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Home > India > News > Columnists > Shanthie D'Souza

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Clueless India as terror revisits Mumbai

November 29, 2008

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Who were these men and what was their motive? As the terrorists struck at India's financial nerve centre, bringing a city that never sleeps to a complete stand still, these baffling questions are being raised by the informed analysts on various television channels.

Given the confusion and fear that every such terrorist attack in India's urban centres has created, such questions are not entirely surprising, more so, when attacks of the November 26 variety appeared to have taken everybody by surprise.

The fact, however, remains that this new variant of 'new terrorism' with high visibility and mass casualty attacks stares India at its face and the security establishment of the most protected urban centres have been found to be slow in responding to this new wave of terror unleashed in the country.

Among the chaos that the attacks have generated, roughly all that lies in the present realm of 'facts' in this case is the following. A group of 20 to 25 terrorists carrying a huge amount of arms and explosives came through the sea route, from a mother ship, using mortised rubber boats.

These movements that took place in the early hours of the evening went completely unnoticed as they off loaded at Colaba. Incidentaly, this happens to be the same place which was used during the 1993 blasts.

They split into small groups of about two to three men each. The main group entered into the Taj and the Oberoi Trident hotels killing the front office staff and security personnel at the hotels.

They apparently established a control room in these hotels and monitored the activities of the other groups who had fanned out into ten other locations in southern Mumbai including a popular caf�, the railway terminus, a hospital and several busy public places.

Each place of attack turned into a centre of mayhem. Among the dead were the chief of the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) of the Mumbai Police Hemant Karkare [Images] and two other senior police officers including encounter specialist Vijay Salaskar and Additional Commissioner Ashok Kamte.

In the meantime, several foreigners were taken hostages in both the hotels and in Nariman House. The terrorists apparently sought out nationals of United States, Britain and Israeli nationals -- a fact that led many to believe that the attacks had an Al Qaeda [Images] connection.

The claims by the previously unheard of Deccan Mujahideen [Images] led to some initial confusion. 'Terrorists did not kill people at random. They had a clear plan to execute'-- a Union minister was to inform hours later. It was clearly a different tactic on part of the terrorists from the usual blasts shrouded in anonymity in earlier times.

The attacks were most apparently a result of months-long planning most probably involving some local agents, possibly with the assistance of the Pakistan based underworld don Dawood Ibrahim [Images], the prime accused in the 1993 serial blasts in Mumbai.

The terrorists were acting on a pre-designed plan and also had a clear knowledge that the attacks would bring out on to the streets some of the top cops, whom they can prey upon. Even as the ATS chief decided to lead operations in one of the locations, he was killed even while protected by a bullet proof vest and helmet.

For the first time, there were open encounters between the terrorists and the security forces. The terrorists had indeed come prepared for a long battle as the recovered items like almonds and dry fruit packets seemed to suggest.

Intelligence failure is a clich�d expression that follows every terrorist attack in this country. But this time around, the failure was more in coordination. While the sources in the home ministry maintain, in the third week of September India had received specific information that there could be a large-scale operation within India by the Lashkar-e-Tayiba and had passed on this information to the Intelligence Bureau and in turn they had sent this information to the Maharashtra police.

Yet, despite repeated intelligence inputs, mentioning targets, including hotels in Mumbai, the police were not able to piece in this information to 'actionable intelligence'. For a change, even the Union home minister was categorical in admitting it.

Terrorists were initially thought to be gangsters and the attacks for the first few hours were seen as a gang war. Only after the killing of the ATS chief and the top cops that the state government realised the gravity of the situation. That had allowed the terrorists enough time not just to move about the city's busiest landmarks, shooting almost at anybody they chose to, but also let some terrorists attempt an escape, using ironically a police vehicle.

Were the attackers trying to message to the new administration of Barack Obama [Images] in the United States? Is the attacks linked to the US strikes inside Pakistani territory and instability in Afghanistan? Whether these attacks were intended to discredit the image of India as a 'stable and economically growing power? Answers to all this questions are possibly in the affirmative.

At the same time, however, the attacks need to be seen as an affront on a vulnerable India. Very little appears to have been learnt from the countless terror attacks that the country's urban centres have been subjected to in recent times. Hours were possibly lost in putting together a team of NSG commandos and flying them into Mumbai. Hours after the terrorists lined up foreign nationals in the hotels, the commandos had not even contemplated a storming in.

The security experts think that the task of putting together a NSG team and give them a go ahead for an operation should not have taken more than few minutes, given the established procedures that govern these forces.

The delay, hence, defies logic. Hours after the terrorists took a number of hostages, television connections to the rooms were not cut off, thereby possibly arming the terrorists with all the critical information that they should not have fed with.

These are grim reminders of the circumstances that led to the Indian Airlines plane IC 814 hijacking to Kandahar in 1999. Indian anti-terror strategy is refusing to come of age.

For the first time, we heard of a marine wing of the Lashkar-e-Tayiba, which reportedly was training near Karachi. We also heard of the intercepts and the phone calls to Pakistan. But these were never thought to be capable of targeting Mumbai, which in 1993 had been a victim of the terror material and men that came undetected through the sea route.

Could the results of the attacks have been worse? With more than 125 dead and about 300 people injured, it may not be a question that would be asked by many. But what still sends shivers down many spines was the fact that huge quantities of RDX was reportedly recovered behind two of the hotels under attack.

The costs have been immediately felt. The English cricket tour has been called off. The Mumbai stock exchange shut for a day. In the coming days, the tourism industry will also bear the brunt.

The government, on the other hand, has come up with its usual response -- denouncing the attacks and asserting that it would bring the guilty to book. All these incidentally have been parts of the unkempt promises of earlier times.

The prime minister's promise of establishing a federal investigative agency is almost a year old. What stops him from setting up one still remains unknown. This time too he made that old promise. Very little continues to be spent on the intelligence wing of every State police department. 

Maharashtra has only 147 police personnel per 100,000 population and a police density of 49.9, far below the recommendations by the United Nations. There has been no attempt to invest on human intelligence. Even after countless terror attacks, we are still trying to find a way out of the state-versus-Centre wriggle that remains a clear road block as far as devising a swift response to such attacks.

This time around, the police investigations would begin with some advantages, unlike other occasions when they had to reconstruct the faces of the terrorists using eye-witness accounts.

For the first time they have at least one captured terrorist, who has been described as a Pakistani national. They have recovered ATM and Credit cards with photographs and some other documents from the killed terrorists. They have photographs of some of the terrorists, courtesy the CCTV cameras in various places. It remains to been seen how this valuable intelligence will help the security establishment evolve better crisp response mechanisms?

Comparisons have already been made between the Mumbai attacks and the 9/11 attacks in the United States. The latter had pushed the US administration to invoke extra-ordinary measures that continues to keep its homeland virtually terror free. Will India ever be able to do that even after such a horrific attack? That remains a critical question.


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