Although maritime terrorism has no internationally agreed upon definition, operationally it can be defined as “Any attempt or threat to seize control of a ship by force; To damage or destroy a ship or its cargo; To injure or kill a person on board a ship; or To endanger in any way the safe navigation of a ship that moves from the territorial waters” (Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation, 1988).
Maritime terrorist attacks to date have been primarily against passenger ships and ferries, including well known attacks against the SuperFerry 14 in February 2004 near Manila, Philippines, and the USS Cole in the Gulf of Aden in October 2000. More recently, Houthi rebels have also engaged in maritime terrorism, conducting attacks against US, Saudi, and Emirati warships, as well as international commercial oil tankers and other civilian ships passing through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. These attacks have utilized a diverse set of tactics, including explosive-laden drone boats, maritime mines, and fast attack craft outfitted with rocket-propelled grenades.
Combating Violent Non-State Actors
The sheer depth of the vulnerable target set at sea, combined with the expansive, ungovernable maritime space, makes the threat of maritime terrorism constant, however, effectively combating violent non-state actors requires widening the aperture to consider the litany of ways the maritime space is utilized to promote organized political violence, beyond attacks at sea.
The maritime space offers myriad possibilities for funding onshore violence, including profits from both licit and illicit businesses that traverse the world’s oceans, and funds obtained through controlling maritime areas and levying taxes illegally. In addition to utilizing the maritime space to fund onshore campaigns of political violence, illicit actors can also exploit the vast ungovernable space to move personnel, weapons, and other equipment necessary to carry out onshore attacks. Further, nefarious actors can support their operations onshore by illegally obtaining property at sea, such as by stealing finite resources like oil, kidnapping for ransom operations, and committing armed robbery.
Understanding the centrality of maritime activity to the operations of illicit actors is critical to stemming the spread of violent conflict onshore.