The global maritime domain is vulnerable and the international community must address calls for continued collaborative action against transnational security crimes. (FILE PIC)

THE Sea Lanes of Communication, or the maritime milieu, has been referred to as “ground zero” of the asymmetric security threats, such as piracy, terrorism and organised crime.

The low intensity of maritime operation capabilities of asymmetric non-state actors has emerged over the years and has created a platform for maritime security threats.

Historically, maritime terrorism is rare and it constituted about three per cent of international security threats over the past decades.

The reason is that operations at sea require specialist skills, equipment and resources. These issues constrain terrorists tactically and, hence, prevent them from carrying out operations at sea.

However, there is indication that terrorist groups are setting their focus on vulnerable targets at sea and port areas. There is a growing concern, although fixed land targets have offered higher visibility and greater ease of success globally. Over the years, terrorist groups have been aware of the vulnerability of the maritime domain and the shipping and maritime infrastructure.

How then does maritime terrorism play a role in transnational security threats? Maritime terrorism has not been linked to piracy as transnational threats are usually considered “criminal” in the eyes of the law.

These international criminal activities, however, could be used to fund and finance terrorism. The overlapping nature is misunderstood by the international community. For example, the Abu Sayyaf group in the southern Philippines has a credible maritime capability.

Abu Sayyaf has a long history of maritime tradition and we have seen its operations taking place in Southeast Asia, from hijacking, kidnappings, human trafficking to the smuggling of illicit goods and weapons.

Abu Sayyaf operates on two accounts: one as a terrorist organisation and the other as an economic force multiplier.

The “kidnap-for-ransom” strategy employed over the years, the many hijackings of vessels and the Marawi siege are evidence of its terrorist modus operandi.

Abu Sayyaf has been the only terrorist group in the region to actually hijack vessels in Southeast Asia and has vast operational expertise.

Terrorist operations require huge amounts of money and, as such, by following the trail of transnational criminal activities, it may lead us to the terrorists themselves.

Al-Qaeda has been involved in the drug smuggling in Southeast Asia as it depends on the illicit weapons deal in the Sulu arms trade, money laundering and the sale of blood diamonds from Africa.

So, how is maritime piracy associated with transnational threats?

Piracy overlays seamlessly into the criminal activity of organised crime. The maritime domain provides much exploitation and ripe opportunities for piracy and transnational activities. Although maritime terrorism and transnational activities do not seem to justify their means, piracy does.

Piracy as the organised crime has been operational for decades.

The Liberation Tamil Tigers of Elam was operating a fleet of cargo carrying weapons from the east to the west, passing unnoticed through the Straits of Malacca. The exploitation of maritime laws and secrecy using flags of convenience allowed the crimes to flourish.

These and other criminal activities have seen millions of dollars of cargo, kidnappings and phantom ships used for transnational crimes, such as drug and human trafficking, go beyond the eyes of security agencies in ports.

This kind of piracy goes beyond the regular piracy of muggings and robberies at sea. They are usually the small fries that make small headlines and not the real security threats that run beyond the radar.

It is imperative that by analysing the two, one can determine that high-end piracy and terrorism are associated with crime syndicates. With this, we can streamline that the links between terrorism and piracy are very well groomed together and they create a self-mechanism for a support-structure system. Drug trafficking has overtaken the less lucrative smuggling and, therefore, piracy will be a venture for international terrorist groups to work with.

If piracy remains another transnational threat, it will continue to get the same attention as other transnational crimes get, or until another 9/11 takes place.

Will this be too late for measures to be taken?

The global maritime domain is vulnerable. The international community must address calls for continued collaborative action against transnational security crimes.

Oceans are beyond sovereign control, as such, the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea continue to be vulnerable to terrorist attacks. The complicity of the state actors in addressing transnational threats is ineffective and surveillance of these threats is minimal. Conditions now lead to more adroit exploitations of the maritime environment.

The growth of off-shore industries and the increase of resources have shifted to the waters, making them targets of maritime threats from terrorism.

Maritime attacks offer alternative means to terrorist groups. These can lead to large-scale economic destabilisation, mass casualties and environmental damage.

These groups have also infiltrated the governments of some states into selling their sove-reignty so as to create state of convenience for themselves. Corruption is no longer simply greasing the wheels of commerce. It has become more dangerous when mixed with terrorism, piracy and transnational crimes. The threat is so real that it rules some states.

Corruption also facilitates the entry into the financial sector, where some states may depend on dirty money and, thus, the chain becomes harder to curtail.

Where do we go from here? There are preventive measures that have been in place but are they relevant to the threats posed by transnational groups in support of terrorism and piracy?

With the implementing measures to secure the waters, the essential tool for governments is to degrade the land capabilities of these groups.

The biblical cord at sea has a strong bond with the facilities on land or events at shore. These threats to the maritime domain must be curtailed and focused on land where it all begins. Counter measures need to be addressed on land instead at sea. The reliance on corrupt officials and the ability to launder the proceeds are therefore their vulnerabilities. Terrorists, pirates and transnational criminal groups need a place to live and they have found weak states to solicit their business and operations.

Andrin Raj is the Southeast Asia regional director for the International Association for Counterterrorism and Security Professional-Centre for Security Studies, Kuala Lumpur, and is also a national security and
counterterrorism expert.

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