Small Wars Journal

Al Qaeda's Seapower Strategy

Mon, 08/08/2011 - 2:02pm

Download the Full Article

Usama bin Laden’s serendipitous demise has brought about calls for wholesale strategy reviews on issues related to the war against al Qaeda (AQ) to include debates on the US presence in Afghanistan and the efficacy of legal pursuit of terrorists.  Although AQ leadership deaths are tactical victories, the network is down, but not out.  The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with heavy counter-terrorism pressure in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, have forced the movement’s brand to decentralize over a vast region spreading from West Africa to South Asia.   AQ affiliates have managed to wrest minimal territory from so-called apostate governments but continue attack plotting against the West. 

While our strategy has adjusted course (rightfully so) over the past decade since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the enemy’s has remained fairly consistent.  Simply, AQ seeks to overturn authoritarian regimes in Muslim lands – the “Near Enemy” – in an effort to regain the prestige and power of former Islamic caliphates while attacking the “Far Enemy” with terrorism and economic warfare.  An overlooked component of the strategy, and one that may not have been as clearly articulated by AQ leadership and others, is the role of the oceans in spreading its virulent brand of violent Islam.

AQ has enjoyed mixed success with maritime terror plots, with a notable exception being the October 2000 attack on USS Cole in Aden Harbor which killed seventeen US Navy Sailors.  The desire of AQ’s senior leadership to disrupt global oil movement persists though, as revealed in the documents and media recovered from the assault on UBL’s compound.   But does AQ have a more coherent maritime strategy?  Some historical perspective is helpful in understanding the role of seapower in AQ’s planning and operations.

Download the Full Article

About the Author(s)

Chris Rawley is a civilian counter-terrorism planner at US Special Operations Command’s Interagency Task Force.  He is also a surface warfare officer in the United States Navy Reserve, having served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, the Persian Gulf, and Western Pacific. He writes on irregular warfare issues at the maritime strategy blog, Information Dissemination


Rex Brynen

Sat, 10/01/2011 - 2:47pm

I tend to agree with Peter that the historical references don't add much, since it isn't clear that they really have any implications for contemporary AQ/AQAP/AQIM maritime actions. I also think it is a bit of a stretch to argue that there is a coherent AQ "maritime strategy" based on a very limited number of sporadic operations--especially given the increasingly decentralized nature of AQ/AQ affiliate activities. The notion that AQAP's opportunity-driven expansion into southern Yemen was part of a maritime strategy, for example, rests on little or no evidence. A far more likely explanation is that they find it easiest to operate in those Sunni-majority areas of Yemen where state authority is weakest.

It might have been more useful to provide (in this piece or elsewhere) more analysis of vulnerabilities, shipping patterns (including local shipping), existing smuggling routes. Why, for example, would Benghazi port be a particularly useful way of transferring ex-Libyan munitions when the existing overland routes are working so well, and are subject to so little interdiction? From what I've seen of Benghazi, use of the port is one of the LEAST covert ways of moving men and equipment in eastern Libya.

As you hint at in the piece, the al-Shabbab/piracy interaction is a complicated one. In general, however, pirates have been less likely to operate from al-Shabbab-controlled areas than other parts of Somalia. Indeed, the two sides have a number of differences (for one, pirate buisnessmen do enjoy their conspicuous consumption).

Peter J. Munson

Sun, 08/14/2011 - 10:38pm

In reply to by crawley

I see the potential of small craft and the feasibility of this strategy, however I just think that attempts to paint AQ as a semi-statelike strategic entity are often overblown. I'm taking aim here not just at your piece, but at the impression more generally. When we overstate the threat, we spend time and money we could be using to face more pressing issues.


Sun, 08/14/2011 - 10:22pm

In reply to by Peter J. Munson

Peter - Thanks for reading and your comments. Do I think UBL read Mahan in order to derive his strategy? Probably not, but there is ample evidence he (and other AQ leaders) see the oceans as a means to facilitate their global objectives. Disrupting SLOCs in order to raise the cost of energy and hurt the global economy is one component of this strategy. Earning revenue to continue operations is another. Facilitating the movement of men, money, and munitions, is a third.

If you want to discount small craft, that's fine, but keep in mind a few hundred Somalis in small craft have managed to grow their piracy operations across the Indian Ocean the past four years, despite the constant presence of 30 or more modern naval vessels and supporting aircraft. How is an asymmetric strategy at sea much different than insurgents with pressure plate IEDs made from fertilizer and hand saw blades denying a road system to modern armor?

Peter J. Munson

Sun, 08/14/2011 - 8:56am

This is a bit of a stretch and the technique of taking AQ's broad claims at face value, going back to the 7th century to demonstrate some history, then throwing out a few thinly sourced claims about how a couple of small craft makes aims at control from ocean to ocean and Mahanian disruption of SLOCs credible is tired.