The National Technical Research Organisation’s (NTRO's) intelligence alerts about the fishing boat that caught fire and sank in the Arabian Sea on New Year’s eve reveal that the first information of the boat passed on by the technical intelligence agency to the Indian Coast Guard neither mentioned the word terror nor explosives, HT has learnt.
“Suspect Pak entity… undertaking suspect transaction in area (340 km off Porbandar),” said the first alert sent out by the NTRO to the coast guard and the Indian Navy on December 31, 2014. HT saw the alerts the NTRO sent to the coastal agencies.
The NTRO followed its “suspect Pak entity” alert with a second alert to the navy and coast guard, which did not mention the word “terror” either and revised the boat’s location from 340 km off Porbandar to 357 km from Porbandar.
The controversial burning and sinking of the fishing boat by its four occupants led to questions in the media and by the Congress, which asked whether the vessel was carrying terrorists or smugglers.
Defence minister Manohar Parrikar called the four aboard the boat “suspected terrorists” primarily on the basis that they “committed suicide”, but an HT investigation reveals the terror angle has not yet been confirmed.
Questions have been raised as to why the NTRO shared intelligence directly with the coastal agencies and not via the Intelligence Bureau’s (IB) Multi Agency Centre (MAC) as mandated. HT found that when the IB took up the matter with the NTRO, it was told the information was not shared because it did not relate to terror.
“We were categorically told by the NTRO that they did not share the information because it related to smugglers and not to terror,” a senior intelligence official said on condition of anonymity.
Sources in the agency, however, said they did not say “terror” because they did not suspect terror. One official said they had been tracking the Thuraya satellite phone used by the boat’s occupants for at least a fortnight and put out its first alert only when the boat veered off course and appeared to be entering Indian waters.
“That is why we said suspect Pak entity,” the official said, adding, “The boat emanated from Keti Port in Pakistan and the same Thuraya was being used by its occupants.”
The coast guard dispatched a Dornier aircraft and sent its ship Rajratan to look for the boat after receiving the alert.
According to the ministry of defence (MoD) press release, “The coast guard ship warned the fishing boat to stop for further investigation of the crew and cargo; however, the boat increased speed and tried to escape away from the Indian side of maritime boundary… Four persons were seen on the boat who disregarded all warnings by the coast guard ship to stop and cooperate with investigation. Soon thereafter, the crew hid themselves in below deck compartment and set the boat on fire, which resulted in explosion and major fire on the boat.”
The press release uses “explosion” only in this one line. At no point does it mention terror or even explosives, although the subject line read: coast guard intercepts suspect boat carrying explosives in Arabian Sea.
Questions still abound over whether the boat was indeed on a terror mission. Coast Guard commander (North West), Kuldip Singh Sheoran told HT, “The matter is under investigation. I cannot jump to such a conclusion. My job was to intercept the boat after we received intelligence inputs from NTRO.”
A full internal review of the intercepted satellite-phone interceptions will likely answer the question. HT does not have access to subsequent intelligence gleaned by NTRO.
The MoD, when contacted, refused to comment on the grounds that the investigation was still on.