The Unwanted Challenge

By Martin N. Murphy

The attack on the French supertanker Limburg off Yemen in 2002 is frequently cited as an example of how terrorists could disrupt the world's oil market. The reason it is mentioned so often is because it is the sole example of an attack on an oil tanker. It undoubtedly had limited success but the ship did not sink—in fact it was renamed the Maritime Jewel and continues to trade under that name—and most of the economic consequences of the attack were confined to Yemen.

However, it is worth acknowledging the failed attack on the Iraqi oil terminals in 2004 in which three U.S. servicemen died. All of Iraqi's oil export flowed through these terminals and it is likely that the loss of these supplies would have had a considerable effect on oil prices, although evidence from other disruptions suggests that this would have been temporary as other suppliers compensated for the shortfall. The longer-term consequence might have been that the attack would have sparked unrealistic demands for increased security for oil installations worldwide.

The attack on the Philippines inter-island vessel Superferry 14 in 2004, the most recent noteworthy attack, also caught the world's attention as the result of a probable error. The perpetrators, the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), are undoubtedly a vicious, murderous band, but it is uncertain whether they intended to inflict the carnage they did. Inter-island ferries in the Philippines are attacked regularly by politically-motivated groups intent on extorting money from the companies that operate them. The company that operated the Superferry 14 had received an extortion demand that it refused to pay. It is likely that the bombing, made worse by a poor fire suppressant system, was intended to send a message to the company to pay up in the future, not to kill as many as 114 people and send a message to the Philippine government. The consequences for the ASG since then have been disastrous: with U.S. assistance, the Philippines armed forces have hounded them almost to the point of extinction.

Despite this history of questionable success, certain types of vessels are attractive targets for terrorists. Naval vessels, U.S. Navy ships especially, have iconic status as symbols of state power. USNS support ships, although of less iconic value, might also be vulnerable as they are not as well defended and often sail alone. Passenger ships offer mass-casualty potential. Cruise ships are reasonably secure from internal seizure but vulnerable to suicide boat attack, and the U.S. Coast Guard's concerns about the use of small craft for this purpose in U.S. waters remains very real. 1 Ferries, because they depend on open access, are much harder to defend and in the case of Roll on-Roll off (Ro-Ro) vessels, with open decks, present terrorists with the opportunity to drive large car or truck bombs on board.

The Right Incentives

Most insurgent groups have had no reason to use the sea, and those that have elected to do so out of choice rather than out of necessity have generally backed away pretty quickly. Only those who have used the sea as the result of a geographically determined imperative have been successful because they possessed the incentive necessary to overcome the manifest difficulties of operating in the unforgiving maritime environment.

A number of factors appear to influence success: a permissive legal regime, inadequate security, access to secure base areas and maritime expertise, state support, and leaders who are persuaded of the seas' importance to their cause. These factors interact with each other and while circumstances determine which predominate, it is usual to find the majority are present in varying degrees.

For example, maritime operations demand more complete base facilities closer to the location of an attack than land operations. The al Qaeda cell that attacked the USS Cole and the Limburg was well led tactically and operationally, probably had access to local maritime expertise, and was able to take advantage of the weak legal and security environment prevailing in Yemen. Although it planned a number of other maritime assaults, including major operations in the Straits of Hormuz and Gibraltar, only the operations launched from Yemen were carried through. Al Qaeda's failure to continue its maritime campaign is clearly inseparable from the disruption to its operations globally, but its lack of secure bases in the areas where it hoped to mount its maritime attacks appears to have limited its options significantly. More important, success at sea was not fundamental to its overall success, meaning there was no imperative to overcome the obstacles associated with such operations.

In contrast, all the key success factors were in place to benefit the Sea Tigers wing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE): weakness and indecision have characterized the Sri Lankan government and navy for much of the campaign, and this precluded them from mounting an effective counter to Sea Tiger activities; the insurgents benefitted from substantial Indian support during their formative years and although this was withdrawn following their 1991 assassination of the former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, it was not replaced by forthright opposition; their base areas in southern India continued to operate, albeit more discreetly, and were supplemented by secure territory on Sri Lanka and new locations around the Indian Ocean littoral; they were able to draw on the centuries-old Tamil seafaring tradition; and had leaders who were utterly convinced of the need for a maritime capability.

The Sea Tigers fought the Sri Lankan Navy to a virtual stalemate and came to be rated as the most capable non-state naval force in the world, reflected in the fact that when the LTTE proposed during the 2003 peace talks that the Sea Tigers should be given semi-official status, the proposal was rejected by both Sri Lanka and India out of concerns that the recognition of a third force could have a destabilizing effect on the region. Without the Sea Tigers the Tamil insurgency as a whole would have been impossible. Success at sea was imperative to the LTTE's success and drove the group to develop the broadly based maritime competency that al Qaeda lacked. 2

Worth Their While?

Given these factors and experience of what makes some groups successful, how might maritime insurgency develop in the years to come . 3 There is no reason to believe that insurgents will take to the water any more willingly in the future than they have in the past. They will only do so if driven by political necessity, and the political changes required would need to be of sufficient magnitude to make the investment of money, time, and skills worthwhile.

Observation of the Sea Tigers, the Acehese-seperatist movement GAM, Palestinian and Philippine insurgent groups, and al Qaeda suggests strongly that the sea is primarily of benefit to insurgents as a transport medium. Greater use of the sea is therefore likely to focus on developing the capacity to move more cadres, equipment, and funds. New instability or political change in vulnerable regions might allow insurgents to operate with greater freedom than they can at present. If such changes took place where the sea offered significant strategic opportunities, such as maritime Southeast Asia, the West African littoral, or the Gulf of Aden bounded by the Horn of Africa and Yemen, insurgent groups might be inclined to invest in the development of a maritime capability to supplement and support their strengthened presence on land, perhaps looking to the Sea Tigers as a model.

Though the possibility of insurgents developing anything more substantial than an enhanced logistical capability at sea might seem remote, time and again non-state groups have been able to depend on the skepticism of military and political analysts about their capabilities to spring successful surprises. According to the head of the Indian Navy, Chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta, the security situation across the entire Indian Ocean has become "complex, fluid and significantly challenging" with a "dramatic increase in asymmetric threats," a view with which the United States concurs. 4

The most significant insurgent challenge in the near term might well come from jihadist groups. One of the distinguishing features of jihadist insurgency is its global outlook. Organizations such as al Qaeda are skilled at opening new fronts in their war where they detect opportunity, observe weakness, or are able to find local allies. The al Qaeda strategist Al-Suri has written about mounting attacks in the Strait of Hormuz and the Bar el-Mandeb, about targeting ships and of blocking passages using "mines and sinking ships in them, or by threatening the movement there by piracy, martyrdom operations, and by the power of weapons." 5

Chatter on jihadist Web sites, which has been echoed by more covert sources, has indicated that they have looked closely at what the Somali pirates have achieved. Despite the presence of more than ten warships from a number of countries, and the declaration of a maritime safety zone through the Gulf of Aden, pirates using boats no larger than Boston Whalers, in some cases deployed from mother ships, managed to capture a significant number of targets including ships up to 50,000 dwt, large trawlers, luxury yachts and, in the case of the MV Faina , a 10,000 dwt Ro-Ro seized in September with 33 T-72 Soviet-era battle tanks on board, before sailing them into Somali territorial waters and holding them there, with their crews, while they waited for ransom to be paid. 6 Coalition commanders admitted that naval action alone could not solve the problem. 7 At the beginning of November 2008 it was believed there were 11 vessels being held at various points off the Somali coast. 8

A contributor to one jihadist Web site makes the point that Yemen and the Horn of Africa "represents a strategic point to expel the enemy from the most important pillars of its battle." The success of the Somali pirates in hijacking vessels is noted and the implication drawn that "the area is beyond the control of the arsenal of the Crusader Zionist campaign." 9 With this experience in mind it is not inconceivable that insurgents in maritime theaters might build on existing maritime expertise and assemble the capability to harass commercial shipping and possibly even military supply ships to a degree that hinders their free movement without the deployment of scarce and expensive escorts, thus rendering some coastal regions high-risk areas for vessels of all kinds.

'Black Holes'

Maritime Southeast Asia is another potentially vulnerable region. While currently passing through a period of relatively low pirate activity, and where groups such as the Indonesian-based Islamist organization Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) have for the moment at least turned away from acts of ostentatious violence, the arc of islands that runs from the southern Philippines to southern Thailand is an area of porous borders where operatives and contraband can be moved with relative ease. It is a region that has spawned groups such as the ASG and where it has been demonstrated that "black holes"—areas in which political or criminal groups are able to challenge or even replace the authority of a state—can be created, such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) camps on Mindanao in the Philippines.

Black holes also appear to be emerging in some of the states edging the Gulf of Guinea. Although these countries might not be comfortable nesting grounds for jihadists, the region has seen governments that degenerate into politico-criminal enterprises as the recent histories of Liberia and Sierra Leone have demonstrated. The possibility that Nigeria could fail, weighted down by corruption and the inequitable distribution of the country's oil wealth, is a matter of deep concern, as is the fear that the effects could spread to Cameroon and Fernando Po (an island in the Gulf of Guinea) as oil extraction increases in those countries.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, the principal politico-criminal group in that area, is probably the most effective maritime insurgent organization operating currently. It has proved capable of striking at night up to 75 nautical miles from the coast, coordinating swarms of 30 boats or more, and of achieving strategic effect by cutting Nigerian oil production regularly by around 15-20 percent, and up to 30 percent on occasion. It is known to have supported at least one separatist raid on Cameroonian territory and is believed to have planned an assault on Fernando Po.

This instability could be exploited by state proxies. These proxies could also work to deny navies access to littoral areas of interest to their sponsors. Hezbollah is the prime example, although because its relationship with Iran is not straightforward it might be better described as a "partial proxy." 10 Regardless of the details, Israel's view is that, in terms of capability, "Hezbollah has everything Iran has." 11 Iran's own irregular maritime capability is considerable. It is vested in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy (IRGCN) with which Hezbollah is known to have trained. The assumption is that if the IRGCN is ever deployed it could cause major navies, including the U.S. Navy, substantial problems in the narrow waters of the Persian Gulf. It is best known for operating small, missile-firing boats in swarms but also operates submarines and has a commando raiding force. 12

Iranian claims that Hezbollah, too, has a submarine capability might be discounted but it does have a submersible and swimmer capability and a commando force. It was, moreover, the firing of a C-802 antiship cruise missile from Hezbollah-controlled territory in southern Lebanon in 2006 (probably by a detachment sent from Iran for the purpose) that severely damaged an Israeli corvette, the INS Hanit , which demonstrated close relationships between states and their proxies were possible. This move suggests that the transfer of sophisticated weapons might take place, including possibly mines, coastal-launched torpedoes, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems, UAVs, and USVs, which could make operations in the littoral zone extremely dangerous. Since the end of the conflict the stock of C-802s held in Lebanon is believed to have tripled. 13

Naval forces have supported counterinsurgency campaigns around the world for the past 50 years but with the exception of the Sri Lankan Navy, to a degree the Israeli Navy, and now the Nigerian Navy, none has had to confront an insurgent presence on water or projected from the coast. 14 In an era of strategic confusion and limited resources, major navies are torn between the demands of possible major conflict against a near-peer competitor and the messy, ambiguous small wars for which their ships and operational methods are ill-suited. In 2006, however, Admiral Mike Mullen, then Chief of Naval Operations, warned that naval forces could not stand off in the deep blue but had to move close to shore if they were to engage the enemy. 15 It is a challenge for which the Navy must be prepared.


1. Eleanor Stables. "Mines, small boats may pose threat to US ports." CQ Homeland Security , 14 May 2007

2. The U.S. State Department lists the LTTE as a foreign terrorist organization, not an insurgency. That gives the U.S. government greater latitude in the measures it can invoke against it. However, the organization considers itself to be an insurgency and has always acted as such.

3. Part of what follows is based on the discussion in Martin N. Murphy, Small Boats, Weak States, Dirty Money: Piracy and Maritime Terrorism in the Modern World (New York & London: Columbia University Press/Hurst, 2008), pp. 402-8.

4. "Maritime terrorism gains roots in Indian Ocean." The Times of India , 9 August 2008; "India's fears of terrorists using sea routes well-grounded: US." The Times of India , 24 August 2007.

5. Brynjar Liar, Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al-Qaida Strategist Abu Mus'ab al-Suri (London: Hurst & Co, 2007), p. 401.

6. See, for example, Jerry Frank. "Somali pirates strike deeper on the high seas." Lloyd's List , 28 August 2008; David Osler. "Ro-ro with 30 tanks onboard is seized off Somalia." Lloyd's List , 29 September 2008.

7. David Osler. "'We are not the solution' to piracy, says Somalia coalition navy chief." Lloyd's List , 25 September 2008.

8. "Pirates seize Danish ship, 13 crew near Somalia." Associated press, 8 November 2008.

9. "Jihadist website commentary argues ' maritime terrorism' strategic necessity." Biyokulule Online , 29 April 2008.

10. Daniel Byman. "Rogue Operators." The National Interest , No. 96, July/August 2008, p. 56.

11. Harry de Quetteville. "Terrorists' missiles are from Teheran armoury." Daily Telegraph , 17 July 2006.

12. Fariborz Haghshenass. "Iran's Asymmetric Naval Warfare." The Washington Institute for Near-East Policy, Policy Focus No. 87, September 2008.

13. Barak Ravid. "Israel to UN: Hezbollah has tripled its land-to-sea missile arsenal." Haaretz , 31 October 2007.

14. For a review of naval support for counter-insurgency operations see Martin N. Murphy. ' COIN on the Water' in Thomas Rid and Thomas Kearney (eds.), Understanding Counterinsurgency Warfare (New York: Routledge (forthcoming 2009)).

15. Remarks as delivered by Admiral Mike Mullen, Naval War College, Newport, RI, 31 August 2005 at  

Dr. Murphy is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C. with particular expertise in maritime irregular warfare.




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