By B. Raman
The years following the Al Qaeda attack on the US naval ship USS Cole in Aden in October, 2000, saw an increase in fears of sea-borne terrorism either on coastal targets or on sea-moving targets such as oil/gas tankers, container ships etc. There were also fears of a possible Al Qaeda-inspired attack to block maritime choke-points such as the Malacca Strait.
These fears were caused by the flow of human intelligence as well as by the interrogation of arrested suspects. These fears reached the zenith in the months following the US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. Consequently, there was increased international and regional co-operation in the form of exchange of intelligence and assessments, joint or co-ordinated naval patrolling, joint naval exercises, intensified action against piracy in the Malacca Strait etc.
Post-2005, these fears got diluted partly due to the absence of any terrorist attack from the sea, partly due to the preoccupation of Al Qaeda and its allies with land-based operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and partly due to the effective action taken against piracy in the Malacca Strait region.
4. In recent months, there has been a revival of the fears about a possible maritime terrorist strike due to the following reasons: Firstly, an increase in incidents of piracy by Somali/Yemeni pirates and the inability of the international community to deal effectively with the problem till now; secondly, an increase in the activities of Al Qaeda in Yemen and Somalia, both of which have a large number of sea-faring men who might be prepared to help Al Qaeda in sea-borne attacks; thirdly, the successful sea-borne terrorist strikes mounted by the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) on land-based targets in Mumbai from November 26 to 29,2008, and the failure of the Indian Navy and other Navies operating in the seas of the region to detect the plans of the LET and the movement of the LET boat carrying the terrorists from Karachi to Mumbai; and fourthly, the strengthening of physical security for land-based targets, which has necessitated the terrorists once again turning their attention to sea-based targets.
The enormous publicity, which the LET got for its sea-borne attack in Mumbai, demonstrated the propaganda value of sea-borne attacks, where the surprise element is more. It is to be expected that not only Al Qaeda, but also other Al Qaeda allied elements such as those of the Jemmah Islamiyah and the Yemeni and Somali members of Al Qaeda might once again be tempted to think in terms of acts of maritime terrorism to prove that their capabilities are intact.
It is in this context that one has to see reports from Singapore that an unidentified terrorist group is planning attacks against oil tankers in the Malacca Strait. The Singapore Shipping Association has been quoted as saying on March 2, 2010, that it had received an advisory from the Singapore Navy Information Fusion Centre about “an indication that a terrorist group is planning attacks on oil tankers in the Malacca Strait.” It added: “This does not preclude possible attacks on other large vessels with dangerous cargo.” The Navy Centre’s advisory reportedly said: “The terrorists’ intent is probably to achieve widespread publicity and showcase that it remains a viable group.” It reminded shipping operators that the militants could use smaller vessels such as dinghies and speedboats to attack oil tankers. It recommended that ships should “strengthen their onboard security measures and adopt community reporting to increase awareness and strengthen the safety of all seafarers,” according to the Association.
It is necessary for the Indian counter-terrorism agencies too and the Indian Navy and Coast Guard to re-focus on the likelihood of fresh sea-borne terrorist strikes against Indian targets either on land or on the high seas in the waters to the west of India. Protection of sealanes against pirates and terrorists acting separately of each other or in tandem and prevention and countering of acts of maritime terrorism require close regional co-operation with the navies of countries such as the US, Japan, China, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the ASEAN and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and Australia. Such co-operation should address issues such as intelligence collection and sharing, joint or co-ordinated operations, mutual assistance on the high seas, joint exercises etc. It is important for India to take the initiative in this matter.
The two joint counter-terrorism exercises between India and China held so far were land-based. The first was held in Yunnan and the second in Karnataka. The next Sino-Indian joint exercise should focus on co-ordinated action and mutual assistance against maritime terrorism with the involvement of the navies of not only India and China, but also the US, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan and Australia. We should not allow the continuing differences with China over the border dispute to come in the way of evolving a co-operative mechanism against maritime terrorism and piracy.
Our adversarial relationship with Pakistan would not permit us to think in terms of joint maritime counter-terrorism exercises with Pakistan, but intelligence-sharing arrangements should be possible and advisable despite the continuing serious differences between the two countries on the issue of Pakistani inaction against terrorism. We must develop slowly habits of mutual assistance with Pakistan—-in the field of investigation of terrorism-related cases and prevention of maritime terrorist incidents.