Who Sank my Mothership?

Experts, journalists, and film-makers are seeing motherships everywhere.

In an interview today on Here and Now with Bob Baer, former CIA analyst for the Middle East, he just let drop the terrifying scenario of a jihadi mothership docking in Baltimore Harbor and launching commando attacks from a swarm of dinghies, in imitation of the attacks in Mumbai two weeks ago. Not surprisingly, the film Syriana was adapted from Baer’s intelligence memoirs.

In the weeks before the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai, a Saudi oil tanker was hijacked off the Horn of Africa. In a direct action against Somali pirates menacing the high seas, on 19 November the Indian Navy sunk what was called a “pirate mothership” in the Gulf of Aden, in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes off the Horn of Africa. This seemed to many Indians a swift and effective strike in the subcontinent’s own maritime near-abroad, the western Indian Ocean.

Defence analysts and terrorism experts hailed the emergent regional hegemon taking the fight to the pirate brigands in aid the international community, with the INS Tabar swooping down on and sinking their mothership. This proud assertion of regional sub-imperialism by India was interrupted when it later emerged that the alleged mothership sunk by the Indian Navy in the Gulf of Aden was actually a Thai fishing trawler occupied by Somali pirates.

The Navy claimed it nonetheless had the pirate commanders in their sights and fired legitimately. Tell that to the Thai fishermen who lost their boat, or other coastal fishing communities such as in Kutch whose livelihood depends on the natural ecologies which cross maritime jurisdictions, and who are routinely harrased and imprisoned by the Indian and Pakistani coast guards and navies.

The Laskar-e-Toiba commandos who attacked Mumbai arrived by speed boats and dinghies on the city’s unregulated coastline in a hijacked fishing boat named Kuber, registered in the Gujarati port city of Porbander. The families and friends of the fishermen on the Kuber, when the boat failed to return home the night it was attacked by the commandos at sea, first assumed that it had been detained by the Pakistani authorities. However a body was found floating in a fishing channel, dumped overboard after the commandos changed from their boat which brought them to Gujarat from Pakistan’s main port city, Karachi.

For more than a hundred years, Western military experts have grappled with the murky geography of insurgent networks in the mountainous and rugged terrain of the border regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Much like the frontier and tribal agencies along the old Durand Line, the maritime frontier of the western Indian Ocean is simply impossible to police. The British Indian Empire had an overwhelming interest in regulating human and commercial traffic in the western Indian Ocean for most of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Few remember that Aden was directly administered by the Government of Bombay as a protectorate for a hundred years, as it was strategically located at the mouth of the Red Sea, the gateway to the pilgrimage port of Mecca and the Suez Canal.

Throughout the western Indian Ocean coastline from its formal bases in Aden to Bombay, the British assumed various roles in the development and governance of the vast maritime frontier in the Indian Ocean. As regional naval hegemon and guarantor of the security of coastal sultans and emirates such as in Bushire, Basra, Kuwait and Musqat, its commercial agents and native informants commanded political power (in this view, the British have occupied Basra on and off for more than 300 years). As its military and naval interests controlled regional traffic, it enacted traditional duties of protector of pilgrims for thousands of Hajis arrriving Mecca by boat (and increasingly by British steamships) from India or Southeast Asia. The British were thus forced to act in novel scenarios as public health inspector, to control and quarantine the decades-long global plague outbreak which spread from China and India to Europe, Latin America and Europe.

Historians have compared the relations of “informal empire” between British India and these coastal states of the western Indian Ocean as similar to the indirect rule exercised in the colonial princely states. While Bombay and Aden were directly administered as colonial cities in British India, the network of coastal port cities in their vast hinterland from Gujarat to Yemen functioned as an informal sphere of influence for Indian, Arab and Persian merchants and traders who prospered by accepting British naval protection and commercial dominance in international trade in the Indian Ocean (which, in the memorable phrase, became a British pool).

These port cities harboured ships flying flags of convenience and carrying all kinds of local regional trade from the sultanates of Yemen and Muscat, across the mouth of the Persian Gulf to the Makran Coast and the Gulfs of Kutch and Cambay in India. Today little remains of what what colonial port authorities referred to as the “coasting trade”, except for fishing. However, fisherfolk are increasingly threatened by international trawlers which have fish on an industrial scale for export, destroying what remains of the livelihood base of coastal fishing communities.

Syriana (warning, spoiler!) culminates with a pair of young Pakistani boys driving a high-speed dinghy with a warhead strapped on it at high speed into a massive tanker, just as the ribbon is cut on a new coastal refinery built by a Western oil company in a fictionalized Gulf emirate. The boys, migrant workers in a labor camp, are easily recruited to the attack, in which they will also perish. The mothership here, an oil tanker, is not the source, but the target, of the suicide attack. Visions of motherships notwithstanding, most pirates and terrorists, it seems, prefer to travel in speed-boats and dinghies.

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