Egypt’s former head of naval intelligence Gen Yosri Kandil was probably right when he said that last month’s hijack of an Egyptian missile vessel by the Islamic State was a “quantum leap for terrorism”. Nobody should be too surprised, though; the attack bore similarities to the attempted hijack of the Pakistani naval ship ‘Zulfikar’ in September this year. Both were well planned, with serving naval personnel involved.
The two hijacks have one big difference, too; the Zulfikar was attacked by Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) in Karachi; the Egyptian hijack was the handiwork of the IS- Although Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which carried out the hijack, has recently switched affiliation to the IS from Al Qaeda. The possibility that a foreign power (a Russian merchant vessel in the vicinity was detained) could have helped the terrorists makes the situation even more murky.
That the two attacks came to nought quickly- the Zulfikar was never taken over, thanks largely to a sole alert Pakistani gunner, and the Egyptian missile vessel was retaken after a small battle- was just fortunate. The stated targets were American and Indian ships in one case and Israeli vessels and offshore installations in the Mediterranean in the other. However, this menu would have certainly included targets of opportunity, given that jihadis in control of a hijacked naval vessel know it is a matter of time before they are obliterated. The Arabian Sea and the Mediterranean- at the doorstep to the Suez Canal- are not short of maritime targets anyway.
That there is nothing commercial shipping can do about the possibility of such attacks is obvious; citadels and armed guards are just not going to cut it this time. I wrote about the clear terrorist intent to attack marine targets in and around maritime chokepoints in ‘Escalating old threats’ last month. The Suez Canal is one such chokepoint; the Arabian Sea is no less critical, especially for oil.
The danger is even sharper since Pakistan and Egypt both have a history of extremist elements embedded in the State. The Damietta attack involved an IS member who took over, under a ruse, command of the naval ship prior to its departure. The Zulfikar attack was carried out in large part by serving Pakistani naval officers in uniform and displaying their identity cards; one blew himself up; another one who was shot dead was the son of a serving Superintendent of Police. There were plans to hijack a frigate as well, the PNS Aslat.
Of course, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is at the root of promoting terror, including maritime terror. It is also, arguably, the most powerful agency in the land, backed, as it is, by the Pakistani armed forces. Journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad found this out to his cost in 2011, after he wrote an article on the jihadist attack on the Pakistani naval base Mehran in Karachi. He had written that Pakistani officials had discovered a "sizeable Al Qaeda infiltration within the navy's ranks." Shahzad was kidnapped, tortured and murdered two days after his article was published. Many, including Human Rights Watch, allege that the ISI killed him.
Pakistan and Egypt may be under the spotlight today, but I can think of a half dozen other countries, at least, where the combination of a weak State and embedded extremist sympathisers make for the high likelihood of similar hijack attempts of naval vessels. No doubt, one such attack will be successful eventually.
Crews of commercial ships are used to a hostile environment, and not just at sea. Even so, going out to sea is getting more dangerous every year.