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Five Ways Poor Maritime Security Fuels Rebels, Terrorists, and Criminal Networks

Capturing Narco Subs
U.S. Coast Guard seizes bales of cocaine from a submarine in international waters off the coast of Central America.  Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class LaNola Stone / US Coast Guard.

Oceans are central to the modern global economy, but oceans are no less important to violent non-state actors. Rebel groups, transnational criminal networks, and terrorist organizations exploit poor maritime governance to undermine political stability around the world.

Here are five ways violent non-state actors are using the world’s oceans:

  1. Trafficking Drugs via “Narco Submarines”

Despite increased seizures of illicit drugs—the U.S. Coast Guard reported nearly half a million pounds of cocaine seized between October 2016 and September 2017—the drug trade is booming. Even with the world’s strongest navy and coast guard, American officials estimate they intercept only 20 percent of the cocaine that leaves Central America for American shores. The success of this illicit trade is due, in large part, to increasingly sophisticated trafficking strategies and technologies used by criminal networks. These are typified by the recent proliferation of trafficking via “narco submarines.”

A narco-submarine is a small vessel that sits just below the ocean’s surface to avoid radar detection. The few successful open-water seizures suggest a single submarine can deliver thousands of pounds of cocaine worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The Center for International Maritime Security reports that these vessels have been found everywhere from the Central American coast and Andean river systems to the open waters of the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean.  

The “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala suffer some of the highest homicide rates in the world. This problem cannot be separated from the fact that the United States, the world’s largest consumer of cocaine, is easily accessed from both the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. Approximately five percent of American adults used cocaine at least once in 2015, and nearly all of it was trafficked from Andean countries via Central America.

Violence in Central America is unlikely to decline until regional maritime governance can dramatically constrict this vital revenue stream for powerful criminal groups.

  1. Robbing Countries of Their Offshore Oil

Maritime insecurity prevents Gulf of Guinea countries from fully realizing the profits of their oil wealth. The Niger Delta is a key hotspot for offshore oil production, but it is also home to deeply entrenched insurgent groups and transnational criminal networks.

Nigeria, the world’s 12th largest oil producer, loses some $1.5 billion per month to crude oil theft. Most of these robberies occur when criminals siphon pipelines and resell crude to nearby barges and tankers.

This theft has pernicious consequences for Nigeria’s political stability. It fuels the corruption that plagues the government and funds several violent actors. The Niger Delta Avengers, for example, were responsible for a spate of attacks on oil related infrastructure in 2016. They have threatened to significantly increase their raids on oil facilities in the future. Industry analysts warn that the Nigerian oil industry could be on the brink of collapse should more attacks occur.

The Nigerian government’s response has been incredibly costly. It has tripled its Niger Delta Amnesty budget by providing an additional $111 million to pay the monthly stipends to militias. Critics of the approach argue it is unsustainable because the government is facing a cash crunch in the wake of a significant reduction of oil revenues on which it heavily depends.

If Nigeria is to harness the dividends from its natural resource bounty, it will need a multi-pronged strategy that improves maritime security, roots out corruption, and provides an inclusive economic plan that eliminates the incentive for oil-fueled insurgency in the Delta.

  1. Controlling Smuggling Routes

A UN report found that migrant smuggling is a significant source of financing to Libyan armed groups. Militias essentially run a protection racket, requiring smuggling groups to pay in order to operate within their territory. In addition, Italy has begun to pay off some militias in return for a crackdown on smuggling activity. While these payments appear to have successfully reduced migration, they also increase the financial resources of some armed groups over others. This has led to additional armed conflict between militias.

Given its extensive coastline and proximity to Italy, Libya has long served as the transit point to Europe for both Libyans and other migrants from throughout Africa. However, migrant smuggling has increased sharply since the collapse of the Gaddafi regime. An estimated 45,000 migrants left Libya in 2013, 170,000 more followed in 2014, and rose to more than 180,000 in 2016. This route, characterized by overloaded, fragile wooden boats and rubber dinghies, takes a terrible human cost. Officials estimate more than 5,000 people drowned trying to reach Italy from Libya in 2016 alone.

Insecurity on land and at sea have fueled one other. Disorder on shore has led to increased migrant smuggling. At the same time, migrant smuggling fuels conflict on land by providing financing to militant groups.

  1. Launching Assaults from the Sea

Many violent actors raise revenue at sea, but some also use the sea to facilitate their attackswhen maritime spaces are not effectively governed.

In March 2016 the jihadist group al-Shabab mounted a sea attack on the Somali town of Garcad. Hundreds of militants arrived by boat and took over neighboring coastal villages. Regional forces launched a successful counteroffensive, but the massive attack demonstrated the maritime ambition and capabilities of al-Shabab, who proved capable of launching offensives by sea when land incursions were impossible.

In another example, Houthi rebel forces regularly taken advantage of key Yemeni ports in their control to attack the ships of the Saudi-led coalition. In October 2016 Houthis fired missiles at an Emirati civilian ship in the Red Sea that was carrying aid, wounding Yemenis, and other passengers. Days later they fired two missiles at a US warship but did not hit it. In June 2017 the rebels fired a missile that struck a Saudi warship.

Maritime insecurity also led to attacks on refugee boats off the coast of Yemen.  In March 2017 a boat carrying over 150 refugees from the Somali coast was attacked by an unknown source, resulting in the deaths of 43 civilians.

The lack of accountability and law enforcement within territorial waters encourages an expansion of conflict into the maritime domain. These cases demonstrate the necessity of good maritime governance to maintain peace onshore.

  1. Exploiting Archipelagos

Groups operating in the archipelagos of southeast Asia aim to control the space between islands to expand their territorial holdings. Waterways and seas packed with rural, remote islands make these enclaves vulnerable to all kinds of illicit maritime activity. Non-state actors with the capacity to operate at sea thrive in such environments.

The complex constellation of (sometimes overlapping) rebel and criminal groups can exploit this region’s poor maritime situational awareness. Abu Sayyaf militants have used kidnapping for ransom to fund their operations in the Sulu Sea.

Some groups are even launching transnational attacks. In February 2011, The Royal Army of Sulu militant organization invaded a village on the east coast of the Malaysian province of Sabah. The landing triggered several weeks of fighting between the group and the Malaysian armed forces.

The attack would not have been possible if the regional governments had better control of their waters. Several hundred armed men in motorboats were able to travel from the southern Philippines to Malaysia, without either state’s knowledge, to spark a conflict which cost dozens of lives.

The Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia have  established joint naval and air patrols, and command posts in the Sulu Sea. These regional multilateral efforts are critical to addressing the transnational nature of maritime security threats in the area.

The Common Theme: Weak State Presence in the Maritime Domain

Violent non-state groups are highly adaptable and they will continue to take advantage of inadequate governance at sea. Often these threats are attributed to a crisis of governance within states and the collateral costs are great. They affect maritime economic development and commerce globally. Insurgents can only tax human smugglers in Libya because that state lacks the capacity to control its maritime space. Oil theft would not be possible if Nigeria had a more robust coast guard. The threat of seaborne assaults is considerably lower where states make adequate investments in naval and coastal defenses.

Countering these threats will require more attention to good maritime governance. When non-state actors can no longer profit from illicit activities at sea, they will pose a lesser threat to coastal political stability and economic development.