“Maritime security.” The phrase, and the nebulous set of missions that loosely fall underneath it, came into expanded use in the decades after September 11, including in U.S. strategic documents. Even during the height of interest in maritime security, however—say, around 2007 and the publication of A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower—it was not clear how those missions could or should be prioritized with respect to other strategic challenges. As the Department of Defense, and the Navy with it, reorients to great power competition, it will only become easier for those questions to slide into the background. And yet, as we will see below, historical trends and emerging patterns will conspire to keep the littorals at the forefront of policymaker’s minds. Alongside the renewed focus on traditional adversaries, therefore, operations in green and brown waters driven by unconventional threats will likely play an enduring role in U.S. foreign policy.
In his book Out of the Mountains, counterinsurgency strategist David Kilcullen sets out a compelling argument for taking the littorals seriously. Kilcullen’s argument is focused on events ashore, but his articulation of the global drivers shaping the littorals can be made equally valuable for the seaward end of the domain. The premise underlying these drivers is based on one simple principle: conflict happens where people are.1 So, where are the people?
In response, Kilcullen identifies four “megatrends” of demography and economic geography that suggest where we will find most of the world’s population in the coming decades. “Rapid population growth, accelerating urbanization, littoralization (the tendency for things to cluster on the coastlines), and increasing connectedness” all suggest that populations are concentrating in networked, urban, dense, littoral communities.2 UN estimates project that by 2050 at least two-thirds of the global population (which is projected to reach 9.8 billion) will likely live in cities, a great many of whom will end up in slums (where about a billion people already call home). Moreover, much of this urban expansion—most of which will be coastal—will take place across the global South, often where governments are least prepared to receive it. The populations of the Caribbean and Latin America could grow by more than 130 million people; Africa may see its population expand by more than a billion; and Asia will see a growth of at least 800 million according to mean estimates from the United Nations.
To give an indication of scale, consider the following. In one generation, the world’s poorest cities will absorb most of a population increase equal to all the population growth ever recorded in human history through the year 1960.3 That is sure to produce astounding institutional strains, ones that will inevitably stress already fragile municipal governments. And we need not wait for 2050 to see these statistics in action. Today, half of the world’s population lives within about thirty miles of a coast, and three-quarters of large cities are on the water. To those and other cities, nearly 1.5 million people migrate to every week, which explains why urban areas are soon expected to absorb almost all new population growth.4
But how is demography dangerous? The answer comes from how urban communities respond to the pressures of these trends. Research suggests that when a city doubles in size, it produces, on average, “fifteen percent higher wages, fifteen percent more fancy restaurants, but also fifteen percent more [HIV/AIDS] cases, and fifteen percent more violent crime. Everything scales up by fifteen percent when you double the size.”5 In cities already straining their respective systems, cities like Lagos or Mumbai or San Pedro Sula, the consequences of a 15 percent spike in crime or HIV/AIDS rates act on preexisting stressors like poverty, climate change, and political violence, which can precipitate disorder. In the most extreme cases, the impact of these magnified stressors might even cause a metropolis to turn “feral.” In the Naval War College Review, Richard Norton defines a feral city as “a metropolis with a population of more than a million people in a state the government of which has lost the ability to maintain the rule of law within the city’s boundaries yet remains a functioning actor in the greater international system.”6 John Sullivan and Adam Elkus describe the feral city as a place without any meaningful presence of legitimate authority, where “the architecture consists entirely of slums, and power is a complex process negotiated through violence by differing factions.”7 Norton noted at the time that only Mogadishu truly exemplified his criteria of a feral city. Yet, several cities then contained feral pockets characteristic of Norton’s theory. In such pockets, segments of an urban sprawl may exist outside the reach of the government. A Proceedings article by Matthew Frick as well as a New York Times piece both cite São Paulo, Mexico City, and Johannesburg (the Times also adds Karachi) as examples of modern cities with components that could be described as feral.8 Frick even explicitly links these feral cities to maritime security by arguing that they are echoes of the pirate havens of the 18th century, when raiders similarly leverage ungoverned spaces as bases of operation. In feral cities or pockets, the legitimate governing fabric of the urban area erodes as the stress of an oversized population pushes it past the ability to cope with the pressures of crime, poverty, and health. Such violence perpetuates the cycle of urban exclusion that created it, precipitating yet more political, social, economic, and infrastructure neglect.9
The collapse or erosion of local governance creates a power and services vacuum. That power vacuum creates disorder from which people naturally crave a reprieve. In turn, the local actor that can produce a sense of order and stability is frequently adopted as a surrogate government. Inevitably, these surrogates are not peaceful neighborhood watch groups. Kilcullen’s concept of “competitive control” posits that the surrogates most likely to survive in these environments are those that can act across a spectrum of power ranging from soft to coercive.10 Without soft power, the allure of an institutionalized set of normative community rules, the population is denied the sense of order it demands. Under such a rules-based system, a neighborhood is likely to tolerate a measure of violence because it can be predicted and avoided. Without violence, a competitor will find it easy to supplant the surrogate. What we are left with is a void filled by organized gangs, terrorists, militias, or criminal networks that manipulate a feral city’s disorder to establish fortifications within neighborhoods that often come to depend on them. In Kingston, Jamaica, garrison neighborhoods offer one such example where these districts are made loyal to gang leaders because of their dominant role in the local informal justice system and economy.11 We are left facing an amorphous hybrid threat, what John Sullivan calls “criminal insurgents,” or the melding of criminal syndicates with the direct political control of territory.12 When such groups offer residents enough of a sense of fair and predictable order, many are willing to tolerate their presence.
So far, however, violent nonstate groups and feral cities would appear a danger largely within their own neighborhoods, far from concerning the United States, and certainly not U.S. maritime services. What brings these groups and populations into the international maritime orbit is Kilcullen’s final megatrend—connectedness. Crowded, poor, coastal zones may turn feral, but feral regions do not implode. Instead, they remain connected with the world around them through the Internet, ports, airports, diaspora communities, and other connective tissues. Thus, with all the implications of such connectedness, even a feral region remains a dynamic, strategic, and significant actor in the international arena. This connectedness allows the feral elements of a community to interact with licit and illicit trade and information flows, offering local actors the capacity to directly impact events across the country and, potentially, the globe.13 The same pathways that facilitate normal trade and migration likewise enable illicit transfers such as the smuggling of narcotics, people, and weapons; human trafficking; terrorism; and piracy. This connectedness is what gives rise to the potential for actions a world away, events like protests or acts of political violence, to have a rapid and meaningful consequence across domains, from cyberspace to the sea. September 11 was a dramatic example of the extreme consequences of this networked, globalized connectivity of local violence to the international system. What we have increasingly seen in the intervening two decades, thanks in part to the explosive growth in technologies that connect all of us, is that this ladder between local and international is only strengthening. As a result, in the sphere of nonstate threats, “the distinction between war and crime, between domestic and international affairs” almost disappears.14
As the line blurs between war and crime, the capacity for the return to great power competition to focus minds on a singular, important challenge may simultaneously make it more attractive for strategists to circumvent planning for these opaque, nontraditional challenges. History, however, suggests that would be a mistake. What is remarkable about the pattern of unconventional conflict is its irreverence for the preferences of policymakers.15 Lyndon Johnson was eventually subsumed by a troop escalation in Vietnam despite his clear domestic policy agenda. Bill Clinton, after reluctance to act in the Balkans and Rwanda, ultimately sent troops to Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Haiti, and Liberia. While candidate George W. Bush dismissed interest in stability operations, President Bush launched two prolonged, large-scale counterinsurgency campaigns and led NATO into its largest stabilization mission ever.16 As President Obama initiated his pivot to Asia, he was still negotiating the drawdown of two land wars while conflicts simmered (and flared), inter alia, in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Mali, Nigeria, and the Congo. Now President Trump, despite obvious isolationist impulses, has struggled to extricate U.S. forces from Afghanistan and Syria in practice. “American policy makers clearly don’t like irregular operations, and the U.S. military isn’t much interested in them, either,” but as the demographic and economic geographic trends discussed above suggest, they will likely continue to present policymakers with difficult choices.17
Any attempt to predict the exact nature of a future threat or conflict is a fool’s errand. To borrow a metaphor from Kilcullen, much like how climate modeling cannot say whether it will rain or snow next week, the projections above say little about the near-term conflict forecast. Yet, just as with climate models, such forecasts “do suggest a range of conditions—a set of system parameters, or a ‘conflict climate’—within which [future] wars will arise.”18
These projections illustrate trends. And while those trends do not say much about what happens tomorrow or the day after, they speak volumes about the forces steadily reshaping our world. These forecasts are unequivocally telling us that dense, networked, and littoral communities are an emerging global force. How maritime forces meet (or fail to meet) the challenges associated with that rise will be dictated by their attentiveness to the unique constraints of securing muddy waters.
 David Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla (London: Hurst, 2013), 239.
 Ibid., 25.
 Ibid., 29.
 Ibid., 29.
 Ibid., 247.
 Richard Norton, “Feral Cities,” Naval War College Review 56, no. 4 (2003): 98.
 John Sullivan and Adam Elkus, “Postcard from Mumbai: Modern Urban Siege,” Small Wars Journal, February 16, 2009, 8.
 Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains, 40.
 Ibid., 114.
 Ibid., 89, 93.
 Sullivan and Elkus, “Postcard from Mumbai.”
 Kilcullen, 45.
 Ibid., 99.
 Ibid., 24.
 Ibid., 24.
 Ibid., 24.
 Ibid., 27.
Featured Image: A Republic of Singapore Navy Littoral Mission Vessel (background, far left), and the Police Coast Guard’s patrol interdiction boat (at right) intercepting a mock terrorists’ speedboat in Singapore waters off Changi Coast Road during a demonstration for Exercise Highcrest. (PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO)
Dust is settling in Sri Lanka after one of the most devastating and heinous terrorist attacks against Christians and foreign visitors (civilians) on 21st April 2019. It was supposed to be a day of glory and celebrations for Christians the world over. However, it turned out to be a day of horror and repugnance for Sri Lankans. The security forces and the police are doing a commendable job in taking follow-up action and are in the process of arresting large numbers of radicalized persons, criminals, and recovering large quantities of illegal weapons, explosives, detonators, vehicles, communications equipment, and forged passports and National Identity Cards. There were even several follow-on gun battles and explosions.
There is now country-wide fear and psychosis with many people staying at home unless it is really essential for them to go out. Schools and other educational institutions have been closed and all types of fanfare, musical shows, and festivities have been stopped. The print and electronic media is trying their best to keep the population informed of the developing situation as well as advising on precautions to be taken. Religious leaders of all denominations led by His Eminence Malcom Cardinal Ranjith are sending message after message appealing to their followers to practice tolerance and requesting them not to take the law into their own hands, which has prevented the escalation of violence against the innocent Muslim populations.
Terrorism and Counterterrosim
The United Nations Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change described terrorism as any action that is “intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or noncombatants, when the purpose of such an act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act.”
In short, terrorism could be described as basically indiscriminate violence against non-combatants to achieve political, religious, or some other objective. While terrorism is a tactic that cannot be entirely eradicated, steps can be taken to disrupt, dismantle, and ultimately defeat organizations that use terrorism. Counterterrorism is defined in the U.S. Army Field Manual as “Operations that include the offensive measures taken to prevent, deter, preempt, and respond to terrorism.” This definition is more concrete but has its strengths and weaknesses. First, it correctly states that counterterrorism is an all-inclusive doctrine including prevention, deterrence, preemption, and responses, which would require bringing to bear all aspects of a nation’s power both domestically and internationally. Second, this definition includes everything but essentially differentiates nothing, which is a problem.
Counterterrorism is a difficult concept to define, especially in democracies. There is no universally applicable counter-terrorism policy since every conflict involving terrorism has its own unique characteristics. Democracies must make respect for civil liberties and the rule of law, a staple in their counterterrorism strategies. While this ambition for liberal democracies is admirable and complies with championed democratic principles, it does not always amount to a counterterrorism strategy – these should be simply highly valued principles meant to guide counterterrorism. Counterterrorism (also called anti-terrorism) incorporates the practice, military tactics, techniques, and strategy that government, military, police and other organizations use to combat or prevent terrorism. It must be remembered that human rights and individual freedoms are good, but the right to live is most important. The Easter Bombings took away the right to live from nearly 250 innocent civilians.
The Easter Bombings have created a major problem in Sri Lanka. A person who uses unlawful violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims is a terrorist. A terrorist was originally seen as a person from an underprivileged community, less educated, less economically sound, lower social status, victimized, and motivated for a cause. However, in the 21st bombing the terrorists are reported to be highly educated, both locally and in abroad, from rich families, economically sound, exposed to the world and believers of a religious sect, and highly motivated for a cause even against the mainstream religion of their culture. This showcases a significant degree of indoctrination, facilitated either locally or by foreign influence.
Lessons to be Learned from the Easter Bombings
The Easter Bombings have clearly displayed the vulnerability of Sri Lanka, its community, and installations to a terrorist attack. It reveals that almost any target could have been selected by a terrorist and been attacked. These incidents also prove that national security has been quite at the bottom of the country’s agenda despite the fact the country experienced a protracted conflict against a very formidable terrorist organization for nearly three decades. In simple words, there was a lack of security culture in the country. We have not been able to take effective, timely counter-action to prevent, deter, or detect these perpetrators despite credible intelligence warnings. Insufficient attention was given to intelligence warnings due to a lack of security culture.
It must be remembered that intelligence is not mere information. Many strands of information need to be gathered, collated, and evaluated in order to derive effective actionable intelligence. Thereafter it must be disseminated to the necessary agencies and personnel. It must be remembered that intelligence means different things to different agencies based on their own expertise and the domain they focus on. The multiple intelligence organizations in the country need to be integrated, a practice we developed and effectively used toward the end of the civil war which devastated the country. Like a jigsaw puzzle, the full picture only comes together when the pieces are effectively combined. However, we need to look beyond the picture and link, evaluate, and identify trends, both locally and internationally, which would enable us to predict with certain accuracy and make intelligence actionable. The sharing of intelligence, taking prompt action, and then follow-up action are all key to successful counter terrorism operations.
Even then, unless there is a positive national security culture, this actionable intelligence will not find its due place in the hands of decision-makers. Sri Lanka is a small island state geo-strategically located at arguably the most critical location in the Indian Ocean, among competing spheres of influence of major powers. Furthermore, the country has come out of a prolonged conflict. Therefore, all our actions, our foreign relations, the development of infrastructure, and the development of economy must give due consideration and priority to national security.
The Way Forward
Unfortunately, Sri Lanka, which prided itself on being the only country in the contemporary world to completely defeat terrorism on its soil, is bleeding again. It is believed that with a proper national security culture the Easter carnage could have been prevented or the impact minimized. Unfortunately, it was not the case. Terrorists achieved what they wanted – to create fear and psychosis by mayhem and death of large numbers of innocent civilians, and earning worldwide media coverage. This dastardly act will not quickly fade given how the suffering of the people has been immense.
But we need to move on. We need to keep national security as our upper-most priority and create a culture of security. Countering terrorist activities cannot be done by government forces alone. It has to be a comprehensive effort and a whole-of-nation approach, similar to what we had toward the end of the separatist conflict. Not only did Sri Lanka finally overcome the most ruthless terrorist organization in May 2009, but we were not caught in the conflict trap as no major terrorist event took place for nearly ten years until the Easter Bombings. We had the best models of rehabilitation, resettlement, and reconstruction during the post-conflict period.
We must rise above the radicalized elements and evil forces that are waiting to destroy us. We are in desolation but not in despair. There is hope in humanity. Together we will survive but divided we perish. The choice is ours, but we owe it to the country and future generations.
Admiral (Dr.) Jayanath Colombage is a former chief of the Sri Lanka Navy who retired after an active service of 37 years as a four-star admiral. He is a highly decorated officer for gallantry and distinguished service. He is a graduate of Defence Services Staff College in India and Royal College of Defence Studies, UK. He holds a PhD from General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University. He also holds MSc on defence and strategic studies from Madras university and MA on International Studies from Kings college, London. He is a visiting lecturer at the University of Colombo, Defence Services Command and Staff college (Sri Lanka), Kotelawala Defence University, Bandaranaike Center for International Studies and Bandaranaike International Diplomatic Training Institute. He was the former Chairman of Sri Lanka Shipping Corporation and an adviser to the President of Sri Lanka on maritime affairs. He is a Fellow of Nautical Institute, London UK. Admiral Colombage is currently the Director of the Centre for Indo- Lanka Initiatives of the Pathfinder Foundation. He is also a member of the Advisory council of the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka. He is also a Guest Professor at Sichuan University in China.
Featured Image: Sri Lankan soldiers stand guard in front of the St. Anthony’s Shrine a day after the series of blasts, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on April 22. (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)
One year after the ratification of their historic peace agreement, the Colombian government and Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC; Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) continue to make joint steps towards the peaceful demobilization and assimilation of former FARC members into Colombian society. A few hiccups aside, the deal has seen the reintegration of over 7,000 former fighters into camps designed to facilitate their transition into society.1 While countless points regarding FARC’s innovation and longevity merit examination, one infrequently analyzed item stands out: FARC’s drug submarines. Drug submarines (hereafter referred to as narcosubmarines) are manufactured in the thick jungles of eastern Colombia and are not the primitive vessels of one’s imagination. FARC’s narcosubmarines boast sophisticated anti-detection features and navigation, can haul up to 10 tons of cocaine, and can cost upwards of ten million U.S. dollars. Narcosubmarine development has spurred many scholars into hazy gesticulations of narco-terrorism. This paper provides an expose of the issue and more thoroughly considers its implications.
The Development of Narcosubmarines
Narcosubmarines did not appear overnight. They are the technological byproduct of a shifty competitive relationship between trafficking groups and those that pursue them.2 As security forces improved their tracking strategies in the 1990s and 2000s, drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) responded in kind to avoid them. They are notoriously flexible. Once Caribbean mainstays, DTOs switched to Pacific trafficking routes to avoid detection. They often utilize other clever modes of cocaine transport, such as underwater containers bolted underneath the hulls of boats. Originally, creatively-named ‘go-fast’ boats were the first vehicles of choice in moving cocaine up the coasts of Central America. Yet improvements in radar surveillance as well as increased patrolling saw more speedboats interdicted. The development of sub-surface vessels became increasingly attractive. Sub-surface activity was first documented with the 1993 discovery of the ‘San Andrés’ self-propelled semi-submersible (SPSS) near the San Andrés islands of Colombia.3 A crude ship, it was smaller and slower than contemporary subs and could be easily spotted by air. SPSSs were soon supplemented by low profile vessels (LPVs), which avoid detection by riding just above water level. Meanwhile, the first fully-submersible submarine was discovered dense jungle terrain near the town of Facatativá, Colombia in 2000. This Russian-designed sub was not completed, but was predicted to feature advanced navigation equipment, a carrying capacity of 150-200 tons, and the ability to dive to over 300 feet underwater.4 While a precise estimate is impossible to establish, analysts have theorized that dozens of these subs are being churned out every year.5
Supremacy of the Submarines
While high-profile submarine seizures garner attention in the press,6 the combined efforts of U.S. and Central American governments have been unable to seriously address the overall stream of drugs.7
For one, drug trafficking events are extremely difficult to detect:
“American operations analysis shows that given good intelligence of a drug event and a patrol box of a certain length and width, a surface vessel operating alone has only a 5 percent probability of detecting (PD) that event. A surface vessel with an embarked helicopter increases the PD to 30 percent, and by adding a Maritime Patrol Aircraft to the mix, the PD goes up to 70 percent. Analysis by the Colombian Navy shows that adding one of their submarines to the mix raises the PD to 90 percent.”8
Even with the luxury of advanced warning, a resource-intensive, multi-faceted, and (ideally) intergovernmental effort is needed to make interception of the vehicle likely. Sufficient resources are not in place for these missions. Due to budget cuts, “SOUTHCOM is unable to pursue 74 percent of suspected maritime drug trafficking.”9 General John F. Kelly of the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) lamented to Congress in 2014 that:
“I simply sit and watch it (drug trafficking) go by…”10
Further still, when narcosubs are actually interdicted, crew members will typically scuttle the vessel via a system of sophisticated drainage valves.11 Millions of dollars’ worth of evidence can be sunk in a matter of minutes. The recovery of cocaine then morphs into the recovery of the crew members which sank it. Although the United States’ Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act of 2008 now incriminates unidentified submarine crews for attempting to evade authorities, law enforcement cannot typically prosecute for the submarine and its cargo lying on the ocean floor.
Finally, in a general sense, interdiction is a problem of scale. 30 percent of the maritime flow of drugs from South America up through Central America is estimated to make use of narcosubmarines.12 Given that maritime routes are roughly estimated to account for 80 percent of drugs shipped north,13 narcosubmarines carry around 24 percent (0.8 x 0.3) of total product, almost a quarter of the entire drug stream. While a single narcosub interdiction may eradicate hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of cocaine, DTOs’ diversified drug portfolio still renders their cost-benefit analyses profitable. Yet their innovation with respect to narcosubmarines poses challenges for more than the U.S. Coast Guard and regional partners. It raises compelling concerns for U.S. national security.
The wealth garnered by DTOs undermines national security through the endemic corruption and poor rule of law it breeds in its host countries. Many DTOs are powerful enough to form pseudo-states, areas of military primacy (especially in rural or isolated areas) where centralized federal government authority is weak. In this vein, FARC has been characterized as possessing:
“…an enormous capacity to leverage economic resources, to control some territory, and to maintain a superficial presence in others…[as] their local, armed patronage and their ability to take advantage of rural youth unemployment keeps them afloat and even enables them to establish pockets of legitimacy and support in many regions of the country.”14
Narcosubmarines also pose international security threats. While a more sophisticated analysis of these threats may exist in the classified sphere, open source literature provides a useful primer of the issue. Lamentably, analyses of terrorism are always an exercise in a sort of speculative predication which may very well fail to materialize. A narcosubmarine-based attack on the United States might be shelved as a ‘black swan’ event, a game-changing development difficult to even contrive hypothetically.15 Still, a number of points are difficult to dismiss. Three factors must be considered: the establishment of motive, the acquisition of a narcosub, and the execution of an attack.
Many scholars have posited that South America provides fertile ground for terrorist groups and their ideologies. While some have cited widespread disaffection amongst Latin America’s citizenry as a possible motive for terrorism, frustrations with policy, inequality, corruption, and other shortcomings related to governance provide conditions that promote insurgencies. A 2016 congressional report on the subject noted that “most terrorist acts occur in the Andean region of South America,” specifically FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN) in Colombia and the Shining Path (SL) in Peru.16 Kidnappings, attacks on infrastructure, and the killing of civilians and local authorities are common tactics. With a focus on domestic politics, grassroots terrorism has not accompanied drug shipments in their northward journeys to countries like the United States. Latin America does not present the United States with extreme, anti-Western ideological sentiments common in other regions afflicted with insurgency. Nor is the measurable level of anti-Americanism amongst the general populace especially high.17
Putting domestic terrorism aside, the intersection of foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) and DTOs must subsequently be considered. FTOs have been active in South America in their own right. Two bombings of the Israeli embassy and the Argentine-Israeli mutual association took place in Argentina the early 1990s.18 Venezuela has been frequently accused of collaborating with Iran and funding extremist groups like Hezbollah, which holds documented connections with FARC.19 Russian engineering was responsible for the birth of the Facatativá sub, and Russia has maintained connections with the Cali cartel, another Colombian DTO.20 In 2001, three members of the Irish terrorist group the Provisional Irish Republic Army (PIRA) were arrested for “training FARC militants in the use of explosives, including homemade mortars.”21 FARC utilized this kind of training in its subversive campaigns against Colombian urban centers. Most importantly, South America’s security framework has difficulty preventing these kinds of events. Counterterrorism efforts with respect to FTOs have been plagued by “corruption, weak government institutions, insufficient interagency cooperation, weak or non-existent legislation, and a lack of resources.”22 In this globalized environment, the insertion of FTOs into the narcosubmarine context is entirely plausible.
While terrorist attacks in Latin America are relatively infrequent and usually domestic in nature, the combination of weak government authority in isolated regions and verified connections to well-established terrorist organizations cannot conclusively rule out the possibility of a group plotting a narcosubmarine-enabled attack on the United States.
On a basic level, the acquisition of a narcosubmarine is a purely pecuniary issue. Given a prospective buyer operating near the location of the submarine and the means to negotiate an exchange, purchasing technological blueprints or the submarine outright would only require a monetary transfer. Yet the story is much more complex. First, in all likelihood, terrorist organizations would need to purchase an entire sub. Obtaining the necessary materials and chartering the technological know-how to bring them together would be burdensome and time-consuming. At best, the finished products – which would also require familiarity with local supply chains and the tropical terrain – would be far inferior to the original submarine models. Secondly, Donald Davis stresses that for a DTO such as FARC, the “opportunity cost of a single voyage could exceed $275 million USD.”23 In other words, DTOs would need to reap a profit greater than that which the sub could otherwise garner, calculated to approach a whopping three hundred million dollars. These sums are well beyond the means of the wealthiest terrorist organizations. Further still, a successful terrorist strike on the United States would immediately engender “a swift and decisive military response…[that] could significantly alter the DTO’s ability to function…”24 Inciting retaliatory measures would cut into profits if not totally destroy the DTO. In this way, the chartering of a narcosubmarine appears beyond the means of even the most fanciful ITO.
The most compelling threat is the break-up of FARC, a wild-card variable that presents an uncertain trajectory. FARC’s demilitarization has created a power vacuum in rural Colombia. The Colombian NGO Indepaz has predicted “a territorial reorganization of the ‘narco-paramilitary groups’ in the aftermath of a peace accord with the FARC with the Bacrim (Spanish acronym for ‘bandas criminales’) groups vying to take over FARC drug and illegal mining businesses.”25 Relegated to the peripheries26 under FARC, these groups are competing amongst themselves for dominance in the emerging power vacuum. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), fighting amongst competing groups “has resulted in more than 56,000 displacements in the first half of 2017.”27 These paramilitary organizations include the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN; National Liberation Army) and the Ejército Popular de Liberación (EPL; Popular Liberation Army), as well as a host of smaller gangs. Even indigenous communities — many of which are hostile to the federal government and its efforts to eradicate coca production — are prone to violence.28 At least one narcosubmarine has been produced post-demilitarization.29 In July, the Colombian military seized a narcosubmarine built by the ELN. With the opportunity generated by FARC’s retirement and less formalized, looser hierarchical structures, peace agreements with these organizations a la FARC appears unlikely.31 Finally, one must consider FARC’s organizational structure. Prior to the settlement, FARC was “divided into six different commands, each composed of at least five fronts that represent different geographic territories,” all relatively decentralized and autonomous.32 Breakdown of the structural hierarchy raises the probability that individual members33 transfer submarine technology to external agents. When not trafficking cocaine, the aforementioned cost-benefit scenario changes: why not profit from the sale of idle narcosubmarines or the jungle laboratories that built them? Like the ‘loose nukes’ unaccounted for after the breakup of the USSR, control of narcosubmarines, the expertise related to their production, and their assembly sites post-accord is unclear. With FARC’s abdication and continued power swings amongst old and emerging groups in present-day Colombia, the sale of a loose narcosub remains a serious concern.
Although DTOs and FTOs have many reasons to shun technological exchanges, the uncertainty with respect to changing power dynamics amongst sub-national groups in Colombia today cannot rule out FTO acquisition of a narcosubmarine.
Execution of an Attack
How might a drug submarine be used in a terrorist attack? Transportation and detonation of a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) would clearly represent the gravest of scenarios. On paper, many narcosubs are large enough to carry a WMD.34 Delivery on the water additionally allows submarines to reach urban centers on both the East and West Coasts. Yet the list of prohibitive hurdles involved in such an endeavor is enormous, the most pressing of which are not specific to submarines. The use of narcosubmarines for improvised attacks is most concerning.
Described by Admiral James Stavridis in 2008 as “…clearly the next big thing,”35 autonomous narcosubmarine technology has outpaced anti-submarine defenses. They are particularly difficult to expose. Kenneth Sherman notes that “submerged submarines are detected almost exclusively acoustically, and unlike the louder Soviet nuclear subs of the Cold War, modern diesel-electric submarines are extremely difficult to detect, localize, and track.”36 The electric subs FARC regularly employed37 are “virtually impossible to detect using passive acoustic measures.”38 Amid sequestration and budget cuts, the U.S. Coast Guard’s defenses are even less likely to detect and neutralize a narcosubmarine on their own.
An attacking blueprint could take many forms. In 2000, the USS Cole was rammed by a small boat laden with explosives.39 Seventeen Americans were killed and scores more injured in this suicide attack. An attack on a Navy vessel like the USS Cole in this style is altogether feasible.40 A sub-surface approach with a large payload could do even more damage with little to no warning. In this sense, U.S. harbors on both coasts could be susceptible. And the target need not be military-affiliated. Large groups of people (often headed by and including American citizens) frequent cruise ships which regularly traverse the Caribbean and Pacific coastline. These cruise ships are bulky, difficult to maneuver, and possess no inherent defense systems. Stavridis reiterates the point: cruise ships are ‘lucrative’ targets for terrorists.41 Total destruction of a cruise ship, the worst-case scenario, could result in hundreds of deaths and almost $2 billion dollars’ worth of damages.42 The fallout from such an event would be unprecedented. Even a failed attack with respect to cruise ships could send worldwide cruise markets into sharp decline, as evidenced by the infamous ‘Poop Cruise’ of 2013.43
Above all, the definitive features of a terrorist attack are the reverberations it induces in society. Here narcosubmarines would add a unique and powerful twist to the panic. As Davis dryly remarks, “the overall shock value would be stunning.”44 Submarines possess a tangible mystique which borders on enchantment. Gliding silently along the depths of the ocean, submarines represent a sort of impalpable yet eerily present threat, alarming if activated. In the public eye, characterization of a narcosub attack could read as follows:
A lone submarine built painstakingly by hand in the dense jungles of South America by a demilitarized non-state entity traveled thousands of miles north utterly undetected to successfully strike the shores of the United States, which boasts the strongest and most technologically advanced Navy of all time.
Given the improbable establishment of motive and the acquisition of the necessary technologies, a submarine-based terrorist attack on the United States is not inconceivable given the scenarios considered here and envisaged elsewhere.45
Given the difficulties charting modern submarines post-USSR,46 the security forces of the United States should pay special attention to the evolving world of external submarine development by non-state actors. Narco-terrorism in Colombia follows a fairly intuitive procedural logic on paper. While the idea may seem far-fetched, prudent U.S. policy should continue to plan for the possibility of such an attack.
John Stryker is a senior studying International Relations and Hispanic Studies at the College of William and Mary.
Austin, Christina. “Disaster Timeline: How Carnival Went from ‘Fun Ship’ To ‘Poop Cruise’.” Business Insider. February 20 2013. Web. <http://www.businessinsider.com/how-carnival-went-from-fun-ship-to-poop-cruise-2013-2>.
Baker, Andy, and David Cupery. “Gringo Stay Here!” Americas Quarterly. Spring 2013. Web. <http://www.americasquarterly.org/gringo-stay-here>.
Cragin, Kim, et al. “Sharing the Dragon’s Teeth: Terrorist Groups and the Exchange of New Technologies.” RAND. 2007. Web. <https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2007/RAND_MG485.pdf>.
Crisp, Wil. “The New Struggle for Colombia’s Countryside after FARC.” Al Jazeera. October 24 2017. Web. <http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/10/struggle-colombia-countryside-farc-171023111815468.html>.
Davis, Donald. “The Submersible Threat to Maritime Homeland Security.” Naval Postgraduate School. September 2013. Web. <https://calhoun.nps.edu/handle/10945/37609>.
Farley, Robert. “Submarines, Cocaine, and Aquatic Terrorism?” Prospect. June 11 2009. Web. <http://prospect.org/article/submarines-cocaine-and-aquatic-terrorism>.
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Watkins, Lance. “Self-Propelled Semi-Submersibles: The Next Great Threat to Regional Security and Stability.” Naval Postgraduate School. June 2011. Web. <https://calhoun.nps.edu/bitstream/handle/10945/5629/11Jun_Watkins.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y>.
 Kraul, “Colombia Has a Peace Deal, but Can It Be Implemented?”.
 Ramirez, “Narco-Submarines: Drug Cartels’ Innovative Technology.”
 Note that SPSSs are not true submersibles, although they are equally difficult to detect, as discussed further on; Ramirez and Bunker, “Narco-Submarines: Specially Fabricated Vessels Used for Drug Smuggling Purposes,” 29.
 IBID, 34.
 IBID, 12.
 “U.S. Coast Guard Intercepts Semi-Submersible Vessel Packed with 3,800 Pounds of Cocaine.”
 Note that “the Coast Guard is the lead federal agency for maritime drug interdiction in the transit zone, responsible for the apprehension of cocaine transporting vessels …”; Wakins, “Self-Propelled Semi-Submersibles: The Next Great Threat to Regional Security and Stability,” 6.
 Ramirez and Bunker, “Narco-Submarines: Specially Fabricated Vessels Used for Drug Smuggling Purposes,” 47.
 IBID, 7.
 IBID, 7.
 After successful missions, the vessels are also sunk this way; IBID, 25.
 IBID, 7.
 IBID, 6.
 Vargas, “The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Illicit Drug Trade.”
 Davis, “The Submersible Threat to Maritime Homeland Security,” 39.
 Sullivan and Beittel, “Latin America: Terrorism Issues,” Summary.
 Baker and Cupery, “Gringo Stay Here!”.
 Ferkaluk, “Latin America: Terrorist Actors on a Nuclear Stage” 115.
 Davis, “The Submersible Threat to Maritime Homeland Security,” 24.
 IBID, 24.
 Cragin et al., “Sharing the Dragon’s Teeth: Terrorist Groups and the Exchange of New Technologies,” 71.
 Perez, “Fighting Terrorism with Foreign Aid: A Case for Continued US Assistance in Latin America,” 52.
 Davis, “The Submersible Threat to Maritime Homeland Security,” 45.
 IBID, 45.
 Sullivan and Beittel, “Latin America: Terrorism Issues,” 4.
 Although significant actors with notable histories in their own right.
 Crisp, “The New Struggle for Colombia’s Countryside after FARC.”
 It is impossible to predict how many narcosubs continue to be produced. Retroactive seizures, as seen with sporadic interdictions of drug subs since the 1990s, are a poor proxy for an overall estimate.
 Pelcastre, “Colombian Military Forces Attack Drug Trafficking in Operation Barbudo.”
 Crisp, “The New Struggle for Colombia’s Countryside after FARC.”
 Jaramillo, “The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Development of Narco-Submarines,” 53.
 Especially those hard-liners unwilling to participate in the surrender, or even de-militarized members wishing to return the previous way of life given difficulties reintegrating into everyday society.
 Davis, “The Submersible Threat to Maritime Homeland Security,” 42.
 Watkins, “Self-Propelled Semi-Submersibles: The Next Great Threat to Regional Security and Stability,” 51.
 Sherman, “Mini-Subs: The Next Terrorist Threat?”.
 Davis, “The Submersible Threat to Maritime Homeland Security,” 25.
 Sherman, “Mini-Subs: The Next Terrorist Threat?”.
 Farley, “Submarines, Cocaine, and Aquatic Terrorism?”.
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.