“Terror boat”: Questions linger - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Saturday 3 January 2015

“Terror boat”: Questions linger

 By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 4th Jan 2015

A day or two before December 31, a small fishing boat cast off into the Arabian Sea from the hamlet of Keti Bunder, 100 kilometres from Karachi along Pakistan’s National Highway 5. This forgotten corner of Pakistan, bordering the disputed boundary with India at Sir Creek, was to be a major Pakistani port until Gwadar displaced it from Islamabad’s radar.

In 2011, the Pakistani government promised to develop Keti Bunder into the city of Zulfikarabad, commemorating Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Nothing came of that either and, today, Keti Bunder is in the limelight as the launch pad for what the Indian ministry of defence (MoD) hints was an attempt to land explosives in India for a terror strike in Gujarat or Maharashtra.

Piecing together events from an MoD press release as well as from intelligence sources, the boat’s mission was known before it set sail. National Technical Research Organisation intercepts revealed the Pakistani boat would tranship its cargo of explosives to an Indian receiver, who would bring it ashore.

“As per the intelligence inputs received on 31st December, a fishing boat from Keti Bunder near Karachi was planning some illicit transaction in Arabian Sea (sic),” says the MoD release.

The MoD does not mention that the navy, the nodal agency for coastal security, entirely ignored the alert, assessing that it related to low-grade smuggling, not terrorism. The Coast Guard, however, launched an operation.

“Based on the input, Coast Guard Dornier aircraft undertook sea-air coordinated search and located the suspect fishing boat. Thereafter, the Coast Guard ship on patrol in area was diverted and intercepted the unlit boat at about midnight of 31st December in position 365 km West-South West of Porbandar”, says MoD.

The identified intercept point is interesting, falling just 3 nautical miles within India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which, according to the UN Convention on the Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS), extends 200 nautical miles from the coast.

Even so, the Coast Guard intercepted the target vessel deep inside international waters. Indian law applies only within territorial waters, which extend 12 nautical miles from the coastal baseline, according to UNCLOS.

While this violated international law, the principle has been disregarded twice earlier, when the navy sank Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) vessels several hundred miles offshore, whilst they ferried LTTE persons to India.

According to the MoD, the Coast Guard intercepted the unlit boat at midnight on 31st December, just as the New Year dawned. With the suspicious boat refusing to stop to be checked, an hour-long “hot pursuit” ensued.

It remains unclear why the Coast Guard ship, capable of moving at 24-26 knots (44-48 kmph) needed to pursue a slow-moving fishing boat for an hour. Nonetheless, it managed to stop the boat “after firing warning shots”.

At this point, according to the MoD, “the crew hid themselves in below deck compartment and set the boat on fire, which resulted in explosion and major fire on the boat. Due to darkness, bad weather and strong winds, the boat and persons on board could not be saved or recovered. The boat burnt and sank in the same position, in early hours of 1st January.”

The Coast Guard says due to “bad weather and strong winds” it was unable to recover any bodies or debris from the vessel. The only proof it has are photographs of a burning vessel.

“It is well-nigh impossible for a boat to sink without leaving a trace. Debris do not sink; they float on the surface long after a vessel sinks”, says a three-star admiral.

The Indian Express reports that weather around Porbandar has been mild since mid-December.

Naval officers tell Business Standard the yellow-red flames in the photographs suggest a typical diesel fuel fire. It would have been extremely difficult for the crew to set alight diesel, which does not burn easily. “It seems more likely that the warning shots hit the boat, setting the diesel alight,” says a retired admiral.

Questions also abound over the MoD’s contention that there was an explosion on board. In a fuel fire, any high explosive on board the vessel would simply have caught fire and burnt, not exploded.

An officer from a premier government agency with expertise in explosives explains a “detonator” is needed to trigger an explosion, creating a shock wave that causes the high explosive to detonate.

MoD officials also claim there were Pakistani communication intercepts, ordering the fishing boat’s crew to “end the mission”. If that meant sinking the boat and committing suicide, why did the crew set the boat alight rather than detonating the explosives on board, choosing a slow and painful end over a swift explosion.

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar seems to recognize these lacunae. His complimentary message is less than fulsome, congratulating the Coast Guard for “averting a possible danger.”


  1. Very detailed assessment indeed sir. Also, if the 'terrorists' did indeed decide to embrace their inevitable fate, they could just have easily rammed the pursuing coast guard vessel and detonated their cargo. Too many questions unanswered. Coast Guard top brass maybe thinking that it's time they got their share of the glory. Malaise of exaggerated reporting of incidents seems to have percolated down to them.

  2. I doubt any intelligence agency will give out exact details of its operations in media. Especially to an irresponsible media like ours.

  3. finding fault is easy.....if those responsible to protect our borders do not take pro-active actions like this, the mumbai attacks would repeat elsewhere.....if such a thing were to happen people like you would reel out posts condemning the very same agencies......remember that no terror incident happened in america since 911 because of their pro-active actions that invited a lot of criticism......

  4. What good is the MoD media team to the MoD if its release statements end up implicating itself?

    Fire these baboons and get someone who will do the job correctly.

  5. A "friend of Pakistan" rants.. or rather shrills.. aka RNDTV...

    Logic always does not hold good in operations ... dear Colonel. ... if you ever saw one..

  6. Good analysis Sir. You agree that it is Pakisthani vessel. You also agree that they entered Indian waters. What you are not agreeable is that why it was denoted! Hope you are aware of suicide bombers. Do you want CG to lose their lives? Or do you want them to close their eyes, as did during 26/11 period, UPA times. After calamity of losing 1000 invaluable Indian lives, you will say why the boat was not sunk in the first instant. Is it, Sir?

  7. Sir, Few questions are to be answered ,
    1) If it is indeed a fishing boat then what she was doing so deep inside Arabian Sea ?
    2) Why there is no protest from Pakistan's fisherman community ? Or rather Pakistan Government.
    2) Yes diesel can catch fire. Not that easily like petrol but it catches fire with very little effort ! Try it.
    3) Mind that lot of arms and ammunition was landed at Maharashtra coast after Mumbai riot. May be those smugglers were smuggling rifles not RDX. But both are equally dangerous.
    4) What ever our Coast Guard is done is commendable.

  8. Too many details about covert actions and agencies in the media is not a good sign. Immature publicity about sources and sequence of actions and the nitty gritty about who, where and how blunts your organisations' capability in the long run.
    God help us from ourselves.

  9. Terror act like 26/11 is averted that is the larger picture. What is there to come clean by the government on this issue. Vadra illegal land dealings needs to be probed which has become eye sore for congis.

  10. It is easier to ignite diesel using a match stick or a cigarette lighter than being hit by a bullet. The chances of the temp, the vapour mixture and the pressure being perfect for diesel to be ignited by a mere bullet is lower than the boat being struck by lighting on a clear summer day.

  11. Obama is coming, India is looking for a talking point. Looks like it has backfired already. This is why rest of the world takes indian intel and indian reporting on Pakistan seriously...NOT.

  12. India might be only country where opposition party leader(s) behaves like spokesperson of enemy country and questions security agencies responsible for protecting citizen and their interests. No wonder people of this country have rejected them and are chosing other parties over them election after election.

  13. Wow!! How the mighty fall, trying to peddle the aman-ki-asha line.

    Dear Genius,

    One discrepancy in the above story (-though not the govt's). .

    Other than the fire, the boat's structure is intact and is still afloat.. The boat is BURNING vigourously. If the coast-guard would have fired upon it there are 2 ways. One is by rifle or small caliber -to kill people aboard, Or by using cannon or large caliber.

    If small caliber arms were used, then there would'nt be a fire. The boat's occupants might be killed or injured. When large caliber weapons like cannons are used, the boat would have simply splintered, disintegrated apart in many pieces. If there were munitions on board they would have blown up in sympathetic detonation. Relevant here is that if that tiny boat had been fired upon by the CG, there would simply be no free standing fire as shown.

    IMHO the report given out by our Coast gaurd and the defence minister are true. My dad used to make fire extinguishers of various kinds and supply to govt. bodies - and I've seen fires caused by munitions being set on fire ( to test the extinguishers) Gelatin, RDX etc burn freely when set on fire. Gun-powder does explode but not with the same spontaneity as when detonated. The most common explosive used by terror groups are bags/packages of ammonium-nitrate soaked in diesel.

    This ammonium-nitrate + diesel combo would burn vigorously - like the fire engulfing the boat shown in the picture. So to my mind, the occupants of the boat did carry some explosives and also some munitions containing gun-powder which exploded when the heat spread.

    Of course our political morons would do their mindless best to contradict these facts.

  14. Could the naval sources also care to explain since when did bringing in explosives across the sea in fishing boats get classified as "low-level smuggling"? Where were they when Mumbai '93 happened -isn't it the same MO?

    Competing bureaucracies have an axe to grind and that is par for the course, but surprised that they managed to somehow convince a reporter of your credentials that it was worthy to fling the axe.

  15. Had Ajmal Kasab not caught alive, even the 26/11 events could have smelt fishy.

  16. Who the f*ck cares? Pakistanis coming to India for either smuggling purposes or outright terrorist purposes, deserve to go down in flames.

    You do realize, that introducing drugs into India is also part of their comprehensive war? The same way introducing counterfeit currency is as well.

  17. Col Ajay Shukla's analysis finds this to be only a Pakistani smuggling boat. But Pakistan denies it was theirs.

    Surprising we are still not able to understand risks present and responsibilities necessary to defend against a determined & proven sponsor of terrorism.

    Wonder how the same people will paint our National Security agencies if another 26/11 happens.

  18. Mr. Shukla is wrong.

    Enforcement of laws and regulations of the coastal State

    1. The coastal State may, in the exercise of its sovereign rights to explore, exploit, conserve and manage the living resources in the exclusive economic zone, take such measures, including boarding, inspection, arrest and judicial proceedings, as may be necessary to ensure compliance with the laws and regulations adopted by it in conformity with this Convention.


  19. How does Mr. Shukla know it is a 'fishing' boat? It is a BOAT.

  20. Paul Chinnapuduku5 January 2015 at 12:30

    How did the "retired admiral" know for a fact that there were no weapons on board that ship that could have triggered the fire and the explosion? Is he endowed with some divine power to mentally gauge absence of existence of weapons on a fishing boat in deep sea while he sits on land? Being retired, he is not likely to be privy to real-time intel, so the question really is why create more horse-sh!t and call it analysis based on the wild-ass guesses of some retired Admiral? The entire blog post is based on extremely tenuous reason that can be torn apart quite easily -- especially when it is clear that the author has based all this nonsense based on sheer guessing and hearsay, since there is absolutely no reliable information on what actually happened in the public domain.

    The only thing that seems reasonable to say at this time is that there is not much co-ordination between the Coast Guard and the Navy and perhaps that can be improved. Everything else is just bollocks based on no data or evidence.

  21. tdblog@yahoo.com:

    Every mysterious situation and especially handled by IB will appear fishy or questionable. Thats cause they dont need to answer to mango people like us. But elementary stuffs ain't that difficult to analyse.

    Below summary sums it all:
    1. If truly a fishing boat...there was no need to blow itself up,
    2. If truly a fishing boat...there is no need to than create a one hour chase with coast guard of either country,
    3. In the middle of a getting caught scenario...there is again no need to panic...they cud have dropped off all their guns and be seen as simple fishermen...but no you cannot afford that...cause you were terrorist with deeper links...and getting caught cud mean not only information transfer by a living terrorist but also proofs of what types of radio instrument...explosive grade...and manufacturers of all sorts of offensive items...also food packs will be traced back to country of origin,
    4. Getting caught would have been one more of many embarrasing moments for a master of liars country Pakistan, if they can lie to the world about Osama Bin Laden...this petty four terrorist meant nothing to that country...not even counted as collateral damage...and for such a country their is always another time...so sink the ship and die all in the name of allah,
    5. And above all Pakistan's so quick reaction as to first deny that there was a boat which had sailed from their country...to another tracing it down to a drug smuggling mafia...shows how desperate they were to cover the whole incident,
    6. Pakistan as a country is least interested in taking any legitimate step...so such quick reaction of floating multiple absolutely not clear stories abt that boat...in the hope that something will catch the fancy and they will be able to save themselves another embarrassment was the biggest mistake by them...which now makes it clear in the so called dark intelligence network world if not in a court of law...as to who's guilty.
    Liars den is what Pakistan is!!!

  22. Rather this than Mumbai-2...they could've just surrendered if they were innocent...

  23. Ajay, you were brilliant on Thappar's show. There are so many gaping holes that BJP folks are now resorting to calling all doubters 'agents of Pakistan'. You summed it up well' BJP is doing what happens in Pakistan!". Keep up the good work

  24. The diesel and petrol rates in India are cheaper than Pakistan. Check the current rates if you don't know. You want me to believe that they were smuggling to make a loss? How funny?

    And have you seen their route on maps? They were going to another place in Pakistan from Karachi - through Gujarat coast?

  25. The biggest casualty in war is - TRUTH.

  26. Good article Shukla.
    A few points:
    01. Does it take a Coast Guard Cutter 1 hour of chasing a small FV which at the best may hit 11 to 12 knots?
    02. Surprising that no videographing of the chase has been given which could have shown the exact GPS position at various times during the chase.
    03. At 197 nautical miles from the coast seems a bit contrived after a 1 hour chase. Bcoz 200 nautical miles from the Base Line means we are of the Exclusive Economic Zone.
    04. The boat is on fire only on the deck and the superstructure house. No breach in the hull?? No fire below deck? Looks like some oil fire on deck.
    05. Do hard core Islamist terrosrists prefer a fiery burning death which is anathema to them?
    06. How come the Dornier chasing the boat in the daytime did not zoom down to get the FV's name and other identification marks? How come despite the Dornier buzzing the boat, she still continued on her voyage unperturbed and entered Indian waters?

    Looks like the Coast Guard has a bucketful of questions to be answered...


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