The Indian Navy has placed warships on high alert for terrorist attacks on the high seas following last month’s near successful hijacking of a Pakistani missile frigate, military sources have told The Indian Express. The preparations come amidst new revelations that al-Qaeda’s Indian subcontinent wing had attempted to hijack the Pakistani missile frigate PNS Aslat to attack Indian warships.
Naval commanders, the sources said, had been asked to watch for unusual movements by Pakistani warships operating in the Indian ocean, and also to guard against strikes involving fishing boats rigged with explosives.
“The Navy has repeatedly rehearsed for terror attacks on the high seas since 26/11,” said Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, a naval analyst, “but the prospect that a Pakistani warship might go rogue and stage a sudden attack is a new order of threat altogether”.
In a dossier released online earlier this month, al-Qaeda said one of the two assault teams which staged a strike in Karachi on September 3 was to have seized PNS Aslat, a Chinese-made F-22 frigate inducted last year. The plan, it stated, was to “steer it towards Indian waters in order to attack Indian warships with anti-ship missiles”.
The second assault team, the dossier states, was charged with seizing the PNS Zulfikar, another F-22 type frigate, and using the vessel’s 72 mm anti-aircraft guns to shoot at a United States naval refuelling ship it was due to pull
alongside during an exercise.
“Mujahid brothers present on board PNS Zulfiqar were to target and destroy the American oil tanker with the 72 mm anti-aircraft guns on their frigate,” the dossier states. “Meanwhile, other brothers on PNS Zulfiqar would target the American frigate protecting USS Supply using four anti-ship guided missiles.”
Few details have been released by Pakistan’s government on the attack, though naval officers were reported to have been arrested in its wake. Pakistani authorities have said the assault teams were shot at a naval dockyard in Karachi, but al-Qaeda’s dossier states they seized control of both ships on the high seas, before being killed in a counter-attack.
“Due to this firefight with officials of the Pakistan Navy, the brothers were not able to fully execute the next part of their plan, namely the attack on American and Indian warships,” the dossier states.
The dossier contains photographs of assault team leaders Second Lieutenant Zeeshan Rafiq and former Second Lieutenant Owais Jakhrani, both of whom were killed in the fighting. It also asserts the other attackers “who attained martyrdom during this operation were serving officers of the Pakistan Navy”.
In October 2000, al-Qaeda had used a small craft to stage a suicide-bombing against the US guided-missile destroyer USS Cole, killing 17 sailors and injuring 39.
Meanwhile, naval officials said guarding against attacks in the Indian Ocean is difficult because of the large number of small ships operating in the waters, few of which are equipped with automatic identification systems, or AIS. “It’s often impossible to tell whether a fishing boat is part of the Indian fleet or not,” said a senior officer, “and we have to balance the possible risks to our warships with the costs of opening fire on fishermen who mean no harm.”
The Director-General of Shipping had, in 2009, issued two circulars mandating the installation of commercially-available AIS systems on all fishing ships longer than 20 metres. The Navy and Ministry of Shipping have also been testing separate AIS systems, using radio-frequency identification devices and mobile satellite units for installation on smaller boats.
Fishing boat owners, however, have been resisting implementation of the AIS transponder proposals, saying their cost ought be subsidised by the government. “The 2009 circular has simply been ignored by owners,” a senior Naval official told The Indian Express, “and no state government wants to take them on.”