Soft Targets for Maritime Terrorism

Soft Targets & Black Markets: Terrorist Activities in the Maritime Domain

Release Date: May 23, 2019
Meghan Curran
Publication Type: Report


The failure to acknowledge or recognize the importance of the maritime domain to both society and the economy, or sea blindness1, simultaneously impacts the marine environment, economic development, and national and human security. Since the early 1990s, consideration of the maritime space from a security perspective has been broadened to incorporate a wider set of issues and activities including “new security” issues such as “terrorism, transnational organized crime or environmental degradation,”2  which impact a range of actors despite not being directly tied to the wielding of state power at sea. The events of September 11th resulted in a paradigm shift regarding the threat against the international community posed by violent non-state actors and transnational criminals. However, political will and financial and other resources necessary to counter these threats have been disproportionately directed toward land campaigns. Many states provide varying degrees of support to international maritime laws and “demonstrate ostrich-like tendencies when reviewing the relevance of the maritime domain to [their] national security.”3  This results in a collective blind spot regarding complex problems like modern-day piracy, non-state terrorism, and transnational criminality, which propagate at sea.

The maritime space offers myriad possibilities for funding onshore violence, including profits from both licit and illicit businesses that traverse the world’s oceans, and funds obtained through controlling maritime areas and levying taxes illegally. In addition to utilizing the maritime space to fund onshore campaigns of political violence, illicit actors can also exploit the vast ungovernable space to move personnel, weapons, and other equipment necessary to carry out onshore attacks. Further, nefarious actors can support their operations onshore by illegally obtaining property at sea, such as by stealing finite resources like oil, kidnapping for ransom operations, and committing armed robbery.

The Consequences of Sea Blindness

The consequences of sea blindness impact not just littoral states but the international community at large. Failing to acknowledge the sea’s important role in the endorsement of violence creates a significant hurdle with regards to promoting peace. The world’s oceans have a significant, yet under-acknowledged, impact on the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In particular, sea blindness directly affects Sustainable Development Goal 16, which is concerned with peace, justice, and strong institutions. Achieving targets like “significantly reducing all forms of violence and related deaths . . . [reducing] illicit financial and arms flows . . . and [reducing] corruption and bribery,”4 are simply not possible while turning a blind eye to the sea. 

Beyond Maritime Terrorism

The sheer depth of the vulnerable target set at sea, combined with the expansive, ungovernable maritime space, makes the threat of maritime terrorism constant. Seaborne commercial trade is susceptible to terrorist attack due to the “high quantity of cargo involved, its diverse and large international labor force, difficulties of enforcement both in port and at sea, and the poor regulatory environment of international shipping with low levels of accountability.”5  There are ample opportunities to exploit the weaknesses of this system to launch an attack on shipping or port infrastructure that could cause high levels of economic disruption. 

However, effectively combating violent non-state actors requires widening the aperture to consider the litany of ways the maritime space is utilized to promote organized political violence, beyond maritime terrorism. The complexity of global terrorism demands a more comprehensive approach.

Key Findings

  1. As an important first step, stakeholders at all levels should be aware of both historical and current uses of the maritime space and their ties to onshore political violence. INCREASING MARITIME DOMAIN AWARENESS IS CRITICAL TO ENCOURAGING DIALOGUE AND ENHANCING COLLABORATION AND COORDINATION AMONG BOTH STATE AND REGIONAL PARTIES, as sea blindness is often a systemic issue. Regional initiatives including the 2017 Jeddah Amendment to the Djibouti Code of Conduct (Western Indian Ocean), the Yaoundé Code of Conduct for the Gulf of Guinea, and the Contact Group for Maritime Crime in the Sulu and Celebes Seas serve as examples of how acknowledging the importance of the maritime space can lead to collaborative regional efforts to combat underlying security issues through facilitating information sharing and lessons learned.
  2. Second, IT IS CRITICAL THAT STAKEHOLDERS WORK TO IDENTIFY SPECIFIC ENVIRONMENTAL RISK FACTORS THAT ENCOURAGE ILLICIT MARITIME ACTIVITIES. This includes characterizing and addressing weak or under-resourced systems like maritime enforcement and response capacity, and maritime infrastructure like ports. As well, acknowledging socioeconomic and political conditions that invite illicit activities and promote an illicit economy is crucial, as terror groups will usurp existing systems to facilitate and fund their operations.
  3. Third, STAKEHOLDERS SHOULD UNDERSTAND UNDER WHAT CONDITIONS ILLICIT GROUPS ARE LIKELY TO PARTICIPATE IN CERTAIN ACTIVITIES. As the range of activities described in this paper illustrates, the maritime space can be used for both financial and political gain. Therefore, understanding the financial, tactical, and operational needs of these groups is key to neutralizing these activities. Further, it is imperative that stakeholders are cognizant of how curbing a particular activity might influence a group’s adoption of another. There are numerous examples of how onshore operations to curtail illicit activities have led to these activities playing out at sea. As the international community works to address the maritime drivers of organized political violence, it is important to recognize that one maritime activity might easily supersede another, particularly if a group possesses a maritime capability.
  4. Finally, THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY MUST ACKNOWLEDGE THAT VIOLENCE DOES NOT START AND END AT THE SHORE. The longer the world’s vast, ungovernable maritime spaces are ignored and deprioritized in the fight against global crime and terror, the more dire the consequences


[1] Dave Mugridge, “Malaise or Farce: The International Failure of Maritime Security,” Canadian Naval Review 4, no. 4 (2009): 21

[2] Christian Bueger and Timothy Edmunds, “Beyond Seablindness: A New Agenda for Maritime Security Studies,” International Affairs 93, no. 6 (November 2017): 1296

[3] Mugridge, “Malaise or Farce,” 22

[4] “Sustainable Development Goal 16, Targets and Indicators” United Nations, Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform, 

[5] “Security in Maritime Transport: Risk Factors and Economic Impact,” Maritime Transport Committee, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2003,