April issue 2004
Sea How They Run
In a bid to foil any attempt by Al-Qaeda fighters to escape by sea in the wake of the latest offensive launched against them in Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal areas, Pakistani authorities have allowed coalition ships to patrol and monitor its coastal areas in the Arabian sea within the 12-nautical mile limit.
The Pakistan government’s decision to allow the international coalition task force, led by Britain, to monitor its coastal limits has made it the eighth member of the task force conducting Operation Enduring Freedom. According to reports, this decision followed talks held in Islamabad two weeks ago, between General Musharraf and Admiral Sir Alan West, the First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff for the British Navy.
Pakistan’s coastal limits stretch up to 200 nautical miles in the open sea in its Sindh and Balochistan provinces. Agencies monitoring Pakistan’s coastal areas, and these include the Pakistan Navy, Maritime Security Agency and Pakistan Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is responsible for patrolling the port of Karachi and the Makran coast in Balochistan. It has standing jurisdiction for 12 nautical miles to sea and 50 miles inland.
Despite the presence of these agencies, coalition forces feel that when the conservative Taliban regime was dislodged in Afghanistan in December 2001, scores of Arab militants belonging to the brigades of the international terrorist network managed to flee from the mountains to the unguarded coastlines of Pakistan and Iran, and escaped by small boats to the Gulf, Yemen and the Horn of Africa. The international community now fears that Bin Laden’s terrorist network still continues to use the Pakistani coastal limits for the movement of its cadres and for smuggling weapons and drugs to raise funds for its activities.
Experts on the subject maintain that it is virtually impossible for the poorly equipped Pakistani agencies to keep vigil over the huge Pakistan coastal zone. “At the most, the patrols from these agencies go from 10 to 40 nautical miles in the deep sea and that too not in the entire zone,” says Mohammed Iqbal Sheikh, general secretary, Pakistan Merchant Navy Officers’ Association. “Most navy ships patrol during the day and anchor their vessels by sunset. In this situation, it is easy for anyone to elude the patrol.”
“We are neither adequately equipped nor did we anticipate the rise in global terrorism and the illicit movement of people by sea,” admits an official of the Pakistan Coastguard. “Besides, it’s not just a question of equipment. The men working in these agencies have not even been given any special training to deal with the changing global realities.”
These experts say Al-Qaeda cadres had been using the sea routes of Pakistan to flee to the Gulf and also to smuggle drugs and gold to generate funds for the terrorist network. Evidence has been found which indicates that militants use the coastal areas of Ibrahim Hyderi and Lath Basti, in Karachi, as a launching pad. Only last year Pakistani intelligence agencies conducted a raid in a village surrounding Karachi’s coastal areas after a tip-off and arrested a couple of Taliban militants who were planning to escape to the Gulf on small ships.
Prior to 9/11, air routes had been used to transport Al-Qaeda cadres. “They had people forging travel documents for them, assisting them in obtaining visas to travel to different destinations by air,” says a local police official, who arrested one of the local contacts who was involved in forging documents. Al-Qaeda militants had to go for other options, including sea routes, when it became next to impossible to use the air routes.
Insiders maintain that Al-Qaeda did not have a network in the coastal areas till 9/11, and it explored this option after the dislodging of the Taliban regime. A local, who owns a couple of fishing boats in Karachi, said that soon after the fall of the Taliban regime, three youth, two Egyptians and a young man from Sudan, turned up at his house in Karachi’s coastal areas along with a local militant from one of the parties outlawed by General Musharraf. They sought his help to provide shelter for a while as well as to assist them in crossing over to Saudi Arabia by a small boat or launch. “You don’t need to worry about the money. We are ready to pay whatever costs are incurred on this journey,” he was told by the local militant who was accompanying them.
According to him, these Arabs were really desperate to cross over to Saudi Arabia by sea. “They were very well-informed. They knew that it would be more difficult to go to Dubai or even to Muscat (Oman) via the Gwadar coastal areas of Balochistan province. They were aware that the authorities in Dubai as well as in Muscat had become vigilant and were keeping an eye on these vessels because the practice of human smuggling had snowballed over the years,” he said. They wanted to cross over to Saudi Arabia through an alternate route. Realising that it was a very dangerous game, the local said he refused to oblige them.
Later, however, these cadres apparently managed to cut a deal with human smugglers to facilitate the journey. “It is an open secret that hundreds of youth belonging to the Al-Qaeda, who were hiding in Afghanistan and Pakistan, managed to sneak into Iraq when the war started,” says a security official, adding, “How do you think Al-Qaeda managed to send its cadres to Iraq? Obviously either by the land route via Iran and Turkey or else by sea.” He said that they had enough evidence to believe that human smugglers assisted Al-Qaeda and its cadres in crossing by sea. “These people work only for money and you know that Al-Qaeda has no dearth of funds,” he says.
Evidence indicates that Al-Qaeda has recently used these sea routes more to smuggle heroin, hashish and other drugs to the west for raising funds than in transporting cadres. The recent bumper poppy crop in Afghanistan as well as in the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan has been used for this purpose.
International agencies fighting the drug trade estimate a record level yield of 4,600 tons in Afghanistan, which is more than the cultivation in the rest of the world put together, during the last year. Similarly, tons of poppy were cultivated in the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) and PATA (Provincially Administered Tribal Areas) areas in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier province. “Al-Qaeda and local militants in Pakistan linked to Al-Qaeda were involved in the smuggling of heroin and hashish to Europe both by regular ship containers as well as private launches,” says a source.
The common routes for this kind of trade include the overland route from Pakistan’s Balochistan province through to Iran’s northwestern region. From there, drugs are smuggled into Turkey and onward to Europe.
The port of Karachi is the largest and busiest in the region, moving containerised cargo, as well as bulk goods, into and out of Pakistan. These sources maintain that heroin and hashish are moved through the country by road and rail to the seaport and concealed in legitimate shipments. Specially constructed suitcases are available that incorporate illicit substances such as heroin into the structure. Couriers also saturate clothing, books, and absorbent products with heroin solutions. These couriers travel to destinations in Africa, often via the UAE or other locations from Pakistan.
A senior police official in Karachi reveals that two young men belonging to an outlawed group, who were captured recently, disclosed during interrogation that they had managed to smuggle two tons of hashish to Belgium, with the down market value of millions of dollars. “In fact they helped a Pathan from the tribal areas of Pakistan in smuggling the hashish and charged him a million rupees for the service,” he said. According to the official, they justify the smuggling of hashish to Europe and other western countries, on the basis that it will be consumed by ‘infidel’ non-Muslims.
These smugglers, who chose the non-formal routes for smuggling through coastal zones, reportedly use novel methods to smuggle the drugs to different destinations. They put the drugs into gunny or plastic bags, and place a few layers of solid plastic on each bag to make it waterproof. They take a rope out from the middle of this bag and attach the rope to the bottom of the ship. “Even if an agency intervenes, and searches the ship, they won’t be able to spot these items,” says an insider.
He maintains that in most cases small boats go out to sea to assess the situation. “In case they think that there is some serious operation underway, they unload their smuggled items on islands in the sea and collect them later, and proceed further once they realise that the coast is clear,” he contends.
Most of the men who operate these vessels are experts and have good know-how of the sea routes. “At times they don’t even have navigational gadgets, but simply find their way in the deep sea through the stars in the sky,” says a local shipowner.
Experts in the shipping industry maintain that smuggling heroin and guns through non-formal routes is not something new. It was always there and anyone, at any time, can take advantage of it. The global maritime industry worldwide is still unregulated and can be easily exploited. Since no new policies have been adopted nor extra security measures taken worldwide, this can become dangerous. “What if the terrorists use these unregulated ships, load any kind of bombs or missiles on them and carry out terrorist attacks against their targets?” asks the ship owner. He believes that it is always possible for a major terrorist attack to be carried out through the sea routes.
Shipping sources lay the blame for the unregulated shipping business at the doorstep of shipowners in the west, especially in Greece and the USA. “They continue to register their ships under phoney names in the poorer countries of Africa and Asia,” says a source. According to him, they manage to evade labour laws and taxes in the western countries in this way. For example, he explains, if a shipowner registers a ship in the USA, he is supposed to pay wages to crew members in accordance with US labour laws. “Each crew member is entitled to get at least 50 US dollars per day for meals alone. In order to avoid this, they register their ships in Africa and employ people from impoverished countries, and pay between five to 10 dollars a day to crew members for meals.”
According to some reports, U.S. intelligence officials identified 15 cargo freighters around the world, which they believe are either controlled by the Al-Qaeda or could be used by the terrorist network to ferry operatives, bombs, money or commodities over the high seas.
“American spy agencies track some of the suspicious ships by satellite or surveillance planes and with the help of allied navies or informants in overseas ports. They have, however, occasionally lost track of the vessels, which are continuously given new fictitious names, repainted or re-registered using the names of fictitious corporate owners, all the while plying the oceans,” says the report.
“It is not difficult at all to change the flags, names or even colour of these freighters at any time. This practice was started by shipping industry owners in the west and they should now be ready to pay the price,” says a maritime official in Pakistan.
However, sources say the Pakistan government’s decision to allow the coalition to monitor its waters may hamper the activities of the Al-Qaeda for a while, but it cannot put a complete stop to their movements. “These measures will create a psychological impact, but they know well enough that the Al-Qaeda can dodge the international agencies and devise new methods to carry on its activities,” says a shipping expert. He emphasises the need to regulate the shipping industry to save the world from another 9/11.