Despite defence minister Manohar Parrikar’s statement that the occupants of the Pakistani boat intercepted by the coast guard on December 31 were “possible terrorists”, questions continue to be raised about official accounts of the incident that suggest the intelligence community does not share a clear view on this.
Intelligence officials told HT that the coast guard did the right thing by acting immediately on the intelligence tip. However, they are befuddled by several unanswered questions.
First, as per standard procedure, any terrorism-related intelligence input must be shared with the Multi Agency Centre (MAC) that alerts all stakeholders. This mandatory procedure was put in place after the 26/11 attack on Mumbai in 2008 to ensure all key forces and agencies are prepared to respond to any terror attack. National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), the technical intelligence agency, that raised the alert on the basis of which the coast guard acted, did not alert the MAC.
As a result, the bulk of India’s key agencies -- the Intelligence Bureau, R&AW, naval intelligence, Gujarat police and the National Security Guard (NSG) were in the dark about the alert. Not only that, even the Joint Operations Centre of the Western Naval Command in Mumbai, which is responsible for all maritime operations on the West coast, was not alerted.
Second, key intelligence agencies monitor sea-based communication from Bhuj in Gujarat. However, the NTRO, the source of this particular alert, does not have a sea-based communication monitoring station there. It has a station in Jammu from where it monitors satellite-based communication. “We were told the alert was raised after the NTRO intercepted conversations on a Thuraya satellite phone,” a senior intelligence official told HT.
“But we haven’t had a Thuraya intercept since 2008 because Pakistan knows it can be easily intercepted and tracked up to 25 metres of its location,” he added.
Third, the defence ministry statement on the incident says “the crew hid themselves in below deck compartment and set the boat on fire, which resulted in explosion and major fire,” indicating that the crew chose to commit suicide instead of being caught when the coast guard fired “warning shots.”
A senior naval official posted with the Mumbai-based naval command questioned this, saying: “If that assumption is true, why didn’t the boat try to ram the coast guard ship when challenged? Why did it run for an hour before setting itself on fire?” He conceded that the “boat was definitely up to some illegal activity, but the pattern does not point to terror-related activity.”
Fourth, official photographs show a burning boat that many experts described as an “oil fire”. Speaking on TV, Rear Admiral Raja Menon (retd) said the fire seen in photographs was created by oil, not explosives. Other experts also concurred that the fire was most likely an oil fire.
“Explosives need detonators; the boat would have been blown to smithereens and the fire would be very different,” a bomb expert who served with the NSG’s National Bomb Data Centre told HT.