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Maritime Counterterrorism: The Trilateral Cooperative Arrangement

16 Feb 2024

Maritime Counterterrorism: The Trilateral Cooperative Arrangement

16 Feb 2024

Why must we remain vigilant against maritime terrorism, particularly given its considerably intermittent occurrences? The answer lies in the significance of the seas as a vital artery in the world’s economic framework. Alfred Thayer Mahan, in his seminal work, underscored the critical role of maritime dominance, positing that command of the seas essentially translates to geopolitical dominance.[1] Beyond geopolitical dominance, his ideas encapsulate the intricate interplay of commerce, military might, and diplomatic influence, all converging upon our maritime arteries, which continue to be relevant today.

Today, maritime transport is the main mode of global trade. According to the OECD, 90% of traded goods are shipped by cargo.[2] In 2021, an estimated 11 billion tons of goods were loaded in ports worldwide.[3] It is precisely because of its economic significance that conflicts, past and present, were fought over access to the seas. This includes the Russia-Ukraine wars, both in 2014 and 2022, where one of Putin’s motivations to launch a military operation in Ukraine was the access to the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol.[4] While the battle was between Russia and Ukraine, disruptions at the Black and Azov Seas have indirectly increased the cost of global shipping because of the interconnectedness of maritime trade routes.[5]

China’s contested claims over the South China Sea, involving multiple Southeast Asian and East Asian countries has also been a point of global attention.[6] The South China Sea is a critical maritime corridor, with an estimated 21% of global maritime trade (US$5.3 billion) passing through it annually.[7] Heightened tensions, particularly between China and the Philippines, over maritime claims have raised concerns about the stability of this critical maritime corridor.[8] Disruptions in the South China Sea could have profound implications, significantly affecting a substantial portion of the global shipping and trade networks.

Consequently, a seemingly minor act of terrorism at sea can ripple outward with far-reaching consequences, potentially disrupting international trade routes and tilting diplomatic relations on a global scale.[9] Thus, understanding and addressing the threat of maritime terrorism is not just a matter of securing the seas but also of maintaining the very sinews of international stability and prosperity. This article delves into maritime terrorism in the Sulu-Celebes Seas, employing it as a case study to explore effective strategies for maritime counterterrorism.

Responding to the Abu Sayyaf

The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) is one of the few terrorist groups in the world that has maritime capabilities. The group was formed after the 1996 peace treaty between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Philippine government. Displeased with the terms of the peace agreement, Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani founded the Harakatul Islamiyah (Islamic Movement) in Basilan and called for native Muslims from Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi to fight the government’s oppression.[10] The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) later relabelled the group as Abu Sayyaf (son of the sword) to frame it as an ethno-separatist instead of a religious conflict to dissuade foreign fighters from participating.[11]

Abdurajak allegedly befriended Osama Bin Laden in 1988 when he was studying the Islamic Revolution in Iran at Peshawar, Pakistan, and subsequently became an Afghan Mujahideen.[12] This was the basis of the close links between the ASG and Al Qaeda. However, after Abdurajak was killed in 1998, the financial links between the ASG and Al Qaeda were severed, and the new leader, Khaddafy Janjalani had to find fundraising alternatives. ASG conducted its first kidnap-for-ransom (KFR) operation on 23 April 2000, on an island off the east coast of Sabah, Malaysia.[13] Otherwise known as the Sipadan incident, 21 hostages were kidnapped from a diving resort. The hostages were subsequently released after, among other reasons, substantial ransom amounts were paid to the ASG.

After the Sipadan incident, the ASG became notorious for KFR tactics, especially after the death of Khaddafy Janjalani, and Radullan Sahiron took over as leader of the ASG in 2006. Although Radullan Sahiron was a respected figure within the ASG, he was unable to instill discipline among the younger members as they were drawn towards the exploits of Albader Parad.[14] This was described internally within the ASG community as “lost command.”[15] Albader was said to have strayed from the cause because he kidnapped local Yakan and Tausug people for personal benefit. As a result, residents of Basilan and Sulu imposed unofficial curfews from 4 p.m. to sunrise to avoid being kidnapped by the ASG.[16] The threat of the ASG was dealt with as a local domestic affair, or a bilateral affair between the countries affected.

Albader was killed in 2010, but that was not the end of the ASG’s KFR operations. In 2014, Isnilon Hapilon and Hajan Sawadjaan broke away from the Radullan Sahiron-led ASG and pledged allegiance to Abubakr al-Baghdadi, then leader of the Islamic State (IS).[17] Hapilon was named as the leader of IS’ East Asia Wilayah (EAW) and traveled from Basilan to Butig in 2016 to consolidate his forces with the Maute Group.[18] The consolidation of forces in Butig eventually led to the 2017 Marawi Siege, which saw significant numbers of foreign terrorist fighters participating in the attack on Marawi, the only Islamic city in the Philippines.[19]

Concurrently, the Sawadjaan ASG splinter remained in Sulu and resumed maritime KFR operations. In 2016, the number of KFR incidents reached an all-time high when Sawadjaan’s splinter conducted 15 separate KFR operations and held a total of 62 hostages.[20] This version of ASG exploits the complex island chain of the Sulu Archipelago to conduct blitzkrieg hostage-taking operations. ASG militants used customized dual-engine pump boats to approach their targets. They arm themselves with assault rifles and machetes to overpower vulnerable civilian coastal infrastructure or sea-borne vessels like resorts, restaurants, fishing boats and tugboats.[21]

Both the increased frequency of KFR operations at the Sulu-Celebes Seas in 2016 and the 2017 Marawi Siege prompted the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines to collectively respond to the evolving maritime terrorism threat. Notably, then-Indonesian Minister for Defense, Ryamizard Ryacudu, called for a joint counterterrorism framework that governs the Sulu-Celebes Seas.[22] This laid the foundations for the Trilateral Cooperative Arrangement (TCA), which was officially launched in 2018 to combat the transnational maritime terrorist threat.[23]

The Maritime Conundrum

Before delving into the need for a cooperative maritime framework like the TCA, this section discusses the complexity of surveying the maritime domain. The maritime domain presents a unique conundrum in the realm of global security, primarily due to its vastness and the inherent challenges in monitoring and controlling such an expansive space. Seas and coastlines, extending over immense distances, defy conventional surveillance and patrolling methods. This vastness is further compounded in archipelagic regions, where the sheer number of islands and the extensive stretches of open water create logistical and strategic hurdles. Moreover, the financial cost of maritime surveillance is significantly higher than that of land. The need for a diverse array of resources, including specialized vessels, aircraft, and satellite technology, makes it a costly endeavour. Moreover, the strategic initiative often lies with terrorists in this setting; the typically slower response times at sea compared to land-based operations give these illicit actors a tactical advantage. This section delves into these challenges, unpacking the complexities of the maritime conundrum and its implications for counterterrorism efforts in the marine environment.

The Curse of Geography

The vastness of the sea and the expense of the coastlines render surveillance more difficult in coastal regions because it is difficult to visually identify abnormalities at sea as compared to land.[24] The lack of distinct landmarks at sea creates a featureless expanse devoid of fixed points for guidance or marking locations, complicating the task of identifying and following objects. The ocean’s uniform landscape, coupled with its ever-changing conditions such as wave patterns, currents, and weather, adds to the disorientation and complicates surveillance efforts. Navigating this vast, open space relies heavily on instruments like GPS and radar, which, despite their sophistication, have limitations in such an expansive and constantly changing environment.

The inability to visually identify abnormalities is compounded by the propensity for optical illusions at sea. Mirages can visually distort objects, misrepresenting their true position and size. Moreover, the reflective surface of the sea could create intense sun glare, which can obscure floating objects at sea. Variations in humidity could also distort the visibility of sailors, particularly when there is fog or rain.

In the context of maritime counterterrorism, these challenges take on even greater significance. The vast and dynamic nature of the ocean, along with the complexities introduced by atmospheric conditions, makes it exceedingly difficult to detect and respond to potential terrorist threats. The inherent difficulties in distinguishing between benign and hostile vessels or activities are amplified in this environment. Moreover, optical illusions and varying visibility conditions can be exploited by terrorists to evade detection or mislead security forces.

Coastal and Maritime Surveillance

Another problem with coastal and maritime surveillance is that its costs are significantly higher. The financial implications of coastal and maritime surveillance are considerably heightened for two reasons. Firstly, the diverse array of equipment required for effective patrolling significantly escalates costs. Unlike terrestrial surveillance, which primarily relies on land-based vehicles, maritime surveillance necessitates a varied arsenal, including sea vessels equipped to navigate various water conditions, advanced radar systems to counteract the above-mentioned visibility issues, and aerial assets for broader coverage. This diversity of equipment, each with its own acquisition and maintenance costs, is essential to address the challenges of vastness, featurelessness, and optical phenomena unique to maritime domains.

Secondly, in archipelagic regions, the allocation of policing assets becomes even more demanding. Traditionally, policing assets are distributed based on population density. However, in archipelagic terrains like the island chains around the Sulu-Celebes Sea, the allocation of policing and military assets is distributed based on the geographical locations of each island, often covering vast, sparsely populated or even uninhabited regions. This approach necessitates a more widespread deployment of assets, further inflating the costs of surveillance.

Overall, these factors contribute to the heightened financial burden of ensuring effective coastal and maritime surveillance, a critical component for maintaining security in such geopolitically sensitive areas.

Maritime Response

The final challenge of maritime and coastal security is its speed of response. Maritime policing operations are notably slower than terrestrial policing. Unlike urban centres with constant surveillance and immediate accessibility, the maritime domain is characterized by its sparse population and isolated geography. Thereby contributing to the prolonged response times in maritime settings, highlighting the critical differences from land-based policing.

Firstly, the concept of the “power of witness” is virtually non-existent at sea.[25] Unlike urban areas, where CCTV cameras and dense populations contribute to continuous monitoring and quick incident reporting, vast maritime expanses lack these elements of passive surveillance. The absence of immediate reporting mechanisms and eyewitness accounts in these regions significantly delays the detection and subsequent response to maritime incidents. This lack of prompt information gathering is a fundamental hindrance to swift maritime policing action.

Secondly, the deployment of maritime assets poses its own set of challenges, especially when incidents occur on isolated and remote islands. Maritime vessels and resources are typically stationed at specific ports and require time to navigate to the incident location. The travel time is often prolonged due to the distances involved, which can be considerably more extensive than terrestrial distances.

In archipelagic regions, maritime assets are often shared across multiple islands and vast stretches of water. This is particularly salient in areas affected by maritime terrorism because countries are not economically affluent and often face multiple maritime threats, which include armed pirates, smugglers, and illegal fishing. During critical situations, these resources might be engaged in other operations or are located far from the incident site, rendering them unavailable for immediate response.[26]

The delayed response time in maritime policing is a complex issue, stemming from the inherent lack of passive surveillance, the logistical complexities in deploying assets, and the challenges of resource allocation in archipelagic regions. These factors highlight the sophistication of maritime counterterrorism, particularly in archipelagic terrains.

Maritime Malice: Enhancing Terrorists’ Survivability

The TCA was established after governments from Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines recognized the transnational nature and the increased severity of IS-inspired terrorism. Moreover, the archipelagic geography of Southeast Asia has also shaped the maritime dynamics of terrorist groups in Southeast Asia. Such access to the maritime domain significantly enhances their survivability, presenting a significant challenge to counterterrorism.[27]

Maritime access affords these groups three crucial advantages. First, it diversifies terrorists’ avenues for fundraising, essential for their sustenance and expansion. Second, the relative obscurity and freedom of movement across international waters facilitate the recruitment of foreign fighters, broadening their reach and influence. Finally, the intricate geography of coastlines and archipelagos offers terrorists a strategic edge, allowing them to evade capture through tactics like island hopping. Each of these elements contributes to the resilience and adaptability of terrorist organizations, posing a complex and evolving challenge to global security. This section explores how terrorists exploit the seas to their advantage, underscoring the critical need to rethink maritime counterterrorism.

Diversifying Fundraising Avenues

Capital is the lifeblood of terrorist organizations. Without capital, terrorists are unable to fund the sustenance of their members or procure weapons to launch attacks to attain their political objectives. Access to the seas provides terrorist groups like the ASG with an opportune method to diversify their fundraising avenues. These water bodies are not merely pathways for global commerce; they are a treasure trove ripe for exploitation by malevolent actors, including terrorists and pirates. The enormous volume and value of goods transported via sea routes allows terrorists with access to maritime routes to unlock additional avenues for fundraising. Therefore, while the sea may not be a direct theatre for their political aims, mastery of maritime spaces offers terrorists a strategic advantage to capitalize on the wealth flowing through these waters.

Terrorists can engage in both illicit violent and non-violent activities to raise funds. While violent maritime activities like KFR and vessel hijacking often elicit a strong counterresponse from the state, they are seen as high-risk, high-reward operations by terrorists within the ASG. Depending on the ethnicity and nationality of the hostage, ransom monies raised from the kidnapping of each crew range between PH120,000 and PH₱200,000,000 (US$2,100 – US$3,500). This could be considered the most lucrative model of fundraising. The ASG’s mastery over these operations allowed the group to identify and capture vulnerable targets with a maritime blitzkrieg operation. Kidnapping is particularly more effective in coastal areas and at sea precisely because of the above-mentioned complexities of maritime surveillance.

According to data from the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) information sharing centre, there have been 31 reported maritime incidents along the Sulu-Celebes Seas since 2014, of which, 20 were successful kidnapping operations.[28] 75% of the successful kidnapping incidents are conducted on smaller boats like tugboats and fishing trawlers. These records did not include the Ocean King Seafood Restaurant kidnapping on 15 May 2015,[29] Holiday Oceanview Resort kidnapping on  21 September 2015,[30] the abduction of Juegen Kantner at a yacht on 5 November 2016, and the Hyron Resort kidnapping in 6 October 2019.[31]

From the data above, we can conclude that the ASG actively identifies soft-unprotected targets for kidnapping operations. This includes the crewmen of small boats and tourists at coastal resorts and restaurants. These assets are perceived to be vulnerable because they are undefended and unprepared for emergencies. However, it is inaccurate to claim that the ASG only attacks soft targets. While the ASG was relatively unsuccessful against larger ships, there have been multiple attempts at boarding oil/chemical/gas tankers, general cargo, container ships, and bulk carriers. Among them, the ASG was successful in boarding and kidnapping crewmen of three large vessels, including the South Korean Dong Bang Giant No. 2 on 20 October 2016,[32] the Vietnamese Royal 16 on 11 November 2016,[33] and the Vietnamese Giang Hai on 19 February 2017.[34]

Besides violent maritime fundraising activities like KFR and ship hijacking, the ASG also engages in non-violent maritime illicit activities at sea. The ASG’s mastery over the seas created opportunities for sustainable smuggling operations to raise funds. Due to the low-profile nature of these activities, they are less detectable as compared to KFR and hijacking. Smugglers hop between the sparsely inhabited islands along the Sulu Archipelago and Sangihe Islands to smuggle illicit items like contraband cigarettes,[35] drugs,[36] firearms,[37] and humans.

Recruiting Foreign Fighters

Another attribute of terrorists operating in archipelagic and coastal regions is their access to foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs). The value of FTFs in a local conflict cannot be understated. FTFs can bolster the ranks of terrorist groups. For example, prior to the 2017 Marawi Siege, FTFs from Malaysia and Indonesia travelled to Mindanao through the Sulu Archipelago and Sangihe Islands to prepare for the siege. [38] As a result, 40 FTFs participated in the Marawi Siege, increasing the number of terrorists fighting against the AFP.

Beyond making a quantitative difference in the terrorist group’s combat strength, the introduction of FTFs could also import new tactics and techniques into the conflict theatre. For instance, Dr. Azahari bin Husin (Malaysian), Fathur Rohman al-Gohzi (Indonesian), and Zulkifli Bin Hir (Malaysian) were instrumental in importing bombmaking techniques into the Philippines through the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and ASG partnership.[39]

A more recent example of how tactics can be imported into a conflict theatre is ASG’s adoption of suicide bombing tactics.[40] Since its inception, the ASG and other terrorist groups in the Philippines had not conducted a single suicide bombing attack. Suicide bombing attacks were seen as ‘cowardly’ in the eyes of the Tausug, and unIslamic for the Maranao. The Indonesian couple, Rullie Rian Zeke and Ulfah Handayani Saleh, convinced Sawadjaan about the potency of suicide bombing attacks. They eventually conducted a twin suicide bombing attack at the Jolo Cathedral on 27 January 2019, killing 20 and injuring 102 others.[41] Viewing the potency of suicide bombing operations, the Sawadjaan ASG splinter followed up with a series of suicide bombing attacks executed by FTFs while preserving their local male fighting force.[42]

The isolated adoption of suicide bombing tactics by the Sawadjaan ASG splinter also highlights the significance of sea lines of transport for terrorist groups. The Sawadjaan ASG splinter, at the point of writing, is the only terrorist group in Mindanao that employed suicide bombings. This is because the spread of the tactic followed in the footsteps of FTFs. Water bodies often serve as natural sovereign boundaries. And it is precisely because the Sawadjaan ASG splinter operates in the Sulu Archipelago, between Borneo and Mindanao, that they are the natural gatekeepers of FTFs commuting from Sabah, Malaysia. Therefore, providing them with unrivaled access to FTFs as compared to other terrorist groups in Mindanao.

Overall, Mindanao has been an attractive location for regional FTFs due to its mountainous and densely forested terrain.[43] The injection of FTFs can enhance the survivability and potency of a terrorist group by increasing their numerical strength and by introducing new tactics into the conflict theater. Of which, the most salient impact of FTFs in Mindanao is the adoption of suicide bombing tactics while preserving the adept local fighting force.

Evading Capture

Access to the seas also allowed maritime terrorists to evade capture. There are three primary tactics terrorists use to shake off the authorities: exploiting sovereign boundaries, island hopping, and the use of small, unregistered boats.

Terrorist groups like the ASG often exploit sovereign boundaries at sea to evade law enforcement. Maritime borders, especially in politically intricate regions, are usually underregulated. Terrorists navigate these boundaries, moving into waters where one nation’s jurisdiction ends and another’s begins, thereby making it complex for maritime surveillance. This tactic poses a significant challenge for law enforcement agencies, as coordination and jurisdictional issues across different national waters can lead to delays and gaps in pursuit, allowing terrorists to escape.

This was evident when the Philippines applied military pressure against the ASG splinters in Sulu between 2017 and 2021. ASG members fled Sulu, Philippines, and sought refuge in Sabah, Malaysia. According to the Southeast Asian Militant Atlas (SEAMA) by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), 23 arrested and 7 killed ASG members were in Sabah in 2021.[44] Although they were discovered in 2021, ASG members have likely been using Sabah as a safe haven from Filipino prosecution.

Additionally, in an archipelagic terrain, island hopping is a favoured tactic for terrorists to avoid capture.[45] Such was also the case for the ASG as they traversed the Sulu Archipelago. While most residents along the Sulu Archipelago live in Basilan, Jolo, and Tawi-Tawi, there are approximately 400 islands that are barely inhabited. The terrain allows ASG splinters to disperse and hide within these islands. The island-hopping tactic is not unique to ASG. The Ahlu Sunna Wal-Jama’a (ASWJ) also uses island-hopping to project influence and evade capture.[46]

Another aspect of ASG’s evasion tactics in the Sulu Archipelago involves the use of small pump boats. This presents a challenge for current radar technologies, which are heavily relied upon in maritime surveillance. The ASG navigates these waters with wooden pump boats fitted with two engines, making them difficult to detect by radar and highly manoeuvrable.

The Nexus between Land and Sea

Despite attempts to isolate and address the threat of maritime terrorism, it is equally important to recognize the nexus between land and sea. At the core of this nexus lies the undeniable fact that terrorist groups with access to and mastery of the maritime domain exploit the seas to pursue their land-based objectives. The land serves as a platform for ideological and territorial pursuits and is a crucial stronghold for consolidation, planning, recruitment, and training. It is within these terrestrial confines that these groups find the security and resources necessary for their sustenance and the advancement of their causes.

Simultaneously, the maritime domain is merely a lifeline. The sea is a conduit for the movement of arms, resources, and personnel. These operations at sea are not isolated endeavours but are intricately woven into the broader terrestrial objectives, providing financial and logistical support essential for their continuity and growth. The functionality of maritime operations under the aegis of these terrorist groups is inextricably linked to terrestrial support.

Key aspects of their maritime activities, including the refuelling of vessels, storage of smuggled goods, and management of captives taken during maritime raids, hinge on land-based infrastructure and resources. The ASG had prematurely released and killed hostages when they were in pursuit. This dependence further cements the symbiotic relationship between their activities at sea and their operational bases on land, underscoring the interconnectedness of the two realms. As such, it is unsurprising that the ASG in KFR operations ceased in 2020 after they were significantly weakened by the AFP.

In essence, the land-sea nexus in maritime counterterrorism illustrates the multifaceted nature of terrorist operations, spanning both land and sea. Acknowledging this interconnectedness is imperative for the formulation of effective counterterrorism strategies. It calls for an integrated approach that concurrently addresses the challenges posed in both domains, exploiting the vulnerabilities of terrorist groups and disrupting their operations across this complex land-sea landscape. This integrated perspective is vital for a comprehensive and effective response to the ever-evolving threat of maritime terrorism.

Rethinking Maritime Counterterrorism

The practice of maritime counterterrorism differentiates terrorism from criminality and activities at sea from those on land. However, as established earlier, terrorist groups conduct criminal activities at sea for their objectives on land. We have also established that the terrorists’ maritime operations are dependent on sanctuaries on land. Therefore, it is essential to reframe the idea of “maritime terrorism” to the terrorist’s exploitation of the maritime domain, necessitating a more holistic approach to maritime counterterrorism. As such, maritime counterterrorism must not be an independent division. This holistic approach to counterterrorism depends on several factors:

1. Regional cooperation.

2. Crime prevention as counterterrorism.

3. Integrate maritime efforts into counterterrorism efforts on land.

Regional Cooperation

Regional cooperation plays a critical role in maritime counterterrorism. The concept of the sea as a global and regional commons forms the foundational premise for regional cooperation. By its very nature, the sea transcends national boundaries, serving as a shared resource and a shared threat. This shared nature of the seas necessitates a collective approach to security and governance. For example, the Sulu-Celebes Seas, where the ASG conducts its maritime operations, is also known as the “tri-border area” of maritime Southeast Asia (Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia).[47]

Practically, the task of patrolling and securing vast maritime areas is a monumental challenge that exceeds the capabilities of any single nation affected by persistent terrorism. As mentioned before, the seas are too vast, and the coasts are too wide to patrol. Moreover, particularly in archipelagic regions, coastguards and maritime police may not have sufficient resources to constantly survey the sparsely inhabited islets that may be exploited by terrorists to hide from the authorities.

Therefore, initiatives like the Trilateral Cooperative Arrangement (TCA) provide countries affected by maritime terrorism with the opportunity to jointly patrol the waters.[48] Beyond jointly patrolling the waters of the Sulu-Celebes Seas, the TCA has also established Maritime Command Centres (MCCs) at Tarakan (Indonesia), Tawau (Malaysia), and Bongao (the Philippines) as key nodes to share intelligence about crime and terrorism.[49] To complement the TCA, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has also supported states involved in the TCA with capacity-building initiatives through the Sulu-Celebes Seas Contact Group Meeting, herein known as “the Contact Group Meeting”. The Contact Group Meeting aims to strengthen multilateral coordination through table-top exercises and joint exercises, enhance coastguard cooperation through the Coast Guard Tripartite Agreement, create a research network focused on maritime crime, and upgrade the hardware of coastguards from Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia.[50]

The TCA provides Maritime Southeast Asian States with a holistic maritime counterterrorism framework. Beyond joint patrols, Southeast Asian States conduct joint exercises, share intelligence, enhance coordination, and improve research and analysis on maritime crime.[51] By pooling resources together, countries within the region created a more comprehensive and effective surveillance network, significantly enhancing their collective maritime security posture. Moreover, such cooperation facilitates a unified approach to legal and jurisdictional challenges in maritime law enforcement.

In essence, regional cooperation is indispensable for addressing the transnational nature of maritime terrorism. It allows for a more robust, coordinated, and resource-efficient approach to securing the seas, ensuring that the shared maritime commons remain safe and secure for all. This segment underscores the imperative for nations to collaboratively forge strategies and frameworks that enhance their collective maritime security, effectively countering the pervasive threat of maritime terrorism.

Crime Prevention as Counterterrorism

The prevailing scenario in the Sulu-Celebes Seas region, marked by the reduction of violent activities such as KFR and ship hijacking by the ASG, brings to light an evolving maritime security landscape. Post-2020, the TCA has increasingly been recognized as an effective anti-crime framework, reflecting a shift in maritime threats in the region.[52] Despite the decline in ASG’s orchestrated violent activities, the persistence of nonviolent maritime crime underscores a critical aspect of regional security vulnerabilities.

Between 2021 and 2022, a wide array of illicit activities, including the smuggling of contraband cigarettes, drugs, wildlife, timber, liquor, humans, and firearms, continued unabated through the Sulu-Celebes Seas. This continuation of nonviolent crimes in the maritime domain indicates that while the face of the threat may have changed, the underlying vulnerability in maritime security endures. These activities not only represent a significant economic loss but also pose a broader security risk, as they could potentially finance and support organized crime and terrorist groups.

This highlights the necessity for a more integrated approach to maritime security policies, one that seamlessly integrates anti-crime and counterterrorism measures. The distinction between traditional maritime crime and terrorism is increasingly blurred, as the methods, networks, and even personnel involved may overlap. A holistic approach, where counterterrorism strategies are sensitive to the nuances of maritime crime, is required to deal with terrorist groups with mastery over maritime tactics. Therefore, the TCA’s pivot from a maritime counterterrorism framework into a more comprehensive anti-crime agreement represents a positive strategic evolution in regional maritime security policy. This shift acknowledges the crime-terror nexus, transcending beyond overt acts of terrorism to encompass a broader range of illicit activities. By strengthening the capacity of maritime law enforcement agencies, the TCA is better positioned to tackle not just the remnants of terrorist activities but also the burgeoning spectrum of maritime crimes.

In conclusion, the ongoing prevalence of nonviolent maritime crime in the absence of high-profile terrorist activities like KFR and ship hijacking highlights the continued vulnerability of maritime routes. It calls for an integrated security approach that views maritime crime and terrorism as interconnected challenges, requiring a unified and comprehensive response strategy under frameworks like the TCA. This integrated approach is essential for ensuring the long-term security and stability of vital maritime regions like the Sulu-Celebes Seas.

Augmenting Counterterrorism via the Maritime Domain

Lastly, we must recognize that counterterrorism is primarily a land-based operation. However, due to the complexities of the archipelagic terrain, maritime assets are required to augment the authority’s efforts on land. In coastal and archipelagic areas, the effectiveness of counterterrorism on land is significantly enhanced when it operates in concert with maritime efforts.

The correlation between the reduction of violent maritime activities, such as KFR and ship hijacking, and the operational strength of the ASG on land is a prime example of this interconnectedness. The ASG splinter led by Hajan Sawadjaan was at the peak of its operational strength in 2019. Then, the group engaged in numerous armed skirmishes against the AFP and engaged in suicide bombing campaigns.[53] Similarly, there was a surge in ASG-orchestrated KFR operations in 2019.[54] This correlation serves as an indicator of the impact of effective land-based counterterrorism strategies on maritime threats. The diminishing capabilities of ASG at sea can be directly linked to the successes of counterterrorism operations on land.

Further, the role of land-based strategies in squeezing ASG into a state of demoralization is a critical aspect of this comprehensive approach. After Hajan Sawadjaan was killed in July 2020, combined with the subsequent territorial squeeze at Sulu via the Balik Barangay initiative, there was a surge in the number of ASG members who surrendered to the AFP.[55] In the third quarter of 2020, 110 ASG members based in Sulu surrendered to the AFP. The ASG also ceased their KFR operations shortly after the decline of militant strength. Their last attempted KFR operations were foiled on 3 November 2020.[56] By targeting the group’s terrestrial bases, supply lines, and recruitment efforts, these strategies effectively weakened ASG’s operational capacity, reducing their ability to conduct maritime operations such as KFR and hijacking.

Finally, the manner in which maritime efforts have complemented land-based operations in the Sulu region highlights the essence of a coordinated counterterrorism approach. As the AFP systematically squeezed the ASG out of Sulu, some have attempted to evacuate the island to seek refuge in Basilan, Tawi-Tawi, or even Sabah. Such was the case of Manul Sawadjaan and his six comrades. They attempted to flee from Sulu towards Tawi-Tawi with a speedboat after an “all-out offensive” at Sulare Island, west of Jolo.[57] The fleeing terrorists were intercepted at sea with the military’s naval assets. Undoubtedly, by coordinating with the military’s efforts on land, the maritime forces were able to intercept and kill the fleeing terrorists, providing critical reinforcements for land-based operations. This has been instrumental in bolstering the overall counterterrorism strategy.

Recognizing the importance of integrating maritime counterterrorism with land-based operations is vital for a holistic and effective counterterrorism strategy. This integrated approach not only maximizes the strengths of both land and maritime resources but also ensures a comprehensive suppression of terrorist activities across all domains.


This investigation into maritime counterterrorism, with a particular focus on the Trilateral Cooperative Arrangement (TCA), has revealed the complex nature of security challenges in the maritime domain. The analysis has highlighted the importance of viewing maritime terrorism as an intertwined component of broader security threats.

The TCA serves as an example of how regional collaboration and a shift toward a more holistic understanding of maritime security can effectively address these challenges. The TCA demonstrates how effective regional cooperation can play a supplementary role in domestic counterterrorism efforts. Lessons learned from the TCA could serve as a basis for other minilateral arrangements.

Moving forward, it is imperative for nations, regional bodies, and international organizations to continue to develop, refine, and implement strategies that address the entire spectrum of maritime threats. The maritime route is a global common that must be protected, and it can only be achieved through regional cooperation.

[1] Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783 (Read Books Ltd, 2013).

[2]“Ocean Shipping and Shipbuilding,” OECD, accessed January 26, 2024,

[3] Rebeca Grynspan, “Review of Maritime Transport 2022,” UNCTAD, 2022,

[4] Karin Smit Jacobs and Jonas Winkel, “Russia’s War on Ukraine – Maritime Logistics and Connectivity: State of Play,” European Parliamentary Research Service (European Parliament, December 2022).

[5] “Impacts of Russia’s War of Aggression against Ukraine on the Shipping and Shipbuilding Markets,” OECD (blog), November 10, 2023,

[6] Karolos J. Karnikis and Alison Szalwinski, “Maritime Awareness Project,” 2016,

[7] Jacque Schrag, “How Much Trade Transits the South China Sea?,” ChinaPower Project (blog), August 2, 2017,

[8] Caitlin Campbell, Ben Dolven, and Thomas Lum, “China-Philippines Tensions in the South China Sea” (Washington DC: Congressional Research Service, January 23, 2024).

[9] Alexandra Amling et al., “Stable Seas: Sulu-Celebes Seas,” One Earth Future Foundation, February 2019,

[10] Rommel C. Banlaoi, Al-Harakatul Al Islamiyyah: Essays on the Abu Sayyaf Group (Philippine Institute for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR), 2008).

[11] International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) Field Research, August 2023.

[12] Stanford University, “Mapping Militancy Project: Abu Sayyaf Group,” Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation, accessed January 26, 2024,

[13] Eduardo F. Ugarte, “The Phenomenon of Kidnapping in the Southern Philippines: An Overview,” South East Asia Research 16, no. 3 (2008): 293–341.

[14] Bong Garcia, “Criminal Raps Readied vs Basilan Attackers,” Sunstar Philippines, February 28, 2010,

[15] International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) Field Research, op. cit.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Kenneth Yeo, “The Changing Dynamics of Islamist Terrorism in Philippines,” The Diplomat, February 28, 2019,

[18] Joseph Franco, “Detecting Future ‘Marawis,’” Perspectives on Terrorism 14, no. 1 (2020): 3–12.

[19] Zam Yusa, “Philippines: 100 Foreign Fighters Joined ISIS in Mindanao since the Marawi Battle,” The Defense Post, November 5, 2018,; Robert Postings, “The Philippines: Destination for ISIS Foreign Fighters from Europe and Beyond?,” The Defense Post, September 12, 2018,

[20] “Sulu Sea Kidnappings a Threat to Merchant Shipping – Report,” Reuters, January 10, 2017, sec. World,

[21] ReCAAP, “Interactive Incident Report” (ReCAAP Information Sharing Centre), accessed November 16, 2018,

[22] Ryamizard Ryacudu, “Terrorism in Southeast Asia: The Need for Joint Counter-Terrorism Frameworks,” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses 10, no. 11 (2018): 1–3.

[23] Ryamizard Ryacudu, “Opening Address by HE GEN (Ret) Ryamizard Ryacudu, Minister of Defence, Ministry of Defence, Indonesia, at the ‘2018 Southeast Asia Counter-Terrorism Symposium: A Collective Approach,’”

[24] Kenneth Yeo, “Kidnapping in the Sulu Sea: Implications on Terrorism in the Philippines,” The Diplomat, October 4, 2019,

[25] Marten Meijer, “Implications of the New NATO Strategic Concept for Countering Maritime Terrorism at the Black Sea and Other Seas of Recent Conflict,” in Good Practices in Countering Terrorism in Maritime Domain, October 4-5, 2023, pp. 12–13.

[26] The Philippines Coast Guards (PCG) faced resource constraints because they do not have enough boats to patrol the archipelago between Zamboanga to Tawi-Tawi. Due to this problem, PCG sometimes loan privately-owned boats to conduct search and rescue operations. International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) Field Research, op. cit.

[27] Kenneth Yeo, Rueben Ananthan Santhana Dass, and Jasminder Singh, “Maritime Malice in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines: The Asymmetric Maritime Threat at the Tri-Border Area,” International Centre for Counter Terrorism, Policy Brief, April 2021, 21.

[28] ReCAAP, “Interactive Incident Report,” Op. cit

[29] “Headless Body of Malaysian Hostage Bernard Then Recovered in the Philippines,” The Straits Times, December 15, 2015,

[30] Karlos Manlupig and Editha Caduaya, “3 Foreigners, 1 Filipina Abducted in Samal Island,” Rappler, September 22, 2015,

[31] “Philippine Military Seeks Rescue of Abducted British-Filipino Couple,” The Straits Times, October 6, 2019,

[32] Gary Dixon, “Crew Kidnapped from Korean Ship in Philippines,” TradeWinds (blog), October 21, 2016,

[33] “Abducted Captain of Royal 16 Found Dead,” SAFETY4SEA (blog), December 12, 2017,

[34] “One Killed, Seven Abducted in Sulu Sea Pirate Attack,” The Maritime Executive, accessed January 26, 2024,

[35] “Global Security Expert: Armed Groups Benefit from Rampant Cigarette Smuggling,” Inquirer News, October 9, 2023,

[36] Jamela Alindogan, “Inside Abu Sayyaf: Blood, Drugs and Conspiracies,” Al Jazeera, July 24, 2016,

[37] Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja, “Trial of Terrorist in Jakarta Sheds Light on Arms Trail from Southern Philippines to Indonesia,” The Straits Times, February 2, 2018, sec. SE Asia News & Top Stories,

[38] Zam Yusa, “Malaysia and Indonesia Foreign Fighter Transit Routes to Philippines Identified,” The Defense Post, November 20, 2018,

[39] Peter Chalk and Carl Ungerer, “The Jamaah Islamiyah Network,” in Neighbourhood Watch (Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 2008).

[40] Kenneth Yeo, “Suicide Bombings in Mindanao,” International Centre for Counter Terrorism, November 8, 2021,

[41] Jim Gomez, “21 Dead as Bombs Target Cathedral in Southern Philippines,” ABC News, January 27, 2019,

[42] Kenneth Yeo, “Suicide Bombings in Mindanao” op. cit.

[43] Kenneth Yeo, “The Foreign Fighter Phenomenon in the Philippines,” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses 11, no. 7 (September 2019).

[44] Kenneth Yeo, “Southeast Asia Militant Atlas,” S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies: International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, 2021,

[45] Kelly Moss, “A Hop, Skip, and a Jump: Ansar al-Sunna’s Island-Hopping,” Stable Seas, October 13, 2020,

[46] Ibid.

[47] Kenneth Yeo, Ananthan Santhana Dass, and Jasminder Singh, “Maritime Malice in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines: The Asymmetric Maritime Threat at the Tri-Border Area,” op. cit.

[48] Ian Storey, “Trilateral Security Cooperation in the Sulu-Celebes Seas: A Work in Progress,” Perspective, no. 48 (2018).

[49] Kenneth Yeo, Ananthan Santhana Dass, and Jasminder Singh, “Maritime Malice in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines: The Asymmetric Maritime Threat at the Tri-Border Area,” op. cit.

[50] 7th Sulu-Celebes Seas Contact Group Meeting, June 28, 2022.

[51] Prashanth Parameswaran, “What’s With the New Sulu Sea Trilateral Air Patrols?,” The Diplomat (blog), October 13, 2017,; Prashanth Parameswaran, “Malaysia Spotlights Expanded Sulu Sea Trilateral Patrols,” The Diplomat, April 19, 2018,; Prashanth Parameswaran, “Are Sulu Sea Trilateral Patrols Actually Working?,” Wilson Center (blog), January 29, 2019,; Tom Abke, “Trilateral Air, Maritime Patrols Curtail Kidnappings,” Indo-Pacific Defense Forum (blog), June 3, 2019,

[52] Interview with Jeslyn Tan, Researcher at Maritime Institute Malaysia, September 6, 2023.

[53] Kenneth Yeo, “Suicide Bombings in Mindanao,” op. cit.

[54] Kenneth Yeo, “Kidnapping in the Sulu Sea: Implications on Terrorism in the Philippines,” op. cit.

[55] “MTF-ELAC Sustains Balik Barangay Program through Skills Training Program,” 11th Infantry “Alakdan” Division, May 15, 2023,

[56] Teofilo Garcia, “Military Foils Abu Sayyaf Kidnap Plot,” Philippine News Agency, November 3, 2020,

[57] “Abu Sayyaf Fighters Killed in Clash with Philippine Army in Sulu,” Al Jazeera, November 3, 2020,

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