Since World War II, violence at sea has been marginalized and equated with piracy. It has been associated with poor countries challenged by domestic conflicts and unable to exercise control over their coastlines. The majority believe unlawful activities at sea have had only a small impact on international security, global sea trade, and the economics of leading countries. It took a suicide bomb attack on the USS Cole (DDG-67) at the port of Aden in 2000 and the events of 11 September 2001 to force a reevaluation of these assumptions.
Analytical centers are beginning to piece together the scattered pieces of the global maritime puzzle. The assault on the Cole was linked to the activities at sea of Tamil separatists and attacks launched by various Palestinian factions. South American drug cartels have been using remotely controlled vessels steered by wires. Extremist movements and criminal organizations are attempting to build midget submarines armed with torpe-does or mines and carrying combat divers. All these efforts resulted in alarming assessments regarding security on the world’s high seas. Terrorists can concentrate on attacking the richest countries of the world’s soft underbelly: sea trade and shipping.
Pirates versus Seafaring Terrorists
For many years, all unlawful acts of violence at sea were embraced by the term piracy. In 1961, when hijackers of a passenger ship were not recognized as pirates and were given political asylum in Brazil (see sidebar, page 70), some realized that the classic definition of piracy does not include all unlawful acts of violence at sea. For the purpose of this article, pirates are distinguished from maritime terrorists by their motivations and consequently their attitude toward anonymity. Modern pirates are motivated by profit so try to avoid publicity and leave no traces. One of the basic aims of terrorists, on the other hand, is to attract media attention, which enables them to make statements, issue proclamations and appeals, and make the most of the theater effect. On 11 September 2001, the theater effect was attained, not by hostage taking and protracted negotiations, but by undertaking activities that had disastrous consequences. Thereby terrorism has been transformed into an instrument of a new global civil war, with all the attributes of an asymmetric conflict. This transformation of terrorism from an instrument of exerting pressure and attracting attention into a tool of total destruction relates well to terrorist activities at sea and differentiates it from piracy.
Another difference between piracy and terrorism at sea is that piracy probably will continue to be territorially limited. This type of criminal activity is related strongly to the on-shore situation in countries, so it is unlikely the geographic frontiers of intensive pirate activity will be extended. This makes piracy somewhat predictable, with the associated risk affecting shipping only in certain waters. Terrorists at sea, however, exercise full freedom of choice with regard to the place, time, target, and method of carrying out the attack. The perpetrators’ only constraints are organizational capabilities, personnel, and finances. Hence it is practically impossible to make predictions about regions at acute risk of sea terrorism. This threat has and will continue to have a global range and will affect both vessels and shipping infrastructure.
Based on terrorist acts targeting commercial shipping in the past 50 years, several terrorist activities are considered likely.
- Attacks in ports or at sea using explosives brought on board a ship with freight. These attacks are the easiest to organize and carry out. Explosives can be put into any freight during its transportation and provided with a time fuse. The shortcoming of such a method is the inability to predict precisely the place of the explosion and estimate its destructive impact. The purpose of these attacks is to generate a sense of threat rather than to destroy targets. The advantages of such an attack for the terrorists are the difficulty in identifying the perpetrators, the relative ease of getting the charge on the ship, the low risk to the perpetrators, the difficulty of organizing effective counteraction, and the possibility of carrying out an assault without having detailed information concerning the operation of the port, the date of departure of the ship, or the destination of the cargo. Moreover, such a method can be used by groups that are small and possess relatively primitive equipment.
- Attacks in ports or at sea using explosives brought on board a ship. The impact of an explosion is enhanced when it occurs on a carefully screened target, such as a vessel transporting hazardous cargo. Organizing such an attack requires obtaining detailed information regarding the movement of ships in selected ports, the type of cargo transported, the system of port security, the system of watch duty on a targeted ship, and the ship’s construction. The perpetrators of such an attack face considerable risks, as their activities in port, and especially on board the ship, could attract attention.
- Hijacking of merchant ships by persons on board or with the assistance of other vessels. All vessels are potential targets for hijacking, the most likely being passenger ships and ships transporting hazardous cargo. The attractiveness of passenger ships arises from the possibility of capturing a large number of people with the intention of either holding them hostage or executing them. Ships transporting hazardous cargo are attractive because of the possibility of using that cargo to gain a strong negotiating position or of destroying the ship. The most important element a hijacking target possesses is the nationality or citizenship of the hostages; the flag of the ship is of practically no importance. A threat to passenger ferries servicing the same two or three countries can arise when one of the countries is in conflict with terrorist groups or a state sponsoring them. The threat to cruise liners depends on the number of passengers of a specific nationality, and rises with the increase in the number of passengers from countries in conflict with a terrorist organization or in an international crisis.
- Firing at merchant ships maneuvering in offshore areas or inland water lanes. Mortars, guided-missile launchers, and grenade launchers have been used in such terrorist attacks and in local conflicts. Now, the use of armorpiercing guided missiles, automatic grenade launchers, and multiple-caliber sniper rifles cannot be ruled out. The need to acquire the weapons and ammunition, ship them to an operational area, and position them for combat seriously limits the possibility of weak organizations launching such attacks without the support of states or terrorist groups. Mortars and rocket launchers can be used against ships maneuvering relatively slowly or that are immobile. A flaw of such an attack is the relatively low accuracy of fire.
- Attacks using explosive-laden vessels remotely controlled or manned by suicide bombers. After World War II, several dozen ships have come under fire from other vessels, especially fast, armed motorboats. These vessels have been used as weapon platforms or as “exploding boats” filled with explosives and guided on target. Boats used in these operations have been armed with machine guns, grenade launchers, armor-piercing guided-missile launchers, unguided rocket missile launchers, and even mobile antiaircraft systems and have reached speeds of 40 knots. The types of weapons with which fast motorboats can be armed do not pose a serious threat to the buoyancy of a midsized merchant ship. However, there is a likelihood of inflicting losses among the crew or causing damage that might lead to the loss of the vessel. In countries with a liberal shipping policy, registering a shipping activity and purchasing a boat is limited solely by the financial resources of the group planning terrorist activities.
- Attacks by armed divers. Armed divers trained and equipped by nonstate actors have attacked commercial shipping since World War II. Organization of such an attack is facilitated by the fact that basic training of scuba divers in most developed countries is considered recreation and equipment is offered for sale commercially. Although a terrorist with a few days of recreational training and equipment purchased at a sports store is militarily inferior by far to a member of naval special forces, he still remains a dangerous adversary, particularly when he launches a surprise attack. Thus, even relatively weak organizations without significant financial resources may be able to field amateur “frogmen.” Strong and affluent organizations can afford to organize and train fully professional teams for underwater subversion even when they do not enjoy state support.
- Attacks using mines. Since World War II, mines have been used in terrorist attacks against merchant ships riding at the roadstead or at anchorage, against vessels approaching ports, or on water lanes leading to or from ports. Their use in a way that would jeopardize the interests of third states should be considered less likely. The perpetrators of such attacks have at their disposal a broad range of combat means. Hence, not only strong organizations with considerable financial resources and hundreds of members and sympathizers (sometimes also enjoying state support) may pose a threat to a merchant ship; weak organizations with limited personnel, finances, and equipment can be dangerous as well.
Terrorism at Sea
Opponents of António de Oliveira Salazar hijack Portuguese passenger ship Santa Maria and later are provided political asylum in Brazil.
Crew members protesting the war in Vietnam hijack U.S. transport Military Sealift Command ship Columbia Eagle.
Venezuelan opposition groupe attacks Anzoteque.
Palestinian fighters attack Israeli tanker in the strait of Bab el Mandeb.
Irish Republican Army (IRA) attempts to blow up cruise liner Queen Elizabeth II.
IRA attacks ferries Ulster Queen and Duke of Argyll.
Palestinian organization Black September sinks Sanya.
Passenger ferry Laju is hijacked in Singapore by five members of Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Japan’s Red Army.
Greek ship Vory is hijacked in Karachi by members of monarchist opposition.
Separatist movements from the southern Philippines launch guerrilla warfare at sea.
Argentine opposition movement Monteneros damages destroyer Santisima Trinidad at shipyard.
Bomb explodes on Soviet Maxim Gorky mooring in Puerto Rico.
IRA explodes yacht Shadow V, killing Lord Mountbatten.
Iranian monarchists seize French-built rocket boat Tabarzin.
Radical environmentalists destroy and damage several countries’ whaling boats.
Polisario Front for the Liberation of Western Sahara destroys Spanish trawlers Garmomar and Costa de Terranova and Portuguese freighter Rio Vouga.
IRA destroys British freighters Nellie M and Saint Bedan.
Bomb explodes on Philippine ferry Santa Lucia.
Nicaraguan Contras launch guerrilla warfare at sea, including mining entry to main ports in the country.
Libyan ship Ghat lays mines on the Red Sea at the exit of Suez Canal.
Palestinian terrorists hijack Italian passenger liner Achille Lauro.
Terrorists attack the Greek ship City of Poros.
Eritrean separatists launch guerrilla warfare at sea, with three Polish vessels among the ships destroyed or damaged: Bołeslaw Krzywousty, Adam Asnyk, Władysław Łokietek.
IRA damages supply ship For Victoria, built for the Royal Navy.
Algerian Islamists murder the crew of Italian merchant ship Lucina.
Chechen terrorists take over Turkish ferry Avrasya.
Islamic fundamentalists damage U.S. destroyer Cole (DDG-67) in Yemen.
French tanker Limburg damaged by explosive suicide boat near Yemen coast.
Merchant shipping and global maritime trade play a key role in the global economy while being extremely sensitive to terrorist activities. Because the threat of terrorism at sea never has been taken seriously, few maritime states have plans and procedures for extending antiterrorist protection to shipping. Apart from convoy experiences during World War II and U.S. protection of tankers in the Persian Gulf from 1986 to 1988, there are no historical models for organizing the protection of shipping.
The status of maritime areas is to terrorists’ advantage. The principles of freedom of the seas and freedom of shipping apply to areas beyond a coastal state’s territorial waters, so no state can extend its control over the open sea (with few exceptions) or restrict shipping. The open sea remains outside the jurisdiction of any state, while executive authority over sea vessels remains strictly the domain of the state whose flag the ship flies. The 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea provides for only a few departures from the above general rule, and they are subject to a number of restrictions that seriously undermine their effectiveness.
The 1988 Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation (the Rome Convention) provides new instruments in the fight against criminal acts extending beyond the classic definition of piracy. The convention covers these activities:
- Any person commits an offence if that person unlawfully and intentionally:
- seizes or exercises control over a ship by force or threat thereof or any other form of intimidation; or
- performs an act of violence against a person on board a ship if that act is likely to endanger the safe navigation of that ship; or
- destroys a ship or causes damage to a ship or to its cargo which is likely to endanger the safe navigation of that ship; or
- places or causes to be placed on a ship, by any means whatsoever, a device or substance which is likely to destroy that ship, or cause damage to that ship or its cargo which endangers or is likely to endanger the safe navigation of that ship; or
- destroys or seriously damages maritime navigational facilities or seriously interferes with their operation, if any such act is likely to endanger the safe navigation of a ship; or
- communicates information which he knows to be false, thereby endangering the safe navigation of a ship; or
- injures or kills any person, in connection with the commission or the attempted commission of any of the offences set forth in subparagraphs (a) to (f).
- Any person also commits an offence if that person:
- attempts to commit any of the offences set forth in paragraph 1; or
- abets the commission of any of the offences set forth in paragraph 1 perpetrated by any person or is otherwise an accomplice of a person who commits such an offence; or
- threatens, with or without a condition, as is provided for under national law, aimed at compelling a physical or juridical person to do or refrain from doing any act, to commit any of the offences set forth in paragraph 1, subparagraphs (b), (c) and (e), if that threat is likely to endanger the safe navigation of the ship in question.
The convention lists precisely the measures the state is authorized to launch against terrorists.
There is no doubt the Rome Convention lays out the right line of action, but its regulations do not resolve fundamental problems restricting effective use of state formations, particularly those associated with prevention and preemptive defense. Regrettably, the freedom of the seas, which had for centuries remained one of the pillars of Western civilization, can be exploited ruthlessly today by diverse political extremists.
Even more difficult is a successful fight against terrorism in offshore waters, particularly when perpetrators conduct their activities from the territorial waters of a state that has no effective control over them and that refuses to cooperate with other states to eradicate maritime terrorism. A certain oversensitivity of many countries about their sovereignty as well as elaborate corruption networks among local administrations and police forces render the fight against piracy and terrorism in many maritime regions all but impossible. States conducting antiterrorist operations at sea must accept that current regulations reduce the effectiveness of operations. This situation is favorable to the perpetrators of terrorist attacks and may have a negative impact on antiterrorist operations at sea.
The international community is unprepared to face the threat of intensive terrorist activities that now can be conducted on a large scale both within the jurisdiction of states and on the high seas. Let us not wait until the next spectacular act of politically motivated terrorism before launching effective countermeasures against this increasingly palpable threat.
Commander Kubiak is an associate professor at the Naval University of Gdynia, where he focuses on naval wars and conflicts after World War II and unconventional threats at sea, including maritime terrorism, illegal immigration, and ecological weapons.
 In an overwhelming majority of reported instances, these vessels were connected by a bundle of wires 150-200 meters long, with the base vessel controlling their steering and supplying power to their electrical engines.
 Following World War II, armed motorboats were used by Cuban anti-Castro groups, Arab terrorists targeting Israel’s shipping and seacoast, the Nicaraguan Contras fighting the Sandinistas, Iranian navy irregulars during the Iran-Iraq war, Croatian forces during the civil war in Yugoslavia, and the Tamils in the domestic conflict in Sri Lanka.
 U.N. Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation, 10 March 1988, www.undcp.org/odccp/terrorism_convention_maritime_navigation.html.