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Why the Navy chief’s alert on Jaish marine terrorists raises alarm

Sandeep Unnithan / Share:
flickr/Michael Scalet

On August 27, navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh informed the media about an intelligence alert that the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) had raised a maritime wing and was training underwater saboteurs. “We have received intelligence that an underwater wing of Jaish-e-Mohammed is training people to carry out attacks from water. But we are fully prepared and will thwart any such attempt,” he said. Admiral Singh was speaking on the sidelines of the General B.C. Joshi Memorial Lecture in Pune.

The navy chief’s alert is already known to the three-tier security cordon, consisting of the navy, Coast Guard and marine police. The cordon, which secures India’s coastline, particularly after the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, now has to contend with a new enemy-frogmen. Frogmen are military divers trained to carry out combat tasks, such as sabotaging warships and merchant ships using limpet mines, and conducting clandestine reconnaissance missions.

Experts say there are several ways in which such maritime saboteurs could be used. Launched from ‘mother ships’-warships, submarines or civilian vessels-frogmen could be used to target slow-moving merchant vessels that bring nearly 80 per cent of India’s crude oil imports from the Persian Gulf countries. These saboteurs could be used to attack Indian ports or single-point moorings where large supertankers are anchored or they may land undetected along the vast coastline to attack cities.

What Admiral Singh left unsaid, however, is the possible involvement of the Pakistan navy and its special forces wing, the Special Services Group (Navy), in training this maritime wing of the JeM. This is because training and equipping underwater saboteurs is a highly specialised skill-set available only with naval special force units.

This is not entirely in the realm of speculation, given the scale of the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. On the night of November 26 that year, a fishing trawler, the MV Kuber, landed off the coast of Mumbai. It launched a rubber dinghy fitted with an outboard motor on which rode 10 Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorists. The terrorists came ashore, split into five ‘buddy pairs’, and proceeded to target key installations across Mumbai, killing 166 civilians and police personnel. Indian navy marine commandos, who studied their modus operandi, were shocked at its similarity to tactics employed by naval special forces across the world. As one of them later told this writer, “this is how we are trained-covert insertion onto a hostile shore, split into teams to take out multiple targets before regrouping and exfiltrating”.

In 2008, the LeT, an arm of the Pakistani deep state and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), owned a crucial asset-a large fishing trawler called the Al Husseini. The LeT’s Karachi ‘set-up’, as the organisation called its cells, was controlled by the shadowy operative Sajid Mir. Another LeT leader, Abu Yaqoob, was in charge of it operationally. The Karachi set-up aimed to launch boys into India, from sea using the LeT’s fishermen network and their boats. Yet, when it came to planning the Mumbai attacks, the LeT was in a quandary. How would it infiltrate a 10-man suicide squad into Mumbai, complete with weapons and explosives, without risking capture?

With some friendly advice from the Pakistan navy-says David Coleman Headley. The LeT’s Pakistani-American mole was interrogated by four officers of the National Investigation Agency (NIA). Headley, earlier known as Daood Gilani, was then undergoing trial for a terrorist plot in Europe. He spilled the beans on the Pakistan navy’s involvement in the 26/11 attacks. In his interrogation by the NIA in Chicago in June 2010, Headley recounted how the ISI was in the loop on every movement and provided arms, ammunition and logistics for the attack. Headley recounted a meeting in Rawalpindi in March 2008 between the LeT leadership and a Pakistan navy frogman who vetted their plans.

The meeting was held in the LeT military chief Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi’s residence in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Headley was introduced to ‘Abdur Rehman’, a clean-shaven man in his mid-30s who sported a crew cut. Headley believed Rehman to be a frogman from the Pakistan navy (the name might have been an alias because Headley was introduced to him as Abdul Qadir). Rehman had been brought in by Lakhvi to discuss the ‘transportation’ of the attackers.

The navy man brought with him several nautical charts of India’s west coast and he discussed the options of landing the LeT squad. Other LeT leaders, such as Muzammil, Sajid Mir and Abu Qahafa, were also present when the frogman discussed the plan to drop the attackers 60-70 km off the coast to avoid detection.

He asked the LeT to complete all their planning for the mission before June. This was because the sea off Mumbai became rough during monsoon. Rehman also asked the LeT to check the position of Indian warships in order to avoid an engagement at sea.

The meeting was long and detailed and continued for a second day. Headley did not tell his interrogators what else was discussed in those meetings, but it could likely have been much more than just landing sites.

After that meeting, Headley never saw ‘Abdur Rehman’ again. On his return to Mumbai, Headley, who ran a travel agency in south Mumbai as a cover, got to work. In April, Headley told the NIA, he took four boat rides on hired fishing vessels, looking for likely landing spots for the LeT squad. Headley was equipped with a mobile camera phone and a GPS handset.

On his fourth boat recce, he found the ideal location to land-a small fishing jetty at Badhwar Park in Colaba. The LeT mole took the GPS coordinates of the jetty. He later flew back to Pakistan with the video footage, photographs and GPS coordinates for his LeT handlers. It enabled them to plan the attack to unfold some months later with such deadly precision. The 26/11 attacks were clearly only Phase-1. A Phase-2, comprising military-trained divers, could be still deadlier and draw the subcontinent on the brink of war. This was first published in India Today

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