When terrorists of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda struck the US on 9/11, many counter-terrorism analysts of the world thought of the New York World Trade Centre explosion of February 1993, and the simultaneous explosions at Mumbai on March 12,1993, in which nearly 250 innocent civilians were killed. For the sheer audacity of conception, these three terrorist incidents stood apart.
How did the Indian political leadership, bureaucracy and public react to the Mumbai explosions? What impact they had on the Indian psyche? These were some of the questions that an American journalist wanted to analyse and compare his findings with the post-9/11 reactions in the US.
A few days after 9/11, he rang up a senior official of the government of India in New Delhi and asked him who would be able to talk knowledgeably on the subject. He gave him my name and telephone number and told him that I headed the counter-terrorism division of the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), India's external intelligence agency, at that time and was one of the first to reach the spot after the explosions.
He rang me up and asked: "As you think back of your arrival at the spot, what is the first thought that comes to your mind?" I replied:
"As I reached there, I noticed that the street children of Mumbai were playing cricket near the scene, totally unconcerned over any dangers they might face. A large number of people had gathered around the scene to watch the police and the fire brigade in action. There was no fear in their eyes. Within two hours, Rajesh Pilot, then the minister of state for internal security in the Government of India at New Delhi, was on his way to Mumbai in an Air Force plane to visit the spot and supervise the investigation. Later, Mr Narasimha Rao, the then prime minister of India, flew to Mumbai and went round the places where the explosions had taken place, unmindful of any danger. When a nation, its leaders and its people refuse to be afraid of terrorists and to be intimidated by them, no terrorist and no State-sponsor of terrorism can win against that nation."
Then to his discomfiture, I told him:
"Look at the way you behaved after 9/11. In India, after the terrorists strike, people run towards the spot — some to help the victims and the police and some out of curiosity and the political leaders consider it their duty to demonstrate to the terrorists that they are not intimidated. In the US, one saw people running away from the spot helter-skelter. President Bush and Vice-President Cheney practically disappeared from public view except for brief appearances on television. Nobody knew where they were. Bush was being flown from city to city so that terrorists would not know where he was. In the television visuals, one could see fear and confusion in their eyes. By your initial reactions, you have already lost the initiative to the terrorists."
I do not know whether the journalist carried my replies.
Immediately after the explosions in Mumbai, the US State Department, as it usually does, issued an advisory asking its citizens not to travel to India and its diplomats posted in India to call off all their tours. Thomas Pickering, who was the US ambassador to India, had been transferred to Moscow . When the explosions took place, he had already handed over charge as ambassador in New Delhi, but had not yet taken off for Moscow. Because of the advisory, he got stuck in New Delhi for days.
He was impatient to start functioning from Moscow. He started pestering the State Department to let him fly in disregard of its advisory. It told him to consult the Indian security officials and follow their advice.
An official of the US embassy called on me and sought my advice. I told him:
"Who am I to give advice to your ambassador? Your State Department never consulted us before issuing the advisory, which is totally unwarranted. You tell your ambassador to seek the advice of his department."
He said the State Department wanted him to follow our advice. I persisted in my refusal to give any advice. Those were the days when we were not afraid of ticking off the Americans and we had full confidence that the political leadership would totally back us. Not like today, when we bend backwards to curry favour with the Americans.
Some days later, Mr Pickering did take off for Moscow.
The then Canadian foreign minister also got stuck in New Delhi where he had stopped for a day on his way to Beijing . The Canadians usually followed US advisories in security matters. The foreign minister was getting impatient. The Canadian high commission in New Delhi was then advised by their foreign office to consult Indian security officials. A high commission official met me. I told him:
"Since you follow US advice, better ask them. Why do you ask me?"
After a few hours, he came back to me again and said his foreign minister was insisting they should get the clearance of Indian security officials.
I told him I would not give any advice to his foreign minister, but I would tell him what advice I would give to my own prime minister if he asked me. I added I would tell my prime minister as follows:
"Sir, our security agencies have taken all possible security precautions. Despite this, nobody can give a 100 per cent guarantee that the terrorists cannot strike if they are determined to. You should not allow this to come in the way of your normal functioning. The moment you do so we would lose half the battle against them."
The Canadian official asked:
"Won't your prime minister misunderstand if you spoke like that?"
"No," I replied. "On the contrary, he would appreciate it."
He asked me whether he could mention this to his foreign minister. I told him he could. That night, he took off for Beijing.
Immediately after the explosions, Prime Minister Rao accepted the advice of R&AW that we should invite the counter-terrorism experts of the US, UK and other Western countries to visit the spot and see the weapons and other evidence gathered by the police during the initial investigation. The detonators and timers were of American origin, the hand-grenades of Austrian design and some AK-47 rifles of Chinese-make. The evidence indicated the terrorists had got all this from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence.
The idea was that if the Western counter-terrorism experts saw the evidence immediately after the explosions, they might go back and tell their political leadership they were convinced that the ISI was behind the explosions, even though they might not share their findings with us.
The US experts wanted to take a detonator and timer which had been recovered intact to the US for forensic examination and promised to return them after the examination. I agreed to it. A few days later, they gave an unsigned report that they were of American origin and were part of stock given to Pakistan during the Afghan war in the 1980s.
The report added this did not necessarily mean the terrorists got them from the ISI. It pointed out that in Pakistan there was a lot of leakage of government arms and ammunition to smugglers and expressed the view that the terrorists might have procured them from the smugglers.
When I asked them to return the detonator and the timer as promised by them they replied that their forensic experts had by mistake destroyed them. They did not apparently want to leave any clinching evidence against Pakistan in our hands. This was a bitter lesson to us that in matters concerning Pakistan one should not totally trust the US. They would do anything to ensure that no harm came to Pakistan.
When the US experts were visiting the spots in Mumbai a British journalist posted in New Delhi came to know from a source in the Mumbai police about their visit and the name of the hotel where they were staying. He rang them up and wanted to interview them. They strongly denied they were counter-terrorism experts, cut short their stay in India and went back to the US. They were apparently afraid if the terrorists came to suspect the US was helping India, they might target US nationals.
We gave to the Chinese details of the AK-47 rifles of Chinese-make recovered in Mumbai and asked them whether they had sold them to Pakistan. They claimed that in Chinese arms factories record-keeping was in a mess and as such they had no record as to whom they had sold them. They pointed out that in the past they had sold AK-47 rifles to a number of countries in Asia and Africa and added that the recovery of the rifles in Mumbai did not necessarily mean the terrorists got them from Pakistan.
Only the Austrians gave a signed report that the hand-grenades had been made in a factory in Pakistan set up with their assistance.
Within three or four days of the explosions, the Mumbai police, the Intelligence Bureau and R&AW had solved the case, identified the terrorists responsible, procured documentary evidence of their travel to Pakistan for training and details of the arms and ammunition got by them from Pakistan and recovered the unutilised ones.
We are so good in investigating an act of terrorism after it has taken place, but our record of prevention leaves much to be desired. It is not that we do not get preventive intelligence. For every successful act of terrorism there are many which were prevented by timely and precise intelligence, but the public will always judge the intelligence agencies by what they could not prevent and not by what they did.
For months after the explosions, there was an intense debate among officials in New Delhi whether the Mumbai explosions were due to an intelligence failure. Intelligence officials strongly contested this and pointed out that investigations had revealed there were persons, including public servants, posted in Maharashtra , who were apparently aware there had been clandestine landings of arms and ammunition on the coast though they did not know these were meant for use in Mumbai. They chose not to alert the intelligence agencies and police about it. Intelligence officials therefore contended this showed it was not a case of failure of intelligence, but failure of integrity. The government decided not to order an enquiry as to whether there was an intelligence failure.