Violent non-state actors (VNSAs) such as terrorist and insurgent groups are increasingly turning to the seas to facilitate their campaigns of violence. What opportunities do these groups seek to exploit, for what purposes do they take to the sea, and what are the implications for the Philippines' efforts to combat terrorism and insurgency?
The Challenge of “Sea Blindness” in Counterinsurgency and Counterterrorism
In order to understand why VNSAs exploit the maritime space, it's important to understand the challenge of “sea blindness,” or the failure to adequately consider the maritime aspects of terrorism and insurgency. Most people do not think of insurgency and terrorism as maritime security issues, but as events such as the Abu Sayyaf Group’s ferry bombing in 2004, the seaborne terrorist attack on Mumbai, and even the Siege of Marawi show, a failure to take into account the maritime elements of insurgency and terrorism can have tragic consequences.
This sea blindness is caused by a variety of factors. First, high-profile acts of terrorism at sea are relatively rare, which makes the public perception that terrorism is an exclusively land-based phenomenon understandable. The second factor lies in the way that counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations are conceived and executed. They are almost always led by land-based security services, such as armies and special forces, which may not be familiar with countering a VNSA’s maritime operations. This is compounded by issues of resourcing. Around the world, armed forces allocate the large majority of funding to onshore security services, and given their comparatively limited resources and a variety of other pressing national security missions, naval and maritime law enforcement services are often left with insufficient resources to contribute their maritime expertise to counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations.
All of this contributes to the challenge of sea blindness in our thinking about organized political violence and provides VNSAs with space to exploit the maritime domain to operate, maneuver, finance, and sustain their campaigns of violence.
A Typology of VNSA Maritime Activity
In order to better understand exactly how and why armed groups exploit the maritime space, Stable Seas has developed a typology of five different activities that groups undertake at sea. These include activities which facilitate both their operational and financial needs.
Tactical Support: These are activities which support a group’s onshore operations logistically. Activities in this category include the maritime movement of fighters, arms, and supplies, and maritime raids against onshore targets.
Target: This category includes the actual targeting of civilians, security services, and infrastructure at sea. Bombings of ferries, maritime IED attacks, and targeting of offshore oil platforms are all examples.
Take: These are activities by which a group seizes resources at sea. Examples include piracy and armed robbery, kidnap for ransom, and oil bunkering.
Traffic and Trade: This occurs when an armed group, often tapping into existing trafficking and organized crime networks, benefits financially from maritime trade in licit and illicit goods. Examples include maritime elements of human trafficking or trade in drugs, arms, or other goods.
Tax and Extort: This includes the extraction of resources from extortion of licit economic activity in the maritime space, such as informal levies placed on maritime cargo and protection money coerced out of ports or other marine industries.
In developing this “Five Ts” typology, Stable Seas seeks to offer a framework for better understanding how, and why, violent non-state actors around the globe exploit the maritime space. But what does this conceptual framework look like when it is actually applied to prominent VNSA groups in the Philippines?
The Landscape of VNSA Maritime Activity in the Philippines
Stables Seas has recently researched how 43 prominent armed groups around the world use the maritime space by looking at each group individually and analyzing the degree to which they carry out activities in each of these five categories. The report includes four groups from the Philippines: the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), the Maute Group, and the New People’s Army (NPA). Looking at each group’s specific use of the maritime space might lend some more context-specific insights.
ASG is widely recognized as one of the groups most adept globally at exploiting the maritime space. The group is obviously well known for its kidnap-for-ransom operations, but it also falls into the highest tier in the tactical support category, as it has shown the ability to regularly move fighters and supplies via the maritime space and launch attacks from the sea, as demonstrated through the two interdictions of ASG fighters at sea last November. In addition, the group’s base of operations in the Sulu Archipelago and the prevalence of small-scale and informal maritime trade in the region provide ample opportunity to tap into these informal markets for financial gain through taxation, extortion, and direct participation in maritime trafficking, though open-source evidence of these kinds of activities is difficult to establish. Finally, while it has been less prominent in recent years, ASG has shown the motivation and ability to strike at maritime targets directly, and as the group’s strength deteriorates, there is the risk that it will increasingly turn to this tactic of attacking soft targets in the maritime space.
Other groups in the Philippines have not demonstrated the ability to exploit the maritime space to the same degree as ASG, but have done so more selectively, and, given the opportunity, may seek to replicate ASG’s tactics.
Of the remaining VNSAs, the Maute Group has shown the greatest tendency to rely on the maritime space to support its onshore operations. This is most clearly demonstrated by the group’s well-known movement of fighters through the Sulu and Celebes seas in the lead-up to the Siege of Marawi and its use of the seas as an escape route as fighting ended. However, the group has also used the maritime space for financial gain, as drug seizures associated with the group indicate potential involvement in maritime trafficking. Recent warnings that the group may be reemerging as a security threat indicate a need for continued vigilance against these maritime activities.
In addition, though its maritime activities are less prominent now than they have been in the past, the NPA also has a demonstrated history of exploiting the maritime space through the targeting of maritime law enforcement agencies and the smuggling of arms and supplies. While reliance on these methods appears to have declined more recently, as peace talks appear to lose momentum, there is always the threat that the group could turn back to the sea to facilitate its operations.
Finally, the BIFF has the least amount of documented maritime activity. Here, the focus of our research was on the potential of such activity. The opportunity remains for the group to exploit the same structural vulnerabilities in the maritime domain, and given the apparent existence of some level of connection between the BIFF and ASG, the group may seek to learn from the latter’s prevalent use of the maritime space.
Looking at these groups as a whole, there are some interesting differences and common threads. First, no group has used the maritime kidnap-for-ransom strategy utilized by ASG in the same manner, and, in fact, it is an extremely rare strategy among armed groups the world over. Kidnap-for-ransom operations require significant planning and safe areas in which to hold hostages, sometimes for extended periods of time. These are difficult prerequisites for many groups to replicate, and even ASG, as it has come under increasing pressure from the Armed Forces of the Philippines on shore, has dramatically reduced its reliance on kidnapping for ransom since the peak of such activity in 2016. As that pressure mounts, the group may turn to other forms of maritime exploitation.
Second, the common thread between the groups seems to be that the most heavily relied-upon form of maritime activity is tactical support. This likely has several causes. Moving fighters, arms, and supplies has perhaps the lowest barrier to entry of any of these five categories. The geography of the areas where they operate is conducive to and sometimes necessitates maritime movements, and the high volume of maritime trade, passenger movement, and fishing activity may allow for an element of hiding such activity in plain sight.
Potential Areas of Policy Prioritization
Given these trends, the question then becomes, what can be done to address these forms of VNSA exploitation of the maritime space?
The first consideration would be the importance of civilians at sea and in coastal communities as a valuable source of information. Media reporting on the recent interdiction of ASG fighters off Jolo indicates that locals, seeing the unfamiliar men, reported their presence to the security services. This highlights the role that fishers, boat operators, and coastal community members, who have an intimate understanding of the “pattern of life” in their local waters, can play as a source of information. But in order to tap into this, they must have a positive relationship with local security services, clear and discreet mechanisms for reporting suspicious activity, and confidence they can be protected from retribution.
The second is small-vessel monitoring. The sheer volume of small-vessel traffic in the Sulu and Celebes seas facilitates VNSA maritime activity. In this regard, the SSEN vessel identification system implemented by the Philippine Coast Guard over the last few years is a major advancement to be built upon.
In addition, the ways in which armed groups use the sea are often influenced by counterinsurgency operations on shore and linked to other forms of maritime crime. Therefore, domestic coordination and information-sharing between navies, maritime law enforcement agencies, fisheries and border enforcement, and service branches conducting onshore counterinsurgency will be critical in ensuring that armed groups cannot exploit gaps and adapt their use of the maritime space to sustain their operations.
And finally, regional military, law enforcement, and border control cooperation will be key. The routes that VNSAs use to transport fighters, arms, and supplies, the maritime targets they may select, and the illicit maritime trafficking they may profit from all transcend national borders. Agreements like the Trilateral Cooperative Arrangement are a strong foundation on which to build deeper and more systemic cooperation to address the threat of transnational maritime terrorism.
By better understanding how VNSAs exploit the maritime space, policy makers, both civilian and military—can craft more comprehensive counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategies which overcome sea blindness in our understanding of organized political violence and more effectively bring peace, stability, and prosperity to conflict-impacted regions of the Philippines.