Clueless India fumbles again

Shanthie Mariet D'Souza
Indians like to call themselves terrorism's biggest victims. After the bungling  
that went into 26/11 was exposed over public television, they know why

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 standstill, these questions are being raked endlessly by informed analysts on various TV 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 26-27 variety appeared to have taken everybody by surprise in terms of the scale, planning, execution and intended targets. The fact, however, remains that this variant of 'new terrorism' with high visibility and mass casualty effects stares India at its face and the security establishment of the most protected urban centres have been found wanting in their responses to this new wave of terror unleashed in the country.

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 terrorists carrying a huge amount of arms and explosives came through the sea route, from a mother ship, using motorised boats. They offloaded at Colaba and split into small groups of about two to three men each. The main group entered the Taj and the Oberoi Trident hotels killing the front office staff and security personnel. They apparently established a control room in the hotels. The other groups had fanned out into ten other locations in southern Mumbai including a popular café, the main railway terminus, a hospital and several busy public places and residential areas. Each place of attack turned into a centre of mayhem. The targets selected were clearly intended at sending multiple messages to the international and national audience.

The terrorists apparently sought out nationals of the United States, Britain and Israel-- a fact that led many to believe that the attacks had an al-Qaeda connection. The process of 'sub-contracting' terror by the al-Qaeda among terrorist groups in Pakistan cannot be ignored in post-9/11 South Asia. The planning and execution of such attacks does bring back memories of previous attacks in the region, such as the ones on the Serena hotel in Afghanistan (January 2008) and the Marriot in Islamabad (September 2008). The claims by the previously unheard-of 'Deccan Mujahideen' led to some initial speculation on the involvement of home grown terrorists. But the sophistication in planning and execution of such attacks speak otherwise.

"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 dramatic and altered tactic on part of the terrorists from the usual bomb blasts shrouded in anonymity in India's cities which was forgotten by 'resilient India'. The attacks were apparently a result of meticulous planning, most probably involving some local agents, possibly with the assistance of the Pakistan based underworld don Dawood Ibrahim, the prime accused in the 1993 Bombay blasts. The terrorists were acting on a pre-designed plan. The chief of the Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS)was killed while leading the operations in one of the locations. This confirms the extent of target planning by the attacking side. 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 recovery of almonds and dry fruit packets seemed to suggest.

Intelligence failure is a clichéd expression that follows almost every terrorist attack in this country. But this time around, the failure was more in the realm of coordination. Sources in the Home Ministry claim to have received specific information in the third week of September of an impending 'large-scale action' by the Lashkar. It had passed on this vital information to the Intelligence Bureau, which, in turn, transmitted it to Maharashtra Police. Yet, the police were slow to piece this into 'actionable intelligence'. The terrorists were initially thought to be local gangsters and the firing part of a gang war.

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. A long time was lost in putting together a team of NSG commandos and getting it over to Mumbai. Hours after the terrorists lined up foreign nationals in the hotels, the commandos had not even contemplated a storming in, a decision that can be taken within minutes, given the established procedures that govern these forces. 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 IC-814 hijacking in 1999. Indian anti-terror strategy is refusing to come of age to deal with newer and lethal terror strategies.

For the first time, the marine wing of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, earlier reported to be training near Karachi, shot into the limelight. The intercepts and the phone calls to Pakistan were brought to public attention. The local fishermen apparently had noticed and reported some suspicious movements in the Colaba area and apparently, the Police had failed to take timely action.

Could the results of the attacks have been worse? With more than 130 dead and over 300 injured, it may not be a question to be asked by\ many. But what still sends shivers down many spines was the fact that huge quantities of RDX were reportedly recovered behind two of the hotels.

The problem of coordination between different agencies continues to mar effective anti- terrorism response. Nothing much is done to establish a federal investigative agency, a proposal mooted almost a year back. 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 and coordinated response to such attacks is concerned. Very little is invested on the intelligence wing of the state police, which suffers from a vacancy of about 15 per cent. National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data for 2007 indicates that Maharashtra has only 141 police personnel per 100,000 population and a police density of 48.6, far below the recommendations of the United Nations. Moreover, there has been no attempt to invest on critical 'human intelligence' particularly in urban centres where detection is difficult and safe houses are easily found.

This time around, the investigations would begin with some advantages. For the first time the security forces have at least one captured terrorist, ATM and credit cards with photographs, CCTV images and some other documents from the killed terrorists. It remains to be seen how these inputs can be taken forward to evolve better crisis response mechanisms particularly in hostage negotiations.

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

-- The writer is Associate Fellow, Institute of Defence Studies & Analyses, New Delhi. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.