Terrorism and other Maritime Threats in the Indian Ocean Region


Terrorism poses the gravest of threats to the global community, let alone the Indian Ocean region. Its poster child for a long time in the nineteen sixties and seventies was the Palestine Liberation Organization, which had been forced to resort to such measures to highlight a cause that the world was turning its back on. The first well-publicized case of maritime terrorism was possibly that of the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean, in which an infirm passenger was also shot dead. This incident led to the development of a maritime criminal law treaty to enable the signatories to prosecute vessel hijackings of this nature in the absence of adequate criminal laws in the statutes of most states. The legal situation hadn’t changed much when rampant incidents of piracy off Somalia forced the United Nations to take notice. A UNSC resolution of Dec 2008 went so far as to suggest that states should consider applying this 1988 Convention on the ‘Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation’ to plug the legal loopholes that they were confronted with.

Scale of Problem in Enforcing Maritime Security

The world, the US in particular, was painfully made aware of the potential for devastation by any isolated maritime terrorist act, on seeing the unfortunate events of 9/11 unfold before their eyes. This is not to suggest that the world governments were hitherto unaware of the problem. They weren’t, certainly, but the magnitude of the problem and the scale of remedial measures needed was too daunting an undertaking. More than 50,000 ships were involved in the transportation of millions of tons of cargo. These ships were operating from some 3000 ports worldwide, which were in turn plagued by their individual security problems. These ships had multiple destinations and their cargo could be traded multiple times on paper before it reached its final destination. Millions of officials, including admin, operational and support staff, as well as dock workers, were employed in ports and whose activities needed to be monitored. Seafarers enjoyed complete freedom of movement in their ports of call and their unions were not in favour of curtailing such liberties. But by far the biggest worry preying on the minds of maritime industry professionals was that the prohibitive costs and excessive delays involved in making maritime security foolproof was likely to have a throttling effect on world trade.

US Maritime Security Post 9/11

In the aftermath of 9/11, which proved to be a catalyst for change, the US gave them plenty to crib about but very little choice. The USs primary focus was on containerized traffic which formed the bulk of world trade. Sophisticated technology was introduced to ensure that all high risk containers bound for US ports got pre-screened prior lading. Forwarding of advance manifest data was also made mandatory for the purpose of analysis by the US Customs and Border Protection Agency through its Automated Manifest System. The National Nuclear Security Administration also got into the act, its main concern, however, revolving around nuclear and other radiological materials.

International Maritime Security Legislation

The best piece of security-related legislation to emerge by far is the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS). This furnished the governments, port authorities and shipping companies with a list of steps which needed to be taken to bring the security state to a satisfactory level. All the 148 contracting parties to SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea Convention 1974/1988) are duty bound to comply, and in so doing, can make collective maritime security a reality. All ships are now required to have a Ship Security Alert System (SSAS) and ship-borne Automatic Identification System (AIS) installed on board, while all seafarers are required to carry identity documents. An International Ship Security Certificate will only be issued to those ships which are found to be compliant with the laid-down requirements. As a follow-up to the ISPS, the International Labour Organization and the International Maritime Organization have jointly prepared a Code of Practices which furnishes detailed instructions for enhancing security in the wider port area.

Background and Reality Check

The amount of time, effort and cost being incurred globally in ensuring maritime security is mind-boggling. This should make us pause for reflection. The unpleasant reality is that a vast majority of terrorist acts can be traced back to the Afghanistan of the eighties. That was the time when the United States in particular was actively encouraging jihad against the Soviet invaders and roping in volunteers from across the Islamic world for training and further indoctrination in the Pakistani tribal tracts bordering Afghanistan. After the Soviet withdrawal, with chaos resulting in its wake, Afghanistan became a destination of choice for terrorists on the run. Those trained here formed a brotherhood that transcended boundaries; they have been seen wherever and whenever they feel they are needed, in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Mali and even Syria. They have sought to bring regime change in countries they feel are ripe for it. As more and more people with specialized degrees, many from developed countries, joined their ranks, their weapons, tactics and propaganda levels displayed increasing sophistication. While rabidly anti-west, they are however killing a lot more defenceless civilians from amongst the Muslims, who they look upon as their ideological foes, and other minority communities.

Maritime Terrorist Incidents

At sea, however, despite the opportunities on offer, incidents of maritime related terrorism have fortunately been rare. The two well-publicized ones have been the bombing of USS Cole, an Arleigh Burke class destroyer, while at anchor off Yemen in 2000 and of the oil tanker MV Limburg, a chartered vessel flying the French flag, that was rammed by an explosives – laden dinghy, again off Yemen, in October 2002. Although merchantmen avoided coming too close to the Yemeni coast after the latter incident, its now business as usual again. The world is indeed lucky that such attacks have not been repeated.

Seaward Security

When the US and it’s allies, armed with a UN mandate, launched an air and ground offensive in the winter of 2001, they realized the importance of keeping the seaward approaches adequately monitored. The US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) soon set up a coalition of more than 20 nations called the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF). Operating in the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden and parts of the Indian Ocean, it’s main mission is to ensure maritime stability and security. Combined Task Force 150 is the only one of the three task forces formed which operates outside the enclosed vicinity of the Persian Gulf and which accepts regional countries as it’s members.

Pakistan Navy’s Anti-Terrorism Experience

Pakistan is the first regional country to have joined CTF 150 and it’s services have been duly recognized by being offered it’s command in April 2006 and a number of times since. The main purpose the said task force is serving is a show of presence meant to deter. Regular inclusion of a Pakistani naval vessel in this enterprise is designed to display it’s resolve and commitment in standing up for the maintenance of peace and tranquility in the region.

Benefits of Participation in CTF 150

Experience derived from such interactions has been invaluable. It has not only sharpened the Pakistan Navy’s inter-operability skills, but also imparted much by way of tactical, operational and communication knowledge. Interactions with regional authorities have also sharply increased as a consequence of these long-duration attachments, which have lead to the development of better understanding and more cordial relations. But this has been a two-way street. Inclusion of Pakistan naval vessels in this task force has lent it greater credibility amongst the littoral states.

Anti-Piracy Initiatives

Piracy at sea also poses a grave maritime threat. It has always been a fixture of the Indian Ocean region since antiquity. Random acts of piracy keep taking place off the coast of India, the Bay of Bengal and the Persian Gulf, but before Somalian piracy took centre stage, piracy in the Strait of Malacca was exceedingly worrisome to the transiting ships. A Japanese – sponsored counter piracy treaty, the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combatting Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP), paved the way for bringing piracy in that region under control. Operational responses to maritime piracy are effectively coordinated at the technologically advanced Information Sharing Centre that it maintains at Singapore.

Counter Piracy Course of Action

Some recent actions, like adherence to Best Management Practices (BMP 4), by ships registered in responsible countries at least, have sharply brought down the number of ships being hijacked off Somalia. A permanent solution lies in prodding the signatories of the Djibouti Code of Conduct to act collectively and decisively. The autonomous states of Somaliland, Mudug and Puntland also need to be empowered and assisted to clamp down on piracy in their respective areas. The placement of armed guards on board ships, a step which had long been resisted by the maritime community, has helped in drastically reducing the number of successful hijackings. The long overdue step of tracing the money trail of ransom payments, which is now being taken seriously, is also expected to yield dividends by helping to track down the pirate financiers.

Impact of Piracy on Pakistan

As far as Pakistan is concerned, a significant number of it’s seafarers sailing in foreign-flagged, generally flag-of-convenience vessels, have been taken hostage. One Pakistani Captain has been shot dead in an abortive rescue bid, while two other Captains and their crews were lucky enough to be freed from captivity after the agreed ransom amount was paid through a process of painstaking negotiations and fund – raising efforts. Ships owned by the national carrier, the Pakistan National Shipping Corporation have however been protected from harm thus far. A close liaison is maintained between the Pakistan Navy and PNSC, especially while the latters’ ships are traversing through high-risk areas.

PNs Counter Piracy Effort

The Pakistan Navy has been regularly contributing a ship to assist in the counter piracy efforts of the Combined Task Force 151, which is dedicated towards this end. Having commanded this force a number of times and also being part of the UN Contact Group on Piracy has helped the Pakistan Navy shore up it’s credentials as a force for good. The vital connections that it has forged have held her in good stead.

Nexus Between Illegal Activities at Sea

There also appears to be a nexus between terrorism and other illegal activities at sea. For one, terrorism needs to be fuelled by a large influx of arms and money. Weapon smuggling through the medium of the sea is indeed rampant. Piracy earns a huge amount of money each year from ransoms alone and much of it can find it’s way to terrorists and arms smugglers. The human smuggling racket likewise, apart from being a lucrative enterprise, can also come in handy for transporting terrorists from one arena to another. The medium of the sea moreover is relatively safe from intrusive border-cum-immigration checks.

PNs Role in Maintaining Maritime Security

As a regular member of CTF 150, the Pakistan Navy assists in maintaining maritime security and stability by clamping down on all such illegal and unauthorized activities at sea. PN warships have been instrumental in intercepting and disrupting drug shipments and human trafficking.


The maritime threats and problems confronting all the littoral states are nearly the same, though their magnitude, intensity and settings may differ. A continual exchange of ideas and experiences on a bilateral as well as a multi-lateral basis would certainly help in developing a better and broader understanding of the issues at hand and augur well for the future of the region.


  1. sharjeel ahmad December 2, 2014 at 11:10 AM

    aoa sir i am shareel. sir i am carrying out a research on Maritime LEAs reforms in Pakistan. i need some guidance on that


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