Tag Archives: Counterterrorism

Sea Control 118 – ISIS Capabilities Against Civil Aviation

In the aftermath of the Brussels attacks, the world is now paying closer attention to airport security and the unique threat posed by ISIS. But what exactly is going on and how are countries responding?

Join Sea Control: North America for an interview with Max Leitschuh, an Aviation Security Analyst at iJet International, to discuss the ins and outs of ISIS’ recent attacks. During the course of the discussion, we examine ISIS’ capabilities against civil aviation, the specifics of their attacks in Brussels and Sharm el-Sheikh, and what governments can do to counter them.

DOWNLOAD: Sea Control 118 – ISIS Capabilities Against Civil Aviation

 

This episode of Sea Control: North America was hosted by Matthew Merighi and produced by Meaghan Tobin.

Terrorists on the Ocean: Sea Monsters in the 21st Century

By CAPT Robert N. Hein, USN

The call of the ocean has enticed generations to explore, and at times exploit her domain. Ninety percent of world commerce transits the oceans. Cruise ships represent a $40 Billion industry, and 30% of the world’s oil originates offshore. It is no wonder criminals and terrorists also feel drawn to the sea. As these groups expand their reach, the question is: When will ISIS and other terrorist organizations bring their brand of mayhem to the oceans?

A senior NATO Admiral, VADM Clive Johnstone, recently expressed concern that ISIS desired its own maritime force to spread its nefarious activities into the Mediterranean. These activities could include launching attacks against a cruise liner, oil terminal, or container ship. Soon after VADM Johnstone’s comments, Former Supreme Allied Commander and retired Admiral James Stavridis weighed in with his own concerns about ISIS entering the maritime domain: “I’m surprised [Islamic State militants] have not, as yet, moved into the maritime world and gone after cruise ships, which I think are a logical and lucrative target for them.”

While ISIS’ maritime capabilities have been limited to date, this has not been true of all terrorist organizations. ISIS’ predecessor, Al Qaeda, launched a vicious and successful attack against the USS COLE in October 2000. Somali pirates experienced tremendous success at sea for years, but strong responses from the international community and force protection measures by the maritime industry have limited further successful attacks. ISIS’ limited attempts at sea have achieved some effects though, such as the shore-launched rocket attack on an Egyptian naval ship in August. Additionally, there was a recent attempt by ISIS to conduct an attack from the sea against a Libyan oil terminal, but it was thwarted by Libyan security forces.

Footage of ISIS affiliated insurgent group launching missile at Egyptian Timsah class patrol boat in July 2015. 

How Real is the Threat?

The lure of expanding operations into the maritime domain is enticing to terrorist groups. The relative isolation is real, and external response is limited. Terrorist attacks on land receive a rapid government response, in large numbers, and with many assets to thwart an attack. Case in point is the Al Qaeda attack at a luxury hotel in Burkina Faso in January 2016. Three members of an Al Qaeda group took 126 hostages and killed two dozen more before security forces stormed the hotel, killing the terrorists and freeing the hostages. A logical extension of the attacks in Burkina Faso would be an assault on a large and remote or underdefended luxury hotel- such as an underway cruise ship. The narrative ISIS hopes to convey from attacking a cruise ship at sea is akin to many horror movies: a captive victim with nowhere to turn for help.

Following VADM Johnson’s prediction, the Cruise Line International Association quickly stepped in to reassure its passengers that cruises are still safe, but are they? The last successful terrorist attack against a cruise ship was 30 years ago by Palestinians. Their original intent was to use the Achille Lauro as transport to Ashdod, Israel, to launch a terror attack ashore. This plan rapidly changed when a crew member discovered the terrorists/attackers cleaning their weapons.

Egyptian central security police guarding the gangplank on which diplomats and others go to and from the Italian cruise liner ?Achille Lauro? which arrived, Thursday, Oct. 10, 1985 in Port Said in this port after being hijacked by four Palestinian for more than 48-hours. The four hijackers has left Egypt after they surrendered go to the Egyptian authorities on Wednesday. (AP Photo)
Egyptian central security police guarding the gangplank on which diplomats and others go to and from the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro which arrived, Thursday, Oct. 10, 1985 in Port Said after being hijacked by four Palestinian for more than 48-hours. (AP Photo)

While the Achille Lauro incident increased levels of security in the cruise ship world, threats to the cruise industry remain. In March 2015, cruise ship tourists visiting a museum during a stop in Tunis were attacked. Cruise lines are quick to cancel port visits in global hot spots, and most employ internal security forces. However, the allure for terrorists remains. Al Qaeda made plans as early as 2011 to capture a cruise ship and execute its passengers. Fortunately, those plans have failed to come to fruition as terrorist groups have found the task is harder than it looks.

While attacks on the open ocean remain a challenge, coastal attacks are more feasible. The Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba launched an attack in 2008 against Mumbai. They hijacked an Indian fishing boat and launched 10 terrorists ashore, ultimately killing 166 and injuring almost 500. The lack of a strong Coast Guard in both India and Pakistan certainly contributed to the terrorists’ success, and served as a wakeup call. In response to the Mumbai attacks, the Indian Navy was placed at the apex of India’s maritime security architecture and made responsible for both coastal and oceanic security. Since then, the Indian Navy has successfully prevented further attacks. However, even with the additional forces, indications persist that ISIS may be trying to infiltrate India by sea, disguised as fishermen.

Arguably, the most successful terrorist group on the sea was the Sri Lankan separatist group, the Tamil Tigers. In his treatise A Guerrilla Wat At Sea: The Sri Lankan Civil War , Professor Paul Povlock of the Naval War College describes how at their strongest, their maritime branch (the Sea Tigers) boasted a force of 3000 personnel with separate branches for logistics, intelligence, communications, offensive mining, and — every terrorists’ favorite — the suicide squad. They conducted sea denial with great success, even demonstrating the ability to sink Sri Lankan patrol boats using fast attack craft and suicide boats.

Small vessels employed by the Sea Tigers.
Small vessels employed by the Sea Tigers.

The Tigers continued their attacks against Sri Lanka for 20 years until the Sri Lankan Navy was able to effectively neutralize them. The Sri Lankan Navy now has a formidable maritime patrol, but not before they lost over 1000 men to the Sea Tigers. Hardly a day goes by without illegal fishermen being chased away or arrested by the Sri Lankan government, who is ever mindful that their waters could again be used for more nefarious purposes.

Sometimes terrorists’ appetites are far bigger than their stomachs, as was the case in September 2014 when Al Qaeda operatives attempted to hijack a Pakistani frigate. If successful, it would have had epic implications. However, the attempted takeover was thwarted by a sharp Pakistani gunner who noticed the inbound boat did not have standard issue gear. He engaged, destroying the terrorist boat, while commandos onboard the frigate subdued crew members sympathetic to the terrorist cause.

Defeat and Deter

Operating in the maritime domain is far more challenging than operations on land. The Somali pirates were originally fishermen and familiar with operating at sea, but it still took them years to develop an offshore “over the horizon” capability. The lack of successful attacks at sea by terrorist organizations in spite of their indicated desire is at least a partial validation of the efforts made by the maritime security community.

The effective shutdown of piracy off Somalia served as a model for defeating maritime crime, showing coastal nations the effects of naval presence in deterring illegal behavior at sea. Malaysia has all but shut down sea crime in its waters, and blunted terrorist attempts to enter Malaysia by aggressively patrolling their coasts. Nigeria has similarly stepped up its game in the Gulf of Guinea where their navy stopped two hijackings in one week and separately announced they would soon take delivery of an additional 50 boats- both demonstrations of commitment to peaceful use of their waters. That doesn’t mean the work is over. ISIS, who has the funds for major purchases, is attempting to acquire naval capabilities like 2 man submarines, high powered speed boats, boats fitted with machine guns and rocket launchers, and mine planners made easily available by less discerning arms providers such as Korea, China, and Russia.

While the likelihood of near-shore attacks remains a possibility, including against cruise ships, the chance that ISIS will attack blue water objectives out of sight of land is still remote. However, the odds will remain remote only as long as the navies of the world continue to provide a credible presence on the oceans. When the seas are no longer effectively patrolled, terrorist organizations will take advantage of the same opportunities for freedom of maneuver at sea that they currently enjoy ashore.

Captain Robert N. Hein is a career Surface Warfare Officer. He previously commanded the USS Gettysburg (CG-64) and the USS Nitze (DDG-94). You can follow him on Twitter: @the_sailor_dog. The views and opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the Department of Defense.

Featured Image: The U.S.S. Cole in 2000 after suffering an Al Qaeda attack in the port of Aden. 17 American sailors were killed, and 39 were injured.

Assessing the President’s ISIL Speech as Strategic Communication

This piece was written in response to the Presidential address on ISIL and as part of our Strategic Communications week.

13 years ago America woke up to the Long War. September 10th was a sadly appropriate time for the President to address the continuation of the conflict: ISIL – the message of the speech was that this Long War will continue to be so.

As a piece of strategic communication, the speech laid out something best said by .38 Special:

Just hold on loosely
But don’t let go
If you cling too tightly
You’re gonna lose control
Your baby needs someone to believe in
And a whole lot of space to breathe in

The president’s intent was to explain the threat of ISIL, then walk the fine line of both destroying ISIL and avoiding the entanglement he sees in America’s thirteen years of ground war. In short, America will destroy ISIL, but America will not be the one to destroy ISIL – America will look to Arab partners, the Iraqi military, and the Syrian opposition, with the support of American advisers and airpower.

Let’s go into the details of looking at this speech, not for the policy, but as a piece of strategic communication.

To Everyone:
ISIL Is a Threat & Will Be Destroyed

While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies. Our intelligence community believes that thousands of foreigners, including Europeans and some Americans, have joined them in Syria and Iraq. Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.

This was considered by many the President’s moment to explain, particularly to the American people, explicitly the threat posed by ISIL, which he did by drawing the thread between opportunity, capability, and intent: the proven brutality and capability of ISIL, the stated aims, and their ability to get people of bad intent to us. This was likely aimed at European audiences as well.

I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are… This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.

That message and its purpose probably doesn’t need any explanation.

To Middle Eastern Actors in General :
We’ll Be
Holding On Loosely

This is not our fight alone. American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region…
…This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partners’ forces on the ground.

Whether we can rely on the emergence of an enemy’s enemies coalition or an inclusive Iraqi government is to be seen, but this speech was likely meant as a final signalling to those in and around this cross-border conflict that the US will not be the one to “contain” this situation, and that the ongoing proxy war may threaten to consume all of them.  The thinking may be that regional actors, once realizing the US will not “swoop in” will turn upon this conflict’s most disturbing symptom rather than each other.

No particular partners are mentioned other than the new Iraqi government, Kurdish Forces, and the vague “Syrian opposition” – the particulars of a specific Syrian opposition group, Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and many of the gulf states who choose to playing a part in extending this crisis are left out. This is likely on purpose, requiring no explanations of whose name was said, left out, or why.

Iraqi and Kurdish forces.

This is a side note to the more general trend, but the division of Iraqi and Kurdish forces should be recognized in the language. This could be a natural result of the bifurcation of the two forces’ effort in fighting and the desire to recognize the enormous contribution of the Kurds or a more subtle political intent.

To Congress:
But We Won’t Let Go

We will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter terrorism strategy.

That the US is now firmly aimed at ISIL and alot of resources, thought not troops, will be aimed in their direction. This not surprise to anyone – more importantly, the president communicated two specific points to Congress: he needed not seek their specific approval, but wanted to engage them & desperately wishes for them to expand their engagement in Syria.

I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL. But I believe we are strongest as a nation when the president and Congress work together. So I welcome congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger…
…It was formerly al-Qaida’s affiliate in Iraq and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border.

This is pretty clear – some have speculated the president would seek Congress’s approval. He, fairly safely, presumes to tacitly have it amidst the unclear debate some are having on whether he needs it explicitly. Likely, this is also why he mentioned ISIL’s association with al-Qaida.

Tonight, I again call on Congress, again, to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters. In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its own people — a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost.

Here the President is extending the discussion from earlier discussions on involvement in Syria – this is a point he does not plan on giving up, though in this speech it was buried in the larger narrative of his over-arching strategy. Having previously discussed the brutality of ISIL, he wishes to show how Assad cannot be a partner in their defeat – having already shown the same brutality. Realists would debate this point – but the president illustrates throughout the speech an intent to engage soft power and counter ideology.  This will be something he will continue to push in the future.

To the American People:
Won’t Cling Too Tightly, and Lose Control

The president is trying to establish certain foundational points here with the American people for their support:

As I have said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission. We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq…
…I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.

1.) The US will not go full-bore into this conflict, “returning” or being “dragged” back into what they’ve been used to for a decade. This was the great fear when the Syria debate arose, and one the President would like to avoid. This is likely meant to “cut off at the pass” the likely debate of mission creep, or at least hold off discussion and a potential negative consensus if it does happen.

We can’t erase every trace of evil from the world and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm…
…It will take time to eradicate a cancer like ISIL.

2.) Keeping expectations realistic. The strategy laid-out is, indeed, a long one – and the statement that “we can’t erase every trace of evil from the world” is an acceptance that many more like-threats will come in the future. The President likely wishes to avoid any sense of triumphalism or expectation of a quick victory that will later be dashed and undermine support for the mission.

…any time we take military action, there are risks involved, especially to the servicemen and -women who carry out these missions.

3.) This is to set up the expectation of risk – with personnel in-theater and aircraft overhead, any discussion of this being “low risk” would immediately undermine the mission if/when our people are killed/kidnapped by ISIL or if an aircraft were to go down.  The reality-check on the longevity and risk of this conflict up front may not create the initial surge of support, but will create a more sturdy and realistic appreciation for what we’re doing that may last longer.

To Middle Easterners & Potential Western ISIL “Converts”:
Middle East has America to believe in,
But whole lot of space to breathe in.

As stated throughout the speech—the United States is committed to the region, but the dialogue of “airpower”, standoff “counter-insurgency”, and advisors is to push the narrative that the US will not be occupiers again. This is likely a long-shot attempt to communicate to those on the fence about ISIL or worried about “western imperailism.” Part of that denial of a “imperialist” or “holy war” narrative is also the continued emphasis the United States is placing on ISIS not being “Islamic” and the United States not being at war with Islam. It is unlikely that this message would reach anyone in the conflict zone.

It may, however, be for those in Western Nations or more stable neighbors to the conflict who would follow ISIL’s new social media campaign into the maw of jihad, as Anwar al-Alwaki convinced some westeners to do.

Overall:

Some will argue with the strategy itself, as well as the accuracy/value of allusions to Somalia and Yemen (as I sit here watching talking heads on CNN), but as a piece of stand-alone strategic communication for the plan being put forward, the speech was a straight-forward. It clearly illustrates the reasons the US is engaged with ISIL and the commitment of the US to its own safety, as well as a commitment to allies -willing- to commit to their own safety,

Few communications are more “strategic” than those that come from the Bully Pulpit, and this was a solid piece of that kind of communication. Whether this 80’s classic of “Hold on Loosely, But Don’t Let Go,” is right plan for the US? That is for us to argue and, as time goes on, see.

Matthew Hipple is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content and an officer in the United States Navy. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the US Government, Department of Defense, or US Navy – but sometimes they do.

Asymmetric Zombie Warfare

                       A violent and extremist, but what of its organization?

What can zombies teach the military and law enforcement about asymmetric warfare and counter-terrorism? San Diego is about to find out thanks to a privately run conference coinciding with Halloween. (Note: NOT part of International Maritime Satire Week):

“This is a very real exercise, this is not some type of big costume party,” said Brad Barker, president of Halo Corp, a security firm hosting the Oct. 31 training demonstration during the summit at a 44-acre Paradise Point Resort island on a San Diego bay. “Everything that will be simulated at this event has already happened, it just hasn’t happened all at once on the same night. But the training is very real, it just happens to be the bad guys we’re having a little fun with.”

 

Hundreds of military, law enforcement and medical personnel will observe the Hollywood-style production of a zombie attack as part of their emergency response training.

 

In the scenario, a VIP and his personal detail are trapped in a village, surrounded by zombies when a bomb explodes. The VIP is wounded and his team must move through the town while dodging bullets and shooting back at the invading zombies. At one point, some members of the team are bit by zombies and must be taken to a field medical facility for decontamination and treatment.

 

“No one knows what the zombies will do in our scenario, but quite frankly no one knows what a terrorist will do,” Barker said. “If a law enforcement officer sees a zombie and says, ‘Freeze, get your hands in the air!’ What’s the zombie going to do? He’s going to moan at you. If someone on PCP or some other psychotic drug is told that, the truth is he’s not going to react to you.”

It’s an interesting way to generate interest and use an outside-the-box scenario to develop insights into parallel reality based situations, similar to the way that military academics mine history for case studies or futurists use the intelligent prognostications of science fiction to think about the future of society and technology and its implications for warfare. Hopefully this scenario doesn’t fall into the latter category. Click on the link above for the full story.