We interview Louis, the Marine Veteran of “PokemonGO in Kurdistan Meme” fame, and an independent foreign fighter with the Kurds in Iraq. We discuss his motivations for heading out to the fight, about his process of joining, integrating, and operating with the Kurdish forces in the field. We also discuss how he and his fellow western fighters coordinate their operations and regulate themselves, as well as the day-to-day realities of life in the Kurdish war zone.
Louis hopes that the popularity of his meme draws public interest to the on-the- ground realities of the fight against ISIS. He also hopes it can bring attention to those carrying on that fight. That is what we have endeavored to do with this interview.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Welcome back to the Asia Pacific segment of Sea Control! In this episode Natalie Sambhi picks the brains of Dr Malcolm Cook of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Singapore) and Dr Ben Schreer of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (Canberra) on Japan’s recent budget increases; Japan’s relations with the US, Australia and Southeast Asia; and what the taking of Japanese hostages by ISIS might mean for its foreign policy in future.
In one of the last Asia Pacific podcasts for 2014, Sea Control Asia Pacific turns to the Middle East: the first 100 days of airstrikes against ISIL, to be specific. Natalie Sambhi interviews the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Daniel Nichola and Patricia Dias on the data on airstrikes they collated as part of ASPI’s latest report. They explain what these airstrikes (which can be viewed on this interactive map) call tell us about the campaign thus far and its impact on the extremist organisation. Looking beyond Australia’s involvement in air operations against ISIL, in the second half of the podcast, Daniel and Patricia what will be Australia’s defence and security priorities in 2015, including cyber security, the future surface fleet, the Korean peninsula and Southwest Pacific stability.