The next terrorist attack: Al Qaeda’s maritime history and ambitions

Terrorism is not a new form of political dissent in asymmetric warfare. The tactics used by terrorist organisations have evolved as a continually viable form of violent coercion since the first century AD.(2) The tactics employed have since been continually advanced and adapted to exploit gaps in security. The militant Islamist organisation, al Qaeda, discovered and exploited such a gap in security on 11 September 2001. Since then, aviation security and national security have dramatically increased worldwide. A number of follow up attacks against airlines, airports and symbolic land infrastructure have been disrupted and foiled by authorities. The hardening of these once soft targets has the potential to force al Qaeda to evolve and shift its operations to maritime terrorism. This CAI paper discusses al Qaeda’s history of maritime terrorism and its ambitions for the next major terrorist attack.

Al Qaeda’s maritime history

Al Qaeda has no designated maritime wing and instead relies on widely distributed specialists and outside sources to meet its maritime ambitions. While the organisation has the financial means and motivation, it is thought to lack the capability and consolidated expertise to conduct successful terrorist operations in the maritime environment.

In 1999, al Qaeda began planning, under the leadership of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, to attack the USS Sullivan.(3) The initial attack in early 2000 failed as the vessel used by al Qaeda promptly sank after launching with an excessive cargo of 200kg of TNT. After continued training, modifications to the vessel and a number of simulated practice runs, al Qaeda was successful in 2000 with the attack on the USS Cole. This singular attack killed 17 American sailors and wounded an additional 42 sailors. It also effectively decommissioned the USS Cole for 14 months at a cost of US$ 250 million. The publicity generated by this attack on the US warship was immense and al Qaeda benefited through increased recruitment, media recognition and donations.(4)

A similar attack on a US warship was planned for 2002. When the US warship failed to appear in Yemen, al Qaeda adapted and evolved tactics by striking a target of opportunity, the MV Limberg. This attack demonstrates increased maritime capability as the MV Limberg was attacked three nautical miles offshore. While the loss of life was low – only one sailor was killed and 12 wounded – the impact of the attack was substantial. This attack caused oil prices to increase by US$ 0.48/barrel due to maritime insurance companies rapidly increasing insurance fees. This made it evident that terrorist organisations could deliver a devastating economic blow to the West without having to leave their region of operation.(5)

In 2004 the militant group, Abu Sayyaf, which has financial and training links with al Qaeda, was successful in attacking a cruise ship. Abu Sayyaf used Redento Cain Dellosa, a member of Rajah Solaiman Revolutionary movement, who was trained by the terrorist organisation, Jemaah Islamiyah. He was able to plant a TV filled with explosives onto Super Ferry 14, killing 116 civilians.(6)

In 2005 an al Qaeda operational cell in Turkey, led by Lu’ aiSakra, was exposed and arrested while planning to strike an Israeli cruise ship using high-speed boats. In Malaysia, plans to attack US sailors and vessels in Port Klang and off Surabaya were also uncovered belonging to the al Qaeda associate group, Kumpula Militan Malaysia (KMM). In Singapore, raids on Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) residences uncovered video surveillance of US warships. The same videos were found in the residence of Abu Hafs al Masri in Afghanistan. A search of Abu Hafs al Masri’s residence in 2001 revealed diving manuals and documents claiming al Qaeda had recruited diving specialists and had plans to develop their own diving schools.(7)

Al Qaeda’s maritime terrorism ambitions have been uncovered in a number of different countries, on different continents and with different jihadist movements. Al Qaeda has a substantial history of using and backing Islamic militant groups around the world to meet its ambitions, needs and gaps in expertise. As such, the lack of a designated maritime wing does not indicate, as it has been suggested, a lack of ambition or capability in conducting maritime terrorism.

Maritime terrorism

All maritime terrorism operations develop on land and often are derived from a logistics origin. Vessels in the ploys of terrorist organisations often take the valuable role of smuggling weapons, supplies and/or fighters into conflict areas. It is in illegal maritime operations that terrorist organisations begin to develop the equipment and human capital needed to commit terrorism on the high seas.(8)

The problem with this pathway to development is that most terrorist organisations, al Qaeda included, are often not located near the coast. The financial focus of al Qaeda is fixed squarely on land-based warfare and high media impact attacks directly on the West. The cost of a terrorist cell operating on land is far cheaper than the operational cost and training required for the same cell to maintain operations and be proficient in the maritime environment.

In addition to the high cost of training and equipping maritime terrorists, it was also thought that attacking maritime targets would only achieve a limited media impact. Yet the attacks on the USS Cole, MV Limberg and piracy in east Africa have proved that the media can rapidly disseminate information worldwide, even on offshore maritime activities, thus adding further incentive to targeting military and economic maritime symbols.(9)

The maritime threat from al Qaeda comes from its well-entrenched Islamic militant networks in Africa. Al Qaeda has historically been able to task its affiliated terrorist organisations around the world to provide maritime human capital, training, equipment and incentive to attack maritime targets. The relationship between al Qaeda and al Shabaab in Somalia is a perfect melding of ambition and maritime capability.(10) Al Shabaab has a maritime history of smuggling arms, explosives and people into and out of Somalia. Additionally, al Shabaab is familiar with maritime and port operations after managing ports in Southern Somalia. This familiarity with maritime and port operations gives al Shabaab an advantage in knowing where there are lapses in security. Finally, al Shabaab has traditionally extorted pirates by forcing them to pay ‘rent’ for protection and to utilise ports.(11) The requirements for a successful maritime terrorist attack are all available to al Qaeda, and they have the financial capability to fund and initiate an attack through al Shabaab.

The next attack

The next major maritime terrorist attack will most likely occur on an east African port. The security of ports in this region is not robust enough to prevent an attack via a high speed suicide vessel or combat diver. As al Shabaab forces focus attacks on Mogadishu, and as the port of Mogadishu continues to receive increased international shipping, it is reasonable to assume that it is the most likely target.

The skills required to breach a heavily defended port and to be a proficient combat diver are well beyond the capabilities of al Qaeda and its affiliates. Yet, al Shabaab will only be attacking ports with limited port security and surveillance. The equipment and training needed to detect divers using port sensors and optic netting is both expensive and sophisticated. This technology and technical training is only utilised in a limited number of African ports. In this case it is not inconceivable for a combat diver with the most rudimentary skillset to breach port security and attack vessels undetected.

It is also conceivable that a larger international port, such as Djibouti, which receives a number of Western naval and commercial ships, is a possible terrorist target. Additionally, Djibouti facilitates US Camp Lemonnier which acts as the “busiest Predator drone base outside of afghan war zone.”(12) An attack on US naval vessels or assets docked in Djibouti would receive massive praise from worldwide terrorist networks, create a major media impact and be an embarrassment for the US Armed Forces.

It is possible that such an attack on US naval vessels and assets might occur using al Shabaab combat divers to breach harbour defences and attach explosives to anchored or docked vessels. As discussed before, al Qaeda have already been linked with scuba diving schools and manuals that are suggestive of underwater terrorist attacks. In 2012, four Somalis associated with al Shabaab were arrested on the Yemen Island of Socotra learning to scuba dive.(13)

A more technically advanced type of maritime attack off the coast of Somalia in the Bab al Mandab strait has long been an al Qaeda ambition.(14) A maritime terrorist attack mounted at a natural chokepoint would provide a significant strategic advantage while also increasing collateral damage. The Bab al Mandab strait is only 30km wide but it is divided by the island Perim, which creates two channels of 3 and 25km widths.(15) Everyday large oil tankers transit this strait carrying over 3.4 million barrels of crude oil.(16) Yet, in this narrow strait the large vessels are unable to manoeuvre freely, increase speed or avoid visual detection by heading farther offshore. Essentially unguarded tankers become an increasingly easy target for relatively unskilled maritime terrorists.

The rudimentary skills required to attack offshore tankers was demonstrated by al Qaeda with the attack on the MV Limberg. Al Shabaab has the maritime skills and operational knowledge needed to manoeuvre a speedboat near enough to and detonate an improvised explosive device (IED) against an oil tanker in the strait. The economic disaster caused by attacking a large oil tanker in the strait would be dramatic. It would force other vessels in the area to divert course and possibly shut down the strait. At a normal operating cost of US$ 120,000 a day any course diversion performed by other tankers would incur substantial market price increases. The shutting down of the strait for even a day would have worldwide impacts, receive complete media attention and divert Western resources. Any successful maritime terrorist attack using either combat divers or speedboats would spawn many international copycat terrorist attacks that would be increasingly hard to detect and prevent.

Concluding remarks

Al Qaeda has continually shown the ability to evolve and adapt tactics to the current security situation. The terrorist organisation is well known for its ability to locate and strike gaps in security. It is important to consider al Qaeda’s history and expansive jihadist network throughout the world when considering al Qaeda’s capabilities. It does not need a designated maritime wing in order to successfully task terrorist organisations like al Shabaab to engage maritime targets. The current instability and increased Western presence in Somalia may act as a further catalyst to encourage more attacks on foreign targets, especially soft maritime targets. Additionally, as African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) continues to harden land targets it may shift al Shabaab attacks to softer maritime targets. Every aspect that is needed for the next maritime terrorist attack is already in place, it is just a matter of time.

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