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29 June 2009 National MUMBAI 26/11

BBC's Unlikely Story

Did the TV coverage of the Mumbai attacks enable the LET's controlling officers in Pakistan to give precise instructions to the terrorists? Or was there a Mumbai-based sleeper cell of the LET that was communicating details of the police deployments a

Under its Newsnight programme, British Broadcasting Corporation 2 is reportedly planning to show at 10-30 PM on June 29, 2009, an investigative story on the Mumbai terrorist attack of November 26, 2008, by Richard Watson, its correspondent. An advance version of the programme disseminated to the media in the UK and India shows that as a result of his investigation, Watson came to the conclusion that spotters belonging to a Mumbai-based sleeper cell of the Lashkar-e-Toiba ( LET) must have been communicating to the LET's controlling officers in Pakistan details of the police deployments and movements in and around the targeted areas on the basis of which they were able to give precise instructions to the terrorists participating in the multiple attacks. He questions the Mumbai police version that the controllers were able to give such instructions purely on the basis of their visual observations from the TV coverage of the attacks as they were taking place. 

As reported by TheTelegraph of the UK, Watson says as follows: 

"How did the leaders know the police positions in such detail? Mumbai police say they were watching live TV in Pakistan. But these instructions seem remarkably precise for that. I know the kind of live-shots used in these situations and they would be unlikely to yield that kind of detail. It is far more likely that they had spotters on the ground who were feeding back information to their leaders about the police movements. If this is true then it means a Lashkar e-Taiba cell in Mumbai which played a crucial role in the attacks which is still undiscovered." 

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His conclusion is based on his assessment of the communications intelligence collected by the police and not on the basis of any independent evidence collected by him in addition to what the Mumbai Police had collected. 

The fact that the LET has been having sleeper cells in Mumbai is well known since the twin explosions of August, 2003. It is also a reasonable possibility that the Mumbai Police has not been able to identify and neutralise all the sleeper cells of the LET in Mumbai. That is why acts of terrorism keep taking place from time to time despite the neutralisation of many cells in Mumbai and other cities. Recently, a sleeper cell headed by a Nepal-based LET operative was neutralised by the Delhi Police. 

To say that the LET must still be having unearthed sleeper cells in Mumbai is one thing and to assert that the spotters of an LET sleeper cell in Mumbai must have been passing on details of police deployments around the targeted areas to the controllers in Pakistan during the attack in Novembere, 2008, is something totally different. 

The Mumbai terrorist attack lasted nearly over 60 hours. Nationals of many Western countries and Israel were among those taken hostage by the terrorists. The intelligence agencies of at least India, the US and Israel were electronically monitoring the telephone calls from and to the attacked areas on a minute-to-minute basis. Of all the intelligence agencies of the world, the National Security Agency (NSA). the electronic intelligence agency of the US, has deployed the maximum technical assets in the Af-Pak region since 9/11 to monitor the communications of Al Qaeda, the LET and other associates. Once the terrorist attacks started, the NSA must have turned all its assets in the region towards Mumbai to monitor all in-coming and out-going communications. So too the Indian intelligence. 

The Indian and the US intelligence agencies were able to intercept all communications passing between the terrorists who had occupied the two hotels and the Nariman House and their controlling officers in Pakistan. In addition to contemporaneously monitoring telephone conversations, intelligence agencies have also arrangements for automatic recording of all conversations in a terrorism situation so that if they contemporaneously miss any conversation, they can refer to the recordings. 

Had there been LET spotters around the areas targeted, who were in independent communication with the controllers in Pakistan their conversations--whether through the Internet or otherwise--must have also been intercepted contemporaneously or recorded and noticed subsequently. No intelligence agency--neither Indian nor the US nor of any other country--has spoken of any such conversation with Pakistan by elements not participating in the attacks. This would show that apart from the 10 terrorists of the LET, who participated in the attacks, nobody else was in independent communication with the controllers in Pakistan. 

The terrorist attacks were covered from different camera angles by camera teams from over 50 TV channels of the world. If the controllers in Pakistan had been able to see all their live transmissions, they would have had the minutest details of the police deployments. During the Black September kidnapping of some Israeli athletes during the Munich Olympics in 1972, the terrorists, who had taken up position with the hostages inside a house in the games village, were able to get details of the police deployments by watching the TV inside the house. At that time, there were hardly half a dozen channels and their technical equipment was not very good. If they were able to get so many details by watching so few channels, it should not be surprising that the Pakistan-based controllers of the Mumbai attacks were able to get a lot more details in such precision. 


B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.

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AUTHORS: B. Raman
SECTION: National
SUBSECTION: Opinion
OUTLOOK 29 June, 2009
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