By Shrideep Biswas
Elaborating on the threat posed by Somali pirates, Union Defence Minister A.K. Antony, while addressing the 30th Annual Coast Guard Commanders’ Conference on September 27, 2011, observed, “There are some other powerful forces behind the piracy and they are sitting somewhere else. Only a joint, coordinated effort under the United Nations can be an ultimate solution to the piracy problem.” He added that the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) would soon finalise a policy on formulating a law under which pirates caught by the Navy on the high seas could be prosecuted.
Antony was echoing rising international concerns of an organic link between the activities of the Somali pirates and the global terrorist jihad. The suspicion that these pirates were not just a bunch of ragtag ruffians, but a maritime auxiliary of extremist Islamist forces in mainland Somalia has been harbored by security experts for quite some time. On September 14, 2011, for instance, General Carter Ham, the US Commander overseeing Africa, confirmed that Al-Shabaab (‘the youth’), an al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist formation currently controlling large parts of mainland Somalia and engaged in an armed conflict with the Somali Government, was raising money from piracy off the coast of East Africa. He had also predicted that al Qaeda would directly become involved with the Somali pirates if the problem was not tackled in time.
The alarming news for India, in this regard, is the fact that whenever the pressure from navies of other nations become too high in the Gulf of Aden, the chief hunting ground of these sea-brigands they move towards the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea regions, especially around the Lakshadweep and Minicoy Islands.
The first incident of Somali pirates making forays into Indian waters was reported on March 6, 2010, when a piracy bid on a Maltese ship was foiled by the Indian Navy 200 nautical miles off Lakshadweep Islands in the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). On May 30, 2010, eight Somali pirates were reportedly caught and detained by the Indian Navy off the Lakshadweep Islands. After a lull, another two piracy attempts, both on container ships, were successfully thwarted on November 11, 2010. One of these incidents occurred just 150 nautical miles off the Minicoy Islands in the Arabian Sea. On December 3, 2010, the Indian Navy apprehended a dhow (a traditional Arab sailing vessel) sailing suspiciously in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) west of Bitra Island with 19 foreigners, including 15 Pakistani nationals off Bitra Islands in the Lakshadweep Archipelago. The most recent incident occurred on March 14, 2011, when Indian warships rescued the Vega -5 Ship from Mozambique, which had been hijacked by Somali pirates 600 nautical miles from the Indian shore. Media reports indicate that some 61 Somali pirates were captured and 90 weapons were recovered in this operation.
According to the global maritime watchdog, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) some 495 Indian sailors have been held hostage by Somali pirates over the past four years, of which 40 were still in captivity. Moreover, at least 200 pirate attacks have occurred in and around Indian Waters since March 6, 2010.
The greater danger, as India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) suspects, is that the pirates are collecting logistical data and funds for Islamist terrorists in their various operations. Revelations made during the interrogation of captured pirates indicate that al Qaeda associated, Somalia-based Al Shabaab was developing close ties with the Pakistan-based Islamist terrorist Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT). The recovery of weapons and magazines from pirates or hijacked ships in Indian waters, bearing the stamp of Pakistani ordnance factories, also confirmed the long suspected Pakistani links of these pirates. Significantly, the Director of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), David H. Petraeus, in a statement to Congress on the Terrorist Threat Ten Years After 9/11, noted on September 15, 2011, that state failure and the expansion of extremist networks over the past two decades had made southern Somalia one of the world’s most significant havens for terrorists. Petraeus noted, further, that the Al Shabaab suicide bombings in Uganda in 2010 had demonstrated the group’s ability to operate beyond Somalia.
The issue of coastal security – high on the national agenda since the November 2008 (26/11) attacks in Mumbai by the Pakistan-backed Lashkar-e-Taiba, which killed 186 persons – has become the more urgent in the light of these disclosures. Even three years after the Mumbai attacks, India’s 7,516-kilometres long coast, touching nine States and four Union Territories, 13 major and 185 minor ports, and a huge 2.01 million square kilometers Exclusive Economic Zone, is widely acknowledged to have remained vulnerable to terrorist penetration. Earlier, on March 12, 1993, a series of 13 bomb explosions had devastated Mumbai, using explosives that had been smuggled into the country through the Raigad Coast in Maharashtra.
In the aftermath of the 1993 blasts, the Government of India (GoI) had initiated Operation Swan which was launched in August 1993 to prevent clandestine landings along the Maharashtra and Gujarat coasts. This was a three-layer security arrangement involving the Navy, the Coast Guard and a joint patrolling team drawn from personnel belonging to the Navy, Coast Guard, State Police and Customs. Prior to this, the coastal security had been the sole preserve of the Coast Guard, which was established in 1978 to protect the maritime interests of the country as well as to assist in anti-smuggling operations.
Over time, numerous initiatives have been launched to further strengthen coastal security. In 2005, the Government decided to initiate a Coastal Security Scheme (CCS) under the Ministry of Home Affairs. Phase-I of the scheme, with an approved outlay of approximately INR 4.95 billion for non-recurring expenditure and INR 1.51 billion for recurring expenditure, was launched by the Government in January 2005. It was to be implemented over a five year period, commencing 2005-06 in nine coastal States – Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and West Bengal – and four coastal Union Territories – Daman & Diu, Lakshadweep, Pondicherry and Andaman & Nicobar Islands. The scheme included the setting up of 73 Coastal Police Stations, 97 Coastal Police Check-posts, 58 outposts and 30 operational barracks. It included provisions for 204 boats, 153 four wheelers and 312 motorcycles. In June 2010, the scheme was extended by one year, up to March 31, 2011, with an additional non-recurring outlay of about INR 950 million.
Phase-II of the CCS was to commence from April 2011 with a financial outlay of INR 11.54 billion for non-recurring component and INR 4.25 billion for recurring expenditure. This phase is, however, yet to be operationalized. Its salient features include the setting up of another 131 Coastal Police Stations, equipped with 180 boats, 60 jetties, 35 rigid inflatable boats (12 for Lakshadweep and 23 for A&N Islands), 10 large vessels (for the A&N Islands), 131 four wheelers and 242 motorcycles.
In between, in 2009, the CCS proposed the establishment of the 3C-I (National Command Control Communication and Intelligence) Network as part of an overall National Maritime Domain Awareness Project. 51 nodes in the Navy and the Coast Guard were to be linked in this Network, under a project to be completed by 2012. As part of the project, India’s security agencies are now working to set up a network of 46 radar stations along the country’s coast, which will include installation of 36 radars on the mainland, six radars in Lakshadweep and Minicoy and four radars on the A&N Islands. On September 2, 2011, it was reported that, in view of the threat along the shores, the Border Security Force (BSF) would deploy a newly raised Marine Battalion in the Arabian Sea, a proposal that has now been approved by the CCS.
On the implementation of CCS Phase-I, the MHA claims 71 of 73 proposed Coastal Police Stations have been operationalised, and that 48 of these are functioning from new buildings. The construction of 75 check posts, 54 outposts and 22 barracks has also been completed. Of the approved 204 boats, 200 have been delivered to the coastal States/UTs. 10 Rigid Inflatable Boats (RIBs) for Goa have also been procured. All the vehicles (153 jeeps and 312 motorcycles) have been procured by States and UTs. Some 2,000 personnel have been trained by the Coast Guard.
According to a September 11, 2011, report, however, the static coastal radar chain and the National Automatic Identification System (NAIS) network to dynamically detect and track suspicious vessels entering Indian waters, is yet to be established. The long-delayed contract for coastal radars was finally signed on September 5, 2011. Apart from existing lighthouses on which the radars with electro-optic sensors would be installed, another 13 towers were being constructed on the mainland.
A National Committee on Strengthening Maritime and Coastal Security (NCSMCS) against threats along the coast was constituted in August, 2009 under the chairmanship of the Cabinet Secretary.
These ‘impressive’ initiatives, it would appear, should already have had palpable impact on India’s coastal security. Unfortunately, evidence suggests that India remains about as vulnerable to terrorist attacks from the coast as it was in March 1993, or in November 2001. In 2011, three large vessels have drifted into Mumbai, altogether undetected by the numerous sea patrols, Coastal Police Stations, check-posts, outposts and land patrols. On June 12, 2011, a Singapore-flagged cargo ship MV Wisdom, which was en route to Alang in Gujarat, drifted towards the Mumbai (Maharashtra) Coast after breaking its tug, to eventually run aground on the busy Juhu Beach. On July 30, 2011, Panama flagged ship, MV Pavit, after having been abandoned by its crew a month earlier near Oman, drifted onto the same Juhu Beach in Mumbai. On August 4, 2011 an oil tanker, MV Rak, again from Panama, with 60,000 metric tonnes of coal and 340 tonnes of fuel oil on board, sank just 20 nautical miles off the Mumbai coast, causing a major oil spill. Far from detecting and interdicting terrorist infiltration on small fishing vessels or dinghies, the Coastal Security System does not appear to have the capabilities even for the timely detection of major transport vessel in distress till they actually run aground.
India’s coastal vulnerabilities are underlined further by a Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) report submitted to the Parliament on August 5, 2011. According to the Report, nearly 50 per cent of offshore patrol vessels were already too old and needed to be decommissioned. In the case of fast patrol craft, this figure rose as high as 72 per cent. The report noted, further, that even newly inducted vessels lacked critical equipment, including guns and identification radar. Further, of the 14 new Coastal Police Stations sanctioned after the Mumbai 26/11 attacks, only five were operational. Some of these stations were operating on temporarily leased land without adequate equipment or facilities. The Report observed that the Coast Guard’s 15-year Perspective Plans, extending to 2017 and 2022, remained unapproved by the Government. It also described these plans as unrealistic and unachievable.
Anecdotal evidence suggests even greater disarray. For instance, in the aftermath of the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, seven high-speed craft vehicles were procured by the Maharashtra Government to protect the coastline along Thane District. These are still lying mostly unused; there is not enough fuel to run them nor a sufficient number of trained personnel to operate them. Each of the vessels, which race at 35 nautical miles an hour, consumes about 100 litres of petrol per hour. The sanctioned quota of petrol for all seven boats together is just 600 litres a week. An unnamed Police official disclosed, “We have to ration the petrol, so we operate just one boat for an hour a day. For the remaining 23 hours, the entire coastline is left unpatrolled.”
Of the seven speedboats procured from the Goa Shipyard in 2009, one was rendered defunct due to mechanical problems, while the rest were anchored at a privately-owned spot at Versova along the Mumbai-Ahmadabad road. The place lacked a permanent jetty and there were no facilities to shelter the Police personnel tasked with coastal security. Arms and ammunition are kept in the armoury at Thane, as no provision had been made to store weaponry at Versova.
There is, evidently, reason to suspect the grand projects and financial allocations that are often shown off by the authorities as evidence of measure to ‘improve security’. There is, nearly three years after the 26/11 attacks, little reason to believe that India now has the capacity to detect and prevent another comparable terrorist strike along its extended coastline.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management