Terror at Sea: Exploring Maritime Targeting by Terrorist Organizations

By Victor Asal and Justin V. Hastings

Maritime terrorism is not a prominent research topic. Terrorist attacks against maritime targets are very rare. The Global Terrorism Database (GTD) only notes 199 out of 98,000 attacks in 40 years, which is less than 0.2% of the total. Even rarer are attacks on water where the terrorists need to have some maritime capability to reach their targets. Yet the threat of terrorism is growing around the world, and an increase in maritime attacks might have a very serious impact on maritime trade and global peace and security. In a forthcoming article in Terrorism and Political Violence Victor Asal and Justin Hastings therefore examine why terrorist groups attack maritime targets, and what the organizational and ideological characteristics of such groups are. They do so by drawing on the Big Allied and Dangerous dataset (BAAD), which includes organizational data on 395 terrorist organizations from 1998 to 2005. Their findings have implications for future academic research as well as for counter-terrorism and the maritime security industry.

Terrorist groups are often relatively conservative in their choice of strategy, tactics, and targets, and attacking a seaborne target is outside their logistical and training competence. Putting together attacks on land involving a car bomb, a suicide vest, or even a massed ambush with small arms have long been part of the terrorist repertoire (and thus part of the standard training for terrorist groups). Attacking a target at sea, however, requires materials – such as boats, large quantities of fuel (if the target is far from land), possibly seaworthy communications and navigation equipment – and training — such as maritime navigation and ship operations – that are not necessarily widely known among traditional terrorist groups.

Organizational characteristics potentially relevant to maritime terrorism can roughly be divided into the two categories traditionally used to conduct threat assessments (either of states or terrorist organizations) – the capabilities of terrorist organizations that would allow them to engage in maritime attacks, and the ideas held by terrorist organizations that might lead them to want to engage in maritime attacks. Here we investigate a few simple metrics of capacity – state sponsorship, size of the terrorist organization, the degree to which the terrorist group is networked with other terrorist organizations, involvement in the drug trade, and whether the terrorist group controls specific chunks of territory. Ideology may also matter given that religious groups like al-Qaeda have a keen awareness of the symbolic importance of their targets, and to the extent that they perceive maritime targets as emblematic of the global economic system dominated by the West.

The results are striking. With the possible exception of al-Qaeda-linked groups (which appear to be driving the ideology results), given a menu of potential modes of attack, and potential targets, maritime targets are not necessarily ideologically distinguishable from any other targets. Maritime targets can be either civilian or military targets, either soft or hard, meaning the general shift in terrorist attacks towards civilian, soft targets over the past several decades would not necessarily affect maritime targets one way or another. As a result, the beliefs that may lead some groups to attack different types of targets with certain modes of attack, such as religious groups being more willing to attack civilians, or more likely to attack hardened targets with suicide attacks, may be less relevant for maritime targets.

Cooperation between terrorists groups is an important organizational factor (such connections have been shown to be key in explaining terrorist organizational lethality). These connections may give them a wider population from which to obtain the personnel, material resources and training for a maritime attack, as well as encourage the transmission of ideas – strategies and tactics – that include the notion of maritime attacks, and how to carry them out. Like terrorist lethality, the key factor that drives an organization to be more likely to conduct maritime attacks is the number of connections with other terrorist organizations. Knowledge and connections seem to be driving such attacks and thus underline the importance of capabilities over ideology related to such attacks (see Table 1).

Table 1. Change in Probability of an organization conducting a maritime attack 1998-2005 

Variable % Probability change when variable moved from min to max
Network connections to other terrorist organizations 42.01%
Hold territory 4.56%
Organizational size 3.56%
Religious Ideology 2.75%
Drug involvement 1.86%
State sponsorship Not Significant
Regime durability Not Significant
Polity 2 Not Significant
Low Confidence variable Not Significant
Leftist Ideology Not Significant
Ethnic Ideology Not Significant

Other capability factors are important as well. Larger terrorist groups appear to be more likely to turn to maritime terrorism than smaller groups. Group size has been positively associated with the lethality of terrorist attacks. It would be unsurprising if the ability or desire to stage certain types of more sophisticated attacks is positively correlated with group size. However, state sponsorship (the primary effect of which is to provide a group with training, financial resources, and weapons that it would not otherwise have) appears to have no effect on the propensity of groups to engage in maritime terrorism. This suggests that it is not an infusion of general resources that leads to maritime terrorism, or, at the least, that the states that sponsor terrorists do not seem to have any more desire to attack maritime targets than non-state terrorist groups do. Brute force – having large quantities of supplies and knowledge in general – may be less important to a group engaging in maritime terrorism than having the right supplies and knowledge.

Control of territory was significant and in the expected (positive) direction. Since all terrorist groups based in landlocked territories were excluded from the models, we were specifically looking at groups that are based in a country with access to the ocean, and control at least some territory in that country. Groups that want to control territory, or that even end up controlling territory, may be the kinds of groups that want to set up territorial governance structures and build their economic and transport infrastructure to support their fight, both materially and ideologically (inasmuch as they are now providing a ‘alternative’ state). This support infrastructure could also include maritime transportation capabilities. The exercise of these capabilities could then logically lead to the ability and desire to carry out maritime attacks.

In the end, our analysis suggests that terrorist groups turn to maritime terrorism largely because they can. While this may seem trite, our conclusion underlines several deeper issues. First, with the exception of religious groups (specifically Islamic groups) largely linked to al-Qaeda, what terrorist groups believe — their ideology and to a large extent their goals — seemingly has little to do with whether they go to sea. As a result, attempting to differentiate among the goals of different groups in a given area, say the Gulf of Aden, may tell us little about which one is likely to attempt an attack on a maritime target. Second, some of the organizational characteristics that help to determine the likelihood or lethality of certain types of attacks are less relevant when we look into maritime terrorism. State sponsorship does not make a group more (or less) likely to attack at sea. It is not resources in the aggregate that are associated with a greater propensity to engage in maritime terrorism, but specific types of capability. From this it follows that focusing counter-maritime terrorism efforts on groups with access to state resources may not be the most efficient use of resources. Finally, the organizational characteristics that are significant – organizational size, drug trafficking, control of territory, and network connections — suggest that it is relatively specific capabilities that lead to maritime terrorism. A terrorist group that has control over territory has the political breathing room and possibly the infrastructure to launch maritime attacks, while involvement in drug trafficking may lead terrorist groups to build up the capability to operate at sea, both to smuggle and to protect those smuggling routes. Finally, a well-connected terrorist group may bring in new strategies and capabilities that would give it the desire and the ability to carry out attacks at sea.

Literature and further Reading

Asal, Victor, and R. Karl Rethemeyer. 2008. “The Nature of the Beast: Organizational Structures and the Lethality of Terrorist Attacks”. The Journal of Politics 70 (2): 437-449.

Asal, Victor and Justin V. Hastings. 2014 (forthcoming). When Terrorism Goes to Sea: Terrorist Organizations and the Move to Maritime Targets”. Terrorism and Political Violence.

Hastings, Justin V. 2012. ‘‘Understanding Maritime Piracy Syndicate Operations,’’ Security Studies 21 (4): 683–721.

Murphy Martin. 2007. Contemporary Piracy and Maritime Terrorism. London: International Institute of Strategic Studies.

Murphy, Martin N. 2009. Small Boats, Weak States, Dirty Money. Piracy and Maritime Terrorism in the Modern World. London: Hurst & Company.

Shortland, Anja and Marc Vothknecht. 2012. ‘‘Combating ‘Maritime Terrorism’ off the Coast of Somalia.’’ European Journal of Political Economy 27 (1): 133–151.

About the Authors

Victor Asal is director of the Center for Policy Research and an associate professor in the Department of Political Science, University at Albanay. Dr. Asal is affiliated with the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), a Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence. Dr. Asal has also been involved in research projects funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Defense Threat Reduction Agency, The National Science Foundation and The Office of Naval Research.   Dr. Asal’s   research focuses on violence by non-state organizations as well as the causes of political discrimination by states against different groups. His recent work looks at what factors impact an organization’s choice of violence, nonviolent contention or mixed strategies and what factors make organizations more likely to use or pursue CBRN capability. Asal specializes in collecting datasets that shine light on topics that have not been explored in a quantitative cross-national fashion with the necessary data.  This work has led to the creation of one of the few time series organizational datasets of terrorist organizations, the Big Allied and Dangerous Dataset, as well as one of the few datasets that has information on comparable violent and nonviolent organizations, the Minorities at Risk Organizational Behavior Dataset.   Asal’s work is multidisciplinary in nature and he has written papers with scholars in the fields of public administration, computer science, criminal justice, sociology, economics, communications and area studies.  He can be contacted at vasal@email.albany.edu.

Justin V. Hastings is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Comparative Politics in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, where he is also affiliated with the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre, the China Studies Centre, and Centre of International Security Studies. From 2008 to 2010, he was an Assistant Professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he remains affiliated with the Center for International Strategy, Technology, and Policy. He received an MA (2003) and PhD (2008) in political science from the University of California, Berkeley, and an AB in public and international affairs from Princeton University in 2001. He is the author of No Man’s Land: Globalization, Territory, and Clandestine Groups in Southeast Asia (Cornell University Press, 2010). He can be contacted at justin.hastings@sydney.edu.au.