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Home > News > Columnists > B Raman

Future threat: Terror from the sea

September 06, 2007

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The first of a three-part series on maritime counter-terrorism. It looks at what India needs to do to protect its eastern and western seaboards.

The attack, stated to be by Al Qaeda [Images], on the US naval ship USS Cole at Aden in October 2000, and the subsequent investigation into that incident gave birth to concerns that international terrorists might expand their acts of terrorism from the land to the sea.

Terrorist groups in West Asia and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had indulged in acts of maritime terrorism even before October 2000, and the LTTE, through its fleet of ships, ostensibly used for legitimate commercial purposes, had been using the sea for the clandestine transport of arms and ammunition and other material required for its acts of terrorism on the land.

However, such uses had limited tactical objectives and did not think in terms of mass casualties or mass damage to be inflicted on the global economy as a whole.

The 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US and the precision and the evil ingenuity with which they were planned and executed created a wave of alarm about the likelihood of similar strikes at coastal and maritime targets. Since 9/11, there is hardly any discussion, governmental or non-governmental, on threats to national security and to international peace and security in which possible threats from maritime terrorism do not figure prominently.

Post-9/11, scenario-building exercises have invariably included scenarios involving possible catastrophic acts of maritime terrorism. Four of these possible scenarios are or should be of major concern to national security managers:

  • First, terrorists hijacking a huge oil or gas tanker and exploding it in mid-sea or in a major port in order to cause huge human, material and environmental damage. There were 67 reported attacks on oil and gas tankers by pirates during 2004. This despite the stepped-up patrolling by the navies of different countries. What pirates with no ideological motive and with no suicidal fervour can do, ideologically-driven suicide terrorists can do with equal, if not greater, ease.
  • Second, terrorists hijacking an oil or gas tanker or a bulk-carrier and exploding it or scuttling it in maritime choke points such as the Malacca Straits in order to cause a major disruption of energy supplies and global trade. There were 52 reported attacks on bulk carriers by pirates during 2004. If the pirates can do it despite naval patrolling, so can the terrorists.
  • Three, terrorists smuggling a weapon of mass destruction material such as radiological waste or lethal chemicals or even biological weapons in a container and having it exploded through a cellular phone as soon as the vessel carrying the container reaches a major port.
  • Four, sea-borne terrorists attacking a nuclear establishment or an oil refinery or off-shore oil platforms.
  • American maritime counter-terrorism experts have been projecting the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean region as highly vulnerable, if not the most vulnerable, to such catastrophic acts of maritime terrorism. Amongst factors influencing their perceptions are:

    • First, the presence in this region of terrorist or insurgent organisations with proved or suspected capabilities for maritime operations. Amongst the organisations coming to mind are the LTTE of Sri Lanka [Images], with proved capabilities for maritime operations, conventional as well as unconventional; and the Abu Sayyaf of Southern Philippines, with its proclaimed readiness to extend its operations from the land to the sea.
    • Second, the wide networking of Al Qaeda across this region -- either through its own members or through surrogate jihadi terrorist organisations, which are members or associates of the International Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Crusaders and the Jewish People formed in 1998. The existence of this network had been suspected since the discovery of a Manila-based plot under Ramzi Yousef in 1995 for spectacular acts of terrorism directed at civil aviation. Corroboratory details emerged after 9/11 -- particularly during the investigation of the Bali explosion in October 2002.
    • Third, the long-known reputation of this area as the world's leading producer and supplier of heroin from the Golden Triangle and the Golden Crescent and its recent emergence as a producer and supplier of synthetic drugs. Drug money, which was first allegedly used by the US Central Intelligence Agency and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence for funding their operations against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s, has since become an important source of revenue for insurgent and terrorist organisations in the Latin American and Asian regions. Amongst organisations in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean region, which are known or suspected to be using drug money to finance their operations are the Hamas, the Hizbollah, Al Qaeda, the various Pakistani jihadi organisations, the LTTE, the United Way State Army of Myanmar and the jihadi terrorist organisations of the Southern Philippines.
    • Four, the continuing availability in this region -- in Pakistan as well as in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia -- of large quantities of arms and ammunition to anyone with the means to pay for them and with the capability for their clandestine transport to areas of intended use.
    • Five, the presence in this region of terrorist organisations such as the LTTE with a commercial shipping capability, which can be diverted for the clandestine transport of narcotics and arms and ammunition.
    • Six, the presence in this region of trans-national mafia groups such as the one headed by Karachi-based Dawood Ibrahim [Images] with vast financial resources, a capability for clandestine shipping and a willingness to place their resources and shipping at the disposal of Al Qaeda and other jihadi terrorist organisations operating across the region.
    • Seven, the long-known (to India), but only recently admitted role of Pakistan as the region's leading supermarket for nuclear weapon-capable material and equipment and the nexus of some of its scientists, enjoying the protection of its army, with Al Qaeda and other jihadi terrorist organisations. Recent investigations into the proliferation activities of A Q Khan have brought out how they had outsourced proliferation responsibilities to others in countries such as Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates, thus possibly sowing the seeds for nuclear or radiological terrorism. The detailed post-9/11 investigations have brought out as to how there was a Pakistani involvement in all major acts of international jihadi terrorism since the New York World Trade Centre explosion of February 1993. Recent investigations by the International Atomic Energy Agency have brought out an ubiquitous Pakistani hand in all clandestine proliferation commerce across the Asian and the African regions.
    • Eight, the presence in this region of tempting choke-points such as the oft-mentioned Malacca Straits through which pass a half of the world's oil and a third of its trade. The annual shipping traffic across the region rose from 44,000 in 1999 to over 62,000 in 2003. It is since believed to have risen further. There is a large volume of container traffic originating in this rapidly developing region. It has been estimated that 48 per cent of the global container traffic passes through this region.
    • Nine, the reputation of this area as one of the most piracy-prone in the world. There has been an increase in the tactical sophistication of pirates. The International Maritime Bureau has been quoted by the media as saying that pirates now break into freight companies' computer systems, change order forms, arrange for changes in shipping, and then intercept the shipment. This is especially a problem in the South China Sea and around Indonesia. There is still no conclusive evidence of the nexus of any group of pirates with terrorist organisations, but fears that the pirates of today may turn into accomplices or mentors of terrorists of tomorrow strongly influence threat perceptions.
    • Ten, the presence of a large number of uninhabited islands in the region, which serve as sanctuaries and operational bases for the pirates and could similarly serve for the terrorists tomorrow.

    While there are thus growing concerns over the likelihood of catastrophic acts of maritime terrorism, it needs to be underlined that there is no unanimity among counter-terrorism analysts about the magnitude of the threat.

    Sceptics feel that while the possibility of catastrophic acts of maritime terrorism has to be taken seriously, one has to keep in mind that there has been a certain over-projection and over-dramatisation of the threat by embedded analysts of the US in order to serve its own strategic objectives in the region.

    There is similar skepticism in certain circles regarding the correctness of the statistics relating to piracy attacks. It is alleged that often trivial incidents and instances of misappropriation or theft of goods by the crew of ships are reported as piracy attacks.

    Despite such misgivings among sections of the policy-makers, senior intelligence officials of the countries of the South-East Asian region take seriously the possibility of a major act of maritime terrorism in the region. According to them, terrorist organisations active in the region had contemplated such acts in the past, though they might not have carried them out. In August 2004, the Jakarta Post quoted Hendropriyono, of Indonesia's State Intelligence Agency, as saying: 'Senior Jemaah Islamiyah terrorists now in detention have admitted that attacks on Malacca shipping traffic had been contemplated in the recent past.'

    The growing concern over the likelihood of a catastrophic act of maritime terrorism has led to measures for increasing physical security. Amongst such measures, one could cite the coordinated patrolling by the navies of the region, the strict enforcement of the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code adopted in December 2002, which went into effect globally in July 2004, and attempts towards a similar strict enforcement of the Container Security Initiative.

    The concern is also reflected in the frequent joint exercises by the navies of the region with maritime counter-terrorism as an important objective of the exercises and the large number of conferences and seminars held on the subject in the countries of the region during the last two years. The role of non-governmental experts in creating a better awareness of the threat and in proposing measures for meeting it has also been increasingly recognised.

    At the same time, the still lingering misgivings that the threat is being magnified by the US to serve its strategic objectives in the region have come in the way of regional countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia agreeing to a greater participation by the US in the regional initiatives such as joint or coordinated patrolling of the Malacca StraitS. Their contention is that any such US participation or assistance should be at their instance when they feel the need for it and not at the instance of the US. These have also created doubts about the real purpose of other US ideas such as the Regional Maritime Security Initiative.

    Amongst the countries of the region, the policy-making circles of India, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan [Images] and Australia have shown the greatest awareness of the threat of maritime terrorism and of the need to develop the required maritime counter-terrorism capabilities, individually as well as through mutual assistance. The policy-making circles of Indonesia too have shown a considerable awareness of the threat, but their capability to translate this awareness into the required action is still weak.

    In the case of maritime terrorism too, as in the case of land-based terrorism, Bangladesh continues to be in a denial mode -- showing neither awareness nor a willingness to co-operate with others.


B Raman




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