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Crippled Capacity: How Weak Maritime Enforcement Emboldened Ansar al-Sunna

By Kelly Moss

Two months ago, the insurgent group Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa (“Ansar al-Sunna”) attacked the strategic port of Mocímboa da Praia in Mozambique for the second time in six months. Unlike the day-long siege on March 23rd, Ansar al-Sunna has occupied Mocímboa da Praia since August 13th, indicating a significant escalation in insurgent capabilities.

Ansar al-Sunna was established in Mozambique in 2015 and became increasingly violent beginning in October 2017. Attacks have centered on the Cabo Delgado province, where the group originated, particularly the coastal town of Mocímboa da Praia. Despite having a formal affiliation to the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province, the insurgency finds deeper roots in local socio-economic and political grievances stemming from an emerging and exploitative regional liquified natural gas industry, and perceived and actual political marginalization by the state, amongst other things. However, the insurgency has reportedly seen incoming recruits from other East African countries, raising concerns over the potential regionalization of this primarily local conflict.

Regardless, the Mozambican government’s repressive response, eerily similar to tactics used in Nigeria’s counterterrorism campaign against Boko Haram, has only served to stoke domestic tensions and fuel anti-state propaganda in support of Ansar al-Sunna. In terms of maritime capabilities, Stable Seas’ new report, Violence at Sea: How Terrorists, Insurgents, and Other Extremists Exploit the Maritime Domain, demonstrates that since March, Ansar al-Sunna has increasingly used the sea for operational and financial purposes, including moving supplies and fighters for tactical support, targeting ports and coastal communities, and exploiting pre-existing maritime-enabled illicit trafficking networks for funding.

This story is much bigger than Ansar al-Sunna’s most recent attacks. Speculation over Mozambique’s response to the group, particularly discussions of regional engagement by the Southern African Development Community and South African Navy, raises questions about the role of the maritime domain in countering Ansar al-Sunna, highlighting the importance of strong national maritime enforcement capacity and its pivotal role in countering violent non-state actors (VNSAs) globally.

The Criticality of Maritime Enforcement Capacity

Maritime Enforcement Capacity (MEC) can be broadly defined as the ability of a state to effectively monitor its territorial waters and exclusive economic zones, and enforce maritime legislation, including those targeting trafficking networks and illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. States with high MEC can successfully interdict transnational criminal actors, conduct operations, and patrol their waters to defend against intra- and inter-regional threats, and respond in real time to maritime-based threats. Absent strong MEC, even the most well-developed maritime security legislation is rendered effectively useless – a fact willingly and aggressively exploited by nefarious actors.

Enter Mozambique. With a Stable Seas Maritime Security Index MEC score of 31, the fourth lowest in East and Southern Africa, Mozambique’s control over its territorial waters and related activities is severely limited. This is largely due to an underdeveloped navy with limited operational capacity to enforce maritime security along the Mozambican coast, the fourth longest in Africa. According to multiple sources, domestic naval operations are slim due to a lack of serviceable assets (12 patrol and coastal combatant vessels), exacerbated by a lack of available fuel for training missions. Furthermore, naval personnel estimates are small compared to the rest of the Mozambique Defense Armed Forces (FADM), with 2020 estimates suggesting 200 active naval officers out of 11,200 FADM troops.

A map of jihadist attacks along Mozambique’s coastline (Graphic via The Economist)

To attempt to boost this low MEC, the Mozambican government has taken steps toward improvement, including asset procurement, regional exercise participation, and bilateral maritime cooperation agreements. Regarding assets, Mozambique purchased three HSI 32 Interceptor naval patrol vessels from France in early 2016 and was donated 10 speedboats and two other fast interceptor boats, along with military training, from Portugal and India in 2018 and 2019. Mozambique also routinely participates in regionally-led trainings with other East African Djibouti Code of Conduct signatories, as well as maritime security trainings by the International Maritime Organization and Cutlass Express, a maritime training exercise for East African countries that is supported by U.S. Africa Command and U.S. Naval Forces Africa. Additionally, Mozambique has recently pursued bilateral maritime cooperation agreements with Italy, India, and Seychelles. Despite these laudable efforts, MEC remains limited, as demonstrated by the recent inability of the FADM to defend and reclaim control of Mocímboa da Praia’s port from Ansar al-Sunna.

Weak Maritime Enforcement Capacity Emboldens VNSAs

So what does MEC have to do with VNSAs like Ansar al-Sunna? Weak MEC emboldens VNSAs both directly and indirectly, thereby allowing them to exploit diminished interdiction capabilities, limited operational assets, and strategic confusion.

Weak Interdiction Capacity

Weak interdiction capabilities facilitate illicit trades, contributing to the sustainability and longevity of VNSAs. A key dimension of MEC is the ability of states to apprehend illicit products that are trafficked to ports (via containerized shipments) and offshore landing sites (via small dhows). Due to Ansar al-Sunna’s elusive nature, speculation abounds as to where the group’s funding streams lie, but it is believed that illicit trades play at least some role. This is reinforced by the fact that Mocímboa da Praia is a longstanding hub for these types of trades. Of the numerous illicit trafficking networks in the region (timber, rubies, wildlife, gold, etc.), narcotics are the most likely industry for Ansar al-Sunna engagement, according to the Global Initiative for Transnational Crime. Indeed, one of the world’s largest heroin trafficking routes spans Africa’s east coast from Pakistan to South Africa. Mozambique is a key transit point on that route, one that has been increasing in recent years, per the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. While it is unlikely that Ansar al-Sunna has been able to fully infiltrate these markets, the group likely has control over some coastal landing sites in the area, allowing them to levy taxes on heroin, as well as other illicit products. These funds can then be used to procure arms, recruit individuals, and finance operations. Should Ansar al-Sunna retain control of Mocímboa’s port in the long-term, these funding streams could increase.

To increase interdiction capabilities, and by extension MEC, Mozambique and other states should focus on strengthening port inspection processes and training relevant authorities, addressing domestic corruption that allows illicit goods to flow through major ports, and modernizing port technology to minimize vessel wait times that can result in insufficient inspections.

Limited Operational Assets

Limited operational assets and other domestic response capabilities make deterring and responding to maritime-based VNSA attacks difficult, leaving coastal areas vulnerable to attack. Responding in real-time to VNSA attacks requires the state to have adequate force numbers, weapons, and other assets. For attacks committed in the maritime domain, this means having serviceable vessels and a robust naval force, both of which are lacking in Mozambique. Without these, the state cannot thwart active attacks or deter VNSAs from exploiting the maritime domain for operational purposes. Even more concerning is when assets do exist, but training and institutional knowledge on how to actually use them is limited, hindering the utility of these vessels.

In Mozambique, this asset vulnerability has allowed Ansar al-Sunna to target coastal communities and military assets with little consequence, including the port in Mocímboa da Praia. In the August 13th attack, preliminary reports suggested that the group resupplied itself with weapons, fighters, and supplies via dhows, contributing to Ansar al-Sunna’s resilience. This tactical exploitation of the maritime domain has continued, resulting in attacks on numerous surrounding islands, including the September 9th attacks on Ilha Vamizi and Ilha Metundo. At this point, it is important to note that naval forces are not inherently necessary to disrupt attacks on ports, or on other land-based maritime assets, but that they are a useful deterrent mechanism, and in some cases, an integral response mechanism to VNSA attacks at sea.

While acquiring assets is the easiest way to improve the operational dimension of MEC, this is not feasible for certain states. Even when vessel acquisition is part of foreign maritime capacity-building efforts, this does not always translate to assistance with the operating costs of acquired vessels. In these situations of financial constraint, there is still room for improvement, including training land-based forces in amphibious warfare and basic port operations, providing robust technical training to armed forces on available and serviceable naval assets, and leveraging intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities to track VNSA activity before attacks happen. For Mozambique, this could involve leveraging the Regional Maritime Information Fusion Center in Madagascar.

Strategic Confusion 

Domestic operational limitations make coordinating a strategic response to maritime-based VNSAs difficult, delaying response times, stoking regional tensions, and elevating group notoriety. When VNSAs execute significant attacks via the maritime domain and the targeted country is unable to adequately respond because of low MEC, uncertainty abounds as to what happens next. If the recipient country decides that it wants maritime assistance and support from other regional actors, independently or through a unified response, questions then arise as to whose responsibility this becomes.

Food aid is seen at a World Food Programme (WFP) site for people displaced in Cabo Delgado province, in Pemba, Mozambique, August 25, 2020. (WFP/Falume Bachir/Handout via Reuters/File Photo)

For Mozambique, does the onus fall on regional actors with the strongest navies and coast guards, such as South Africa? As Leighton Luke raises, will the South African Development Community activate Articles 6 and 9 of their Mutual Defence Pact? Or will recent discussions about European Union involvement come to fruition? If so, will these forces be amphibious or primarily land-based? Who is ultimately responsible in countering VNSAs when the host country cannot? As this confusion and ambiguity abounds, drawing the attention of regional and international actors, VNSAs reap benefits. In the case of Ansar al-Sunna, regional discussions since May and the onslaught of international attention amidst a continuing occupation since August 13th has lent the previously little-known group from northern Mozambique international legitimacy and notoriety.

To mitigate the political and strategic uncertainty that can result from low MEC, it is important for regional security institutions to have maritime security strategies in place that broadly delineate responsibilities in the case of maritime VNSA attacks against an operationally-limited country. In these resource-constrained countries, it is also important to incorporate the maritime domain into national counterinsurgency and counterterrorism strategies. This would be a useful mitigative action and allow for a more holistic response to the maritime capabilities of VNSAs, should the need arise.


Taking a more expansive view, Ansar al-Sunna’s most recent campaign serves as a warning for other states with low MEC. Whether or not maritime-capable VNSAs are currently present in a state should not deter states from taking action now. The threat is too real. In a mere five months, Ansar al-Sunna became one of the most active maritime-oriented VNSAs on the African continent, highlighting the importance of closing domestic maritime security gaps. Ultimately, investing in MEC is a holistic mitigative and response measure to the myriad threats posed by VNSAs, one that will reward proactive states best and better position them to successfully counter future threats.

Kelly Moss is an African Maritime Security Researcher at Stable Seas, a program of One Earth Future. Her research and publication background focuses on terrorism and substate violence in sub-Saharan Africa. Kelly graduated from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, where she received her master’s degree in Security Studies, and has worked at three U.S. federal government agencies, including the Bureau of African Affairs at the Department of State.

Featured Image: The sun rises as fishermen seek clams and bait in Pemba, Mozambique, July 12, 2018.(Reuters/Mike Hutchings/File Photo)

The Ecuadorian Navy’s Constant Struggle Against IUU Fishing

The Southern Tide

Written by Wilder Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“We focus on partnerships…Our partners want to work with us. They want the advantage of the United States education, training, exercises and military equipment. It’s the best in the world. And so it’s up to us to deliver that in a way that’s relevant and also provides a return on investment for American taxpayer. So that is our focus.” –Navy Adm. Craig S. Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command, before the Senate Armed Services Committee July 9, 2019.

By Wilder Alejandro Sanchez

An international fishing fleet composed of some 340 vessels is currently sailing through international waters close to Ecuador’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a constant challenge for Latin American navies, but the recurring presence of large, predatory, extra-regional fishing fleets exacerbates an already problematic situation.

The Latest Extra-Regional Fleet

According to Ecuadorian authorities, a fleet of some 340 vessels is operating through a corridor of international waters between Ecuador’s EEZ and the Galapagos Islands. Defense Minister Oswaldo Jarrin has stated that the Ecuadorian government has been aware of the fleet for over a month, as it traveled from south to north from Peru. As of 7 August, the Ecuadorian navy has deployed corvette Manabi (CM-12), with a helicopter aboard, and the coastal patrol boat San Cristobal (LG-30) to monitor the fleet. Additionally a CASA aircraft, assigned to the navy’s air wing, has carried out surveillance operations.

Several vessels have been identified as originating from China, which has prompted some media outlets to generalize it as a “Chinese fishing fleet.” Quito has stated vessels have come from other countries as well, but without specifying which ones. It is well-known that fishing fleets from Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan also operate in the South Pacific, hence it is likely that some vessels come from these nations as well. Given that this is a fleet numbering in the hundreds of vessels, it is likely a mixed bag of nationalities.

How to Defeat IUU Fishing?

When it comes to IUU fishing, as this author has discussed in other commentaries for CIMSEC, (see “Latin American Navies Combat Illegal Fishing,” and “A Growing Concern: Chinese Illegal Fishing in Latin America”) this is a problem of “levels” for Latin America. What is meant by this is that the first level focuses on domestic IUU fishing (a vessel fishing within its country’s territorial waters), then at the regional level (ships registered in one country operating in the waters of another country), and finally at the extra-hemispheric level (the presence of extra-regional fishing fleets).

Thus, while the large international fleet close to Ecuador is making global headlines, this is not the sole incident currently taking place in the region. In fact, while eyes are focused on the South Pacific, the Uruguayan Ministry of Defense has reported that a fleet of approximately 19 Brazilian fishing vessels are operating without permission in its territorial waters as well. Uruguayan and Brazilian authorities are discussing this issue. While 19 ships will not be as destructive as 340, the problem is still significant.

A fishing boat of Brazilian origin photographed from a Uruguayan Navy aircraft (Uruguayan Ministry of Defense)

Regional governments, ministries of defense, and navies regularly explain their strategies to combat IUU fishing. Unsurprisingly, much attention is given to greater cooperation between defense ministries and armed services, and to a large extend, this is occurring. For example, the Permanent Commission for the South Pacific (Comisión Permanente del Pacifico Sur: CPPS), which has Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru as members, issued a declaration on August 5 calling for greater cooperation and exchange of information to address the presence of international fleets in the region and the dangers of overfishing. Moreover, the U.S. National Security Council  also tweeted its support for Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno, stating, “The United States stands with President @Lenin and our friends and partners in #Ecuador against any aggression directed toward their economic and environmental sovereignty.”

As for partnership between navies, this is also taking place. An interesting example occurred in 2018 in the Caribbean when the Royal Bahamas Defence Force (RBDF) chased three fishing vessels for illegally fishing in Bahamian territorial waters. The ships crossed into Cuban waters to escape their pursuers, but Cuban authorities located these ships, apprehended them, and turned them over to the RBDF. This is an important example of international cooperation to combat a crime that respects no borders.

There is also greater reliance on technology, such as satellites, to locate and monitor suspicious vessels, and to figure out their ports of origin, which is what the Ecuadorian government states it has done. In other words, regional navies and other agencies are making positive announcements, and there are sufficient examples of successful interdictions and international partnerships. But alas, the problem continues.

More Ships, Please

One obvious issue has to do with numbers, namely how many vessels and supporting aircraft can Latin American and Caribbean navies deploy to combat this crime. Regional vessels routinely carry out myriad tasks at sea, including combating IUU fishing, drug trafficking and smuggling, in addition to carrying out search and rescue operations, support operations to coastal communities, in addition to routine patrols and even unconventional missions. While the Ecuadorian navy is monitoring the international fishing fleet, the service reported on July 20 that naval personnel, along with fishermen and representatives from the Ministry of the Environment, freed a whale that got stuck in a fishing net in the Tonchigue area. Vessels also have to be docked to undergo maintenance or upgrades, which can put them out of commission for extended periods of time.

To be fair, Latin American navies are obtaining new equipment that can be utilized to combat IUU fishing. Case in point, Argentina’s newest Offshore Patrol Vessel Bouchard (P-51), acquired from France, has already successfully stopped a Chinese fishing vessel in its territorial waters this past May. Similarly, Peru recently launched two new domestically manufactured OPVs, Río Tumbes and Río Locumba, which will be very helpful for combating maritime crimes.

As for Ecuador, a very noteworthy development occurred recently, where in late July the Ecuadorian navy commissioned a new support vessel, BAE Hualcopo. What is remarkable about Hualcopo is its background: the vessel used to be known as Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, and it was detained in 2017 by Ecuador for operating without authorization by the Galapagos Islands as part of a large Chinese fishing fleet. Upon inspection, authorities found aboard the vessel around 300 tons of fish, including endangered sharks. In 2019, as part of a lengthy legal process, Ecuador’s judicial system (Corte Nacional de Justicia – CNJ), ruled that the vessel was permanently forfeited, and it was eventually transferred to the navy. Now Hualcopo will carry out support operations for the Ecuadorian navy and may very well be involved in stopping the same IUU fishing activities that it carried out in its previous life.

Hualcopo raises an important issue, namely the fate of vessels that are seized as part of the war against IUU fishing. Personally, this author has not heard of other navies gaining control of vessels detained for IUU, hence Hualcopo may set an interesting precedent. Certainly some detained vessels may be too old or incompatible with a navy’s requirements and operations, but others could be given a second life, particularly large ships that can be utilized for transportation.

Final Thoughts 

Regional navies have enjoyed plenty of successes, and many are upgrading and expanding their fleets, even by re-purposing a one-time fishing vessel, namely Ecuador’s Hualcopo. However, the sheer size of some of these fleets engaging in IUU fishing dwarfs most regional and global navies. For example, while a fleet of 19 Brazilian vessels is not as large as a fleet of 340, it is sizeable enough to be a challenge for the Uruguayan navy, which is known for its aging fleet.

The international fishing fleet currently operating close to Ecuador’s territorial waters will certainly not be the last. Because of their maritime biodiversity and limited naval and aerial platforms, Latin American and Caribbean waters will remain viable arenas for IUU fishing.

Wilder Alejandro Sánchez is an analyst who focuses on international security and geopolitics. The views expressed in this article belong the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Featured Image: A fishing boat seen from an Ecuadorian Navy aircraft, August 7, 2020. (Reuters/Santiago Arcos)

Regional Maritime Security Governance and the Challenges of State Cooperation on Piracy

Ocean Governance Topic Week

By Anja Menzel

On July 2, 2020 at around 4:20 a.m., three vessels attacked the Sendje Berge, a floating production support vessel off the coast of Nigeria. While there were no physical injuries, the perpetrators took nine personnel hostage. The kidnapping is the latest incident in a series of attacks in the Gulf of Guinea, which has become the most piracy-infested region in the world, closely followed by Southeast Asia. Worldwide, 162 actual and attempted piracy attacks were reported in 2019.1 As most incidents have taken place in territorial waters, the cross-border nature of maritime crimes matters for ocean governance. When operating, pirates are not restrained by national borders, and exploit states’ inconsistencies in maritime security capacities and capabilities. Therefore, the unabatedly high numbers of attacks underlines the need for littoral and user states to cooperate on counterpiracy.

Three Regional Agreements to Govern Piracy

To govern maritime piracy through state cooperation, three agreements have been set up in different regions of the world. The members to these regional agreements agree to arrest, investigate, and prosecute pirates on the high seas, and to suppress armed robbery in their respective territorial waters. In Asia, the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) was established in 2006. 14 regional states as well as six extra-regional states are currently contracting parties. In East Africa, the Djibouti Code of Conduct (DCoC) was agreed on in 2009. To date, 20 states from the Indian Ocean region have signed this agreement on the repression of piracy and armed robbery in the western Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. In 2017, the DCoC’s piracy-only focus was expanded to include maritime crimes more generally when the so-called Jeddah Amendment was adopted by a subset of DCoC member states. Finally, the Yaoundé Code of Conduct (YCoC) to combat illicit maritime activities in West and Central Africa was signed in 2013 by 25 regional states.

Signatories to the regional agreements on countering maritime crimes (Author illustration, based on material from

As these agreements were successively established, policymakers were able to utilize insights from already developed setups elsewhere, a learning process that was actively sponsored by the International Maritime Organization. As a result, the agreements’ institutional structures are strikingly similar.2 This is most obvious in the agreements’ information-sharing structures. All agreements have Information Sharing Centers (ISCs) which collect data on maritime crimes and provide infrastructure for information exchange. The regional agreements also have a system of national focal points designated by each member state, which manage piracy and armed robbery incidents within the respective state’s territorial waters, report incidents to the ISCs, and coordinate surveillance activities with neighboring states.

Information Sharing and Capacity Building 

These regional agreements have been rightfully praised as a milestone in ocean governance, as they are a strong symbol of the commitment of member states to combat piracy and other maritime crimes. The collection and dissemination of data on maritime crimes is one of the most important practical tasks carried out by the regional agreements, because to efficiently coordinate cooperation between maritime security actors it is crucial to have available all relevant information on the threat at hand. Furthermore, by creating reliability, regular information sharing has the potential to strengthen trust and confidence among key actors.3

Capacity building carried out through the framework of the regional agreements is equally important. To varying degrees, the agreements’ frameworks offer exercises, workshops, and trainings to accumulate expertise on and foster cooperation between national agencies and the shipping industry, and also provide technical assistance to member states. In fact, the regions cooperate in their capacity building efforts on a regular basis. Due to their similar institutional structures, ReCAAP and DCoC members held several joint workshops where best practices were shared.

The Limits of Cooperation 

While the setup of the regional agreements is certainly a milestone in counterpiracy governance, the different regions are faced with a variety of challenges concerning cooperation in general and the implementation of the agreements’ provisions in particular.

Concerns over Territorial Sovereignty

Citing concerns over their territorial sovereignty, two of the states most affected by piracy in Southeast Asia, Indonesia and Malaysia, refuse to accede to ReCAAP. Although state cooperation in Asia is generally characterized by major sovereignty sensitivities, their reluctance is reinforced by ReCAAP’s open membership policy. While DCoC and YCoC have limited their membership to regional littorals, every interested state can join ReCAAP, which further fuels Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s concerns about foreign involvement in their territorial waters.4 However, the actual impact of the non-membership of key states in Asia remains unclear. Despite their official disapproval, both Indonesia and Malaysia cooperate with ReCAAP on a low-key level, participating in meetings and sharing select information. Nevertheless, an accession would certainly underline the two states’ willingness to commit to multilateral counter-piracy efforts given their strategic position in the Strait of Malacca and the Sulu and Celebes Seas.

Institutional Fragmentation

National sensitivities also led to a fragmented institutional landscape, both regionally as well as internationally. The DCoC operates three regional ISCs in Kenya, Tanzania, and Yemen. The YCoC architecture is even more fragmented, with regional maritime security centers for West as well as Central Africa in Congo and Ivory Coast, an interregional coordination center in Cameroon, and five coordination centers at the zonal level. Due to this fractional structure, information flows may be less efficient, and the ability to swiftly respond to undesirable events on the ocean could be hindered.5 While ReCAAP only operates one ISC, several other data-collecting bodies exist in Asia, such as the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Center and the Information Fusion Centre hosted by the Singaporean Navy. To complicate matters further, not all ISCs, particularly those in Southeast Asia, report data in a consistent way.6 Overall, the institutional plethora of information-sharing mechanisms underlines the importance of coordination between the different agencies. To this end, the regions’ potential to learn from each other’s experiences is not being fully realized yet.

Lack of National Capacities

To implement the regional agreements’ provisions on site, the capacities of member states are essential. However, member states’ means to counter maritime crimes in their territorial waters differ significantly. Some states, particularly in Asia, have comparably well-equipped navies, coast guards, and law enforcement agencies. In contrast, other states often lack those capacities, which is particularly apparent in Somalia and Yemen, which are both stricken by the devastating consequences of ongoing civil wars. Although the agreements offer capacity building measures, the mechanisms do not directly account for the resources of member states or their lack thereof.

Gaps in Scope 

Although the regional agreements geographically cover the greater portion of world regions currently affected by piracy, there are still blind spots. Whole continents have not set up comparable cooperation mechanisms yet, such as Oceania and the Americas, where local piracy hotspots like the Caribbean and the Venezuelan coast would call for concerted governance efforts. This becomes more salient when not only piracy, but also maritime crimes more generally are in focus, since crimes such as illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing are pressing in every corner of the world

Additionally, the regional agreements are rather narrow in their operational scope. This is particularly obvious in Southeast Asia, where ReCAAP has thus far only institutionalized cooperation on piracy and armed robbery. As policymakers increasingly realize that these crimes are only one of many pressing issues in the maritime domain, the agreements may go one step further. Already in Africa, with YCoC as well as the DCoC’s Jeddah Amendment, the signatory states agreed to also cooperate on transnational organized crime in the maritime domain, maritime terrorism, IUU fishing, as well as other illegal activities at sea. By calling on its member states to develop national strategies for sustainable blue economic growth, the Jeddah Amendment, although very tentatively, even ties maritime security to the greater blue economy.

Looking Ahead 

Threats to maritime security cannot be understood in isolation, as they are deeply interrelated. Going forward, maritime security governance will therefore need a more integrated understanding of the hazards posed by maritime crimes as well as the potential of coordinated efforts to combat these crimes.7 Specifically, it is necessary to strengthen maritime domain awareness by emphasizing potential synergies between combatting maritime crimes with the blue economy and the safety of the marine environment. This integrative understanding of developments and threats at sea is a prerequisite for coordination and cooperation between the diverse maritime security agencies and actors in this field.8 In that sense, the establishment of these regional counter-piracy agreements, their process of learning from each other and the gradual broadening of their scope, marks an important first step into realizing the full potential of an integrated approach toward maritime security governance.

Anja Menzel is a postdoctoral researcher at the FernUniversität in Hagen, Germany. She received her PhD in International Relations from Greifswald University, where she studied state cooperation on counterpiracy. Her current research interests include ocean governance, the construction of maritime spaces, and the link between the blue economy and development funding.


1. ICC IMB 2019. Report. Piracy and armed robbery against ships [1 January-31 December 2019]. London.

2. Menzel A. 2018. Institutional adoption and maritime crime governance: the Djibouti Code of Conduct. Journal of the Indian Ocean Region 14(2), 152-169.

3. Bueger C. 2015. From dusk to dawn? Maritime domain awareness in Southeast Asia. Contemporary Southeast Asia 37(2), 157–182.

4. Lee T. and McGahan K. 2015. Norm subsidiarity and institutional cooperation: Explaining the Straits of Malacca anti-piracy regime. The Pacific Review 28(4), 529-552.

5. Ralby I. 2019. Learning from success: Advancing maritime security cooperation in Atlantic Africa. Center for International Maritime Security, [].

6. Joubert, L. 2020. What we know about piracy. One Earth Future Foundation, [].

7. Menzel A. and Otto L. 2020. Connecting the dots: Implications of the intertwined global challenges to maritime security. In: Otto, Lisa (ed): Global challenges in maritime security. An Introduction. Springer.

8. Bueger C. 2015. From dusk to dawn? Maritime domain awareness in Southeast Asia. Contemporary Southeast Asia 37(2), 157–182.

Featured Image: ReCAAP ISC Signs MOU with World Maritime University (February 7, 2018)

Why Yemen Matters

By Jimmy Drennan


On Sunday, Yemeni separatists known as the Southern Transitional Council (STC) seized 64 billion riyals ($260M USD) from a convoy belonging to the Central Bank of Yemen. This follows their withdrawal in April from a fragile treaty and declaration of autonomy in the southern port city of Aden. The STC’s proclamation threatens to throw Yemen into a fresh phase of bloody turmoil, even as the unmitigated spread of COVID-19 could devolve the world’s worst humanitarian crisis into catastrophe. Meanwhile, talks to end the war between Saudi Arabia and the Houthi rebels of northwestern Yemen drag on, with the Houthis indicating they may attempt to take pivotal territory in the oil-rich city of Marib. Why does any of this matter?

The stability of Yemen is not, in and of itself, one of our core national interests. Yet we continue to aid the Saudis in their war against the Houthis. Supported by international navies, we continue to patrol international waters in the southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. We are still pursuing Al Qaeda and ISIS throughout poorly governed regions in Yemen. Why? The answer is pragmatism.

While it is not practical, nor advisable, for the United States to commit blood and treasure to unilaterally resolve Yemen’s civil war, the instability that spills over Yemen’s borders threatens American interests. Now, with the STC potentially pitting its Emirati backers against the Saudis, who recognize the Republic of Yemen Government led by exiled President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, the risk of Yemen’s festering instability igniting a larger regional conflict is greater than ever.

A Proxy Conflict Turns Central

Although a proxy war between Arab states, both of whom the United States relies on for critical military and economic access, would implicitly run counter to American interests, a hypothetical regional conflict still doesn’t explain why Yemen matters today. Even now, instability overflows from Yemen in the form of ballistic missiles, suicide drones, unmanned explosive speedboats, anti-ship cruise missiles, and sea mines. These attacks by the Houthis are generally aimed at the Saudi-led coalition (which does not include the United States), but the use of these weapons near international shipping lanes in the southern Red Sea threaten core national interests in maintaining the free flow of global commerce. The Houthis have credibly threatened to contest the Strait of Bab al Mandeb by attacking international shipping in recent years, including American warships in 2016 – which prompted swift retaliatory action against the launch sites. The strait is the sole southern gateway to the Suez Canal and therefore a strategic chokepoint for maritime trade between Europe and Asia, obviating the need to make the costly and time-consuming trip around the Cape of Good Hope.

Houthi ballistic missile and drone attacks in Saudi Arabia and the UAE threaten critical energy infrastructure, not to mention American citizens and military forces throughout the region. When considering the risk of regional Arab-on-Arab conflict, threats to freedom of navigation, and attacks on Arab energy infrastructure, another question harkens back to Ancient Rome with the Latin “cui bono?” Who benefits? In every case, the answer is Iran.

Iran publicly supports the Houthi effort to overthrow Yemen’s Hadi-led government. Having a proxy on Saudi Arabia’s southern border, or at least a like-minded partner with whom it can supply advanced conventional weapons, is of obvious benefit to Tehran. Arming the Houthis with anti-shipping weaponry allows Iran to threaten a second global maritime chokepoint, a crucial economic “ace in the hole” in its existential fight against the administration’s maximum pressure campaign. The United States, its international partners, and the United Nations have repeatedly exposed Iran’s illicit arms shipments to the Houthis; however, international sentiment is so heavily slanted against the Saudis (due largely to the early conduct of their air campaign) that Iran can quietly refute the allegations while the anti-Saudi narrative continues to resonate on Capitol Hill and social media. Meanwhile, the Houthis block humanitarian aid shipments and hold them for ransom as millions of Yemenis starve, and the world barely notices.

Iran has also learned valuable lessons on how to employ its growing arsenal in the event of a direct conflict with Saudi Arabia or the United States. In 2019, the British Government warned that Iran was using Yemen as a missile testing ground. “We’ve seen the UN panel of experts talk about the new Kamikaze drones that are coming out of Iran, we’ve had the Badr-1, which is the missile system that looks like a V2, being launched into Saudi Arabia and we have seen from technical reports that the enhancements that are being applied to that war by Iran are considerable,” Labour MP Graham Jones said.

In Yemen, Iran has deftly exerted influence below the threshold that would trigger direct U.S. retaliation, just as it has done in the Arabian Gulf over the last three decades since the Tanker War. The United States may lack the incentive to retaliate or intervene in Yemen, but ignores the failed state at its own peril. The most pragmatic approach is to help the Saudis focus on the primary source of instability in Yemen. Iran threatens Saudi Arabia from the east, north, and south, and now, with the STC’s declaration of autonomy, Tehran has the opportunity to further spread instability and division throughout the Gulf Cooperation Council states, which will only be exacerbated by global economic strain. Iran employed a similar tactic with Qatar in 2017, and now Turkey (whose relationship with Iran is ambiguous at best) appears to be joining with Qatar to finance the Muslim Brotherhood in southen Yemen.

A strategy explicitly focused on isolating the Houthis from Iranian support – militarily, diplomatically, and economically – would dramatically alter the Houthi and Iranian strategic calculus. The U.S. could organize an international effort to interdict illicit arms shipments through the Gulf of Aden (irrespective of origin). It must continue to expose Iranian malign influence in western Yemen, and work to disrupt and eventually quell Houthi revenue streams coming from Iran. Even with these efforts stability may still not “break out” in Yemen, and the Houthis are not likely to surrender the political and territorial gains they’ve earned over the last five years.  

However, as Saudi efforts shift upstream to stem the flow of Iranian aid at its source, the Houthis’ ability, and intent, to threaten American interests in partner nations and the international commons would significantly diminish. Supporting the Saudis in isolating the Houthis from Iran is pragmatic because it balances necessity with available resources and political will. Political support from Congress will be more forthcoming by shifting the focus away from western Yemen itself toward stabilizing the international commons, and broadening the scope to an international effort to eliminate illicit arms shipments and destabilizing influence.


Yemen and Saudi Arabia may be toxic topics in Washington, but ignoring them could be disastrous. If COVID-19 is the domino that turns a humanitarian crisis into widespread fatalities, the United States may be compelled to intervene at great cost and risk. In the event of armed conflict with Iran, western Yemen would be a second front and a second contested maritime chokepoint. Not only would ignoring Yemen allow threats to American interests to grow, it would jeopardize U.S. influence over a key partner in the global energy market. The Saudis demonstrated their clout in April by flooding the market with oil to punish Russia for refusing earlier cuts, with analysts predicting they will win the price war. On Easter, President Trump negotiated a deal for the Saudis to cut production, and while COVID-19 impacts continue to dominate the market, American influence on Saudi Arabia proved critical in softening the blow. Despite our progress toward energy independence, our relationship with the Saudis is still a major factor in our economic health.

Ultimately, the Holy Grail for securing American interests in the Middle East is for partner nations to provide for their own defense. Saudi Arabia is already a cultural and economic heavyweight, and its Vision 2030 has the potential to gradually bring it more in line with western Democratic ideals, and to improve its security and defense institutions. A functional Arab regional security architecture is among the greatest of Iranian fears. In Yemen, the United States can send a strong message to Iran and invest in Saudi Arabia’s future as a regional security leader and sustainably secure American interests more broadly. By doing more now the U.S. can do less in the Middle East in the future.

Iran certainly sees opportunity to sow further instability in the wake of the STC’s separatist declaration in Aden. Tehran will gauge Washington’s reaction closely, and the penalty for inaction on our part could be severe. It is time to decide whether Yemen matters more to us, or more to Tehran.

Jimmy Drennan is the President of CIMSEC. Contact him at These views are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of any government agency.

Featured Image: South-southwest-looking, high-oblique photograph taken during the Hubble Space telescope’s STS-61 servicing mission shows the southwestern Arabian Peninsula, the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea. (NASA photo)