Spotlight: Preventing maritime travel by terrorists in West Africa

ISS is helping the international security community navigate the uncharted waters of maritime terrorism off West Africa’s coast.

Coastal West Africa is located on strategic shipping routes, with 6 000 km of coastline spanning 18 states from Senegal to Angola. Maritime security in the region is crucial for trade, fishing, energy and tourism economies.

The West African maritime domain is vulnerable to organised crime gangs, which exploit gaps in surveillance and patrols to engage in piracy, illegal fishing, money laundering, human trafficking and smuggling of weapons and drugs. These illicit activities also increase the risk of terrorist attacks.

An emerging concern is the use of oceans, lakes and rivers for terrorist mobility. Terrorists are suspected of using fake documents on maritime migration routes from Senegal to Spain. As early as 1998, the extremists who bombed United States’ embassies in Kenya and Tanzania had travelled on a ferry across Lake Victoria. Unlike airports and aeroplanes, remote harbours are harder to monitor and small craft difficult to detect and intercept.

The ISS was a significant African contributor to the work of the multilateral Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), whose Foreign Terrorist Fighters Working Group mobilises expertise and resources to prevent, combat and prosecute terrorist acts. 

ISS’ maritime security team is a trusted source of expertise and advice to West African governments and international organisations, including the International Maritime Organisation, the Indian Ocean Commission, the Interregional Coordination Centre established under the Yaoundé Maritime Architecture, and the Global Maritime Crime Programme of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

ISS analysts have highlighted West Africa’s vulnerability to maritime terrorism and recommended country-specific approaches for different geographical, legal and cultural conditions. They are developing good practice guidelines for African authorities to respond to complex threats and are helping establish a new combined maritime task force of West African states on the Gulf of Guinea.

ISS is a trusted source of expertise and advice to West African governments and international organisations

ISS helped organise and moderate workshops ahead of a December 2023 GCTF event in Dakar, Senegal, which convened decision makers to develop policy and plans to prevent maritime travel by terrorists in West Africa.

Delegates were briefed on implementing UN Security Council Resolution 2634, which aims to prevent the proceeds of piracy from being used to finance terrorism in the Sahel and West or Central Africa. The GCTF workshop looked at gaps between countries’ laws and policies, scrutinised border management and port strategies, stressed the importance of screening for known suspects, and highlighted the need for cooperation between governments and counter-terrorism agencies.

‘The ISS is committed to fostering a secure maritime domain that supports safe trade routes, robust economies, and protected communities,’ says Timothy Walker, ISS Senior Researcher on maritime issues. ‘Our research provides the foundation for preemptive actions and informed policy making that are essential in thwarting maritime terrorism.’

Recommendations from the workshop include updating laws on maritime crime and terrorism, and adopting international conventions into national legislation. Countries were encouraged to build the skills of police, prosecutors and the judiciary and use technology to identify threats and better monitor their coasts and inland waterways.

ISS research shows why African countries must adapt as armed groups and criminal networks test the use of uncrewed and remotely controlled technology. Maritime laws need to be harmonised and brought in line with international tools such as the 2005 Protocol to the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation. The protocol provides a legal basis for investigating, prosecuting and extraditing those who commit terrorist acts on ships or oil rigs.

For more information, contact:

Timothy Walker, ISS: [email protected]

Development partners
The ISS is grateful for support from the members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union, the Open Society Foundations and the governments of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.
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