Maritime and Port Security in Pakistan


Risk Intelligence

By Mathias Hagstrøm,

Stud. Scient. Soc., Roskilde University

Strategic Insights No 27 October 2010

4/21/2011 – With a population of more than 180 million people and being a potential gateway for Central Asian and western Chinese trade, Pakistan is a very interesting developing market. But with problems of insurgency groups and state stability, it has not yet realized its geopolitical and economic potential.

The sheer scale of insurgency activity in Pakistan as a whole underlines the need for caution when operating either inland or at sea. While the number of concrete attacks on port facilities and ships is relatively low the number of security incidents in 2009 has surpassed 2,100 nationwide.

This article looks at the overall security situation in Pakistan’s maritime area, the specifically at the main port areas, and suggests that the overall security of the maritime sector will be strengthened if development of trade and business is able to bring about visible economic improvements for the coastal communities

Security Overview

(Credit: Risk Intelligence)(Credit: Risk Intelligence)

While piracy in Pakistani waters and along the coast is non-existent, there are still pressing security considerations in relation to the risk of maritime terrorism and attacks on ships and port facilities by insurgency groups.

These considerations are complicated by bureaucratic inefficiency and wider corruption and fraud. As well, the dispute with India over maritime boundary 258 and the resulting struggle over fishing rights have both the Indian and the Pakistani coast guards engaged in capturing foreign fishing vessels.


While the official Pakistani position is that there are no incidents of “robbery at sea” in Pakistani waters, the media has covered several incidents. The reason why these incidents are not registered by Pakistani authorities is that they are interpreted as part of a local conflict, and the authorities therefore abstain from classifying the incidents as robbery at sea. This practice of not registering security incidents on smaller vessels makes it impossible to estimate the extent of the problem and makes it harder to pinpoint developing security issues.

The Pakistani navy and coast guard are, however, engaged in reducing both piracy and armed robbery at sea. In 2009 Pakistan hosted a conference on sea piracy and engaged in a major naval exercise with China with a focus on combating piracy. The Pakistani coast guard is also engaged in combating drugs and other types of trafficking with increasing military presence in Pakistani as well as international waters.

These engagements are part of the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) that was established in 2002, born out of Operation Enduring Freedom and consists of three dozen ships from Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Pakistan, Canada, Denmark, Turkey, the U.S. and U.K., as well as other naval forces and personnel from several other nations.

CMF is divided into three task forces: the CTF 150 commanded by the Pakistani Navy Rear Admiral Zafar Mahmood Abbasi is engaged in counterterrorism, the CTF 151 task force is responsible with combating piracy including activity at the horn of Africa, and the CTF 152 is engaged with combating trafficking.

Pakistan has experienced eight notable maritime security incidents in the past 10 years; two of these have been accidents. These are, however, not the only security risks in relation to maritime security. Inland port connectivity and supply lines such as roads, rail tracks, power lines and oil and gas pipelines have all been repeatedly targeted in order to disrupt the working of the ports, with limited success.

The most severe disruption on trade relating to the Pakistani ports has been several incidents of ambushes, direct attacks and torching of NATO/ISAF supply convoys in route from Karachi to Afghanistan.

Terrorist and Insurgency Groups

The problems with terrorist and insurgency groups should not only be seen as limited to northern Pakistan. Al Qaeda, Pakistani Taleban (the Tehrik-i-Taliban), separatist movements and other militant groups do have the capability to execute terrorist attacks within the maritime and the shipping sectors. Al Qaeda has already demonstrated its maritime capabilities by executing the attacks on the USS COLE in 1999 and the 2002 attack on the French registered vessel LIMBURG. Business Monitor International classifies Pakistan with danger rating “red” and with a terrorism score of 35 where 100 signifies most unlikely place for terrorism to hit, surpassing the Philippines and other Asian countries with high risks of terrorism.

(Credit: Risk Intelligence)(Credit: Risk Intelligence)

Gwadar deep-sea port has experienced direct attacks on port facilities in 2004 and Gwadar Harbor in 2009. The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) has also in recent years targeted critical infrastructure in relation to inland port connectivity. From 2004 to 2009, Balouch insurgency groups launched approximately 471 attacks on infrastructure such as oil pipelines, roads, power grid and telecommunications. While terrorists and insurgents mainly target critical infrastructure the safety of road travel to and from the ports is also influenced by sectarian violence, unrest and criminal activity.

Pakistani Authorities

Corruption is widespread in Pakistan and entails both the private as well as the public sector with Pakistan scoring 2.4 in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index (CPI). There have been recent reports on corruption in Gwadar, Qasim and Karachi ports and Pakistani media has reported deep-seated corruption within the Trading Corporation of Pakistan (TCP) that deals with imports and exports on behalf of the government of Pakistan and deals directly with shipping companies. The Port Qasim Authority (PQA) has also been highlighted as a “golden egg of corruption” in the Pakistani media and prime example of corrupt government organizations in Pakistan.

Corruption poses a significant threat to goods and costs and it also poses a threat to human security in terms of imprisonment or violence. The ports of Pakistan are investing in technical equipment in order to tighten security, but corruption can seriously undermine these efforts.

Pakistani observers speculate that corruption has played a significant role in bypassing security. The 2003 environmental disaster of the TASMAN SPIRIT illustrates other security concerns when operating in Pakistani waters and dealing with authorities. The detention of the ship’s crew shows that there is a significant risk of criminalizing the crew in relation to security incidents by the Pakistani authorities and a willingness to use detention of crewmembers to pursue political agendas.


The risk of trafficking of weapons, drugs or people is present in all ports of Pakistan. According to the World Bank, both Gwadar and Karachi ports are major hubs in international drug trade. The risk of stowaways is also significant; Afghans are the largest nationality of stowaways that embark from the ports of Pakistan. Pakistan joined the Prevention and Control of Human Trafficking Ordinance in 2002 and has registered 1,826 cases of trafficking between 2003 to 2006.

Pakistan is also a significant producer of small arms. It is estimated that there are more than 18 million illicit small arms in the country and a substantial amount of these are exported each year. Pakistan is also struggling with the vast problem of drug trafficking, mainly from Afghanistan. Pakistan tries to deal with this issue at a number of difference levels with their contribution to Coalition Task Force, CTF 152.

(Credit: Risk Intelligence)(Credit: Risk Intelligence)

Sindh Province and Karachi Area Ports

Sindh has experienced clashes between ethnic groups since the partition of British India in 1947. Night travel is not always possible due to risk of robbery, but rail and pipeline security is good in general, making the overall inland port connectivity relatively stable and safe.

The transportation networks of Sindh are today the main route for reaching the markets of Afghanistan, Western China and Central Asia and is relatively safe to use compared to other transportation networks in Pakistan. While the number of attacks has been increasing from 2006, Sindh remains one of the most peaceful provinces of Pakistan.

Sindh and Karachi are of vital importance for the Pakistani economy. Karachi is therefore a high-level target for insurgency groups where a relatively small successful operation could jeopardies Pakistan’s economy and trade relations with the rest of the world.

Karachi is the financial capital of Pakistan with a population of 15.5 million people and is served by the two ports Port Qasim and Karachi port. Karachi lies in the Indus delta in the Sindh province. Travel warnings have been issued by many Western governments emphasizing the need for caution by business travellers, but taking into account the size of the population and the types of attacks, Karachi remain a relatively safe city for the international traveller.

Overall, the Karachi ports are vulnerable to terrorists picking soft targets such as ships or port facilities. The Pakistani authorities are aware of these risks, however, and have a major interest in properly securing the ports.

Port Qasim Authority has been working with Transparency International in order to solve its problems with corruption. Soft targets like oil tankers and container ships are at the time of writing extremely lucrative for terrorist and insurgency groups. Such a target would be devastating for the Pakistani economy and commerce and would further destabilize the already volatile State of Pakistan.

In the province of Sindh where Karachi is located, separatist and sectarian groups have a key interest in such operations that could further the destabilization of Pakistan and thereby strengthening their agendas. There are no immediate security risks of campaigns of terrorism or other violent actions against the ports of Karachi. There are, however, heightened risks of isolated security incidents related to political, sectarian and other types of violence.

The ports of Karachi are high value targets, and with the latent risk of violence and terrorism in Pakistan isolated security incidents are a significant security concern.

Port Qasim

Port Qasim is one of the country’s busiest ports consisting of a four-berth multipurpose terminal, a two-berth container terminal, a one-berth liquid chemical terminal, and a one-berth oil terminal. The port is managed by the Port Qasim Authority (PQA) and consists of terminals and industrial zones covering an area of roughly 12,000 acres.

Large investments have recently been made to strengthen security mainly in terms of improving vessel tracking systems and establishing an Integrated Cargo Container Control (IC3), the first of its kind in Pakistan.

In order to tighten security in relation to terrorism a number of road blocks and barriers have been established throughout the port. Video surveillance and patrols by security teams are some of the initiatives the PQA has implemented in order to heighten security. However, a recent incident with theft of 5,000 truckloads of sand has sparked speculation about the general level of security.

Karachi Port

Karachi is the former capital of Pakistan and Karachi port is the historical seaport. The industrial harbor consists of two wharfs each with its own container terminal of two berths. The East wharf has 17 berths while the west wharf has 13.

Additionally, there are three liquid cargo berths and a combined naval and civil shipyard. A fishing harbor and smaller boatyards also adds to the traffic in the harbor. The Karachi Port Authority administers Karachi port, with a port security force in charge of security.

Karachi port utilizes many of the security measures that are also present at Port Qasim with video surveillance and vessel tracking systems. Karachi port has established a central port operation center where both security and administrative tasks are administrated and coordinated.

An intelligence report published just after the insurgency attack on the Pakistan National Army headquarters in Islamabad on 10 October 2009, expressed a high risk of terrorist attack on the port of Karachi. The report states that insurgents have been scouting for maritime targets and security weaknesses in the port and warns about a possible attack on various port installations. While the Karachi police and the Pakistani navy have confirmed a heightened security level it should be mentioned that the whole port area is only covered by a single police station.

Pakistan media has reported that the port security force is ill equipped to counter any terrorist attack. Another issue that raises security concerns is an ongoing conflict between the port security force and Karachi Port Authority on labor rights, and this is an issue that is currently being dealt with by the Sindh High Court. Port officials have reported that the security protocol is significantly heightened when ships from the EU navigate the port where these are escorted by gunboats. In September 2010 the World Bank endorsed a US$115.8 million port improvement project aimed at expanding capacity and institutional strengthening.

Balochistan Province and Gwadar Deep-sea Port

The province of Balochistan is the Pakistani side of a much wider territory covering parts of Afghanistan and Iran. Balochistan is the largest province of Pakistan and is covered by vast deserts, mountains and rough terrain and is the least populated province of Pakistan. Today, Balouch separatist movements are active again, adopting guerrilla tactics of targeting critical infrastructure, local government, police, and military. While the number of civilian casualties is still high, the tactics applied by insurgency groups in Balochistan is significantly different than in other parts of Pakistan.

Since 2004 Balochistan has experienced 30% of the security incidents of Pakistan, which makes it one of the most unstable provinces only surpassed by the North frontier province. A network of oil and gas pipelines connects Gwadar port with these resources and these are frequently targets of the BLA.

In relation to the wider Gwadar development project, there are heavy investments in road and rail links. These infrastructures connecting the port of Gwadar have become lucrative targets due to a relative low risk and the possibility to disrupt movement, trade and supply lines. While Balouch insurgency groups seem to favor pipelines as a target, road and rail connectivity to Gwadar is also at risk.

There persists a strong mistrust towards foreign and non- Balouch involvement in the province. Within Balouch nationalist communities, Pakistani and foreign involvement is seen as Punjabi colonization. Since 2004 there has been a steady increase in security incidents. While Gwadar remains quite safe for the most part, the port is a significant symbolic target. Like is the case with the ports of Karachi there is a risk of an isolated terrorist incident, but with the activity of BLA and other separatist groups there is also a risk of a longer sustained campaign against Gwadar deep sea port.

Gwadar Deep-sea Port

Ten years ago Gwadar was a small and dusty fishing town in Balochistan. Today it is a thriving and developing port city with a population of 53.000 people. The development of Gwadar has been far from easy and has also added fuel to the ongoing conflict between Balouch nationalists and Pakistani authorities. The security incidents tend to concentrate around urban and industrial development and non-Balouch persons.

While security incidents in Gwadar are much fewer than in Karachi there is a significant difference in the nature of these incidents. While Karachi has a large amount of political and sectarian violence the incidents in Gwadar seem more focused on the presence of non-Balouch activities and investments. This should be taken into consideration when operating in Gwadar and wider Balochistan where hiring non-Balouch labor or being foreign can increase the risk of becoming a target to Balouch insurgent groups.

Gwadar deep-sea port is located on the tip of a narrow peninsular. It has three multipurpose berths and one service berth. The deep-sea port is close to two fishing harbors and a military installation belonging to the Navy of Pakistan. The first ship anchored at Gwadar deep-sea port in March 2008. The port is run by the Port Singapore Authority (PSA), which won the bid for a 40-year contract.

This year the PSA started the initial survey for phase two, a US$932 million Gwadar development project adding an additional nine berths to the port on its completion.

In its development phase and short existence, Gwadar deep-sea port has already had a number of security incidents.

On 3 May 2004, 3 Chinese engineers were killed and 11 others wounded in an IED attack and the following month the port itself was the target of a coordinated attack. One of the port facilities was damaged along with a police checkpoint, a government building and the construction site of an international hotel. Again, on 10 July 2010,

Chinese engineers were the suspected targets of a BLA rocket attack launched from a small boat in the port; no one was hurt in this incident. The port has also suffered from numerous blackouts due to the BLA’s successful operations targeting pylons and power lines connecting the port.

In August 2009 the first accident happened at the port when a vessel collided with the ro-ro, berth creating structural damage to the port. The PSA was accused of trying to cover-up the incident and downplay the damage caused.

Pakistani authorities are very security conscious when it comes to Gwadar and a naval base is situated on the same peninsular as the deep-sea port. It has also been reported that the Chinese are supporting the Pakistani military with intelligence in relation to Balouch separatist groups.

Due to security risks and insufficiently developed infrastructure connecting the port, Gwadar has not yet attracted a lot of international shipping traffic.

Future Developments: Stability and Trade

Many scholars on Pakistan warn about the likeliness of a state collapse but such predictions have been articulated many times before without anything happening.

There exists an invisible glue that keeps Pakistan together, not as a real nation state but as the place where very different ethnic, religious and political groups struggle to coexist.

But being a country without a common national identity brings about serious security challenges. The maritime sector has so far been relatively unaffected by these problems.

The increasing activity of Balouch separatist groups and their focus on targeting critical infrastructure, airports and ports and harbor facilities should not be taken lightly. Other groups like Al Qaeda also pose a continued threat to the maritime sector although single security incidents seem more likely than an actual campaign against the maritime sector.

It is still the local civilian and business sectors that are most affected by security incidents. Police and military are to some extent directly targeted but also experience a high number of attacks when protecting potential main targets.

Comparing Balochistan and Sindh, it is clearly two different types of security issues.

Balochistan experiences some of the classic security problems associated with guerrilla warfare whereas Sindh sufferers from political, ethnic and religious unrest.

The ports of Karachi are not as much at risk of local security incidents as is the case with Gwadar deep-sea port. The abilities of insurgency groups operating nationwide and their ability to operate in Karachi should not be underestimated.

In July 2010 Pakistan was hit by severe floods following the monsoon rain. The UN estimates that over 2,000 people were killed and 17-21 million people injured or rendered homeless due to the floods. While the ports only suffered minor damage the connecting infrastructure was badly hit. It is estimated that 2,433 miles of highway and 3,508 miles of railway was affected with damage exceeding US$280 million and setting back Pakistani development for years to come.

The areas worst affected have been Sind and Punjab provinces while the infrastructure in Balochistan was hit less severely. The major supply lines are open again, however, including the two important NATO routes to Afghanistan through Chaman and Torkham. Pakistani authorities state that there are again 2,000-3,000 NATO supply trucks on route to Afghanistan on any given day.

Despite the floods and the general unrest in Pakistan, investment is being made in order to fulfill its potential as a gateway for trade. Pipelines connecting Iran to the port of Gwadar are in development and road links through Afghanistan to the central Asian republics are also in the making. If just some of these projects succeed they will generate increased traffic to Gwadar and Karachi ports.

Such developments will help to strengthen overall port security but also makes the shipping industry a more high value target. The overall security of the maritime sector will be strengthened if development of trade and business is able to bring about visible economic improvements for the coastal communities. This would undermine support of insurgency and terrorist groups in the local communities and improve security not only for foreign investors