states engaged in ocean-going trade to institute minimum standards of security at their harbor facilities and to similarly certify vessels sailing under their flag. SPSC has been touted as the first concerted attempt to institute an international regulatory framework to safeguard the marine environment from deliberate attack. With 189 actual and attempted assaults on freighters and other vessels reported to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) during 2003, the SPSC comes at a time when the general level of violence at sea shows no sign of abating. These regulations reflect a heightened concern among western governments and intelligence agencies that coastal and international waters could become the next major theater for contemporary international terrorism. However, serious questions remain for those attempting to address this issue: What are the main underlying causes driving these threat perceptions? What form would an act of maritime terrorism likely take in the coming years? And what sort of initiatives should be introduced to mitigate these contingencies from actually occurring?

Attacks At Sea Historically Rare

Historically, attacks against maritime targets have been one of the rarest forms of international terrorism. While the hijacking of the Achille Lauro (1985) and the bombings of the USS Cole (2000) and MT Limburg (2001) are notable exceptions, only two percent of all terrorist incidents recorded since 1969 have taken place at sea. Several reasons account for this. First, terrorists have generally preferred land venues as they are fixed, easier to penetrate and more immediately media accessible. Second, operating at sea requires specialist skills and resources that all but a few organizations posses. Third, most terrorist groups are tactically conservative, opting for familiar methods that have been tested and offer a relatively high chance of success.

However, Perceived Threat is Growing

Despite the empirical record, there has been a noticeable rise in the perceived threat of maritime terrorism in recent years, as the general vulnerability of the ocean environment has become more apparent. This development reflects a complex interplay of factors, including lax security at many world ports. Ineffective coastal surveillance by littoral states confronting serious campaigns of political violence or latent, extremist, transnational challenges compounds the problem. This is especially true in Indonesia, the Philippines, Colombia, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and the countries around the Horn of Africa. Also, increased moves towards skeleton crews on the part of shipping companies has made boarding and gaining control of a vessel that much easier. Meanwhile, the growing dependence of global trade on heavily clogged, “go-slow” maritime chokepoints leaves freighters and container carriers highly susceptible to interception or attack in places such as the Strait of Hormuz, the Malacca Straits and the Suez and Panama Canals.

Just as importantly, many western governments now fear that terrorists are showing more tactical sophistication – as evidenced by 9/11, the October 2002 Bali bombings and the March 2003 Madrid rail attack – and may, as a result, be prepared to experiment with new operational methods. The strikes on the USS Cole and MT Limburg are often cited in support of this thesis, as are attempted assaults against targets berthed at highly secure facilities, such as the planned bombing of the USS Vincent during a stop at Changi Port, Singapore in December 2001. Intelligence officials further point out that certain groups have already developed highly advanced blue, green and brown water combat capabilities. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), for example, has its own “maritime wing”, The Sea Tigers, complete with surface assault and transport vessels, suicide stealth craft and even mini, two-crew submarines. Officials fear that the LTTE and others could serve as models for boosting the maritime options of groups such as al-Qaeda.

The Piracy-Terrorism Nexus

Beyond these considerations, the IMB has repeatedly stressed concern in its annual reports of the last several years over the emergence of an “unholy” nexus between piracy and terrorism. The IMB cites the potential profitability of cargo theft and raids against passenger ferries and unintended threat displacement effects brought about by upgrading land-based security since 9/11, as possible reasons for an increase in maritime terrorism. The Bureau also notes that well-organized pirate syndicates have become particularly adept at hijacking and re-registering freighters under flags of convenience (a practice known as the Phantom Ship phenomenon). These gangs offer an obvious third-party conduit that terrorists could use to procure their own vessels, either for attack/disruption purposes or as a means to transport weapons, personnel and materiel.

In terms of locus, the IMB especially emphasizes the latent danger emanating from Southeast Asia. The region accounts for some 60 percent of all pirate attacks since 1989, and is home to a plethora of indigenously-based terrorist insurgencies with maritime traditions, such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM), and the virulently anti-western Jemaah Islamiyya (JI) network. Just as important, Southeast Asia contains several critical sea-lanes of communication (SLOCs) that could be singled out for strategic or economic attack, not least of which are the Malacca Straits. This particular passage has long been a major focus of pirate activity and presently represents Asia’s most important commercial maritime route and a key passage through which the bulk of the world’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) supplies are shipped.


Taking account of the above factors and looking at possible future attack scenarios, five specific manifestations of maritime terrorism would seem possible, each rising in terms of seriousness. First, simple robbery of a commercial carriers and/or passenger ferries to raise money; Second, the hijacking of a vessel and its employment under a flag of convenience to transport weapons, people, material and contraband; Third, the ransacking of a ship in a SLOC to disrupt maritime trade; Fourth, the seizure of an LNG carrier to be used as a “floating bomb” that could be rammed into another vessel or detonated at a target port; Fifth, the deliberate destruction of a cruise liner to cause mass casualties. Like planes, these ships contain a large number of people in a single, confined space. Unlike aircraft, however, they are characterized by relatively poor pre-departure screening and remain particularly vulnerable to post-departure interception.

The Way Forward

While the SPSC represents a worthy and commendable effort to safeguard both ships and port facilities from attack and disruption, it is extremely unlikely that most littoral states will meet the July 1 deadline. Particularly heavily burdened countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Philippines already face severe constraints in terms of instituting comprehensive systems of maritime security. While the overall focus on further developing and expanding the SPSC to form the basis of an inclusive, international regulatory framework should not be lost, more immediate and practical initiatives must be introduced to address the many vulnerabilities that will continue to exist after July 1. Developing standardized container seals for cargo freighters, installing cheap and concealable global positioning devices to track commercial carriers, embossing all vessels with indelible identification numbers, and instituting more and better coordinated regional patrols by states sharing contiguous maritime boundaries would all be extremely useful in this regard. No less important is the need for regular intelligence-driven threat assessments that straddle both strategic and tactical dimensions. These analyses have long been a vital component of general counter-terrorism “tool kits,” and would doubtless play a vital role in terms of informing government policy-making and guiding resource allocation to cover the most realistic and pressing maritime threat contingencies.

A decade of piracy has largely failed to prompt concerted action on the part of the world’s principal maritime states or, indeed, the shipping industry, to institute a more comprehensive system of sea security. While terrorists have yet to exploit many of the attendant gaps and vulnerabilities on a large-scale basis, one cannot assume that this situation will last in perpetuity. Unless governments and industry quickly implement more directed measures, there may be little to prevent the maritime environment taking on the sort of anarchic, violent character that Thomas Hobbes once famously wrote assured life as “brutish, nasty and short.”