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Author: Parth Jain, I year of LL.B.(Hons.) from CLC, Delhi University


This paper evaluates maritime terrorism violence in the Indian Ocean, based on a brief analysis of some of the most recent past incidents in these waters. It gives rise to a detailed subjective issue of vulnerability of high seas shipping to criminal acts of terrorism. In assessing the odds of some of the major terror attacks in the coastal region, the paper also explores the terrorism piracy nexus and highlights the measures to improve maritime readiness against acts of terror.


In recent years, seaborne terrorism has emerged as a major security threat globally, but especially in Asia. Since the November 2008 Mumbai attacks-when ten Pakistani terrorists infiltrated the city from the sea, killing 166 people and injuring over 300—regional watchers have been wary of the possibility of another attack from the seas. Within India’s security establishment, the anxiety has been palpable. In November 2018, a few weeks shy of the tenth anniversary of the Mumbai attacks, intelligence emerged that Pakistan-based militant outfits Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed had been training their cadres to execute another strike on Indian ports, cargo ships and oil tankers.[1] The anticipated assault did not happen. Yet the speculation that surrounded its possible occurrence underscored the psychological grip of terrorism over the minds of Indian security watchers and strategic planners.

Maritime terrorism still accounts for a minuscule percentage of all acts of terrorism. The lack of specialist skills, equipment and resources has seemingly constrained the operations of terrorist groups, preventing major attacks at sea. Yet, these groups have expanded their violent agency in the maritime areas, reportedly seeking targets in the vulnerable littorals. As seen from the recent attacks in the years, it can be said that the sea route looks to be the most convenient and easily accessible due to poor maritime governance in and around the regions.

Emphasizing the Maritime Terrorism in the Indian Ocean, it is dense with shipping traffic, given that nearly 100,000 ships transit the vast expanse annually through SLOCs.


Maritime terrorism is often defined as “the undertaking of terrorist acts and activities within the maritime environment, using or against vessels or fixed platforms at sea, or in port; or against any one of their passengers or personnel, against coastal facilities or settlements, including tourist resorts, port areas and port towns or cities”.

Some layman definition also includes the following:

a. Where the sea is only a medium for terrorist attacks on land-based targets: An example is the Mumbai bombings on 26 November 2008, when ten terrorists landed on the city shores using speedboats and carried out a series of coordinated attacks on land targets.

b. The hijacking of naval vessels and hostage-taking by terrorists: One of the most widely utilised maritime terror tactics in conflict-prone regions. Examples are the series of hijackings by the Abu Sayyaf in the Sulu Sea, the subsequent taking of hostages and their brutal treatment.

c. An attack in ports, facilities and coastal installations: In June 2018, terrorists attacked the Libyan oil ports of Ras Lanuf and Es Sider, setting at least one storage tank on fire, following which the facilities were closed and evacuated.


To be able to understand a broader concept of maritime terrorism it is essential to understand the piracy activities going on in the Indian Ocean. It is not the first to know that pirates play a big role in spreading terrorism but it is a first to know that pirates have in the past financed various terrorist activities. Evidence of a linkage between the terrorists and pirates first emerged in May 2003, when the M/V Pen rider, a Malaysian-registered oil tanker, was attacked off the coast of Malaysia, and three crew members were taken, hostage.[2] After ship owners paid $100,000 to free the crew, it emerged that the attackers were associated with the Free Aceh Movement, an insurgent group operating in Indonesia.

In the last few years, terrorists and pirates have seemed to draw closer, even if the exact nature of their collaboration is not lucid. Somali pirates and terrorists are said to have worked together in arms trafficking, and Al-Shabaab is said to have even trained pirates for ‘duties’ at sea. An investigation by the United Nations (UN) in 2017 found evidence of collusion between pirates and the Al Shabaab, including the possibility that pirates helped the latter smuggle weapons and ammunition into Somalia.[3]


Maritime terrorism, insurgencies and piracy have often been financed by drug trafficking where profit margins run into hundreds of percent. Probably this is what led the SAARC Secretary Fathimath Dhiyana Saeed to state in her inaugural address during the meeting of Interior/Home Secretaries at Thimphu “Ample evidence suggests the potential links between piracy and terrorism, drugs trafficking, human smuggling and related crime,” She added that since this threat was trans-national, regional cooperation was the best possible method to respond to the issue.


Twenty years ago, when the government of Somalia collapsed, few imagined that the country’s ongoing state of lawlessness would eventually spawn piracy on such a scale that the security of the western Indian Ocean region could be threatened. At first, many assumed that pirate attacks on passing ships could be quickly stifled. But the problem has grown into a global malady that so far has warranted seven United Nations resolutions, one of which authorized “all necessary means to repress piracy and armed robbery at sea.”

Looking only at attacks in international waters, East Africa was well in the lead in 2010, reports the IMO. The only lives lost that year were during East African attacks, while the number of crew members taken hostage there, usually for ransom, reached 629, far higher than anywhere else. According to the International Maritime Bureau, a piracy reporting Centre based in Malaysia, some 54 crew members and passengers have been killed worldwide since 2006.

There have been no major terrorist attacks in Somaliland since 2008. While attacks occur less frequently in Somaliland, terrorists are still very likely to try to carry out attacks.[4]


Large international trafficking networks operate across the Indian Ocean. After arms and drugs, trafficking in human beings is the best source of income for organized crime, but, shockingly, it appears that human trafficking is now beginning to replace drugs as the second-largest source of income since ‘bodies can be replaced’.

Recently, the number of non-state actors affecting security has grown substantially. It also appears that greater links are being forged between global crime syndicates, insurgents and terrorist groups. Because of weak governments, poor border controls and insufficient maritime domain awareness, such groups can often operate uninterrupted. Radical Islamist groups influence security in a large part of the IOR. Analysts have suggested that groups linked to or affiliated with al-Qaeda seem to be present in Afghanistan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen.

Though their activities have been mainly land-based, a few examples exist within the maritime domain. Attacks can be launched from the sea, or vessels can be used for infiltration or gunrunning. The so-called ‘26/11’ terror attack in Mumbai in 2008 was seaborne. It is also known that the explosives used in another terror attack in India in March 1993 were landed in Mumbai. To India, this highlighted the vulnerability of its coastal areas and made it aware of an urgent need to upgrade and coordinate coastal and maritime security. As a result, the Indian Navy was given overall responsibility for coastal security in coordination with other agencies.[5]

After the said attacks, India, to date has a standing Navy guarding the coastal region against any supposed threats and attacks. Often terror attacks are a lesson learnt to upgrade security globally.


Indian Ocean security is now no longer the domain of colonial states or superpowers but has become multifaceted and dynamic. New role players such as India and China have become major powers, and new national alliances are changing the scene. But current global realities have introduced maritime security problems as non-state actors are influencing security in the area directly and fundamentally. This is a serious development since the rich Indian Ocean maritime trade, which includes much of the world’s trade, is essential to the global economy. It seems that many of the lessons of centuries gone by are again being learned – rather than doing battle, navies have to project power and play a diplomatic role to maintain good order at sea.

Maritime security is a broad, area of focus, and the relevant literature covers everything from physical safety and security measures to port security, terrorism and more. Maritime security deals with the prevention of illicit activities in the maritime domain. It could be linked directly to the national security efforts of a specific country, or it could cover regional and international efforts to enforce maritime security. During the Cold War, the newly independent Indian Ocean states of Asia and Africa became subject to competition between the superpowers. The resultant security balance in the region dissipated when the Cold War came to an end. The post-Cold War era saw the region becoming less stable, with much rivalry, competition, suspicion and turmoil. Moreover, the maritime security environment in the Indian Ocean also underwent a transformation. Because of weak government structures and a limited capacity to control maritime domains, all types of illicit activities began to flourish in many parts of the Indian Ocean. As a result, the region’s maritime security challenges are now considerable and are affected by key variations such as militarisation within the region, the involvement of major and extra-regional powers, and non-traditional security threats.[6]


Combating maritime terrorism is ultimately a question of national resolve: a dogged, single-minded approach in guarding and securing maritime borders; making necessary investments for the generation of timely and actionable intelligence; robust interagency cooperation, and an integrated strategy that can establish a system of effective law enforcement in coastal waters. What regional states need is structured and efficient ways of investigating threats, identifying vulnerabilities, and getting stakeholders involved in anti-terrorism processes. Strong legislation that empowers security agencies to act with alacrity and defend commercial and coastal military assets is a prerequisite. Regional governments need to make stakeholders and security agencies accountable, with liability fixed in ways so that the related costs of a terrorist incident are borne by the parties responsible for having failed to prevent it.

Fighting terror requires a close assessment of threats and a prioritization of mitigation measures. The main challenge is to gear the mercantile community up to the task. Despite an increased adherence to best management practices,[7] the shipping community at large does not treat maritime terrorism with the seriousness it deserves. Indeed, many in the shipping industry view terrorism as an exaggerated threat; they are convinced that terrorists have yet to develop the capabilities to target high-value platforms.

[1]The Hindustan Times, October 12, 2018, at (accessed March 12, 2019)


[2] CNN, September 11, 2003, https://edition.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/asiapcf/east/09/11/asia.pirates

[3]VOX News, July 13, 2017, https://www.vox.com/world/2017/7/13/15948184/pirates-terrorists-somalia-isis-shabaab

[4]Living in Somalia https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/somalia/terrorism

[5]Institute for Securities Studies, 236, August 2012.


[6]Institute for Securities Studies, 236, August 2012.

https://media.africaportal.org/documents/Paper236.pdf [7]EUNAVFOR, June 2018. https://eunavfor.eu/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/BMP5-PP.pdf