The changing face of maritime terrorism
3 Mar 2017|

Maritime terrorism has reared its ugly head again—this time in Southeast Asia where a Vietnamese cargo ship was attacked by supposed members of the dreaded Filipino terrorist outfit, Abu Sayyaf. Days later, Jürgen Kantner, a German national captured off the coast of southern Philippines in November 2016, was beheaded by members of the same group, sparking international outrage and all-round condemnation.

These incidents come only a month after Houthi militants—another vicious band of ralicalised mercenaries in Yemen—carried out an attack on a Saudi Arabian navy vessel, killing two service personnel and injuring many others. The Saudi warship is supposed to have had over 150 sailors and officers onboard, as well as a combat helicopter at the time of the attack, which US military experts concluded involved the use of a small unmanned remote-controlled attack boat.

The latest incidents in the waters off the Philippines reveal another pattern. According to media reports, the strike on the Vietnamese cargo ship wasn’t meant so much to cause death and injury, as it was aimed at capturing hostages. While only one crew member was killed in the attack, six others were abducted, in a manner similar to recent attacks by ISIS-affiliated groups in Southeast Asia. As the beheading of Mr Kantner demonstrates, militants are increasingly prone to using hostages as bargaining chips to extract concessions out of regional governments. Abu Sayyaf, one of the most significant terror organisations in Southeast Asia to have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS), is said to hold over 27 people, including many Malaysians, Indonesians, and Vietnamese. Alarmed Filipino officials are now warning of a Somalia-type situation in the Southeast Asian littorals.

West of the Malacca, Indian observers too worry over the possibility of a similar terror tactic at sea. After the 26/11 attacks, India’s maritime agencies have been on high alert looking for signs of another terrorist infiltration into Indian waters. Last week, reports surfaced that there had been a sudden rise in the number of abandoned Pakistani fishing boats in the Rann of Kutch region, causing many to speculate a sustained bid by Pakistan-based terror groups to cross-over into Indian Territory. Some of these, Indian analysts surmise, could well be connected to the Islamic State.

An IS-inspired maritime terror attack on the Indian seas might seem far-fetched, but isn’t beyond the realm of conception. India’s security managers are being forced to confront the possibility of a terrorist attack on Indian ports on the west coast, and even cruise ships on the high seas. As IS-motivated attacks in Asian waters rise, analysts say the number of reported violations of India’s territorial seas by smaller boats and crafts continues to be high.

There’s also the possibility that militant cadres could use new methods to strike maritime military facilities. One such tactic could be the targeting of maritime infrastructure, in particular naval operational and residential complexes, and logistical hubs. In December 2015, Australian police arrested two young men in Sydney for planning an attack on a maritime facility. The troublemakers are said to have been radicalised and were attempting to carry out strikes on multiple targets in the Woolloomooloo naval base in Sydney, home to Australia’s principle naval assets. A few days earlier, there was a bomb blast at a mosque in a naval base in Dhaka, Bangladesh that killed two people and injured many more.

Since the early 2000s, when a series of terror attacks riled the waters of Asia, regional maritime forces have been on high alert. The most famous of those was the attack on the USS Cole on October 12, 2000 that killed 17 sailors. That was a follow-up to a failed attack on the USS Sullivan that’s supposed to have hardened the resolve of al-Qaeda to launch a successful attack on a US warship. It was carried out by a small boat in harbour and considered by far the biggest breach of security on a commissioned US warship. It was shortly followed by the attack on the MV Limburg in 2002, which left the supertanker blazing off the Yemeni coast.

It’s the Pakistan Navy’s (PN) vulnerability to maritime terror, however, that most worries Indian watchers. In July 2015, radicalised elements of the PN colluded with al-Qaeda to give effect to a diabolical plan to forcibly take-over two Pakistani warships in Karachi Harbor. The plan—foiled only on the nick of time—was to use the hijacked ships to carry out attacks on US and Indian naval warships. So rattled was the Indian navy after that incident that it ramped up security measures in the Arabian Sea, instituting special security procedures to deal with a threat of terror related violence at sea.

The most high-profile attack on a naval facility was the strike on PNS Mehran, a premier Pakistani naval base at Karachi, where a group of well-trained militants carried out a full-fledged military assault, killing scores of people and inflicting severe damage on Pakistani military assets.

Analysts surmise a future terror hit on a port facility could well involve a lone wolf. Over the years, terrorists have shown themselves to be remarkably enterprising in planning attacks and it’s entirely possible for radicalised individuals to carry out a covert strike. Cargo containers arriving from ships, some say, offer the perfect opportunity to terrorists to carry out an attack on a port facility. A jihadi inside a container could detonate a vast quality of explosive or a low-grade nuclear device. In premier container and trans-shipment ports across the Indian Ocean and Pacific, port authorities follow a layered risk-based approach to security where specific kinds of cargo is comprehensively scanned.

Unfortunately, regional maritime forces seem not to have kept pace with the evolving threat. Little has been done to develop a comprehensive doctrine or even a coherent plan to guard against a terror strike at sea, or stop militant infiltration from the sea. Instead, precious time has been wasted developing measures that are either too costly to implement or logistically unfeasible.