Clearing the Lens of the Periscope: On the Lookout for Violent Non-State Armed Groups at Sea

Violence At Sea Chart
The Violence at Sea visual tier guide, used to rate each violent non-state actor’s ability to engage in maritime activities to finance and facilitate their political goals.


Sea blindness—the failure to acknowledge or recognize the importance of the maritime domain to both society and the economy—can pose a significant threat to state security. As detailed in a May 2019 report by the Stable Seas program at One Earth Future, states across the international community are susceptible to threats emerging from the maritime space. And these threats to security, including economic, national, and human threats, are not just to littoral states, but are impactful for the broader international community. In other words, securing coastlines and open waters is crucial for curtailing terrorist activities at sea and on land.

While the challenges of securing the maritime domain are well understood in both academic and policy circles, developing robust and effective capabilities to quell maritime threats remains an intricate challenge. This is not all that surprising. The sea is a vast and ungoverned space, covering some 140 million square miles and accounting for 72 percent of the Earth’s surface. Moreover, 80 percent of trade by volume and 70 percent of trade by value travels by sea, and the investment necessary to develop an effective fleet to fully monitor this arena would be costly, if not impractical.

Terrorist groups around the globe have seen the challenges of securing the maritime domain as a strategic opportunity to advance their political goals. Often, these groups are able to use sea blindness and/or a state’s limited maritime capabilities to smuggle fighters and weapons, orchestrate attacks on maritime targets, and even finance their operations through illicit trafficking and taxation schemes. For instance, Hamas’ armed wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, has an elite naval commando unit whose training includes diving and drills for deploying explosives against naval vessels both via sea and on land. In 2015, Israeli customs officers intercepted a shipment of 40 diving suits believed to be headed to the group. More recently there have been concerns that Hamas will target natural gas platforms off the coast of Gaza.

Maritime terrorism is not a new phenomenon. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) waged a lengthy insurgency against the Sri Lankan government, in part through the group’s formidable naval force known as the Sea Tigers. The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) has been well-known for its kidnapping for ransom schemes at sea, which hinge around the potential capital of the humans aboard the vessel, rather than the vessel itself and the potential spoils it might bring.

The infamous USS Cole bombing in the port of Aden in October of 2000 is yet another example of the threat posed by maritime terrorism and highlights the severity of such tactics. Orchestrated by the al-Qaeda terrorist network, this attack was followed by the 2002 Limburg oil tanker bombing, also in the Gulf of Aden. Contemporary examples in this region include Houthi naval attacks in the Red Sea, including the group's use of remote-controlled vessels packed with explosives. Such attacks and strategies provide very clear indicators of the vulnerabilities of sea blindness.

The complexities of the maritime domain and the ways in which violent non-state actors (VNSAs) exploit the maritime space continue to be underexplored, as do the potential targets of seaborne violence. The sharp increase in offshore oil storage in March 2020 amid the looming COVID-19 pandemic, with both new and previously unused storage facilities coming online, renewed debate about the threat of maritime terrorism and raised concerns about potential vulnerabilities given the challenges associated with developing robust security around these sites. Since 2017, Mozambique has been forced to contend with the rise of the Ansar al-Sunna (Ahlu-Sunnah Wal Jama’at) group, a highly active terrorist threat that has coordinated numerous attacks by land and sea on coastal cities in the Cabo Delgado region. The diversity of actors, tactics, and targets in the maritime domain underscores the importance of more rigorous investigation of this area.

Understanding the Funding and Financing of Terrorism

To address this need and better understand how terrorist groups use the maritime domain, we set out to develop group profiles that consider the degree to which these organizations utilize the maritime space for both operational and financial purposes. The final product, to be released later this week, will consider the maritime activities of 43 VNSAs across three maritime regions.

Specifically, our analysis considered two operational activities along with three financial activities, which we coded using a tier rating system (more details can be found in our methodology and codebook chapter, located at the end of the full report). Operational activities are actions taken by VNSAs in pursuit of their political or ideological goals. We identified two distinct categories: Tactical Support and Target. Tactical Support covers the degree to which VNSAs utilize the maritime space for the transportation of fighters, weapons, or other operational assets, whereas Target refers specifically to the use, or threat, of violence against maritime targets such as ships or ports. Each VNSA’s operational score demonstrates how able and likely the group is to pursue these specific activities in the maritime domain.

Financial activities are undertaken by VNSAs to fund and support their operational activities. These activities have been split into three categories: Take, Traffic and Trade, and Tax and Extort. Take activities are those in which force or coercion is used to illegally obtain property, such as piracy, kidnapping for ransom, or armed robbery at sea. The second category, Traffic and Trade, involves the illicit exchange of goods or services, often requiring the VNSA to join, or establish, criminal financial networks. Finally, Tax and Extort involves obtaining payment from local communities and businesses through force or intimidation.

Most of the activities in the financial activities category are used by other criminal groups in addition to VNSAs. However, whereas criminal groups utilize these activities in pursuit of financial gain, VNSAs do so to fund their ideological and political goals.

Rating the Five T’s Of Maritime Terrorism

Our efforts led us to consider each terrorist organization’s level of activity in these five categories (what we refer to as the five T’s—Tactical Support, Target, Take, Traffic and Trade, and Tax and Extort). Every organization received a tier rating from 1 to 4 for each respective activity where 1 equaled no activity in the maritime domain for the specified category and 4 equated to heavy activity in the maritime domain for the specified category. For example, the Somali-based terror group Al Shabaab is known to extract taxes on goods at the port of Mogadishu. Its regular reliance on taxation at the port for financial purposes led to the group earning a tier 4 rating in the Tax and Extort category.

In several cases, no evidence was found that an organization was directly engaged in a specific activity, but consulted sources did identify for the group what we consider to be an “aspirational goal” to move into the maritime domain. Put differently, even if groups were inactive in the maritime domain, we considered the potential for a group to pursue maritime activities based on evidence such as their geographic location, past behavior, and connectedness to other illicit organizations.

For instance, groups like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) operate well inland of any coastlines. Yet, Algeria’s intelligence service, the Direction de la Securite Interieure (DSI), reported that a 2012 maritime attack was thwarted in its early stages by intelligence officers who discovered that three AQIM insurgents had purchased a boat and planned to load it with explosives and ram a vessel in the Mediterranean. Though the group has never successfully orchestrated a maritime attack, AQIM received a tier 2 rating in the Target category for its past maritime ambitions.

In addition to the scoring categories, each VNSA has been sifted into one of three maritime regions. The Atlantic and Mediterranean covers several high-intensity conflicts such as the Libyan and Syrian civil wars, and includes groups such as Boko Haram, the ELN, and Hezbollah. Due to the nature of these groups and the characteristics of the maritime domain, Traffic and Trade and Tactical Support scores tend to be higher than average.

The Western Indian Ocean Region (WIOR) includes several routes integral to the global drug trade and therefore tends towards higher scores in Traffic and Trade. Groups in this region include Ansar al-Sunna and IS-Khorasan. The final region is the Indo-Pacific and includes groups such as Abu Sayyaf, the only group rated at a tier 4 in Take, and the Maute Group, infamous for their siege on the city of Marawi.

Grouping these organizations by maritime domain gives stakeholders and other interested parties the ability to analyze the composite threat these groups pose to their maritime neighbors. In addition to a holistic land–maritime perspective, stakeholders should consider the overall threat these groups pose to their entire region.

Our assessment highlights the prevalence of several VNSAs’ reliance on the maritime domain for operational activities and financial well-being. An important aspect of our analysis is our goal of continuing to monitor the evolution of each organization’s maritime activities along with generating additional profiles as groups move into the maritime domain. The ability to monitor and continually update group profiles provides a unique and useful tool for stakeholders as they develop strategies to combat political violence in both land and maritime domains. We hope that our report Violence At Sea: How Terrorists, Insurgents, and Other Extremists Exploit the Maritime Domain, along with other products, including the Maritime Security Index, can help overcome sea blindness and combat terrorism at land and sea.