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26/11: Colossal security failure, a nation on the run

November 09, 2013 17:28 IST

What distinguishes 26/11 from other bombings in big cities, for instance 9/11 in New York or 7/7 in London, is that it remains the best-documented attack in a digitally enhanced world, says Sunil Sethi

Do nations, like human beings, want to forget their worst nightmares? Public memory is often short, and from the viewpoint of unsuspecting victims trapped in terrorist attacks, there may be closure, even forgiveness, in the act of blocking out tragedy. But countries can't afford the same: the risks are too great, a recurrence of the stalking danger palpably high.

The case of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks is far from closed. All we have by way of official response or retributive action on the fifth anniversary this month of that fearful event is that a handful of politicians and police officers lost their jobs or were sidelined; the Pradhan Commission's 64-page inquiry into the "war-like" situation in the city is a pretty worthless document. It exempted investigation of political leaders, officials and intelligence agencies, including the elite National Security Guard. Mumbai's pathetically equipped police were exonerated.

Closing many of the gaps in that story of colossal security failure that traumatised a nation and transfixed the world is a compelling account of 26/11 by two award-winning British journalists. The Siege: The Attack on the Taj, by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark (Penguin; Rs 499), is a gruelling, unputdownable chronicle of three days that paralysed a city, left 166 dead, twice as many wounded, at the hands of 10 heavily armed and rigorously trained gunmen - "one man less than a cricket team," note the authors wryly, "had got an entire nation on the run".

What distinguishes 26/11 from other bombings in big cities, for instance 9/11 in New York or 7/7 in London, is that it remains the best-documented attack in a digitally enhanced world: the assailants' handlers in Karachi used cheap third-country Internet telephony, Google Earth maps and satellite TV to direct their moves; in turn, they were fed by calls, texts and tweets by panicked guests relayed to the media outside, beaming the catastrophe live on TV.

"Whatever the media is reporting, we will tell you," a handler instructs gunmen in the Taj. "Throw the grenade towards the seaside. There are many people standing there."

In addition to access to wiretap intercepts, the authors' research is assiduous: hundreds of interviews across the world, material sourced from half a dozen foreign intelligence agencies, and extensive use of contacts in the Pakistani army, Inter-Services Intelligence and Lashkar-e-Tayiba training camps that include a rare interview with LeT co-founder Hafiz Saeed.

Here is the best account of how poor, semi-orphaned boys like Ajmal Kasab were turned into jihad's holy warriors or how drug smuggler David Headley became a diabolical double agent in the pay of his American and Pakistani patrons.

Shortly after midnight that Black Wednesday, I received a tragic text from my close friend and colleague Sabina Sehgal Saikia trapped in the Sunrise Suite: "There is firing going on. My room in darkness. TV off. Phone on silent. They're inside. I'm scared and totally alone."

I reported the sequence of events in this column ("A friend's terror and disappearance", November 29, 2008): "For the last 48 hours I have been witness to the misery and frustration of Sabina's husband, brother and her numerous friends and media colleagues to find out what happened."

Nearly two years later, on the basis of that single report, the authors tracked me down to help recreate Sabina's last days in Mumbai; hers is just one part of a complex jigsaw they have diligently pieced together.

This book gave me, as it will many others, some sleepless nights irked by a nagging question: why does intelligence and security failure occur again and again -- witness this summer's Maoist attack in Chhattisgarh that killed a section of the state Congress leadership or the blasts at Narendra Modi's Patna rally.

In her book, The March of Folly, the American historian Barbara Tuchman attributes the worst mistakes in history to the "wooden-headedness" of states, or an unwillingness to listen to the facts.

"Failure of communications appears to be endemic to the human condition," she concludes. "Historical mistakes are often irretrievable."

The guns of November 2008 haven't fallen silent.

Image: Two terrorists at CST station in Mumbai on 26/11/2008

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