26/11 horror theatre revisited

26/11 horror theatre revisited

Mumbai terror attacks: A year has passed but the terror threat has not diminished as yet

For 66 hours beginning November 26, 2008 much of India watched in horror the spectacular Mumbai terror strikes. When emotions gave way to rationality, the truth began to sink in. The most outrageous production of terrorist act on Indian soil was beyond the imagination of the best special effects creators. It was not simply four days of ceaseless theatre, although theatre it was. Real terrorists had transformed cinema’s make belief into a horrific reality - no different from the images and memories of something more catastrophic that had struck the United States seven years ago.

Like the events of September 11, 2001, the November attack on India was a perfectly choreographed production. Mohammad Ajmal Kasab, his compatriots and their handlers in Pakistan paid attention to script preparation, cast selection, sets, props, role playing and minute-by-minute stage management. But both acts of terror and counter-terrorism transcended the boundaries of theatrical events. A reading of ‘The 9/11 Commission Report’ brings to light some uncanny resemblances in the manner in which terrorists in New York, Washington and Mumbai trained, travelled and acquainted themselves with their targets before they unleashed such unprecedented violence.

Much of the common pre-strike activities could be possible because of globalisation which, over the past 15 years, has given rise to the terrorist entrepreneur. If Osama bin Laden held the purse strings of the 9/11 operations, Pakistani national Khaled Sheikh Mohammad, whose trial will begin shortly in New York, was that theatre’s “self-cast star - the superterrorist” who presented himself as an “entrepreneur seeking venture capital (from bin Laden) and people”. In the sub-continental perspective, Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Mohammad Hafeez Sayeed is bin Laden on a smaller scale, though it is left to every Indian’s imagination that the money that funds terrorist strikes in India comes from the Pakistani establishment.

Willing collaborators

The full scale of the plan behind the Mumbai attacks are yet to be investigated and there is every likelihood that it might never come to light. It is still not clear what role arrested American national David Coleman Headley and his Pakistani-born Canadian citizen co-conspirator Tahawwur Hussain Rana might have played in the conspiracy to attack Mumbai. And yet it is emerging that large sums of money were transferred in the United States by the duo. Like some of the 9/11 terrorists, Headley (and possibly others) could travel in and out of India with ease and without the security agencies getting a whiff of his movements. Travel was significant in the planning undertaken by the terrorists selected by the LeT and suspected Pakistani state actors.

The 9/11 operations required travel, as did basic communications and the movement of money. It is possible that where electronic communications were regarded as insecure, the LeT relied on couriers, with the peripatetic Headley fitting the bill. As a former CIA officer Paul Pillar writes, globalisation has helped terrorists “reach tempting targets and willing collaborators”. The group that struck Mumbai, for example, did not exist until its members coalesced in Karachi and elsewhere in Pakistan and finally in Mumbai for the serial attacks.

Terror networking

Terrorists have extended their reach by building globe-circling infrastructures, including sleeper cells, not only in Indian cities but as far-flung as the United States. If Headley and Rana constituted the centre of the LeT’s cell in the US, they could fund-raise, move material and organise other support functions overseas as well as in India and, of course, Pakistan, more efficiently. Remember it was the al Qaeda’s Hamburg cell, headed by Mohammad Atta, that formed the core of the twin attacks on World Trade Centre and Pentagon. There is no direct evidence to suggest that Headley and Rana are LeT members. International terrorism, as Pillar points out, has become the work less of distinct and well-defined groups than of networks (of individuals and of ill-defined and constantly shifting groups). Consequently, the proliferation of networks has made it increasingly difficult to determine responsibility of terrorist acts.

Advances in communications and information technology have facilitated worldwide terrorist operations just as they have assisted normal commerce. Satellite phones are now standard equipment for terrorist leaders, who can remain otherwise inaccessible in a place such as Afghanistan or in the tribal areas of Pakistan, while influencing events thousands of miles away. Suspected terrorists Headley and Rana also used the Internet for long-distance operational direction with some larger groups or individuals, beside using it for talent spotting in India.

Indian failure

The more terrorists move information, money and themselves around the globe, the more data are available to security agencies on what they are up to. That is perhaps what led the American FBI to successfully track Headley and Rana before arresting them.

Admittedly, there are practical difficulties in collecting and exploiting that data. But the practical difficulties should not be allowed to obscure the uncomfortable fact that Indian security agencies have consistently failed to successfully counter terrorism or terrorist threats.

The Mumbai attack was not a strategic surprise. Mumbai (and other Indian cities, including Delhi) have been attacked before and, therefore, the strikes were not contrary to expectations. With India a constant target for Pakistan-backed terrorists, the argument that there was no advance warning does not hold water. The obvious conclusion is that the deadly strikes laid bare the lack of adequate preparation.  

Close to a year later, the FBI’s arrest of Headley and Rana lead us to the inescapable conclusion that not only are Indian security agencies incapable of distinguishing signal from noise, but they are downright inept at following up on a live case. Preparing for the challenges of the future requires systematic efforts to study and learn from not just the cases that surprise us, but also from the crises that are not managed well.

The Big Qs

*  Is India prepared to successfully avert another 26/11 in future?

*  Have we learnt from past mistakes?

*  Have we succeeded in putting international pressure on Pakistan and getting the real culprits punished?

*  Does India need to be more aggressive on foreign policy and adopt retaliation techniques?