Terrorism and Piracy: The Dual Threat to Maritime Shipping

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 16

In the global war on terror, international attention has largely been focused on terrestrial operations, but the sea remains a fertile ground for attack. As in many terror attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq, the favored tool of maritime terrorists is the suicide bomber, piloting a small vessel into the intended target. The two terrorist groups most responsible for maritime attacks are al-Qaeda and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which have attacked both warships and merchantmen.

Al-Qaeda’s most notable success in deploying this technique was its devastating attack on the USS Cole (DDG 67) in Aden on October 12, 2000. The attack killed 17 sailors and injured 39 others, leaving the vessel with a 40 by 60 foot hole in its port side; repairs to the vessel cost nearly $250 million. Two years later, on October 6, 2002, al-Qaeda bombers in a small boat filled with explosives rammed the French tanker Limburg at Mukalla, 354 miles east of Aden, as it was approaching the Ash Shihr Terminal several miles off the Yemeni coast. The attack killed one crewman and spilled 90,000 barrels of oil from the vessel’s 397,000-barrel cargo. The U.S. Navy’s Maritime Liaison Office (MARLO) in Bahrain issued an advisory noting: “Shipmasters should exercise extreme caution when transiting…strategic chokepoints such as the Strait of Hormuz, or Bab el-Mandeb, or…traditional high-threat areas such as along the Horn of Africa.” The Limburg attack caused insurance premiums for Yemeni ports to triple overnight as Lloyd’s of London declared Yemeni waters a war zone; container traffic fell by 90 percent and 3,000 jobs were lost as a result, costing Yemen $15 million per month.

Cooperation in Naval Terrorism?

Four months before the USS Cole attack, LTTE Sea Tigers using several suicide craft attacked the Sri Lankan Navy’s Uhana cargo vessel carrying private cargo to Point Pedro from Trincomalee. The June 27 attack killed three sailors with five reported missing following the explosion. The LTTE established the Sea Tigers in 1984; they have since sunk 29 Sri Lankan naval gunboats and a freighter. The Sea Tigers include a division of frogmen that have been deployed in attacks on the Sri Lankan naval base at Kankesanturai in the northern Jaffna peninsula. Other attacks have ranged as far afield as the Comoros.

Sri Lanka’s Minister of Foreign Affairs recently suggested that the LTTE and al-Qaeda shared their techniques, commenting: “The precision targeting and execution of the attack on the hull of the vessel by al-Qaeda operatives was almost identical to the mode of attack conducted by the LTTE’s Sea Tigers. One could discern from the similarity of attacks that there would have been a transfer of knowledge and expertise in the field of maritime terrorism.” [1]

Maritime attacks have also spread to the insurgency in Iraq. On April 24, 2004, suicide bombers in three boats attacked Iraq’s offshore Al Basrah (ABOT) and Khawr Al’Amaya (KAAOT) oil terminals in the Persian Gulf. The facilities, through which about 90% of Iraq’s oil exports flow, are among the most heavily guarded in the world. Two U.S. Navy sailors and a Coast Guardsman were killed. Seven days later, MARLO issued an advisory announcing the establishment of an exclusion zone in Iraqi waters within 3,000 meters of the two terminals and the temporary suspension of the right of innocent passage in the surrounding waters, noting: “Vessels attempting to enter the zones without authorization may be subject to defensive measures, including, when necessary, the use of deadly force… The terrorists used ordinary dhows, fishing boats, and speedboats to conduct the attack in contravention of the law of armed conflict.” [2] In June 2005 U.S. personnel handed over responsibility for the facilities’ security to a contingent of Iraqi marines. [3]

Attacks on offshore oil installations have now spread to militant groups operating on Africa’s western coast as well. On July 19 Nigerian Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) militants, who had previously limited their assaults to onshore Western oil facilities in the Niger Delta region, took their campaign offshore and attacked Royal Dutch Shell’s Bonga platform and its attendant Floating, Production, Storage, and Offloading (FPSO) vessel 75 miles offshore in the Gulf of Guinea, firing automatic weapons from speedboats. The next day, Royal Dutch Shell shut down production until July 9 (see Terrorism Monitor, July 10).

The Danger of Partnership between Pirates and Terrorists

While the last four years have seen no similar attacks, a parallel threat to maritime security has been on the rise – piracy. According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), there were 263 pirate attacks worldwide in 2007, up by 10 percent from the year before. Pirate assaults are becoming increasingly violent – guns were used in 72 of these attacks, up 35 per cent from 2006, and 64 crew members were assaulted and injured, compared with only 17 in 2006. The Straits of Malacca, the coasts of Nigeria and Somalia, and the Red Sea-Persian Gulf region are now the waters most dangerous for mariners. There are now approximately 3,600 tankers in service worldwide, of which about 435 are very large crude carriers (VLCCs), which can transport two million barrels. U.S. imports of crude oil and petroleum products average about 12 million barrels per day and account for 60 percent of America’s oil supply.

The last several years have seen piracy increasingly shift its locus from southeastern Asian waters to the seas surrounding Africa, and the worry of many analysts is that opportunistic pirates, many of whom operate in Muslim-dominated nations, could make common cause with Islamic extremists. While this has yet to happen on any significant scale, the possibility exists, and the international maritime community is seeking interim solutions to the rising violence plaguing African waters.

Operations by Combined Task Force 150 (CTF-150, a multinational coalition naval force headquartered at Djibouti since 2002) have helped quell terrorist activity in the Red and Arabian Seas. The CTF-150 flotilla patrols from the Red Sea to the Gulf of Oman and comprises 14-15 vessels. [4] A native Arab speaker accompanies CTF-150 boarding teams to talk with boat crews before intelligence is passed to the US Navy regional command center in Bahrain. On April 21 a CTF-150 warship assisted when heavily armed pirates attacked the 150,000-ton Japanese tanker Takayama in international waters 275 miles east of Aden and 90 miles off the southeastern Yemeni port of Mukalla, where six years earlier al-Qaeda terrorists attacked the Limburg (Asahi Shimbum, April 22). None of the crew of 23 was injured in the attack. The German frigate Emden received the Takayama’s “Tanker has been shot at and hit by armed boat” distress call and steamed to the scene, sending a helicopter ahead to reconnoiter, which caused the pirates to flee in their speedboat by the time the warship arrived.

The Dangerous Waters of the Somali Coast

Somalia remains on the edge, as divisions between hardliners and moderates within the Islamist opposition Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS) threaten the fragile agreement signed with the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) two months ago. The African Union said that its newly extended AMISOM force was incapable of stabilizing the situation, as attacks on aid workers and lack of escorts for shipments further endanger humanitarian operations both on the ground and at sea (ICG CrisisWatch, August 1; Afrique en Ligne, July 1).

There are indications that poverty and unrealized nationalistic ambitions in Somalia are causing military personnel to participate in piratical activities. In Somalia’s autonomous northeastern region of Puntland, the mayor of the coastal town of Eyl, Abdullahi Said O’Nur, told Radio Garowe that 400 soldiers with armored trucks had arrived there in response to Puntland President Adde Muse’s statement that his administration is unable to pay civil servant and security forces’ salaries. Accordingly, a number of soldiers have turned to crime and joined Somali pirates. In discussing the Somali pirates’ demand of a $1.1 million ransom following their May 25 seizure of the Dutch-owned Amiya Scan, O’Nur said, “I appeal to the ship’s owners not to pay any ransom.” (Radio Garowe, June 5).

In the chaos roiling Somalia, Mogadishu now hosts at least four distinct piratical groups, led by warlords, corrupt business people, and municipal authorities, all organized along clan backgrounds. (Garowe Online, July 5). Any international initiative to quell violence in Somali’s waters is hamstrung by the fact that the country has no effective government.

The Jihad at Sea

Whether motivated by ideology or simple greed, neither maritime terrorism nor piracy is likely to be solved soon. On April 26 a jihadist website posted its “Jihad Press Opinion: Maritime Terrorism Is Strategic Necessity,” which commented:

“The Crusader-Zionist campaign has nothing left besides roaming the sea. For more than a year, one after the other, armed battalions off the beaches of Yemen have started to hunt commercial [vessels], tourism [vessels], and oil tankers. In the current phase, it has become a necessity to the mujahideen in conducting a global campaign to restore the Islamic Caliphate and to rule the world through it. The next step is to control the sea and ports, starting with those surrounding the Arabian Peninsula… It becomes necessary to develop the battle to include the sea, and as the mujahideen have managed to form martyrs’ brigades on the ground, the sea remains the next strategic step toward ruling the world and restoring the Islamic Caliphate. The beaches of Yemen are considered the links between the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The latter overlooks the Strait of Bab al-Mandab in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. This region represents a strategic point to expel the enemy from the most important pillars of its battle. If it is unable to protect itself in this strategic region, then it cannot protect itself on the ground and its naval bases under the blows of the mujahideen” (hanein.info, April 30; see also Terrorism Focus, May 13).

Worldwide the number of piracy acts is increasing. In its most recent report on “Acts of Piracy and armed robbery against ships,” the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Maritime Safety committee’s states: “The total number of acts of piracy and armed robbery against ships so far reported to the Organization is 4,566.” [5] Incidents occurred in Nigerian, Bangladeshi, Indian, Mozambiquan, Indonesian, Somali, Filipino, and Ecuadorian territorial waters, along with the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. As current IMO regulations prohibit merchantmen from carrying any arms for self-defense, such attacks in the short term can only continue.

Countering Maritime Terrorism

International efforts against such depredations continue: on July 30 French Defense Minister Hervé Morin and Spanish Defense Minister Carme Chacón stated their countries’ interest in creating a multinational naval force to fight piracy off the coast of Somalia. Chacón commented, “Our wish is that as many countries as possible” participate, while Morin observed that Paris was “favorable to the Spanish initiative within the framework of an exercise that is at a minimum European, if not international” (AFP, July 30). The Franco-Spanish initiative began earlier this year, when on January 10 Spain and France agreed to create joint forces to fight terrorism during the 20th Spanish-French Summit, announcing their intention to assist in the creation of an agency to watch the maritime coasts of both the Maghreb and Western Africa.

Prodded by Washington, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a resolution on June 2 allowing the U.S. and its coalition allies to intervene by “all necessary means” for the next six months to stop piracy off the Somali coast; coalition ships subsequently have since repelled pirates in at least two attacks in Somali waters.

Others are advocating sterner self-defense measures for merchantmen. Vladimir Korenkov, director of Russia’s Bazalt enterprise, whose products include RPG-18, RPG-22, RPG-26, and RPG-27 grenade launchers, proposes placing his company’s weaponry aboard merchantmen for self-defense (www.bazalt.ru). As the CIA numbers the world’s merchant fleets at more than 31,000, such a contract would certainly prove lucrative, even though such a measure would most likely simply increase violence in the open sea (CIA World Factbook, 2008).

In the meantime, the maritime carnage continues, whether motivated by ideology, poverty, or simple criminality. While jihadis seem to favor major attacks carried out by suicide craft laden with explosives, pirates as yet still prey on targets of opportunity, with arsenals ranging from machetes to automatic weapons. If the two disparate groups ever pool their resources, then maritime forces worldwide will have to expand their Combined Task Forces along with their definitions of terror. Individual ships make tempting targets – until the IMO revises its regulations on merchantmen carrying arms, lessons from history are in order. In WWI and WWII, when German submarines began to sink substantial numbers of Allied ships, navies were eventually forced to develop convoy tactics, allowing economy of force in warship deployment. The only certainty at present however, is that terrorist or piratical group will continue to prey on lone, unarmed merchantmen. If terrorist groups ever decide to “hire” local pirates, then the world’s navies may well see their mission shift from the more heroic one of deploying missile-armed submarines and carrier task forces to the more mundane task of providing merchantmen escorts in unglamorous brownwater zones.


1. Rohitha Bogollagama, “How Successful is Counter Terrorism in the Asia-Pacific? – Sri Lanka’s Experience,” IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore, May 31, 2008.

2. MARLO Advisory, 06-04, May 1, 2004.

3. U.S. Department of Defense, www.defenselink.mil, June 16, 2005

4. United States, Canada, France, Germany, Pakistan, and Great Britain are regular members of CTF-150, with occasional contributions from Spain, Denmark, Australia, Italy, Portugal, Turkey and the Netherlands. Command is held on a rotating basis.

5. MSC.4,Circ. 1881, June 12, 2008, IMO; The report uses the definition of piracy given in Article 101 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.