Monday, March 19, 2007

Security threats from the sea

From the Hindustan Times (18th March 2007):

I THINK LIKE a terrorist," says the security official, reaching out for his third cup of coffee. "It will all become crystal clear" He briskly moves an inverted pencil across a map on the table: "Here. Here. Here. Here. Our top security establishments. Here, look at these narrow creeks that lead up to this complex. A small boat can slide in, almost invisible, taking a couple of men with a rocket launcher A short walk. And boom."

Fifteen hundred kilometres to the south, there is actually such a place off Mumbai. A narrow channel from the sea, navigable by small boats, leads to a landing point. It is not too far from the climb to the Trombay Peak, which has three vital installations close by - the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, the BPCL oil refinery, and a container port. Authorities secured the peak a few years ago. But along the sprawling coastline, much of India's territory and assets are unprotected from what is expected to be the next staging ground of terrorism- the sea.

Last week, defence minister AK Antony told Parliament there were intelligence reports that militants were planning attacks a statement that was provoked by information that Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed were planning to bring in weapons through the sea, a security official said. If that is true, the mind-boggling logistics make the task of preventing it seemingly impossible.

The coastline of mainland India stretches for more than 5,400 kilometres, apart from about 2,100 kilometres of shores on more than 1,190 islands. There are 13 major ports and 185 minor ones; there are high security installations like space centres and missile testing sites, oil refineries, nuclear research facilities and naval bases. There are also narrow channels, inlets, desolate landing points and maze-like creeks where boats can land and disappear in stealth.

Satellite images cannot make out suspect boats from others. "The sea is a dark area of India's intelligence gathering system. It did not get a priority because our bread-and-butter was something else," said MK Dhar, former joint director of the Intelligence Bureau. "You can't make sense of coastal security when the logistics are almost non-existent." Vice-Admiral KK Nayyar, chairman of the National Maritime Foundation, warns of threats emanating from 'flags of convenience' ships registered in Panama or Liberia. Talking of the global nature of the threat, he says, "If terrorists blow a hole in an oil tanker passing the Straits of Hormuz or Malacca, a direct fallout would be a steep increase in oil prices and ship insurance." But tell-tale signs of the threat have been piling up closer home.


At the Cochin port in 1993, the crackling voice of a ship captain announced on the wireless that he was carrying a consignment of AK-47 rifles for the Indian government from a Russian company The defence ministry did not know of any such order, and it was traced back to a man who had met the company's officials in Moscow pretending to be a ministry official. No one finally turned up to take the guns. In 2002, the Bangladeshi authorities at Chittagong made a major arms seizure. Security officials say it was linked to India. "We suspect that the weapons were meant for militants in the north-east," says Hormis Tharakan, who recently retired as chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). A1 Qaeda has had limited success so far on the maritime front.

The group tried in the past to set up a sea attack unit, but were slowed down two years ago when its maritime wing head Al-Masiri was arrested. Still, the apprehensions are acquiring a sense of urgency Last month, the main train-ing journal of the Al Qaeda - Mu'askar alBattar - exhorted its followers to carry out maritime terror attacks in the region. The Institute for Analysis of Global Safety, a Washington-based organisation focusing on energy security, says terrorists are increasingly looking at striking at oil and gas installations. In India, if there is a single point where such fears have converged, it is the Bombay High, India's largest offshore oilfield located off the Mumbai coast. "If operatives of a terror group are on a kamikaze mission, the oilfield will be history," says Admiral Arun Prakash, who retired as navy chief last November.

B. Raman, former RAW additional secretary and a counter-terrorism analyst, recounts that in 1992, a militant from the Babbar Khalsa group allegedly told the police during his interrogation that during his training in Pakistan, he was asked to join the Mumbai Flying Club, take a solo flight and crash his aircraft into the Bombay High. Sam Bateman of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore says that apart from those scenarios, "in the longer term, presumably there will be more nuclear installations requiring security". But for now, international attention is on the containers that carry 90 per cent of the world's trade.

The US has launched a transcontinent Container Security Initiative, which entails the screening of containers at foreign ports before they are brought to the US. Officials from the US held talks in India last week to push the project. Some exporters say there might be no other way "The US has moved ahead, and looking at the present scenario I think there should also be checks of containers coming to India from foreign ports," says Subhash Mittal of the Federation of Indian Export Organisations, who was part of last week's talks.

Undersea cables, that form the backbone of India's Internet connectivity, are
another vulnerable asset.

"What makes it of greater concern is that they are in the open sea. If someone wants to get at them, frankly, it is not that difficult," says Kiran Karnik, head of the National Association of Software and Service Companies. He adds: "It is not a topof-the-mind concern yet." Maritime terrorism certainly does not seem top-of-the-mind for governments. No wonder the navy describes the scenario in the Indian Ocean Region as "fragile peace".


The National Democratic Alliance government launched an ambitious coastal security plan that would give large vessels and other equipment to state police forces, and help set up coastal police stations. The states are responsible for the security of the coastal expanse up to the maritime boundary. It was to be implemented first in Gujarat and Kerala. But the project never took off. The Coastal security Scheme was revived in 2005 by the current government, which promised to spend Rs 372 crore in five years. However, only Rs 13 crore was released in 2005-06, and Rs 10 crore last year, according to the defence ministry In the first year, critical areas such as Andaman and Nicobar, Lakshadweep, Pondicherry and Daman and Diu got no money at all. But some steps are being taken. India is seeking a port facility at the Sittwe estuary in Myanmar for better surveillance. The Coast Guard has increased its presence in the region. India has also signed a treaty with 13 other countries to share information and fight piracy in Asia. The strengthening of radar surveillance is being considered. "All that will help, but we have to make our moves fast, because the mathematics of this game is against us," said the security official in New Delhi, making an invisible circle over the Bay of Bengal. "The sea does offer one comfort, though - unless you want to give up your life, it is hard to get away"


Terrorists launch bomb attacks on passenger ships, in which the fire started by the explosion causes most deaths. A frightening example was the sinking of Superferryl4 in the Philippines in 2004, where 110 died MA powerful bomb blows a hole in an oil tanker, leading to a cyclical impact that sharply raises oil prices and ship msurance MA militant rams an explosives-laden speed boat into a ship, as was done on USS Cole and Limburg a Floating sea mines or their threat in a narrow strait forces ships to change their routes to longer and costlier ones MA ship carrying a dangerous substance - like industrial chemicals - is seized and used as a drifting bomb, to be blown up at a port. An underwater swimmer sets off an explosion below a ship or a port.

SUEZ CANAL The canal, which opened the shortest route from the West to India in the 19th century, is an area of international security concern.

THE INTERNET Undersea cables, which enable India's Internet connectivity, are vulnerable. They connect millons of users, as well as help pass crucial information

OIL ASSETS Oil rigs are a vulnerable target. Bombay High, India's largest offshore oilficid, is a possible target of militants, security experts say.

DEFENCE TECHNOLOGIES Satellites, listening devices and radars are being used to try and prevent terror attacks.

SEA TIGERS The LTTE is reported to have mini submarines. Its sea wing has carried out several attacks.

TRADE ROUTES Thanks to China's appetite, a quarter of the world's trade passes through the Malacca Strait, where survoillance is lax and piracy is rampant.

NUCLEAR PLANTS Security has been heightened at Indian nuclear installations close to the coast, like the Bhabha Atornic Research Centre in Trornbay.

ENERGY ASSETS Refineries along the coast, which provide rnore than a third of India's oil, are at risk and their security has been strengthened.

January 2002: AI Qaeda attempts to ram an explosives-laden boat into USS The Sullivans off Yomen coast. The attack fails as the boat sinks under the weight of its payload.

October 2000: Suicide bombers from Al Qaeda blow a hole in the USS Cole, killing 17 sailors.

2002: The Moroccan government arrests Ai Qaeda operatives suspected of plotting raids on British and American tankers passing the Strait of Gibraltar. A group of Saudis is also arrested for plotting to sabotage the world's largest offshore oilloading facility, Ras Tanura, through which a third of Saudi oil flows.

October 2002: A boat carrying explosive cargo hits French oil tanker Limburg off the Yomen coast.

February 2004: The southern Philippines-based Abu Sayyaf claims responsibility for an explosion on a vessel that leaves 100 dead.

April 2004: Suicide bombers blow themselves up around the heavilyguarded Basra terminal. A month later, extremists kill 22 foreign oil workers in the Saudi city of Khobar. Leftist rebels in Colombia puncture the 480-mile Cano Limon-Covena pipeline so many times that it earns the epithet of 'The Flute'.

2006: Narcotics valued at over Rs 238 crore seized by the Indian Coast Guard over the year. Three smuggling boats and 48 crewmembers are apprehended.

February 2007: The coast Guard intercepts an LTTE boat off Tamil Nadu coast carrying a cargo of suicide jackets, plastic explosives, AK rifles and live ammunition. The navy seizes 100 kg of explosives off Rameshwaram.

My book Op Kartikeya (2004) had just such a scenario of Pakistani terrorists hijacking a LNG tanker and attempting to blow it up near the Naval dockyards at Mumbai. In part-II I had thought of including a story of Pakistani commandos leading a group pf jehadis to attack the Jamnagar refinery but chose not would have taken away from the focus on the Indian Special Forces in Baluchistan.

CNN-IBN had also covered such security threats from the sea in a special story a few weeks ago.