The recently launched al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) attempted to hijack a Pakistani Navy frigate on September 6 in order to use it to target American naval assets in the Indian Ocean, according to an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. Pakistani officials downplayed the attack, but the boldness of the plan and the fact that it involved at least one former Pakistani Navy official are causes for concern.
The attack occurred just two days after al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the formation of a new South Asia wing of al-Qaeda. The raid involved 10 militants and, according to Pakistani Defense Minister Khawaja Asif, could not have happened without assistance from inside the Pakistani Navy.
The terrorists reportedly planned to take over the frigate and then target U.S. ships on the high seas with missiles with a range of 300 kilometers. It is doubtful that the militants would have had the capability to man the ship or the missile systems, and thus the plan was likely doomed from the beginning.
Pakistani officials have denied claims by AQIS that all the attackers were former Pakistani Navy members and instead say only one of the fighters had been a naval officer.
One group of attackers was apparently thwarted when the gunner of the ship realized that six men—who were approaching the ship via an inflatable boat, wearing marine uniforms—were carrying AK-47s. The gunner fired a warning shot to which the militants responded with rockets and automatic weapons, according to a Pakistani security official account. The gunner was able to destroy the inflatable boat immediately. Another four attackers, also in Pakistani military uniforms, were able to board the frigate but were killed after a gun fight that lasted a few hours.
This is the second major terrorist attack on the Pakistani Navy. In May 2011, just three weeks after U.S. Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden at his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, terrorists attacked a large Pakistani Naval base in Karachi, PNS Mehran. In that attack, which lasted over 12 hours, about 15 terrorists killed around a dozen Pakistani military personnel and wounded several others. The terrorists also destroyed millions of dollars worth of war planes and surveillance aircraft.
The recent attack comes in the wake of Pakistan Army military operations against bases of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP or Pakistani Taliban) in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, which started in June. The Army’s offensive against the TTP militants came on the heels of a major terrorist attack on the Karachi airport. It is possible that elements of the Pakistani Taliban have teamed up with al-Qaeda to conduct high-profile attacks against the Pakistani military.
The most alarming part of the two naval attacks is that they involved either former or currently serving Pakistani Navy officials, demonstrating al-Qaeda’s ability to recruit inside the Pakistan military.
While the Pakistanis were able to successfully thwart this most recent attack, it shows that al-Qaeda remains a vital threat to U.S. interests in South Asia and elsewhere. It also points to the need for shoring up nuclear-armed Pakistan in its fight against the terrorists.