According to Allan & Associates, a Hong Kong-headquartered security risk management consultancy, the maritime dimension is often overlooked when assessing the risk of Islamist extremism in southern Europe.

Al-Qaeda’s suicide-ramming of the USS Cole in October 2000 killed 17 US sailors and injured 39

Al-Qaeda’s suicide-ramming of the 'USS Cole' in October 2000 killed 17 US sailors and injured 39

Al-Qaeda’s suicide-ramming of the USS Cole in October 2000 is often dismissed by security experts as unlikely to be repeated, despite the heavy death toll and physical and symbolic damage. However, James Pothecary, Middle East & North Africa Analyst, Allan & Associates says that Sri Lanka’s past experience should give security managers in the Mediterranean cause for concern, as it demonstrates how a militant group can effectively deploy small boats against shipping.

It was not Islamist terrorists but Tamil militants who pioneered the use of boats in suicide-rammings. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who fought an insurgency in Sri Lanka between 1983-2009, frequently used its ‘Black Tiger’ suicide militants to ram their explosive-laden boats into the side of naval vessels and civilian freighters they believed to be supporting government forces. One such attack on the civilian MV Uhana, which came four months before al-Qaeda's ramming of the USS Cole in Yemen’s Aden harbour, succeeded in severely damaging the vessel. The LTTE’s ‘Sea Tigers’ would repeat such attacks throughout the conflict.

In October 2001, they rammed a tanker, the MV Silk Pride, carrying 650 tonnes of diesel and kerosene to the port of Jaffna. This started a fire on board, and the Sri Lankan military narrowly prevented the tanker from sinking. In October 2006, the LTTE mounted a spectacular attack in the harbour of the tourist port of Galle, using five suicide boasts disguised as fishing vessels to attack four Sri Lankan navy ships. The group’s naval capability was destroyed with the rest of the LTTE in 2009, although by that point the Sri Lankan military had begun to mitigate the risk by using fast patrol boats as escorts for larger ships, to intercept Sea Tiger rammings.

It is notable that Islamic State (I.S.) has yet to attempt a similar operation, although it has made some initial forays into maritime attacks. In July 2015, it claimed responsibility for an anti-tank guided missile attack against an Egyptian military vessel off the Sinai coast, while in January 2016 I.S. militants on fast boats launched an attack on the Zueitina oil port in north-eastern Libya, before being repelled by local security personnel. There is, therefore, a threat facing vessels within the immediate range of hostile coastlines, although the threat to Mediterranean shipping lanes is limited, given I.S.’s limited coastal holdings and the distance a small vessel must traverse to reach them.

However, the technical capability required to operate a speed-boat and fill it with explosives is low, and the small size, rapid speed and widespread availability of such craft make it difficult for naval or private security personnel to eliminate the target before impact. This raises the possibility that I.S. could obtain motor launches and use them to ram ships in harbour at Mediterranean ports, or even ports in northern Europe. Moreover, strict rules-of-engagement can make it difficult for crew to identify whether a speed-boat has hostile intentions until it is too late. The symbolic significance of military vessels, commercial tankers or civilian cruise ships is also substantial. Given that I.S. target-selection recently has trended towards symbolic, rather than strategic targets (as the attacks in Nice grimly remind us), maritime vessels represent a prime aspirational target.