Given the logistical difficulties involved, it's not surprising that terrorists have struck on land much more often than they've tried to strike at sea. Since the 1960s, there have been fewer than 200 maritime terror attacks worldwide, compared with over 10,000 terrorist incidents overall.
But there is now some concern among defense analysts that the rapid growth of piracy might lead to more terror at sea. “Similar forces allow piracy and maritime terrorism to flourish,” says Peter Chalk, a policy analyst with the RAND Corporation think tank. “The model of piracy could be mimicked by terrorists, including ransom demands.”
Chalk notes that piracy can weaken political systems by encouraging corruption among public officials. And it's clear that piracy has been used as a fundraising tool by some terrorists, including the Free Aceh Movement in Indonesia and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. The two-decade-long Tiger insurgency was defeated by the Sri Lankan government in May.
“In the last year, we have seen structures related to al Qaeda that are taking advantage of the lawlessness that exists in Somalia,” says Christina Gallach, a spokeswoman for the European Union.
As Gallach and others point out, however, there appears to be no credible evidence of a direct link between pirates off the Somali coast and terrorists. “We are working very firmly in the belief that there is no proven link between piracy and al Qaeda-type terrorism,” says Chris Trelawny, security chief of the International Maritime Organization. “What makes Somali piracy unique is that they are purely taking ships for kidnap and ransom.”
In fact, pirates and terrorists work at cross-purposes, suggests Daniel Sekulich, author of the 2009 book, Terror on the Seas: True Tales of Modern-Day Pirates. Pirates' tools are subterfuge and anonymity, while terrorists want, more than anything else, to attract attention for their deeds.
“Pirates and terrorists have diametrically opposed goals,” Sekulich says. “Pirates are seeking economic gain that comes from a steady supply of the world's shipping. They love all those container ships. Terrorists want to slow [or disrupt] shipping … for their own nefarious means.”
Still, both piracy and terror are dangers because of the vulnerable nature of ocean-going trade. Piracy is a reflection of the fact that the weakest link in world trade is the lone vessel at sea, which could also be hit by politically motivated attackers.
“We believe the division between piracy and terrorism is much more blurred than some people seek to argue,” says Andrew Linington, spokesman for the Nautilus International seafarers' union. “Certainly, our big worry is that a dozen guys in a fiberglass boat can take command of a ship like the Sirius Star, a massive vessel with millions of dollars of oil on board.
“We think that's an intolerable situation and should be sending huge warning signals out to governments about the fragility of safety at sea,” he continues.
The deadliest terror attack at sea occurred in 2004, when 116 people were killed in the bombing of the Philippine SuperFerry 14. The ferry was blown up by 16 sticks of dynamite hidden in a hollowed out television set by members of the Abu Sayyaf Islamist separatist group. Such attacks worry security officials because they areso cheap and easy to carry out. Planning for the bombing took only a couple of months and cost no more than $400t.
Marine terrorism is not new in the region of the world where piracy now dogs the shipping industry. In 2002, two suicide bombers attacked the oil tanker Limburg off Yemen, killing themselves and one crew member. The attack triggered a rise in the price of oil and area shipping insurance rates, causing a 93 percent drop in the container business at the Port of Aden.
The disproportionate impact of such terrorist attacks is why some worry about the potential for piracy to lead to increases in maritime terrorism. Some experts worry, for example, that a liquefied natural gas tanker could be hijacked and turned into a massive bomb.
“No matter how well-protected, every ship afloat — and this includes those that carry enough reactor fuel to build a few nuclear devices — is physically highly vulnerable,” writes maritime security consultant John Burnett.
A more likely scenario, though, is that terrorists could take over or blow up a ship along one of the major shipping chokepoints, such as the Strait of Hormuz or the Suez Canal, disrupting the flow of oil or other crucial cargo. “With deliberate preparation and the occasional well-placed attack, a few men with small boats can keep the navies churning for years,” writes journalist William Langewiesche in his 2004 book The Outlaw Sea.
“If terrorists like al Qaeda want to keep Western powers tied up, would it not be logical for them to open another front to get attention off Afghanistan and Pakistan?” asks Lee Willett, a British naval security expert.