Violence At Sea and Maritime Terrorism

Political Violence at Sea | Volume 1

August 17, 2020

A newsletter dedicated to providing curated news and analysis on terrorism and other acts of political violence in the maritime domain.

This is the first edition of a monthly newsletter that will highlight recent newsworthy events and developments in the activities of violent non-state actors at sea. It will serve as a platform for ongoing analysis as we expand the scope of existing research focused on combating maritime terrorism. We hope that it provides insights and analysis which will help to inform security decision-making both at sea and on land.

Have a tip or an article you’d like to see featured in this newsletter? Email news and suggestions to or Tweet @stableseas.

Introducing Violence at Sea: How Terrorists, Insurgents, and Other Extremists Exploit the Maritime Domain

Despite well-planned and thorough counter-terrorism operations, many violent non-state actors (VNSAs) continue to operate—which is due, at least in part, to their ability to thrive in the shadows and avoid surveillance. Although global powers spend billions in the fight against VNSAs, most have overlooked their activities in the maritime domain. Until it is more comprehensively addressed, this tendency—known in the maritime law enforcement community as sea blindness—has had, and will continue to have, detrimental impacts on the environment, economic development, and national and human security.

Violence at seaTo better understand the specifics behind how terrorist groups use the maritime domain, we developed a report that considers the degree to which these organizations are active in the maritime space for operational and financial purposes. The final product considers the maritime activities of 43 terrorist organizations the world over, from the frontier of Colombia and Venezuela to the contested coastline of northeastern Borneo.

Specifically, our analysis considered two operational activities and three financial activities, which we coded using a tier rating system. Operational activities are actions taken by VNSAs in pursuit of their political or ideological goals. We identified two distinct categories: Tactical Support and Target. Tactical Support covers the degree to which VNSAs utilize the maritime space for the transportation of fighters, weapons, or other operational assets, whereas Target refers specifically to the use, or threat, of violence against maritime targets such as ships or ports. Each VNSA’s operational score demonstrates how able and likely the group is to pursue these specific activities in the maritime domain.

Financial activities are undertaken by VNSAs to fund and support their operational activities. These activities have been split into three categories: Take, Traffic and Trade, and Tax and Extort. Take activities are those in which force or coercion is used to illegally obtain property, such as piracy, kidnapping for ransom, or armed robbery at sea. The second category, Traffic and Trade, involves the illicit exchange of goods or services, often requiring the VNSA to join, or establish, criminal financial networks. Finally, Tax and Extort involves obtaining payment from local communities and businesses through force or intimidation.

Sea Blindness
The Violence at Sea report utilizes a visual tier guide to rate each violent non-state actor’s ability to engage in maritime activities to finance and facilitate campaigns of violence.

To demonstrate the varying levels of activity found within each of these categories, we established a 4-tiered rating system and scored each VNSA on both its activities specific to each of the above categories and its threat to its nearest, most relevant bodies of water more generally. In addition to the scoring categories, each VNSA has been sifted into one of three maritime regions: The Atlantic and the Mediterranean, the Western Indian Ocean Region, and the Indo-Pacific.

Visit our blog for a high-level review of the report’s methodology and findings. For a more comprehensive introduction to how VNSAs leverage the maritime space to finance and facilitate political violence, visit our brand-new maritime terrorism resource portal, as well as our reports Soft Targets & Black Markets: Terrorist Activities in the Maritime Domain and Violence at Sea: How Terrorists, Insurgents, and Other Extremists Exploit the Maritime Domain.

Recent Maritime Activities

maritime terrorist activities


Mediterranean: Libyan Arab Armed Forces

Libya’s Oil Crescent

Following its defeat in Tripoli, the LAAF consolidated its forces and dug into the coastal city of Sirte. Often described as the gateway to the oil crescent, Sirte is likely to become the next central location of the Libyan Civil War. Historically, the LAAF has proven itself to be a powerhouse in the maritime domain, leveraging its control over Libya’s eastern seaports to control the flow of weapons and supplies, smuggle scrap metal and refined petroleum products, levy taxes on access to international fishing rights, and traffic in people. Coupled with the LAAF’s considerable maritime power, Sirte's coastal proximity indicates that it is likely that maritime elements will continue to play a major role in the conflict, perhaps even more so as the LAAF finds itself suddenly on the back foot.

Libya’s Future Hinges on a Proxy Standoff in Qaddafi’s Home Town, Tarek El-Tablawy and Mohammed Abdusamee for Bloomberg, June 23, 2020.

Western Indian Ocean Region

Gulf of Aden: Unknown VNSA

Suspicious Approaches

Ten incidences of suspicious approaches have occurred in the Gulf of Aden in 2020. Due to the nature and timing of these incidents, they are unlikely to be related to piracy. The Gulf of Aden borders the operative territories of multiple VNSAs who have demonstrated maritime capabilities, though evidence is not strong enough to definitively link this activity to any one group.

During the most recent event, two skiffs were spotted approaching a vessel. One of the skiffs stopped, possibly to observe the attack, while the other skiff continued its approach. Security teams then proceeded to open fire on the approaching skiff, which was observed to be carrying multiple blue barrels. After several rounds of fire, the approaching skiff suddenly exploded. Analysis of this event seems to indicate that the blue barrels were filled with explosives and that this suspicious approach was an attempt to employ a water-borne improvised explosive device.

A Gulf Between Narratives: Maritime Security in the Gulf of Aden in 2020, Dryad Global, June 24, 2020.

Arabian Sea: Southern Transitional Council

Island of Socotra

With a declaration of self-rule in April, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) added yet another layer of complexity to the Yemeni conflict and endangered UN efforts to establish a ceasefire. This month, the STC launched a successful attack on the island of Socotra, pushing the island's governor out and capturing government facilities and military bases.

Socotra is a UNESCO heritage site and is the largest island in an archipelago that sits alongside important shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden. The Yemeni government has declared this attack a coup d’état.

Yemen Separatists Seize Remote Socotra Island from Saudi-backed Government, Thomson Reuters, June 21, 2020.

Red Sea: Houthis

The FSO Safer

In July, Houthi forces announced their agreement to a UN inspection of the FSO Safer. The FSO Safer is an aging oil tanker anchored off the port of Hodeidah and is holding 1.1 million barrels of oil. The dispute over the FSO Safer centers on ownership of its oil and to whom the proceeds of any sale should be distributed. In continuing to refuse entry to the UN’s inspection team, the Houthis are demonstrating their ability to maintain possession of a maritime vessel while leveraging both its contents and the imminent risk of a natural disaster for their own financial gain. While the dispute continues with no resolution on the horizon, it becomes ever more possible that the deteriorating FSO Safer will indeed cause immense environmental damage if it experiences a catastrophic failure.

As If Yemen Needed More Woes, a Decrepit Oil Tanker Threatens Disaster, Rick Gladstone for The New York Times, July 17, 2020.

Possible WBIED

A Saudi Arabian coalition announced the destruction of two water-borne improvised explosive devices (WBIEDs) near the port of Saleef. Believed to have been built by Houthi rebel forces, the unmanned surface vehicles were equipped with explosives and were likely meant for attacking targets in the Bab al-Mandab Strait and the southern Red Sea. According to the coalition spokesman, at the time of their destruction, the WBIEDs were situated 215 meters offshore and prepared to strike.

The Houthi rebels, for their own part, claim that the targets eliminated were in fact two wooden fishing boats.

Saudi-led Coalition in Yemen Destroys Explosive Boats in the Red Sea, The National, July 9, 2020.

Western Indian Ocean: Ansar al-Sunna

Rise of Ansar al-Sunna

Since March 2020, Mozambique-based VNSA Ansar al-Sunna has become increasingly violent and prolific. Two recent attacks focused on the nascent liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry that promises great economic development. In the first attack, Ansar al-Sunna forces used “hefty firepower” to engage with the Mozambique Defense and Security Forces, leaving multiple casualties. The second attack was launched against LNG industry workers, leaving 8 dead and 3 missing. Both attacks took place within 40 miles of LNG project sites.

In addition to increasing the frequency and intensity of their attacks, Ansar al-Sunna has become far more active in the maritime domain. In March, they launched a complex multi-pronged attack in which their fighters approached the target from both land and sea simultaneously. As the LNG industry continues to invest and operate in the area, the potential for violence increases—as does the opportunity for Ansar al-Sunna to use the maritime domain to exploit illicit financial flows and magnify local grievances.

Insurgents Kill 8 Gas Project Workers in Northern Mozambique, Agence France Presse, July 6, 2020.

Insurgents Stage 'Very Violent' Attack Close to Gas Projects in Mozambique, Reuters, June 27, 2020.


Sulu and Celebes Seas: Abu Sayyaf–The Philippines

Curfew Lifted

A maritime travel curfew for eastern Sabah, originally enacted in mid-2019, has ended. The curfew was intended to undermine attempts by Abu Sayyaf to infiltrate the region in order to conduct kidnapping-for-ransom and trafficking schemes. While joint efforts by the Malaysian and Philippine governments have contributed to a decrease in cases of kidnapping, Abu Sayyaf continues to pose a major threat to maritime security.

Malaysia Ends Maritime Curfew in Eastern Sabah Security Zone, Manisha Vepa for Foreign Brief: Geopolitical Risk Analysis, July 19, 2020.

Philippine Navy

Vessel Acquisition

The Philippine Navy has announced plans to purchase 8 new Shaldag-class patrol craft from Israel. These will replace several patrol craft that have been in use since the mid-1990s and will come in two variants. Four of the vessels will be equipped with non–line-of-sight missiles and the other four will be equipped with machine guns and light automatic cannons.

The craft will support a range of missions including maritime patrols, countering drug smuggling, and search and rescue operations.

The Philippines to Acquire Eight Shaldag Fast Patrol Boats, Anna Ahronheim for The Jerusalem Post, July 12, 2020.


Vessel Acquisition

Japan is loaning $350 million to Vietnam for the construction of 6 patrol boats. Although details about the boats have not yet been released, they will be operated by the coast guard and used to perform search and rescue operations in addition to their security patrols. This is an important development and signals an increased prioritization by both the Japanese and Vietnamese governments of strong maritime domain awareness, command over which will be particularly relevant in light of the growing regional risk of trafficking and maritime terrorism.

Vietnam Gets $348 mln Japan Loan to Improve Maritime Patrol Capability, Nguyen Quy for VnExpress International, July 29, 2020.

Pakistani Navy

Vessel Acquisition

Pakistan has officially introduced the first of two corvettes purchased from a Dutch ship manufacturer. The PNS Yarmook is designed for a variety of maritime operations and is equipped with anti-ship, anti-submarine, and electronic warfare platforms. The PNS Yarmook is able to transport a helicopter and UAV, launch two high-speed rigid-hull inflatable boats, and accommodate two 20-foot–long containers which can be switched among several modules depending on the scope of the current mission.

The second corvette, the PNS Tabuk, is expected to join the PNS Yarmook in the coming months. The Pakistan Navy expects these vessels to be important force multipliers in the mission to secure Pakistani coastal and port security. The addition of these two vessels also demonstrates Pakistan’s increased consideration for maritime security.

PNS YARMOOK - A Force Multiplier For Pakistan Navy, S.M. Hali for Dunya News, July 13, 2020.

Aby Sarraf Terrorist Group

Maritime Terrorism Deep Dive

Abu Sayyaf: The Chameleon in the World of Terror, Lydelle Joubert for Stable Seas, April 30, 2020.

Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) is extremely adept at utilizing the maritime domain for Tactical Support purposes, often exploiting porus regional land/sea borders to smuggle recruits and supplies via the Sulu and Celebes seas. After arriving by sea, these fighters and weapons facilitate ASG’s ability to carry out its political objectives on land. However, it is the group’s emphasis on generating profit, mostly through kidnapping for ransom schemes, which allows it to operate in the nexus between a criminal and a terrorist organization. As a result of these schemes alone, ASG is estimated to have earned an astonishing $14 million since 2014, with kidnappings originally carried out on land, then later (from 2016 onwards) carried out at sea.

This pivot towards the maritime is indicative of the group’s increasing level of sophistication, not least because of its ability to kidnap, hold, and launder the money received for the release of its victims. Combined, these skills represent a unique specialization in the world of political violence, and one that deserves continued monitoring and analysis by land- and sea-based security specialists alike. For further analysis on how Abu Sayyaf Group’s activities affect the maritime space, including the infographics above, download Violence at Sea: How Terrorists, Insurgents, and Other Extremists Exploit the Maritime Domain.