Exploring how piracy or Iranian naval strategy could be adapted by terrorists to strike chokepoints, Israel and other stakeholders can get ahead of this threat.
On March 23, the vessel Ever Given ran aground and blocked the Suez Canal, and while now resolved, the next time a vital maritime chokepoint is blocked, it may not be an accident – but terrorism.Maritime chokepoints like the Suez Canal are vulnerable to terror. The Ever Given Crisis crippled trade and transportation, hindered the circulation of oil and captured the world’s attention – all objectives guerrilla organizations desire.The tactics, equipment and inspiration needed to target maritime arteries are already available to malicious non-state actors. By stepping into the boots of a terrorist and exploring how piracy or Iranian naval strategy could be adapted by terrorists to strike chokepoints, Israel and other stakeholders can get ahead of this threat.
The 400m-long container ship the Ever Given ran aground on March 23 in a narrow stretch of the Suez Canal, reportedly due to a combination of human error and crosswinds. On March 29, using 14 tugboats taking advantage of an especially high tide, the vessel was dislodged from the Suez’s bank.The Suez is one of the world’s most heavily trafficked maritime chokepoints. About 15% of maritime traffic goes through the Suez. This came to a halt for almost a week. At the peak of the crisis, 369 vessels waited, and many of the dozens of ships that transit the canal each day were forced instead to make the costly trip around Africa. With almost 10% of maritime oil trade going through the canal, this caused oil prices to spike. Lloyd’s List, a journal and news site that covers shipping and maritime affairs, estimated total daily traffic at a worth of $9.6 billion. A blockage of about a week means the crisis cost world trade almost $67.2 billion. The very nature of terrorism makes this disaster desirable to replicate.
A dark logic makes reproduction of the Ever Given crisis a worthwhile objective for radicals. Terrorism, according to Prof. Boaz Ganor of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), is the deliberate targeting of civilians with violence by non-state actors to achieve a political goal. It is an asymmetric war strategy with associated tactics, in which it is made more costly to decline terrorist demands than to accede to them. There are several ways that terrorists skew the cost and benefit, including targeting confidence in order and economy, and enhancing fear of danger.One of the main ways that non-state actors make government intransigence costly is to target a vital resource. In the Sinai, ISIS affiliates regularly destroy gas and oil pipelines. Egypt then loses energy to power its cities, a resource in trade, and must finance reconstruction. Each strike causes significant cost to the state with little expenditure by attackers.
ISIS is not the only group to value oil and gas targets and given the amount of oil shipped through maritime chokepoints, they are more lucrative in terrorism costs than a single stretch of pipeline.Another common target of terrorists is transportation, which impacts confidence in the state’s ability to keep order and quality of life. “One of the central functions of government is to provide residents with optimal accessibility and quick, convenient and safe access… an integral part of each of the arenas of life,” Danny Shenhar, a fellow at ICT and former director of the Transportation Ministry security department, told the Magazine. Consequently, airplanes, buses and trains have all been the targets of groups like al-Qaeda. “Various terrorist organizations have insisted that terrorist attacks in the public transportation industry have a multidimensional effect on the state and its national resilience, including a huge psychological and media impact on residents; and hence, are unlikely to focus on attacks on these industry targets,” said Shenhar. Maritime chokepoints are prime targets for disruption of the maritime order, impacting far more than just a city or country, but potentially the whole world.The cost that grants terrorism its name is the element of fear. Residing in the thoughts of the public and decision-makers, casting a specter of danger over their lives, can be far more dear than oil.
To get reelected, leaders will do what is needed to end the people’s fears. This includes accepting guerrilla demands. However, to hijack thoughts one needs to first capture attention. In a world in which our attention is commanded by a thousand media forms, and the news cycle churns out events with increasing speed, it is difficult to stake out a share. Not only are terrorists competing with every other news item, they are also in an attention competition with other terrorist organizations. Terrorists are constantly looking to set themselves apart with scale and drama. The Ever Given was an event with both. Terrorists will likely lust after the attention of the event, and seek to replicate the moment.Terrorists are also constantly looking for new targets that are not hardened and prepared against them. “Innovation is critical in terrorism,” Dr. Gil-Ad Ariely, chief knowledge officer and senior researcher at the ICT, told the Magazine. “The maritime domain is a fertile theater for innovation on both sides as well as awareness and sensitivity to weak signals’’ to terrorist activity. Terrorists are constantly in what Ariely calls a “learning competition” in which counter-terrorists respond to terrorist actions with new security countermeasures, which terrorists must find a gap in or a new target altogether. Part of the appeal of maritime chokepoints is that they have not been the target of significant or successful terrorist attack, and thus many gaps and targets remain ripe for plucking at key targets. THE STRAIT of Hormuz between Iran and Oman is a major artery for oil circulation, targeted by Iran in the event of war. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Maritime chokepoints are narrow waterways, much like the Suez Canal. Many of these waterways are high-traffic areas for vessels, connecting larger bodies of water to one another. Space is not only limited by where water is, but also by what waters are navigable. Near the shore, water is often too shallow for many vessels. Some of these waterways of islands and shoals further restrict movement. Consequently, the waterways are even more restrictive than they may first appear to an observer. Traffic results in slower travel through chokepoints to allow for ordered transversal, leaving vessels vulnerable to attacks. The restrictive nature of chokepoints allows for easier blockading than cordoning ports or open coastline.The Suez Canal is no stranger to such closures. The Suez Crisis came about in part due to Nasser’s closure of the canal. The Suez connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, passing between Egypt and its Sinai desert. The Ever Given demonstrated the canal’s importance and vulnerability, but the proximity to the Sinai underscores the threat. The Sinai is home to an ISIS franchise that has been in conflict with Egypt for several years.The Suez is not the only maritime chokepoint in proximity to terrorist groups.
The Straits of Tiran, linking the Gulf of Eilat and the Red Sea, also borders the Sinai. Israelis are well acquainted with the problem of closure of the Straits of Tiran. Egypt twice closed the Straits of Tiran to restrict entry into Israeli waters, which were casus belli for the Suez Crisis and the Six Day War.Further down the Red Sea is Bab-el Mandeb, connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. At some points, the strait is only 20 miles wide. On one side is Yemen, embroiled in a civil war and home to Houthi rebels and al-Qaeda factions. On the other side, in Somalia, is Al-Shabaab. Somali piracy once heavily afflicted the area, until use of security contractors and naval patrols made the piracy venture unprofitable and risky.
BAB-EL MANDEB, a key maritime chokepoint between the Arabian peninsula and African continent, was a focal point of Somali piracy. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
From 2008-2011, maritime piracy was a profitable business in the Gulf of Aden and west Indian Ocean. Originally a volunteer coast guard seeking to fend off foreign dumping and overfishing, Somali pirates developed effective methods to pursue financial ends. Terrorists might be able to use these methods to attack maritime chokepoints. “They often use AK-47s and speedboats, and they were in [groups of] six to 10 well-armed men,” Abdi Yusuf, a counter-terrorism expert based in Nairobi, explained to the Magazine. The ships would sometimes pose as fishermen, quickly approach and board vessels using ladders, and commandeer the boat until a ransom was paid. When ships avoided their waters, they used old trawlers as mother ships, allowing them to extend their range from Somali seas “off to Yemen and even Seychelles or other international waters,” said Yusuf. SOMALI PIRATES aboard the ‘MV Faina.’ (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)The crude method of pretending to be fishermen and then quickly seizing boats with skiffs was effective; the One Earth Future Foundation estimated the cost of piracy of the global economy to be up to $6.9 billion in 2011 and up to $12 billion in 2010. The costs came not only from ransoms, but from rising insurance premiums, fuel for faster transit in dangerous waters and more. Some vessels avoided the waterway altogether, showing that the threat of piracy was as impactful as the act itself. Piracy declined only when the use of maritime security contractors on ships became normal and international forces began to patrol the high-traffic area.There are many lessons that terrorists can take from Somali pirates for their own purposes. Terrorists are no stranger to the use of mother ships and speed boats, as seen with the Hotel Savoy attack. They have also hijacked vessels, such as the PLF did the Achille Lauro, but using the three together in mid-sea hijackings would be new. Al-Shabaab would be well suited to adopt the method, due to some of the connections with piracy. “There are rumors that they have had secret deals.
Even some are saying Al-Shabaab used to take 5% of their income,” Yusuf explained. “Others dispute that and claim they have had no relationship. However, it’s well known that some Al-Shabaab members later joined the piracy.”A group like Al-Shabaab could pretend to be fishermen, quickly seize a container ship with skiffs and then commandeer it into a blockship in a chokepoint like Bab-el Mandeb. “A blockship is a concept that has been documented for a thousand years,” Dr. Scott Savitz, a senior engineer at RAND, told the Magazine. “Sink a ship in a narrow channel and it forms an obstruction that is very hard to move depending on the size of a ship, and even using modern technology it’s very hard to get a sunken ship out of there.” The timespan to fix the impact would be weeks, not several days as with the Ever Given.Non-state actors would be far more effective at capturing ships than pirates, who were pragmatic in their choices. As Yusuf noted, their “motivation was purely financial.” They were not willing to incur too great a risk, unlikely terrorists, who are often willing to die to achieve their objectives. Their daring considered, a concentrated pirate-style terrorist campaign could do far more damage.
Another maritime militant tradition with connections to terrorism is Iran and its asymmetric naval strategy. The Islamic Republic realized long ago that it cannot compete with traditional navies due to limited resources and the overwhelming power of its enemies’ maritime forces. Consequently, it has adopted a maritime guerrilla force to best utilize its strength and its enemies’ weaknesses. Iran uses mother ships, fast craft, drones to board and harass larger ships. In an emergency situation, naval commandos are convoyed to hold key islands within the Strait of Hormuz. The Iranian navy also includes mines in its arsenal, which combined with the commandos can blockade the strait, another vital shipping waterway.Iran also maintains an extensive network of terrorist proxies that it could export these methods to. The “IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) has the ability to command proxies and inspire” them to act in Iranian interests, noted Dr. Eitan Azani, director of research at ICT. Iranian proxies include the Houthi in Yemen, which is near the crucial waterway of Bab-el Mandeb. Iran trains and supplies them with weapons.
Beyond this, some groups not directly controlled by Iran may be inspired by its methods.Terrorists could use skiffs to take key islands, but it is doubtful they would have the firepower to stop ships. “An RPG or a mortar attack has far too little firepower to sink a ship, though they could kill or injure people on deck, as well as sensitive items like antennae,” explained Savitz, “Anti-ship missiles may damage the superstructure but they may not end up sinking a ship. Even your standard cargo ship is likely to be able to withstand a significant amount of damage.” However, terrorists may be able to emulate Iran in the use of mines.“It is absolutely something in the reach of terrorists; they’re cheap and widely available. You could even make them in a machine shop,” said Savitz. “One of the advantages of the mines is that they’re weapons that wait, you can undertake your operation before anyone is aware. They also have a disproportionate impact.” The fear of mines gives them greater impact than their actual presence. An entire waterway can be closed with a credible mine threat, even if there are few or no mines. “Clearing a mine is a complicated procedure,” according to Savitz. It takes a long time to counter mines with specialized ships and equipment.” Like blockships, mines are effective ways of closing a waterway for long periods at low cost and risk to the attacker.
Taking lessons from Somali pirates and Iran, terrorist organizations could easily create an Ever Given crisis in a maritime chokepoint. They could set out from port with a mother ship loaded with fast craft, mines, and additional explosives. Disguised as fishermen, they could lay in wait, until a large container ship appeared. Launching their fast craft, they would quickly overtake a vessel and board it. International forces would not have long to respond – ransom is not the point as with pirates. The vessel could be used to clandestinely lay mines as it transited, then it would be piloted into a narrow part of the chokepoint and scuttled by a series of explosions below the waterline. Clearing both the blockship and the mines could take weeks, depending on the availability of response assets and the geography of the chokepoint. A terrorist mothership and her skiffs could continue to harass other ships, Iranian style, until they are hunted down by international forces.Terrorists wouldn’t have to hijack a ship — they could also buy an old ship before it heads to the scrapyard. Either is a viable approach. Also, running the ship aground is less damaging than causing explosions below the waterline — it’s easier to refloat a grounded ship, like the Ever Given. To scuttle their ship, they just need explosives, not even mines.
The Jewish state’s security measures are predominantly against direct attacks. The problem of using mixed Iranian and pirate tactics to close a chokepoint is that it indirectly impacts Israel. As an IRGC official recently noted, 90% of Israel’s trade is by sea. Closures of the Suez, Tiran or Bab-el Mandeb would choke the Israeli economy. Israel has previously gone to war over such closures by state enemies. The threat of non-state actors doing the same is no less of a danger.
Global powers can pursue several measures to counter terrorist aspirations to create their own Ever Given. International efforts to protect high-traffic areas already exist. It wouldn’t be difficult to add the responsibility of the naval patrols to monitor the chokepoints. “Think tanks, scenarios, red teams” can be developed to “fully understand the threat and capabilities” of maritime terrorists, and give the patrols further tools.The problem with blockships and mother ships disguised as fishing ships is that they appear as normal vessels, until it is too late. The possibility of success even with prepared patrols is distinct, therefore the ability to clean up an assault is needed. Salvage ships and mine sweepers need to be ready within international patrols, and wreckage-clearing capabilities need to be pursued. Israel should consider how it can contribute to international naval patrols, including vessels and intelligence to detect the planning of a blocking attack.As with most terrorist attacks, the most crucial tool one must create is the same thing that terrorists seek: attention. “Most important thing is to bring awareness, for decision makers to prepare and plan,” said Ariely. “If decision makers are aware of the problem beforehand, precautions against such attacks can be taken.” Terrorists may be able to hijack a ship, but knowing the danger ahead of time will prevent them from hijacking our fears.