There is a need for a thorough investigation into the unprecedented terrorist strike in Mumbai, which lasted from around 9-21 PM on November 26 till the morning of November 29. It was unprecedented in conception, planning and execution and in the brutality inflicted by the terrorists on the victims--particularly Indian and Israeli nationals.
Indian nationals--Hindus and Muslims-- were the largest number killed--about 160. The second largest number were Israelis--about nine. There were another 16 foreign victims of different nationalities.
While the modus operandi of terrorists coming stealthily by sea and taking the security forces by surprise had been seen in the past in Sri Lanka and Israel, a new MO seen for the first time in Mumbai was what some Israeli experts have described as the human cluster bomb tactics. In a cluster bomb, a number of bomblets separate from a mother bomb and spread in different directions killing or maiming people in their path.
A group of at least 10 terrorists landed in Mumbai at one place, split into four groups and spread in different directions. Two terrorists--one of them reportedly belonging to the Lashkar-e-Toiba arrested and under interrogation-- went round the areas close to the sea front and killed people indiscriminately through hand-held weapons. One of them was killed and another captured--but not before they had killed at least about 70 innocent civilians.
A task of this group apparently was to keep the police preoccupied in hunting for them and to prevent it from going to the main scenes of attack, which had a strategic significance. These were the Taj Palace Hotel, the Oberoi and Trident hotels, belonging to the same management and located side by side, and the Nariman House, in which a Jewish religious-cum-cultural centre is located.
Four terrorists forced their way into the Taj Palace Hotel, and two each into the Oberoi/Trident hotels and the Nariman House. Their targets were the Indian and foreign guests staying or eating in the hotel and the Israelis and other Jewish people living or staying in the Jewish centre.
As per information available till now, they did not take hostages in order to make any demands. They detained the foreigners and Indians in the hotels and the Jewish people (eight of them) in the Nariman House in order to force a confrontation with the Indian special intervention forces spearheaded by the National Security Guards (NSG).
The confrontation reportedly started only on the morning of November 27--nearly 12 hours after the terrorists took control of the places and continued for nearly 40 hours before the terrorists could be eliminated. During this period, the terrorists in the Nariman House inflicted shocking brutalities on the Jewish people in the religious centre and reportedly lined up and gunned down many of the guests--Indians and foreigners—in the Taj Palace Hotel, which appeared to have been the strategic focus of the entire operation.
The delayed response of the NSG and the failure of the local authorities to keep the media out of the scenes of confrontation by imposing a curfew, if necessary, or, at least, by switching off all TV transmissions till the operation was over resulted in three consequences.
- First, despite the outstanding bravery of the NSG officers, the credibility of India’s rapid response mechanism has been damaged in the eyes of the Indian public and international opinion.
- Second, the TV transmissions even as the confrontation was going on enabled the terrorists to find out what was going on outside without the intervention forces being able to find out what was going on inside. The TV channels unwittingly provided an asymmetric operational advantage to the terrorists.
- Third, the terrorists received a colossal supply of oxygen in the form of publicity, which is likely to increase the flow of volunteers for more terrorist strikes in future.
It is evident the terrorist strike had three strategic objectives:
- First, to discredit the Indian political leadership and counter-terrorism apparatus.
- Second, to damage our tourist economy and to create nervousness in the minds of foreign investors about the security of life and property in India.
- Third, to disrupt the strategic co-operation between India and Israel. To what extent they have achieved these objectives remains to be seen.
The present investigation by the Mumbai Police, assisted by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), has a three-point focus:
- The role of the LET and any others involved
- The role of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and
- A reconstruction of the entire strike.
One gets the impression that while the first two have been receiving adequate attention, the third is not receiving the immediate attention it deserves. Without a satisfactory reconstruction, our ability to prevent a repetition of Mumbai--November 26 in other cities would be weak.
The strike in Mumbai was not a one-shot isolated attack. There is a strong likelihood that it was the precursor to more such attacks in future. The only way of preventing a repetition is by revamping our entire counter-terrorism machinery, which has failed to deliver repeatedly for over a year now and drawing the right lessons from our colossal failure on all fronts--intelligence, physical security, consequence management and leadership, which failed equally.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.