Nine years ago, in January 2000, an Al Qaeda suicide boat crept up close to the US destroyer The Sullivans at the port of Aden, aiming to sink it. The boat, overloaded with bombs, sank and the attack failed. Eight months later, the attack would come again. This time, another Al Qaeda boat carrying compact plastic explosives moulded into a conical-shaped charge slammed into the hull of the US Navy destroyer Cole, leaving 19 dead and 39 injured. In a very similar attack a few months earlier, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had ripped apart the Lankan navy ship MV Uhana. The two organizations had engaged in what proved to be a deadly knowledge transfer.
This strike emboldened Al Qaeda to later plan the 9/11 attacks. In the years to follow, terrorists would launch innovative suicide boat attacks. Terrorists are not known to spring isolated attacks without an integrated agenda. Therefore, when Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorists attacked Mumbai last year, questions arose whether the strikes indicated a wider reaching, long-term maritime terrorist strategy against India.
India has a mainland coastline of 5,420km with 2,000km along the islands around it. To its west, piracy continues unabated against commercial liners. To its east lies the 621-mile-long Malacca Strait linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans where at least 50,000 vessels move through narrow channels, making them vulnerable to attacks.
Given the vast coastline, access to temple towns and beaches with foreign tourists, underprepared coastal police, presence of 1,200 vulnerable islands, and the failure of militants to make headway in Kashmir despite a protracted conflict, terrorist outfits are expected to stretch India’s security commitments away from the mainland—towards the coast, islands and the seas, scouring for more options of penetration.
There are two kinds of possibilities that arise. Firstly, there are those known, defined risks such as disruption to oil supplies through underwater pipelines at Bombay High and the Malacca Strait, the latter being a gateway to 97% of India’s oil imports. Al Qaeda is said to have developed a manual for maritime attacks that deals with aspects such as using rocket-propelled grenades from high-speed crafts and turning liquefied natural gas tankers into floating bombs. The inadequate security at 12 major and 200 minor Indian ports, which account for 90% of India’s foreign trade, is a cause for concern. For instance, containers, which comprise 70-75% of global cargo, are not scanned. These containers can be used to transport dirty bombs or weapons of mass destruction to demobilize ports.
Secondly, there are rapidly scalable, future risks arising from deeper terrorist involvement. For instance, interrogation reports of captured terrorists have revealed that both the Jaish-e-Mohammad and LeT plan to convert islands around Kerala, Andamans, the Purbasha island near Bangladesh, and pockets between India and Maldives into operational nodes. To influence these places, a close, geographical base with a recruitment potential is helpful. In Maldives, a country close to Indian islands such as Minicoy, terrorist outfits find both. Minicoy already has a section of disenchanted youth with antagonistic feelings towards India. Such breeding grounds are likely to be tapped for enrolment into terrorist cadres.
The Virginia-based Jamestown Foundation mentions how LeT’s marine wing could target India from the sea. Al Qaeda has helped build the marine capabilities of LeT, and in its online journal Mu’askar al-Battar, had called for maritime strikes in 2007. It has also involved LTTE “lone wolves” on inputs varying from landing points on the Rameswaram-Tuticorin-Cuddalore stretch to North Korean two-man submarines.
Insecure ports, scattered islands and easier access to coastal towns present opportunities for transnational connivance between terrorists, pirates and mercenaries with help in hardware from rogue nation-states.
Ominous signs from the sea have begun to emerge on the horizon. To evolve a robust preparedness strategy, an assessment of this unconventional maritime threat is essential. Because this is one conflict where the state cannot afford to be all at sea with the devil.
Probal DasGupta is a crisis and security management specialist. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org