The Mumbai Attacks - Lessons for the Western World

The terrorist attacks two months ago in Mumbai provide a number of lessons for emergency-services agencies throughout the world. The attacks, which represented an ever-increasing level of sophistication and ingenuity of terrorist activity worldwide, started during the evening hours of 26 November 2008 when small teams of armed terrorists launched a well-coordinated series of assaults that challenged India’s local and national emergency-services capabilities for four days. The terrorist teams, which maintained radio communications with one another throughout the siege, moved swiftly and brazenly through the famous tourist city, initially firing on civilians and authorities alike before settling into hotels crowded with numerous Western tourists and business people. The last of the hostage/barricade situations was resolved on 30 November, leaving almost 200 fatalities and over 300 injured. The terrorist tactics were relatively basic, but the overall operation was fairly sophisticated. In contrast, the response by local and national emergency-services agencies was much less coordinated. The terrorists used the now frequently experienced “multi-prong” approach by combining a number of IED (improvised explosive device) detonations in some areas with small-arms attacks in other areas. The separate teams used the small-arms fire to create a wider scope of carnage. The law-enforcement and military units responding were frustrated in their heroic but somewhat ineffective efforts to locate and contain the terrorist commando teams. The terrorist teams, using pre-programmed GPS devices, moved through Mumbai’s maze of streets like experienced tour guides. There were only ten terrorists in all; divided into killing teams of two to four, they moved swiftly from one crowded target to another, using taxis and stolen vehicles, but sometimes on foot. At one point, a terrorist team commandeered a responding police vehicle, killing its occupants, including Maharashta Police’s Anti-Terrorism Squad chief, Hemant Karkare.

A Lack of Basic Intelligence 

The Indian law-enforcement and military units responding lacked intelligence about the scope of the terror assault, the targets, and the weapons involved. Some responding units were simply disorganized; others were virtually paralyzed. One on-duty police commander (Senior Inspector Nagappa R. Mahale), however, swiftly set up roadblocks, a tactic that resulted in the interdiction of one of the terrorist commando teams. That hasty roadblock, in fact – on Marine Drive on the way to Girgaum Chowpatty – captured the only terrorist to be taken alive. When one of the terrorists’ stolen sedans turned onto Marine Drive en route to the next target, the driver realized that they Ultimately, there were more than 800 police, Indian National Security Guards, and military personnel working together to isolate, contain, and resolve the attacks of 10 terrorists were facing a police roadblock. During the attempt to turn around, a vicious firefight ensued between police and the terrorists. In an uncoordinated albeit heroic effort to stop the terrorist team, officers assaulted the vehicle – however, as is customary in India, not all of the police officers were armed with firearms. But they fought with what they had. Sub-Inspector Tukaram Omble, despite being unarmed, clutched the barrel of an AK rifle held by terrorist Ajmal Amir Kasab; he absorbed six fatal shots, but other police officers clubbed Kasab into submission. Abu Ismail Khan, the other member of that terrorist team, was killed during the police counterattack. Meanwhile, the other terrorist teams were continuing their attacks against key targets – the Taj Mahal Hotel, the Oberoi Hotel (formerly known as the Trident), and the Nariman House (also known as the Chabad House Jewish Center). All of the terrorist teams seemed to have a very good understanding of the layouts of all of their targets. During the course of the various assaults, the terrorist teams gathered hostages and even established command posts in hotel rooms. The local and state law-enforcement and military units responding eventually contained all of the terrorist refuges, and the battle became a fixed-barricade hostage situation. Eyewitness accounts and the evidence collected to date indicate that the terrorist teams were in communications with one another as well as with command oversight elements beyond India’s borders. In addition, it seems evident that some of the terrorist team leaders possessed the hand-held devices needed to gather real-time intelligence through internet-based news media reports. Conversely, most if not all of the local and national police and military units responding seemed to lack even basic communications interoperability. There also was an almost total lack of command and control between and among the responding units. Moreover, unlike the terrorist teams, the police and military commanders had little or no real-time understanding of a common operating picture during much of this deadly and rapidly moving event. Eventually, though, after the terrorist teams had settled into known locations, the Indian containment and interdiction actions became reasonably well organized – and thus more cohesive and effective. Ultimately, the terrorist commando teams were neutralized through coordinated military and police small-unit operations. At the end of the four-day siege there were more than 800 police, Indian National Security Guards (NSGs), and military personnel working together in Mumbai to isolate, contain, and resolve the attacks of 10 terrorists, who had split up into four coordinated killer teams. 

The Mumbai Medical System: Overworked and Underprepared 

The Mumbai emergency medical system was not prepared for an event in which many of the casualties were self-evacuating to area hospitals – and in which hospitals were also on the terrorist target list. Cama Hospital, for example, was in the midst of receiving injured patients when the terrorist team led by Abu Ismail Khan opened fire at the hospital. It turned out that this attack was little more than a drive-by shooting; nonetheless, it heightened an already chaotic situation. Many of the on-scene victims were assisted by other citizens; a number of them were transported from the immediate danger areas on luggage carts or dollies, or were even carried by other citizens who were on the scene but had not been injured. Because there were not enough ambulances available, transportation for some victims was provided by private motorcars. In addition, there was little if any on-scene triage carried out, and no hospital “distribution plan” had been set up. As a result, patients lined the corridors and hallways as three area hospitals tried feverishly to manage a major spike in critical-care demand – in a medical-care system that is routinely stretched to the limit. Some victims died in transit; others died while awaiting care. Lethal Carnage and Deadly Lessons Despite the widespread carnage and the lives lost, there were some valuable lessons learned as well – including the following:

1. Coordinated multi-prong attack methodologies should be expected and studied by all emergency-services agencies and jurisdictions. Mumbai is not the first multi-target attack of its type and certainly will not be the last. Terrorist planners recognize the effectiveness of these types of attacks in straining the emergency-services systems of their chosen targets. 

2. Attack planning and preparations should involve all emergency-services agencies as well as potential private-sector targets. The Mumbai attack operationally targeted hotels (the Oberoi and the Taj Mahal), public transportation services (taxis & rail), hospitals, and dining and entertainment venues (the Metro Cinema & Café Leopold) as well as a religious-oriented community center (Nariman House). In addition, the terrorist commandos were mentally and operationally prepared for dramatic encounters with the law-enforcement and military personnel who responded. The latter point was underscored by Kasab and Kahn’s hasty ambush of a responding police vehicle; the ambush resulted in the death of Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Chief Hemant Karhare and two other police officers. Rather than remaining hidden and let the police vehicle pass by safely, running its lights and siren furiously, the terrorists chose the brazen tactic of assaulting the police directly. 

3. Communications interoperability should be expanded, tested, and significantly improved. Communication challenges have been identified in the United States, and in other Western countries, as a consistent emergency-services coordination soft spot. India’s police and military communications interoperability is almost non-existent. Nonetheless, facing a rapidly evolving coordinated assault similar to the Mumbai attack, even most U.S. agencies would be challenged to implement communications interoperability plans with mutual-aid partners rapidly enough to effectively blunt a similar attack. 

4. Closely associated with the need for improved communications is a parallel need to rapidly develop accurate, real-time situational awareness and provide a common operating picture between responding emergency services disciplines and jurisdictions. In Mumbai, the terrorist teams worked effectively to maintain an accurate situational awareness of most local and area law-enforcement and military-response operations. When their efforts were effective, they were able to stay ahead of the public service interdiction efforts. A case in point was that the terrorists obviously had a better understanding of the Taj Mahal Hotel’s floor plan than the responding police and military units did. Witnesses described several instances in which the terrorists would “disappear” only to re-appear in areas that had already been swept by police and military units. This cat-and-mouse challenge generated additional confusion for the police and military officials, many of whom believed the number of terrorists in the Taj Mahal Hotel was much greater than it actually was.

5. Private-sector businesses must be encouraged to participate in emergency-preparedness activities. There was no coordinated plan linking local police and anti-terrorism units with the private-sector targets of the Mumbai terrorist teams. The attacks were initiated after business hours, and under the cover of darkness. Private-sector business preparedness should include those personnel assigned on all shifts. Most businesses are unprepared for an armed assault, and many are reluctant to take time out of their daily business operations to plan and prepare for such assaults. However, a higher-level objective of the Mumbai attack was to target the tourist industry in Mumbai, and India as a whole. At the strategic level, this intensity of pressure, because of the importance of tourism to the Indian economy, was probably designed to escalate tensions between India and Pakistan. Private-sector infrastructure assets have historically been attractive targets for terrorist groups in achieving broader strategic objectives. From a profitability point of view, the lack of preparedness to safeguard customers makes poor business sense in the 21st century. The Mumbai attacks – in which private businesses were once again a soft terrorist target – should be another warning to public officials and business leaders alike.

In short, the complexity and deadly nature of the Mumbai attacks raises the bar of terrorist operational capabilities worldwide. Seen in that context, the terrorist assault on Mumbai ranks on the same plane as the Moscow Theater siege, the attacks on London’s underground subway system, and the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center towers. All were watershed events in the global evolution of terrorist campaigns against the democratic societies of the Western world.  Emergency-services planners and public officials should closely study the Mumbai attacks, therefore, with an objective of elevating their emergency preparedness and response posture to a new level that embraces the private sector as well as the entire spectrum of emergency-services disciplines.

Joseph W. Trindal

As founder and president of Direct Action Resilience LLC, Joseph Trindal leads a team of retired federal, state, and local criminal justice officials providing consulting and training services to public and private sector organizations enhancing leadership, risk management, preparedness, and police services. He serves as a senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Justice, International Criminal Justice Training and Assistance Program (ICITAP) developing and leading delivery of programs that build post-conflict nations’ capabilities for democratic policing and applied modern investigative techniques. After a 20-year career with the U.S. Marshals Service, where he served as chief deputy U.S. marshal and ERT incident commander, he accepted the invitation in 2002 to become part of the leadership standing up the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as director at Federal Protective Service for the National Capital Region. He serves on the Partnership Advisory Council at the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST). He also serves on the International Association of Chiefs of Police, International Managers of Police Academy and College Training. He was on faculty as an instructor at George Washington University. He is past president of the InfraGard National Capital Region Members Alliance. He has published numerous articles, academic papers, and technical counter-terrorism training programs. He has two sons on active duty in the U.S. Navy. Himself a Marine Corps veteran, he holds degrees in police science and criminal justice. He has contributed to the Domestic Preparedness Journal since 2006 and is a member of the Preparedness Leadership Council.



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