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Mumbai: Lessons for the future

By B.Raman

While the picture of what happened in Mumbai between 9-21 PM on Wednesday and 8 AM on Saturday, when the terrorist situation was finally terminated, is still incomplete and confusing, certain facts available should give an attitude of the magnitude of the strikes, the like of which the world has not seen before:

* There were 13 incidents of intense firing with assault rifles at different places, including the Chhatrapati Shivaji Train (CST) terminus, where the terrorist operation started at 9-21 PM, the Metro Cinema junction, the Cama and Albless Hospital, outside the Olympia restaurant in Colaba, the lobbies of the Taj Mahal and Oberoi/Trident hotels, and the Leopald Café behind the Taj Mahal Hotel. The terrorists would seem to have chosen the CST for the launching of their strikes because it is named after Shivaji, a Hindu ruler, who fiercely opposed the Muslim rulers of India. Near the Metro Cinema junction, some terrorists hijacked a police vehicle and went around spraying bullets on passers-by.

* There were seven incidents involving explosive devices----outside the Taj Mahal Hotel, in the BPT Colony at Mazgaon, three near the Oberoi/Trident Hotels, the Colaba market and inside a taxi.

* There were many incidents of throwing hand-grenades---two of them at the Cama hospital and on Free Press Road. Hemant Karkare, the legendary head of Mumbai’s Anti-terrorism Squad (ATS), is reported to have been killed in the incident near the hospital.

* There were three incidents of fidayeen style (suicidal, not suicide) infiltration into buildings followed by a prolonged confrontation with the security forces before being killed or captured. These took place in the Taj Mahal and the Oberoi/Trident hotels and in the Narriman House in Colaba, where a Jewish religious-cum-cultural centre is located, headed by a Jewish Rabbi. Jewish people of different nationalities often congregate there. The centre also has cheap accommodation for Jewish visitors from abroad.

* According to the local authorities, most of the hotel guests who were subsequently rescued by the NSG had run into their rooms and locked themselves up when the terrorist forced their way into the lobbies and restaurants and started opening fire. They were not hostages. It is not yet clear whether the terrorists did manage to take hostages and, if so, of which nationalities.

* The terrorists took four Jewish people hostages in the Narriman House, three of them Israeli nationals. They were found dead when the NSG made their entry and killed the terrorists. It is not yet known how they died-----through bullet wounds or beheading as the jihadis normally do.

* There were over 160 fatalities. The number may go up as the security forces inspect the hotels. According to present indications, the number of foreigners killed was about 10 only--- including three Israelis, two Greeks, one Japanese and possibly two Americans (not yet confirmed ). The terrorists were reportedly looking for people with American, British and Israeli passports.

* Almost all the terrorist strikes took place against targets near the sea, indicating thereby that the terrorists, who had reportedly come by sea, were hoping to escape by sea if they managed to survive.

* Between 15 and 20 terrorists, who came from outside, are believed to have participated in the operation, The kind of local support they had is not yet clear.

* Two of the terrorists are reported to have been caught alive and are presently under interrogation. According to the police, one of them, who gave his name as Ajmal Amir Kamal, is a resident of Faridot, near Multan, in Pakistani Punjab. He identified himself as a member of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET). His preliminary interrogation also indicates that the others, who came from outside, also belonged to the LET and had been trained at Muridke, in Pakistani Punjab, where the headquarters of the LET are located.

2. The Mumbai Police, the NSG, the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and the Mumbai Fire Brigade have confronted the terrorists and handled the crisis in an exemplary manner, of which the entire nation can be proud. Their performance has been as exemplary as the crisis management of their counterparts in New York after 9/11. About 20 officers of various ranks, including the chief of the ATS, an additional Commissioner of Police of Mumbai, and two young and intrepid officers of the NSG have died fighting the terrorists.

3.The Government of Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh and his Congress (I) are back to their denial and cover-up mode. They play down the possibility of the involvement of Al Qaeda despite tell-tale signs of an Al Qaeda stamp on the strikes. They continue to maintain a silence on the role of sections of the Indian Muslims lest any open projection of this cost them Muslim votes. They continue to highlight the role of the LET, but without highlighting the fact that it is a member of Osama bin Laden’s International Islamic Front (IIF) and that it has many associates in the Indian Muslim community.

4.I watched with shock and disbelief on the TV, visuals of Karkare trying different helmets and bullet-proof vests before choosing one which suited his build. Here was the most threatened officer of the Mumbai Police and the Government had not even given him a protective gear tailor-made for him. This is a telling instance of the casual way we handle counter-terrorism and we look after our brave officers fighting terrorism.

5.The Prime Minister has been unwise in reportedly suggesting a visit to India by Lt.Gen.Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the Director-General of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), for discussions on the Mumbai blasts. One fails to understand what useful results will come out of it. There are strong indications of the involvement of the LET in the Mumbai strikes----either on its own or at the direction of bin Laden and most likely with the logistic support of some Indian Muslims. By failing to act against the LET, its leaders and terrorist infrastructure even after ostensibly banning it on January 12,2002, the State of Pakistan has definitely facilitated its acts of terrorism in Indian territory. By sharing the information collected by us at this stage with the ISI chief we will help him in covering up the tracks of the LET and the ISI before we could complete the investigation. There has been opposition in Pakistan to his visit particularly from the Army.

6.One should not be surprised if the suggestion for the visit had come from the US and the Prime Minister had accepted it just as he accepted in September,2006, the US suggestion for setting up a joint counter-terrorism mechanism with Pakistan. The American ploy would have been to divert any Indian public anger against Pakistan and the Prime Minister should have firmly rejected it.

7.Three of the most gruesome acts of terrorism since India became independent have taken place in Mumbai---the March 1993 blasts, the July 2006 blasts in suburban trains and the strikes of November 26-29. It is a shame that we have not been able to protect effectively this city, which is the jewel of India. Mumbai is India’s New York and Shanghai. Look at the way the Americans have protected NY after 9/11. Look at the way the Chinese have protected Shanghai. The immediate priority of the Government should be to set up a joint task force of serving and retired officers from Maharashtra in the Police, intelligence agencies and the Armed Forces to work-out and implement a time-bound plan to ensure that 26/11 cannot be repeated again. Mumbai has till now been the gateway of India. The terrorists have exploited it. We should make it Fortress India. Foreign investors will lose confidence in India if Mumbai, where most of the corporate headquarters are located, can be attacked repeatedly with impunity by terrorists.

8.The second lesson is that confidence-building measures with Pakistan cannot be at the expense of national security. In the name of confidence-building, there have been too many relaxations of immigration regulations applicable to Pakistan. There has been pressure on the Government for more relaxations from the so-called Indians-Pakistanis Bhai Bhai (Indians-Pakistanis are brothers) lobby. The terrorists have been a major beneficiary of these relaxations. These relaxations have decreased the vigilance of our people. For example, hotels, which immediately used to alert the Police when a Pakistani national or a foreigner of Pakistani origin checked in, no longer do so. According to one as yet unconfirmed report, some of the perpetrators of the attacks on the hotels had checked in some days before the strike and the others came subsequently by boat. If this was so and if the hotels had immediately alerted the Police, the terrorist strikes might have been prevented.

9. In my view, the terrorist strikes in Mumbai had the stamp of Al Qaeda in the way they were conceived, planned and executed. There has also been a touch of the Hizbollah of the Lebanon, the Popular Front For The Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade and other Palestinian organizations.

10.The reported use of boats and dinghies for the clandestine transport of men and material for terrorist strikes on land is an old modus operandi (MO) used in the past against Israel. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had copied it from them. The anti-India jihadis have emulated their West Asian counterparts.

11.The use of boats for transport enables the terrorists to evade physical security checks by road, rail and air. The numerous creeks between India and Pakistan across the Bhuj area of Gujarat enable the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan and the pro-Al Qaeda Pakistani terrorist organizations to clandestinely transport men and material by sea. Reports that the ISI had planned to use this MO for helping the Khalistani terrorists in the 1990s had led to the Border Security Force acquiring some boats which could be used for surveillance in these creeks.

12.The success of the terrorists in evading detection by our Coast Guard and the police reveals a serious gap in our maritime counter-terrorism architecture. If this gap is not quickly identified and closed, the vulnerability of the Bombay High off-shore oil installations and the nuclear establishments to terrorist attacks from the sea would be increased. Many of our nuclear and space establishments----not only in Mumbai, but also in other areas---are located on the coast and are particularly vulnerable to sea-borne terrorist attacks.

13.The stamp of Al Qaeda is evident in the selection of targets. The Taj Hotel, old and new, the Oberoi-Trident Hotel and the Narriman House were the strategic focus of the terrorist operation. The terrorist strikes in other places such as railway stations, a hospital etc and instances of random firing were of a tactical nature intended to create scare and panic.

14. The strategic significance of the attacks on the two hotels from Al Qaeda’s point of view arose from the fact that these hotels are the approved hotels of the US and Israeli Governments for their visiting public servants and for the temporary stay of their consular officials posted in Mumbai till a regular house is found for them.

15. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, presently undergoing trial before a military tribunal in the Guantanamo Bay detention centre for his involvement in the 9/11 terrorist strikes, was reported to have told his American interrogators that before 9/11 Al Qaeda had planned to blow up the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi. After the visit of President George Bush to India in March,2006, Osama bin Laden had, in an audio message, described the global jihad as directed against the Crusaders, the Jewish people and the Hindus.

16.Al Qaeda and pro-Al Qaeda organizations have been critical of India’s close co-operation with Israel and the US. In the past, the ISI had also shown an interest in having Indo-Israeli relations disrupted through terrorist attacks on visiting Israeli nationals in India. In 1991, it had instigated an attack by the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front on some Israeli tourists in Srinagar by alleging that they were really Israeli counter-terrorism experts.

17.The fact that the number of foreigners killed was small would show that the attacks on the foreigners in the hotels was selective and not indiscriminate. Available reports indicate that the terrorists were looking for American, British and Israeli nationals----particularly visiting public servants among them with official or diplomatic passports.

18.The only reason for their targeting the British could have been the active British role in the anti-Taliban operations in Afghanistan and in training the commandoes of Pakistan’s Special Services Group (SSG), jointly with an American team of instructors. The SSG was in the forefront of the raid into the Lal Masjid of Islamabad in July,2007, and has been playing an active role in the operations against the Pakistani Taliban in the Swat Valley of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

19. The terrorist strike has also had an anti-Jewish angle as evident from the raid into the Narriman House and the taking of Jewish hostages there. The targeting of the Americans, British, Israelis and Indian Jews has to be seen in the overall context of not only the anger of some Muslims against the Indian co-operation with the US and Israel , but also the role of the US and the UK in the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. One should be prepared for more attacks in future not only on American, British and Israeli nationals, but also on their diplomatic and consular missions and their business interests in India.

20. The attacks on the foreigners have already disrupted the ongoing tour of India by the English cricket team. it is ironic that at a time when we were considering the advisability of our cricket team going to Pakistan due to the poor security conditions there, foreign cricket teams should start having fears about coming to India due to the poor internal security in India. Similar nervousness in the minds of businessmen in foreign countries over security conditions in India could be an outcome of the spectacular terrorist strikes.

21.In the US, Spain and the UK, the terrorist strikes attributed to Al Qaeda were followed by detailed enquiries to identify deficiencies which made the strikes possible and recommend remedial measures, which were implemented. In India, even though we have been facing a series of major terrorist strikes since November 2007, no enquiry has been held. Unless we have the courage to admit our deficiencies and correct them, our counter-terrorism machinery is unlikely to improve. The public has a right to be kept informed of the results of the enquiries and the action taken.

22.There is a misleading debate started by the Congress (I) on the importance of patriotism in the face of the terrorist strikes. It has been trying to silence criticism of its mishandling in the name of patriotism. It has been citing the example of the US after 9/11. In the US, patriotism did not mean support of the Government, right or wrong. It meant support for all the measures taken by the Government for strengthening the counter-terrorism machinery such as additional powers for the agencies and the police, increase in budgetary allocations for the agencies, tightening of immigration procedures etc. It did not mean silence on the sins of commission and omission of the Government. Electoral calculations seem to be the only motivating factor of the Government’s actions and not national interests and national security----even after the colossal Mumbai failure and the consequent tragedy.

( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: seventyone2@gmail.com )