Violence At Sea and Maritime Terrorism

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

Release Date: August 11, 2020
Meghan Curran, Christopher Faulkner, Curtis Bell, Tyler Lycan , Michael Van Ginkel, Jay Benson
Publication Type: Report


Terrorist groups around the globe have seen the challenges of securing the maritime domain as an opportunity to advance their political goals. Increasingly, they strategically leverage sea blindness and weak maritime capabilities to smuggle fighters and weapons, orchestrate attacks on maritime targets, and even finance their operations through illicit trafficking and taxation schemes. While the challenges of securing the maritime domain are well understood in both academic and policy circles, developing robust and effective capabilities to quell maritime threats remains an intricate challenge.

Building on a previous report, Soft Targets and Black Markets, and in order to better understand the specifics behind how these violent non-state actors use the maritime domain, we set out to develop group profiles that consider the degree to which these organizations are active in the maritime space for operational and financial purposes. This report 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.

Key Findings

  • Comprising the largest regional group by area, the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea have been grouped together to highlight the linkages between VNSAs operating in Africa, the Middle East, and South America. This region houses smuggling routes that provide a steady flow of money and other resources to VNSAs such as the ELN. Furthermore, protracted conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East have, and continue to facilitate the smuggling of small arms back and forth across the Mediterranean. Of all the regions highlighted in this report, the Atlantic and Mediterannean have the highest average total score.

  • The Western Indian Ocean Region, which encompasses the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean, has the most active VNSAs of the three regions highlighted in this report. VNSAs in this region, particularly the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, are proof that even landlocked groups are able to leverage the maritime domain to finance and facilitate their political objectives - in this particular case, by participating in the opium trade. Other VNSAs in this region leverage the maritime space to traffic in licit and illicit goods, wildlife, and animal products. 

  • Although the number of VNSAs active in the Indo-Pacific is the lowest of the three regions, groups in this area tend to be particularly violent at sea. Many Indo-Pacific VNSAs have high Tactical Support and Take scores, and the region is also home to some of the most high-profile attacks, including the Abu Sayyaf Group’s bombing of the SuperFerry 14, and the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks conducted by Lakshar-e-Taiba.