AHMEDABAD: In November 2008, terrorists landed in Mumbai stealthily via the sea route and launched one of the worst terror attacks on Indian soil. They also had the help of regular inputs from ‘handlers’ a comfortable distance away. This was achieved by use of satellite phones or satphoneswhich weren’t taken seriously as a security threat at the time.
Today, a foreign ship cannot use satphones like Thuraya or Iridum or any other satellite communication devices without permission from the Department of Telecommunications (DoT). Likewise, anyone carrying such a device has to be reported according to pre-arrival notification on security (PANS) rules.
The state, with many important coastal establishments including the Alang ship-breaking yard and Kandla port, has woken up to this issue after Alang reported five instances of satphone usage in the past week. In two instances, the crew including the captain had even started heading for home without registering their statements as mandated.
The issue came into focus on July 25 when Raliz Pitros, captain of the MT Atlantic headed for Alang, was found speaking to Dubai and Greece via his Thuraya phone. The signals were intercepted by the National Technical Research Organization (NTRO) in New Delhi which informed the Coast Guard in Gujarat who in turn asked customs to keep an eye on the ship. When the vessel anchored, Pitros was questioned. He later alleged that customs officials demanded $500, a charge the officials refuted.
Officials have accepted that the use of satphones is on the rise. Manish Chavda, assistant commissioner of customs at Alang, said that they reported five recent cases of satphone use. “In such instances, we ask for a written statement from the captain of the vessel and if we find the action unnecessary, we penalize the ship authorities. In the past two or three months, there wasn’t even a single such case,” he said. He added that they take action only after getting information from the Coast Guard.
A senior official at the Coast Guard’s Gandhinagar headquarters told TOI on condition of anonymity that after NTRO intercepts a signal, they check the international vessel traffic management system (VTMS) and get the location of the nearest ship. If it is found not to be related to national security, the case is handed over to customs for further investigation.
What role does the state police play in this? Senior state police officials refused to formally comment and stated that there has been a long-standing fight between the police and customs about checking port-bound vessels. A Bhavnagar police official told TOI that in a couple of instances, there were issues when a team of policemen boarded a ship to check suspicious contents. He added that they have brought the issue to the notice of senior home department officials.