SHUTTING THE OPEN DOOR OF THE SEA TO TERRORISTS
SECURITY EXPERT DR DAVE SLOGGETT LOOKS AT THE MARITIME THREAT LANDSCAPE THROWN INTO STARK RELIEF BY THE TERRORIST RAID ON MUMBAI, WHICH SHOWS HOW THE SEA POTENTIALLY PROVIDES AN OPEN DOOR FOR CRIMINAL ELEMENTS TO EXPLOIT.
The sight of an Indian Air Force helicopter patrolling the beaches of Mumbai in the wake of the terrorist attacks that took place in late November 2008, has all the hallmarks of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. The terrorists used the maritime dimension and weaknesses in the protection in the coastal area around Mumbai, where the police only have two launches to patrol what is a complicated peninsula, as the jump-off point for their attacks. The terrorists came ashore under the gaze of local people, and moved off swiftly, and unimpeded, to mount their attacks. When one group was challenged they replied they were students, while another group warned the local people to stay away. The events that panned out in Mumbai are all the more surprising because it is becoming increasingly clear that Indian intelligence services received several warnings, such as from the United States and from their own interrogation of people captured previously, that an attack upon Mumbai was imminent. The warnings provided by US counter-terrorism officials particularly mentioned a landing by sea and that certain symbolic targets, such as the Taj Mahal hotel, with all of its colonial associations, were likely to be hit. It is all very well being warned, but if the material collected is not disseminated and acted upon there is little chance of preventing the kind of atrocity that occurred in Mumbai, costing over 170 people their lives. It used to be said that keeping track of terrorists (in order to prevent their outrages) involved ‘a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead’. The Mumbai attacks were well researched, planned and carefully executed. The attacks, and the drawn out nature of the response - involving Indian naval forces on land, in the air and at sea - created a great deal of international air-time for the terrorists, showcasing their military skill and ferocity. In the latter case, they summarily executed two Indian coast guard officers who boarded the vessel that transported them across the Arabian Sea, and also the captain and crew of the hijacked ship. The terrorists’ killing of Westerners and Jews in Mumbai had more impact than, say, might the relatively untargeted use of bombs against purely Indian people.
The international media were mobilised to broadcast pictures and reports on the terrorists’ ‘achievements’ through communications with people who had locked themselves into hotel rooms. The anxieties and concerns of trapped hotel guests, played out through their mobile phones and Blackberry portable devices, provided high-impact television and radio coverage in the West. The media devoured the emerging story, giving it almost saturation coverage. We in the West are used to the concept of death from the sky (via airliners used as massive flying bombs), via bombs (on trains or buses); and almost every day we read of soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen killed either in gun battles with militants or through the detonation of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), in Iraq or Afghanistan. But the attack on Mumbai came via the open door of the sea, didn’t it? Once again, the terrorists spotted a vulnerability and exploited it. India’s mainland coastline stretches for 5,700 km. By most standards this is a large area to patrol. India has an ability to deploy maritime patrol craft and vessels that can monitor activity in the coastal region, but the question is how to direct those assets to areas thought most likely to be at risk? Surely in such a situation coastal patrols and random boarding and searching of vessels is a good means of stamping out the threat? With such measures introduced, surely the door is closed? A number of other factors pointed to the likelihood of another attack on Mumbai. One is its proximity to Pakistan. Given India’s long-standing disputes with its neighbour, the internal strife and uncertainty in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the history of previous attacks on Mumbai, the alert levels in the city should have been high even before November 2008. In an ideally coordinated maritime defence of a homeland several layers should exist, each one of which has to be breached before a successful attack can be mounted. At the outer layer, national strategic intelligence should provide the warnings of where to focus limited resources. Closer inshore systems like the Automatic Identification System (AIS) should provide information about the movement of vessels mandated to carry the equipment and help provide an insight into the nature of maritime traffic. Local reporting by fishing vessels and other boats operating in the area, complemented by random air patrols monitoring coastal waters, can screen activity in coastal waters. In some parts of the world, however, the sheer volume of vessels operating in close proximity to the shoreline can provide a challenge to those seeking to locate terrorists.
THE events in Mumbai raise the spectre of attacks by similar means in Europe, including the United Kingdom. Today, a single Royal Navy ship stands watch for incursions into the UK’s maritime domain. The UK coastline - including its myriad islands - is 12,500 km long, and heavily indented. It provides many locations for secret landing points, exploited by smugglers and criminals through the ages. No part of the United Kingdom is more than 125 km from tidal waters. This makes national security uniquely tied to maritime security. One recent example illustrates this point. At 05.30 hours on December 21, 2001 HMS Sutherland participated in the seizure by UK Special Forces of the MV Nisha, off the coast of the Isle of Wight. The ship was inbound to a sugar refinery in London and was thought to have stopped off in Djibouti and been loaded with some sort of Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD). Intelligence reports were not specific as to the nature of the weapon involved. The fact that the MV Nisha docked at Djibouti, and then went on to pick up 26,000 tons of sugar from Mauritius, raised concerns about her intentions. A subsequent search of the ship showed the intelligence to be wrong. No WMD was discovered. The actions of UK naval and Special Forces, alongside their police and customs colleagues, did, however, showcase the ability of the UK’s forces to react to a specific maritime threat in a coordinated manner. Today, large parts of Britain’s Special Forces are engaged overseas on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. A valid question therefore, some seven years after 9-11, is: Would the UK still be capable of reacting, should terrorists try to launch a seaborne attack on a British target, in a similar fashion to the assault on Mumbai? Spurred on, no doubt, by the apparent ineffectiveness of measures taken by the international community to address the problems of piracy off the coastline of Somalia, certain web sites have made specific threats in the maritime arena in Europe and the United States. As recently as April 2008 these web sites were calling for specific targeting of Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) carriers, ships that are, in effect, floating bombs, should they fall into the wrong hands.
They represent an attractive target for terrorist groups wishing to perpetrate mass casualties and achieve high impact media coverage.
WHILE it is hugely difficult to forecast the nature of a maritime attack upon the United Kingdom, it is possible to speculate as to the nature of the targets terrorists may seek out. Ports such as Southampton, with its base for cruise liners, and the oil refinery at Fawley, represent an attractive target.
A basic search on Google will yield diagrams and maps showing the layout of the refinery. While specific security measures are not divulged, a great deal of information is routinely available as part of ‘community liaison’.
Terrorists have also shown how adept they are at using online facilities such as Google Earth to chart locations and identify potential weaknesses in security measures. In Iraq evidence emerged of local insurgents using Google Earth to target specific locations at an air base where UK armed forces are located.
Any quick inspection of Google Earth shows just how much information can be collected on a potential target, like a major oil refinery, and the multitude of little inlets and locations where amphibious landings could be undertaken.
Whilst the events following the Buncefield fire of 2005 showed a marginal impact on oil supplies, terrorists would be optimistic about the economic outcome from an attack upon the Southampton area. Milford Haven, Felixstow and other major ports have similar vulnerabilities. The simple fact is that no matter how good the precautions are the terrorist only has to succeed once to have a major impact, while we must endeavour to snuff out every single attempt attempted attack.
WHAT use is it sending the Royal Navy half way round the world to deliver security on behalf of other nations and to protect the UK’s vital national interests overseas, if resources are stretched so thin it is unable to prevent events similar to those which we witnessed at Mumbai? Terrorists are constantly seeking to stretch the defences of Britain and other Western nations and to use their ability to manoeuvre and attack where they see opportunities. The Royal Navy, and its associated organisations, whose remit includes the protection of the coastline of the United Kingdom, need to be funded realistically and not parsimoniously, in order to meet the very real global threat from terrorism that we face at the start of the 21st Century. Recent cost savings introduced by the current UK administration can be likened to the measures proposed by then Defence Secretary John Nott in the run-up to the 1982 invasion of the Falklands. The Argentinean Government saw these measures as a lack of resolve to defend the United Kingdom’s interests. The current parlous state of the Royal Navy and the willingness of the Gordon Brown government to send what remains of the fleet East of Suez, rather than patrolling home waters in any strength, may encourage trans-national terrorist groups to attack where the United Kingdom is most vulnerable.
The UK Government would do well to heed the lessons of the Falklands and ensure that coastal zones that are the very lifeblood of the United Kingdom do not become the weakest link in national security.