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Can there be a 9/11 on high seas?

Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi | November 30, 2004 10:18 IST
Last Updated: November 30, 2004 13:59 IST

Can there be a 9/11 on the high seas?

That was the question debated at a two-day international workshop on maritime counter-terrorism in New Delhi on Monday.

While inaugurating the workshop former navy chief Admiral Madhvendra Singh said that to avoid a 9/11 of sorts on the high seas, navies of the world should unite.

He argued that maritime counter–terrorism is not an easy task.

The oceans cover a little over 70 per cent of the globe and they are not owned, not patrolled and are uncontrolled. Since there are no boundaries ships require no permission to move around freely.

The Observer Research Foundation, which organised the workshop, invited experts from Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia and Japan to debate the issue.

The first-of-its-kind international workshop in India gave insights into the capability of maritime terrorism to disrupt world trade.

Admiral Sir Alan West of the British navy told Lloyd's List newspaper recently that Al Qaeda  and other terrorist groups had realised the importance of global maritime trade and could launch attacks against merchant ships.

"We have got an underlying level of intelligence, which shows there is a threat. What we've noticed is that Al Qaeda and other organisations have awareness about maritime trade. They've realised how important it is for world trade in general (and) they understand the significance. Sea-borne terrorism could potentially cripple global trade and have grave knock-on effects on developed economies. We've seen other plans from intelligence of attacks on merchant shipping."

Many speakers highlighted the "so-called maritime choke points such as the Straits of Malacca near Sumatra islands, the Strait of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal" because they are at the greatest risk due to the number of ships passing through them.

"The sea has an attraction for terrorist organisations," security expert B Raman said in his keynote address. "Firstly, for gunrunning. Secondly, for the clandestine movement of their cadres from safe sanctuaries in one country to safe sanctuaries in another. Thirdly, for the smuggling of narcotics, which is an important source of revenue for them. Fourthly, for acts of economic terrorism meant to disrupt the economy, either of a nation or a region or the world. And fifth, for the clandestine movement of WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) material to an intended theatre of operations."

The 'Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships' report for 2003 has recorded 445 attacks on ships either at sea, at anchor or in port. Twenty-one seafarers were killed, 71 went missing, 359 were taken hostage and 20 ships were fired upon. Criminal boarded ships in 332 instances and a total of 19 ships were hijacked.

Captain Jayant Abhyankar, deputy director, International Maritime Bureau, while giving the above figures said that pirates steal, maim and kill. They endanger navigation by leaving vessels underway, including fully laden tankers, without command. This creates potential for grounding or collision leading to an environment disaster.

He said that terrorist organisations like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Al Qaeda, Hamas have the capacity of building terrorist armadas. He warned against "containerised terrorism".

Since 1998, there have been two reported acts of maritime terrorism.

In October 2000, the Al Qaeda reportedly attacked the USS Cole. In October 2002, a French oil tanker was attacked to destabilise Yemen's oil trade.

Piracy incidents have been steadily increasing. Admiral Singh warned, "Today's pirate is tomorrow's terrorist."

He warned of a nexus developing between terrorist organisations and pirates who would do anything for monetary gains.

"Oceans belong to nobody. Beyond the 12-mile territorial sea, the surface of the sea belongs to no nation. Anybody with the capability can legally arrive and stay 12.1 miles from any other country's coast without breaking any rules. And on the pretext of innocent passage, ships can even pass through territorial waters of the States," he said.

Many experts talked about the LTTE.

As Raman put it, "Of all the terrorist organisations of the world, the LTTE continues to have the most well-developed capability for maritime terrorism."

Commander (retd) Dr Vijay Sakhuja, research fellow at ORF, said, "LTTE appears to have little mercy on innocent seafarers. LTTE are also reported to hijack ships and boats of all sizes and kidnapping and killing crewmembers is a common practice.

"But what is more disturbing is the fact that LTTE has been seeking a formal recognition of 'sea tigers', its maritime wing, on par with the Sri Lankan navy."

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