How to exorcise the ghosts of 26/11

Udai Rao | Updated on March 09, 2018

Intrigue on the high seas Can the Coast Guard cope?   -  The Hindu

They turned up on the seas near Porbandar but our Coast Guard did a great job. Even so, weak links need to be plugged

Clearly, Indian maritime security agencies started year 2015 on a successful note. In a well co-ordinated operation, the Coast Guard and intelligence agencies intercepted a Pakistani boat from Keti Bandar, which was on a covert offensive mission at sea, about 365 km South West off Porbandar on the night of December 31, 2014.

This success should help India to erase the humiliation of 26/11 Mumbai attacks.

This is no mean feat considering that in 2011 two abandoned vessels drifted onshore along the Mumbai coastline undetected by the three maritime security agencies — the Indian Navy, Coast Guard and the Marine Police.

Holes in the system

India’s coastal security has serious gaps even today. Despite the fact that the ammunition for the 1993 Mumbai blasts too came across the seas, India’s security bureaucracy remained ‘sea-blind’ and never anticipated a sea-borne threat.

After 26/11, the government undertook several measures to upgrade coastal security, such as the establishment of marine police and coastal radar stations and acquisition of interceptor boats which are too few to meet the demand. The government has not yet tried to address the issue of a nodal authority and create the position of a maritime security adviser and institute a multi-disciplinary maritime security advisory board. These proposals were reportedly scuttled due to turf wars at the apex level.

Interestingly, former National Security Adviser and West Bengal Governor MK Narayanan alluded to this in a seminar at Kolkata in April 2013. He said that despite his best efforts he was unable to ensure the appointment of a maritime security adviser during his tenure as NSA.

While the Indian Navy, Coast Guard and marine police are directly responsible for implementation of maritime security, multiple other agencies such as the departments of shipping and fisheries, besides the Central Industrial Security Force, to name only a few, are the indirect stakeholders.

Otherwise, the Indian Navy’s primary role is war-fighting, while its secondary roles would be diplomatic in terms of flag showing in distant seas, besides a constabulary role to police the seas during peacetime.

Weak links

Post 26/11, marine police are mandated to patrol up to 12 nautical miles from the coast, the Coast Guard from 12 nautical miles to 200 nautical miles and finally the Navy beyond 200 nautical miles. If any hostile boat escapes the Navy and Coast Guard dragnets, it would need to be neutralised by the marine police.

So much so, the marine police provide the last line of maritime security.

However, a lack of maritime orientation and general reluctance among police personnel towards marine police tasks makes it the weakest link. Former Home Secretary GK Pillai echoed this in an interview to the media in September 2013.

The reality is that the 7,516-km Indian coastline, with 13 major ports and 176 minor ports or harbours, is not International Ship and Port Security Code (ISPS) compliant.

The ISPS aims to enhance the security of ships and port facilities developed by the International Maritime Organisation following the 9/11 attacks.

It requires merchant ships to provide information of crew and cargo to the destination port in order to avoid scope for threats of marine terrorism, piracy and smuggling. It was introduced in July 2004 and prescribes responsibilities for governments, shipping companies, mercantile marine crew and port facility personnel to continuously detect, assess and evaluate threats.

Also, most Indian ports are not Container Security Initiative compliant and lack the required X-Ray machines to scan containers for contraband.

For instance, the thousands of containers that enter our ports everyday could act as Trojan horses to carry arms, explosives and contraband into the country.

Importantly, the oil tankers carrying crude into Indian harbours, the oil handling facilities therein and refineries ashore are all potential targets.

For instance, a loaded tanker is indeed a floating bomb and could easily be hijacked to attack our assets much in the manner of the aircraft used in 9/11.

Today, the 2.01 million sq km Exclusive Economic Zone teems with economic activity, mostly legitimate; but those involved in nefarious activities could easily escape attention.

A tall order

In such a situation to monitor the over three lakh registered fishing vessels and to be able to spot a potential terrorist craft a la the ‘Al Kuber’ that Ajmal Kasab and his cohorts sailed in proves a Herculean task. It amounts to looking for a proverbial needle in a haystack.

Moreover, maritime security assumes importance in the context of the attempt by six Taliban militants in September 2014 to storm the Karachi Naval Base and hijack a naval ship.

It is something which could be attempted against our assets too. The recent media reports that indicated a possible terror threat to the Kolkata port had resulted in two Navy warships berthed there, sailing out prematurely to avoid a ‘USS Cole’ like situation, which in the light of Burdwan blasts is worrying.

Hopefully, maritime security is likely to improve under the Modi Government. President Pranab Mukherjee while addressing the 16th Lok Sabha stated that a national maritime authority would soon be established.

Also, Prime Minister Modi during his recent address at the UN General Assembly spoke of the importance of maritime security in the Asia-Pacific region.

One hopes the Porbandar incident would help expedite this.

The writer is a former Principal Director Naval Intelligence and has served in the Cabinet Secretariat

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Published on January 06, 2015
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