SINGAPORE - Preliminary investigations by US
intelligence agencies have yielded no direct evidence
linking piracy to terrorism. Yet the possibility of an
alliance between piracy and terrorism cannot be ruled
out. Piracy provides lucrative means of raising funds
with which to purchase weapons for terrorists. In turn,
terrorist groups can provide the expertise with which
pirates may better avoid capture or arrest by lawful
authorities. Such a possible collaborative relationship
brings vital benefits to either party. If circumstances
allow, terrorist bases and safe havens may even provide
the necessary protection for pirates to hide their
operations and activities.
With the intense
crackdown on terrorist cells on land, terrorist groups
are likely to shift their operations to sea out of
necessity and to avoid attention. Recent discoveries
show that sophisticated groups such as al-Qaeda already
have placed their sights on attacking maritime targets:
terrorist suspect Babar Ahmad, apprehended on August 4
in London, had plans detailing vulnerabilities in US
naval fleets. State governments in Southeast Asia have
long recognized this fact and have set up cooperative
efforts in coordinating maritime patrols, in particular
along the Malacca Strait.
smuggling Smuggling, or the illegal transport of
goods, is a maritime crime committed to evade paying
custom dues. It is an act that on the surface has only
minor significance in regard to security issues.
Smugglers, after all, are aiming to make lucrative
profits by illegal cost-cutting. Theoretically,
smuggling entails no risk of life and limb, even if the
smugglers are apprehended, so long as they are not
armed. Smuggling, in fact, falls more under the
jurisdiction of maritime customs authorities.
Maritime smuggling, however, can serve as an
avenue by which weapons and explosives may be supplied
to terrorists. Logically, a maritime smuggling operation
is more secure than an overland operation, as
surveillance at sea is much more difficult than on land.
This means that thwarting smuggling attempts requires
excellent intelligence from moles or infiltrated spies
within the smuggling ring itself.
smuggling case is particularly noteworthy. On July 24
the Philippine authorities apprehended a shipment of
rifles and other assorted weapons aboard a motor vessel.
These weapons were to be transferred to fishing boats
and taken ashore to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front
(MILF), the biggest armed insurgent group operating in
the Philippines. Both sides, rebels and government
officials, have taken to accusing each other for
involvement in the weapons shipment.
incident highlights the need for maritime security
forces to guard against smugglers. Aside from being a
source of direct weapon supplies, smuggling also
provides a lucrative form of revenue that can help
finance terrorist activities.
tactics As with terrorism on land, maritime
terrorism tends to mimic successful tactics employed by
other terrorist groups. This was a claim made by a
leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a
Sri Lankan armed insurgent group, when he commented on
the attack on the USS Cole in 2000.
tactics that have proved successful or effective are
then repeated elsewhere and modified according to local
circumstances and situations. Attention devoted by both
media and intelligence communities to maritime terrorism
is much less than that given to land-based terrorism.
The following factors may explain why.
Important activities such as commerce, production or
political events are mostly carried out on land.
Activities at sea, even those of vital importance, are
mainly the concerns of a minority group in society -
sailors, naval personnel, or maritime merchants. These
people, by virtue of their trade, are usually cut off
from mainstream social affairs by the necessity of long
periods spent away at sea.
Terrorist attacks at sea tend to hit mostly
individual targets (ships), unlike terrorist attacks on
land, such as a bombing in a crowded place, that may
kill or injure multiple targets. The effects of sudden
death in usually predominantly urban environments on
land have a greater psychological impact on the public,
especially if filmed by media or reported in newspaper
photographs. This is in contrast to humanitarian
disasters at sea, where evidence of the carnage is
recovered over time, and the usual loss of evidence
beneath the waves leads to much ambiguity. The fear
factor in the wake of a successful maritime terrorist
attack is thus depleted.
The frequency of maritime terrorist attacks is
significantly less than of land-based attacks. This is
partly due to the level of difficulty in obtaining,
preparing and piloting a seacraft for a suicide-bomb
attack as compared with a land-based car or truck bomb.
Also the opportunities of hitting a ship stationed at
port may not always abound, as port security can be
easily reinforced if necessary.
groups, however, are openly exploring opportunities to
stage acts of terrorism on commercial shipping.
According to a CNN report in May, Western intelligence
uncovered plans by al-Qaeda contemplating an attack on
ships moored at ports and maritime choke points,
including the Strait of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal. In
Southeast Asia, the Malacca Strait is another important
waterway that remains vulnerable to terrorist activity
or piracy if security measures are lax.
Terrorist acts pertaining to maritime terrorism
have happened several times already.
Cole bombing On October 12, 2000, the US Navy
destroyer USS Cole was at the
Yemeni port of Aden for
refueling. According to witnesses, a rubber speedboat
helping the destroyer moor exploded alongside the ship,
opening a six-by-12-meter hole at the waterline on the
left of its broadside.
The bombing incident of
the USS Cole drew a lot of media attention, unlike a
later maritime terrorist attack on the French oil
supertanker Limburg in 2002. Both incidents, however,
involved similar operating methods, utilizing
explosives-laden vessels that approached the target
before self-detonating. The assaulting vessel may be
running at top speed, driven by pilots mentally prepared
to sacrifice their lives kamikaze style. Suicide
terrorism is an effective tactic and has been used with
increasing frequency since the attacks in the United
States on September 11, 2001.
attack on the USS Cole was considered a failure. The
attack led neither to the ship's sinking nor
annihilation of the entire crew; only 17 sailors were
killed. The bombing of the Cole, merely a destroyer,
also had little significant impact on the aggregate
fleet strength of the US Navy, nor would it even if it
had been destroyed. Moreover, the bombing alerted the
world's intelligence community to a new type of
The attacks on the Cole and
the Limburg were maritime incidents where terrorists
attempted to strike ships stationed at port with small,
explosives-laden vessels. It also highlighted the clear
vulnerability of larger ships in coastal areas being hit
in this way by much smaller vessels that could
masquerade as vessels performing some other function. In
hiding their true purpose, before being launched at high
velocities, these vessels had the ability to take the
larger ships by surprise.
The Tamil Tigers in
Sri Lanka The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
(LTTE) is an armed insurgent group with considerable
political and military strength in Sri Lanka. The Tigers
are virtually de facto rulers of a huge swath of land
called the Jaffna region and peninsula in northern Sri
Lanka. The LTTE has been designated a terrorist group by
both the United States and the United Kingdom.
Founded and led by Vellupillai Prabakaran, a
leader with undoubtedly brilliant military ability, the
LTTE is a sophisticated organization that provides
alternative governing administration in areas under its
control. Its military organization is much akin to the
conventional armed services of any modern state, with
its cadre divided into several wings, including the main
ground forces, naval group, anti-aircraft group and
The LTTE also has a wing of suicide
bombers called the Black Tigers, whose members are
chosen to conduct assassinations of top political
opposition figures using explosives strapped to the
body. The LTTE pioneered a form of maritime suicide
terrorism that uses specially designed watercraft loaded
with explosives and spikes fastened to the bow of the
boat in order to latch on to the broadside of the larger
vessel upon high-velocity impact. The tactics are
similar in kind to the operations carried out against
the USS Cole and the Limburg.
In addition to the
Black Tigers, the naval wing of the LTTE, the Sea
Tigers, has a suicide bomber sub-unit called the Black
Sea Tigers. On June 5, 2000, the Black Sea Tigers
attacked Sri Lankan naval gunboats in the waters off the
Vadamarachchi coast. Twenty-one naval personnel and 13
Black Sea Tiger cadres were killed in the attack. The
Sea Tigers employed these kamikaze-style suicide
tactics with explosives-laden boats on a huge operation
in September 2001 against the Sri Lankan navy, utilizing
about 20 such boats.
The LTTE has avoided
attention and crackdowns by foreign intelligence and
security communities only because, with the exception of
Indian prime minister Rajiv Ghandi's assassination, it
has kept most of its violent activities confined to Sri
Although since 2003 the LTTE has been
officially committed to peaceful negotiations aimed at
reconciliation with the Sri Lankan government, its
undoubted military capabilities and high level of
sophisticated terrorist methods and tactics remain
relatively intact. Its highly organized political and
military organization clearly illustrates the potential
for development of maritime terrorist tactics and
Although its main
political agenda may be limited and irrelevant to other
states, the LTTE could easily act as an intermediary or
auxiliary contact, providing training, expertise and
arms supplies to other terrorist groups in Southeast
Asia that may have an interest in developing maritime
terrorism. Monetary rewards remain the strongest
incentives for such clandestine alliances.
The Abu Sayyaf The Abu Sayyaf in the
Philippines is an extremist Islamic militant group that
originated in 1990 as a splinter faction of another much
larger militant organization, the Moro Islamic
Liberation Front (MILF). It is currently led by Khadaffy
Janjalani, the brother of deceased founder Abdurajak
Abubakar Janjalani. The Abu Sayyaf rose to prominence
and notoriety because of its ruthlessness in the
kidnapping and beheading of hostages in 2000.
The large southern island province of Mindanao
has always been the stronghold of opposition and armed
resistance by both the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf against
the Philippine government. The Abu Sayyaf was
established and is active on Jolo and Basilan islands in
the southwestern Philippines. Southwest of Mindanao
Island are a chain of islands from which gun-running and
weapons smuggling were made possible by speedboats and
other small vessels owned by the Abu Sayyaf. The sources
of the weapons were unidentified smugglers from the
larger island of Borneo, which is under the jurisdiction
of Malaysia and Indonesia.
As seen from the map, Jolo and Basilan islands
are straddled along a relatively short sea route between
the Malaysian part of Borneo and Mindanao. Because of
this strategic significance, small vessels such as
speedboats can make short journeys by "island hopping"
if a network of established contacts are well placed on
various islands to facilitate necessary boat activities
such as replenishing supplies, loading of cargo, etc. As
such, the Abu Sayyaf has used smuggling to obtain
supplies and weapons by sea.
The Abu Sayyaf also
seems interested in staging maritime terrorist acts. On
February 28, an explosion occurred on SuperFerry 14, a
Philippine passenger ship. The Abu Sayyaf claimed
responsibility for this terrorist act, which supposedly
involved a suicide bomber masquerading as a passenger.
The Philippines has announced a number of
ongoing and consecutive arrests as well as eradication
operations taken against this group from 2001 onward.
Important leaders and cadres have been captured. Many of
its members were also killed in periodic shootouts with
soldiers from the Philippine Armed Forces.
the Abu Sayyaf is known to have close links to al-Qaeda,
the United States has taken exceptional interest in this
group, extending financial aid and training expertise to
the Philippines for the purpose of improving
counter-terrorism efforts against this group.
Although the Abu Sayyaf is relatively smaller
than its parent organization, the MILF, and despite
having many of its members eliminated, its leader
Khadaffy Janjalani is still at large. To date, the
Philippine authorities, in particular the armed forces,
are still not able to eradicate this group completely.
The Abu Sayyaf remains a potential maritime threat.
TOMORROW - Strategies for
Eric Koo has a
bachelor's degree in materials engineering and a
master's degree of science in strategic studies from
Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He is
currently writing commentary and analysis articles about
international events, security issues and terrorism for