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The Simple Art of Terror

April 20, 2009

The Simple Art of Terror

by Anamitra Deb

The Simple Art of Terror

On November 26th, 2008, Bombay was the target of a terrorist attack allegedly carried out by men from the jihadi organization, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), meaning 'Army of the Pure.' Armed with AK-47s, hand grenades, and RDX (an explosive chemical used in military applications), the terrorists targeted civilians, killing over 200 men, women and children.

Ten men came to my city by the sea and docked their rubber dinghy in a forgotten fisher-people’s slum. Ten men, armed with guns and grenades, headed nonchalantly in the direction of the city’s main attractions. Dressed in jeans and t-shirts, and carrying backpacks, ten men split into four groups, maybe five, and started the shooting later that evening.

In an attritional siege that lasted more than 60 hours, severe damage was done to the inhabitants of a city that is no stranger to terror.

Over half of the casualties took place within the first few hours, all at frequented landmarks – at the touristy Leopold Café, and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Train Station, used by millions of local commuters daily. At the already-overflowing Cama Hospital and outside of Bombay's oldest cinema, the Metro. Inside of the city’s best-known five-star hotels, the Taj Mahal and the Oberoi Trident, men fired guns in lobbies and staircases, bars and restaurants, chambers and kitchens.

Many stories have emerged in the aftermath. According to one man who was dining with friends in the Taj Mahal hotel when he noticed two gunmen come into the restaurant, the terrorists were systematic and callous. They ordered everybody to line up against the wall, and, receiving orders by satellite phone to "blow them all away," they started firing at people with AK-47s. A bullet grazed the man's neck as he fell on top of other bodies, and others fell on him. For twelve hours or more, in a darkened room, he played at being dead. The gunmen then returned with digital cameras and took pictures of the bodies. Hours later, the man, who prefers to remain anonymous, was rescued by Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) commandos.

India's security infrastructure was inadequate when it came to dealing with the violence. For weeks before the shootings happened, intercepted communications were ignored, security threats were underestimated, and intelligence briefings shelved - the national dailies reported as usual. In one telling instance, Sir Ratan Tata, owner of the Taj Hotels, later divulged in a televised interview that although he had received warning that his hotel was going to be a target, the decision was made not to increase security.

When the shootings first started, within minutes of each other in multiple locations, local policemen were the first to respond. Armed with truncheons and WWI-issue .303 rifles, they were no match for men with AK-47s and hand grenades. It took more than seven hours before the gravity of the situation had registered with the state's highest political officers, Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, and his Minister of State; over seven hours before NSG commandos were deployed. During this time more than one hundred civilians died.

"In such large cities, these sorts of small accidents are bound to happen." said Home Minister R.R. Patil the following day.

Ajmal Kasab was the only gunman that was eventually tracked down. As he and others were fleeing in a stolen car, police gave chase on motorcycles, some of them unarmed. Assistant Sub-Inspector Tukaram Omble caught up with Kasab and grabbed the barrel of his AK-47 only to be shot multiple times. The time bought by this act allowed the other policemen to arrest Kasab.

The End of Farce

Twenty-four hours had passed by the time Prime Minister Manmohan Singh first spoke on national television about what had happened in Mumbai.

In the wake of many protests and peace marches that regularly flood Mumbai, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, a prominent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson, described the vigils and anti-politician sentiments of the population as acts akin to the violence of the terror-mongers.

"Some women wearing lipstick and powder have taken to the streets in Mumbai and are abusing politicians-spreading dissatisfaction against democracy. This is what terrorists are doing in Jammu and Kashmir".

In the days following the attacks, the Indian government was quick to lay blame for the less-than-efficient tactics that had been employed during the crisis. The Union Home Minister, Shivraj Patil, was the first one fingered. Patil was cited as having neglected his "moral responsibility" for ignoring the warnings that he had been provided. Next to be fired were R.R. Patil, and then, finally, Deshmukh.

Politics by any Other Means

India's most violent acts of recent years have taken place in Gujarat, Maharastra's neighbouring state. Narendra Modi, Gujarat's Chief Minister and one of India's most controversial politicians, arrived at the scene of the Mumbai attacks hours after the fact, offering compensation to the families of the soldiers that had died, most notably to the family of Hemant Karkare, the late head of the Anti-Terrorist Squad, whose widow refused to accept the money. Modi further used the event instead to start campaigning to run for Prime Minister.

Only weeks earlier, Modi and other members of the Hindu nationalist BJP had been calling Karkare a traitor and a non-patriot, asking for his dismissal and his imprisonment for his investigation into the Malegaon blasts, an incident for which Hindus are regularly targeted.

News channel reporters in their efforts to provide sensational ongoing coverage of the attacks, ignored security barricades, revealed survivors’ hiding spots on live TV, and tried to conduct live interviews with security and NSG personnel. Neither the NSG command or the political leadership seemed to have any clear or established spokespeople. There were no official press briefings or question periods. The attacks were consistently referred to as "India's 9/11." Twenty-four hours into the attack, still far from over, the Taj Mahal Hotel rescue operations were declared to be ending. Thirty-six hours after this, national security was still inside the hotel, putting out fires caused by exploding hand grenades.

Days later, newspapers and talk shows continued to focus on the opinions of Mumbai's elite, such as film stars, while ignoring security analysts and foreign policy specialists who may have elucidated on the timing of the attacks, and their geopolitical implications.

The Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), directed by Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, and with strong links to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, has a history of civilian attacks in India, as well as security agendas in Pakistan and Afghanistan through its alliances. For years they have conducted well-planned forays into national territory, especially in the state of Kashmir. Global security analysts maintain that the attacks on Mumbai achieved at least one of the desired objectives of the LeT and their Taliban allies: the diversion of Pakistani troops away from the Western front to the Indo-Pakistan Line of Control. Nearly five months later, the Taliban has established strongholds in north-western Pakistan.

Washington DC and Brussels, much less New Delhi, have all expressed dissatisfaction with Pakistan’s response. Pakistan President Zardari’s new civilian coalition government promised to send the chief of the ISI to New Delhi after the attacks, but retracted the offer. The man widely suspected to be the mastermind of the Mumbai attacks, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, remains safe in Pakistan, running the LeT’s front organization, the Jamaat-ud-Dawah. Pakistan’s requests for “concrete evidence” grate like a broken record. This despite confessions from Kasab regarding his nationality, training, and organizational affiliation, and in spite of verification of his identity by his neighbours, as reported by the Pakistani news media. Today, Kasab has confessed, and Pakistan has all but admitted the role of Lakhvi in the attacks. Due perhaps to the recent political upheaval in Pakistan, the situation remains unresolved.

Indian military hawks called for an armed military response, but even today, New Delhi’s response continues to be measured. No targeted strikes on militant training camps, no bombs in Peshawar and Lahore, no rushing into guerrilla warfare on the glacial line of control in Jammu and Kashmir.

Where Do We Go From Here

The events in Mumbai are not "India's 9/11." There has not been a radical overhauling of foreign policy, or an armed response.

December and January have been punctuated by peace marches, candle-lit vigils and the occasional cry of grief. Citizen groups have formed, waiting to help out with trauma counseling and demanding accountability for the attacks. National reform of systemic intelligence and security has been promised by the government, and the streamlining of national security management is a start. In a country where Hindus and Muslims living side by side carry out the only experiment of its kind in the world, it appears that progress has been made in the sense that the aftermath has not been violent.

The attacks on Mumbai then, are yet another instance of a gruesome civilian attack that has no immediate resolution. The Indian government continues to wait for Pakistan to hand over the prime accused. A comprehensive document that contains evidence of Kasab's Pakistani nationality, funding and modus operandi has been submitted to Zardari's government. Pakistan's current troubles do not point to a quick response, as Zardari, Nawaz Sharif and military generals wrestle for power in the heartlands. Meanwhile, in Mumbai, the situation has assumed a semblance of normalcy, although citizens are now reminded daily of the attacks by an increased police presence. Kasab languishes in a local high-security prison, testifying via video camera. Politicians, their attention diverted by the global macroeconomic meltdown, have pursued other agendas in the wake of the upcoming general elections. In the world's largest democracy, the sheer scale of security problems means that much work remains to be done, particularly between Islamabad and New Delhi. But the government has committed to maintaining a diplomatic dialogue with Pakistan, and India's citizens will have to wait patiently for answers and change.


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