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Strategies and Capabilities in Countering Seaborne Terrorism

contributed by Keith Mallon

A visit, board, search and seizure team assigned to the guided-missile cruiser USS Anzio (CG 68) investigates a suspected pirate skiff. Image: US Navy

It is well-documented that terror organisations utilise shipping lanes and the littoral environment as a means to convey both men and materiel towards their intended targets.

Previous attacks in Mumbai illustrate the ease with which terror events can be delivered into an urban area to perpetrate significant terror events, and thus produce high casualty counts. The 2011 attacks upon Pakistan’s naval facilities at Karachi highlight the capacity of Al Qaeda-inspired groups to inflict not only loss of life, but with the destruction of a Pakistani P-3C Orion maritime patrol craft, the ability to seriously degrade military operational effectiveness.

But to what extent have maritime-launched attacks been opportunistic? Are we witnessing the emergence of a coherent terrorist strategy to systematically target weak port and littoral defences or should we anticipate a more random and dispersed pattern of events, difficult to predict but not so serious in scale as to induce a revision of current counter-terrorism strategies?

US Navy Commander Chris Rawley explores just this point in an article entitled “Al Qaeda’s Seapower Strategy“, recently published in Small Wars Journal.

Rawley reflects on two distinct elements of terrorists’ use of sea power. First, he demonstrates the way the sea has been used as a conduit for arms, fighters, funding and crucial cargo; mainly since it is subject to far less scrutiny than land or air transport. The second is the use of specific sea ports as safe havens, most notably around the Indian Ocean, from which operations can be launched and refuge taken from security authorities.

There is, of course, the consideration of attacks launched on targets at sea. The bombing of the USS Cole still lives strong in US naval memory. However, force protection of major craft has become so proficient that such attacks are now much less likely to succeed than was previously the case. Additionally, Rawley notes that the piracy business model is now well-established and could be adapted by terror groups “to incite fear and over-reaction, while increasing the cost of business for Western governments”. It is likely too premature to judge if this is the case; western governments have delivered a quite restrained response to piracy. The move of Al Qaeda into the sustainable business of piracy (as distinct from kinetic attacks upon craft intended solely to cause fatalities) does not necessarily reflect on western investment in anti-piracy (or the lack, thereof).

The world’s most prolific terrorist group then seems to have set its maritime strategy on the use of the domain as a kind of logistics base. The implications of this are most keenly felt in Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Arabian Peninsula. The impact of this successful strategy directly hits NATO and other western forces operating in these areas. Successful counter-insurgency operations are recognised as being impossible whilst insurgent forces have secure supply lines and a wide variety of refuge locations. Just as Al Qaeda’s lessons learned in an asymmetric land warfare campaign have proliferated amongst other terror and criminal groups worldwide, we can be sure that their strategy and tactics at sea will be similarly adopted. Tackling the problem of seaborne terrorism is not just an Al Qaeda problem, but common to many other security threats too.

Rawley’s answer to this problem is a three-fold strategy that involves:

(i)    Vigilance against attacks on military and commercial targets
(ii)    Countering Al Qaeda’s smuggling campaign
(iii)    Recapturing strategic ports (e.g. Karachi, Kismaayo, Zinjibar, Port Sudan etc.)

The devil, as always, is in the detail. Implementing such a strategy could prove to be exceptionally difficult, especially when it comes to capability.

Denying a terror network access to the sea is a complex task. The network is diverse and dynamic – and the seas are vast. Securing ports is a crucial step, but even if that is possible, the ease with which more discreet coastal refuges may be exploited is alarming.

The experience of Western governments in tackling piracy is instructive here. Piracy has been deemed serious enough to warrant the deployment of a naval task force to tackle the problem. Frigates, destroyers and other patrol craft engage in a continuous game of cat and mouse with an agile and tactically savvy enemy. Whilst the response has not been overblown, its success has been somewhat muted. Specific attacks are prevented and pirates’ numbers and capabilities are depleted through kinetic means. But overall, the results speak volumes. Piracy remains a persistent threat despite the presence of the task force.

Fundamentally, the limitations of large, conventional naval warfare craft in tackling piracy are the same limitations that would be experienced in tackling terror networks at sea.

Political strategy aside, the technology required to counter such a network is significant. Contenders would surely be:

(i)    Small, fast, patrol craft that can cover range at speed and in volume
(ii)    Persistent, wide-area surveillance systems – most likely airborne

Fortunately, the command and control networks that would manage these capabilities are largely in place. But with budgets restricted and a wide variety of threats demanding the allocation of resources elsewhere, the practicality of procuring significant new capabilities in the volume required seems unlikely.

This means more tough decisions on the development of naval and joint force assets. Specific developments in programmes such as the Littoral Combat Ship and the recent operational deployment of Fire Scout in Libya offer a way forward in terms of capability. This is heartening. But it is tempered by a dismaying decline in overall Western naval strength. Platforms may be more capable, but sometimes hull numbers really do count.

Rawley’s contention is that a targeted campaign will sufficiently degrade the potency of Al Q’aeda’s support network. Even presuming this to be possible, the question of whether or not Western forces would be able to spare the platforms, the sensors, the manpower and the cash to enduringly suppress Al Qaeda at sea remains to be seen.

Military readers of this article may be interested in two upcoming conferences. Offshore Patrol Vessels takes place in Hamburg from 20th to 22nd September.

Maritime Surveillance and Reconnaissance takes place in Rome from 20th to 23rd September.

A limited number of complimentary places are available to serving military personnel on both events. Reply to now to make sure you don’t miss out.


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