The maritime threat of the Islamic State in Libya: a case of much ado over nothing?

by Ben Ho Wan Beng and Henrik Paulsson. They are researchers with the Military Studies Programme at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and hold master’s degree in strategic studies from the same institution.

Acts of maritime terrorism, such as the 2002 attack on the supertanker Limburg in the Gulf of Aden off Yemen, have been far and few between, but would the rise of the Islamic State in Libya change this state of affairs?

Acts of maritime terrorism, such as the 2002 attack on the supertanker Limburg in the Gulf of Aden off Yemen, have been far and few between, but would the rise of the Islamic State in Libya change this state of affairs?

A top naval officer with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) recently argued that the rise of the Islamic State’s Libyan franchise could jeopardize maritime security in the Mediterranean. Vice-Admiral Clive Johnstone, who is currently the head of NATO Allied Maritime Command, maintained that the Islamic State in Libya (ISL) has nautical ambitions and that the extremist organization is seeking to build up a maritime arm just as al-Qaeda had once strived to do. Consequently, commercial and passenger ships in the region are increasingly coming under threat, the Royal Navy officer maintained. Fittingly, his warning came after the exhortation by ISL late last year to target “Crusader ships and tankers”.

Of particular concern is the possibility that ISL gets its hand on modern Chinese and Russian anti-surface (ASuW) armaments a la Hezbollah. As Johnstone asserted: “There is a horrible opportunity […] that a misdirected, untargeted round of a very high-quality weapons system will just happen to target a cruise liner or an oil platform or a container ship […] with extraordinary implications for the Western world”. Such a statement has invariably raised eyebrows in the Western world. Indeed, several media outlets that ran this story angled it to focus on the threat to cruise ships and with alarmist headlines at that.

Such fears are largely unfounded.

Premise problematic
For one, the premise of Johnstone’s contention — that cruise liners which are more likely to be found on the high seas will be within ISL’s reach — is problematic to begin with. While ISL controls a significant 130 nautical miles (approx. 240 km) of coastline centered on the coastal city of Sirte (also known as Surt), this is negated by the fact that the group’s maritime capabilities are extremely limited.

As a matter of fact, a recent report by Dryad Maritime contends that ISL does not have the capacity to conduct a successful offshore attack on commercial shipping. The British consultancy firm adds that this is because the group does not have the requisite vessels — motherships coupled with speedboats — and expertise. To be sure, ISL has shown that it possesses some small-craft capability when three of its boats carried out an unsuccessful attack on the key Zueitina oil terminal last month. On the other hand, there are no indications that ISL has the motherships imperative for long-range missions.

Ly-mapAn earlier Dryad Maritime report advises against sailing within 75 nm (approx. 139 km) of the Libyan coast to hedge against attack, and this is arguably the operational radius of most small craft. That said, with very limited seagoing capabilities, ISL could at best threaten vessels in the Gulf of Sidra and not beyond. Ships transiting the part of the central Mediterranean Sea near Libya could therefore skirt the threat of an ISL attack by staying a considerable distance away from the Gulf of Sidra. Indeed, Western passenger ships simply have no business travelling in that body of water, and this renders Johnstone’s statement about cruise liners being attacked in the first place untenable.

Nevertheless, there are commercial shipping calling at the various ports in the Gulf of Sidra; so what is the likelihood of these vessels being attacked by a “very high-quality weapons system” as per Johnstone? By this phrase, he was arguably referring to modern ASuW armaments, especially anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs). To be sure, radical groups such as Hezbollah already possess such weapons; after all, the Shia group attacked and crippled an Israeli corvette using a C-802 anti-ship missile in the 2006 Lebanon War. Indeed, Johnstone’s worry seems to be that the ISL gets hold of such armaments.

Misguided threat perception
A closer examination of the ground situation reveals that the admiral’s warning is overstated. Most of the ASCMs in Libya’s possession are mounted on its navy ships, none of which are under militant control. Even if ISL were to take over an ASCM-armed Libyan navy asset, the former needs to be able to operate not just the missile system, but the vessel as well. This would be a tall order considering the fact that the militant group has little if any expertise in handling warships. To be sure, Libya has several coastal batteries of SSC-3 Styx ASCMs, but they are not operational, thus making their falling into ISL hands a moot point.

And Johnstone’s allusion to Hezbollah in delineating the ISL maritime threat is a flawed one. This is because the Shia entity’s large inventory of missiles is derived mainly from Iran through Syria. As the latter is coterminous to Hezbollah’s base in Lebanon, the process of transferring weapons to the group is greatly facilitated. The ISL enjoys no such advantage as Sirte and neighboring ISL localities are sandwiched between government- and rival Islamist-controlled areas.

Lower-grade weapons
While the threat posed by modern ASuW systems to merchantmen in the Gulf of Sidra may be low, the same cannot be said of less sophisticated weaponry as they are a lot more readily available. Indeed, armaments such as anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) are bountiful following the collapse of the Muammar Gaddafi regime in 2011, and if ISL were to target ships, it is likely that these weapons will be utilized on land.

The precedence for such attacks from shore is also not new. In July 2015, the Islamic State’s Egyptian affiliate set ablaze a stationary Egyptian patrol craft off the Sinai coast with an ATGM (see image below). And in the 2012-13 period, there were three RPG attacks on merchantmen in the Suez Canal (see also Niklas Anzinger, “Is Egypt’s instability a threat to the Suez Canal?“,, 14.01.2014). Nevertheless, the short range of ATGMs and RPGs inhibits ISL’s maritime reach, essentially limiting the group to being able to just target ships within the weapons’ envelope, which is only several kilometers out. All in all, Johnstone’s concern about the Islamic State threat is largely undue, at least in the near term; whether this ISL maritime state of affairs persist remains to be seen.


Concluding thoughts
Going forward, acts of maritime terrorism have been a relatively infrequent occurrence thus far, but with the ISL controlling a coastal city — a first for an Islamist militant organization — and making further inroads territorially, would this state of affairs persist?

Terrorism experts Victor Asal and Justin V. Hastings make the valid point that extremist organizations which seek to control territory will have to set up the infrastructure needed to support this endeavor. They add that maritime transportation capabilities are part of this infrastructure, and acquiring such capabilities could then drive militant groups to maritime terrorism. In other words, militants turn to maritime terrorism “largely because they can”. ISL falls squarely into the aforementioned category of extremist groups as it already has a de facto capital in Sirte and controls a not inconsiderable 130 nm of coastline.

As per the Asal and Hasting argument, the main question is to what extent would ISL cast its gaze towards the sea as it consolidates control of the land it occupies and gain new territory. With a stronger foothold in Libya and better maritime infrastructure, would ISL still devote most of its energies to operations ashore? Or would it open another front at sea against its adversaries?

These are but some of the key issues that the security community would do well to monitor closely as the story of the ISL unfolds.

This entry was posted in English, Libya, Sea Powers, Terrorism.

2 Responses to The maritime threat of the Islamic State in Libya: a case of much ado over nothing?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *