Mumbai: Implications for the West

Less than two months ago – in late November 2008 – terrorists carried out a series of coordinated attacks across Mumbai, India, that resulted in 173 killed (the exact number is still disputed) and another 308 injured. At least six Americans were among the dead. The incident, which lasted for 62 hours and stretched over four days, brought India’s largest city, and financial center, to a virtual standstill. Initially, because of the scale of the attacks and the mayhem that ensued, it was believed that there were 15 to 25 terrorists actively participating in the attacks – but later intelligence suggested that the number was closer to ten. In the aftermath of the bloody incident, Indian officials blamed Pakistan, its traditional rival – and, like India, the possessor of nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan have fought three wars since the independence of the two nations. Only one terrorist is known to have survived the operation, a Pakistani named Ajmal Qasab, who indicated during his interrogation that he was a member of a group called Lashkar-e-Taiba and had been trained at a camp in Pakistan. Pakistan clearly bears at least part of the blame, because all nations are prohibited under international law from allowing their territory to be used by armed militants to carry out attacks on other countries. Nevertheless, India also must share some responsibility for the attacks, primarily because its response to the crisis was nothing short of disastrous. 

Mistakes, Malfunctions, Misunderstandings 

Not only was India wholly unprepared for the terrorist assault, despite growing domestic violence in recent years, but its performance once the attacks were underway is reminiscent of other botched attempts, by other governments, to address previous hostage crises – most notably, perhaps, the debacle at the 1972 Munich Olympics in what was then West Germany. During the Summer Olympics in Munich, a group of Black September (Palestinian) terrorists infiltrated the Olympic village and took hostage a number of Israeli athletes and coaches. West Germany responded by attempting to rescue the hostages – after first luring the terrorists, and their captives, to a nearby airfield and promising them a safe exit. 

The West German government had refused to permit well-trained Israeli commandos from launching a rescue operation and instead had relied on poorly trained and equipped police to carry out the mission. Because of Germany’s Nazi past, the better-prepared West German military was banned under the constitution from operating inside the country. The West German police had no actual “plan” as such for rescuing the hostages, but simply deployed five snipers to take out the terrorists. There were fewer snipers than there were terrorists, though, and none of the snipers was a trained sharpshooter. 

Moreover, their weapons were substandard, especially in low-light situations, and they lacked not only body armor and helmets but also the radios they needed to keep them abreast of developments in what was an extremely tense and very fluid situation. In addition, the helicopters carrying the terrorists and their hostages to the airport landed in the wrong place, blocking clear shots by the snipers and giving the terrorists some obviously unintended cover. The snipers opened fire but initially killed only two of the terrorists. The remaining terrorists then returned fire – while also proceeding to systematically murder nine 

Some individual Indian police officers demonstrated commendable bravery, but many of their actions were uncoordinated and even, in some situations, counterproductive

 Israeli hostages, who were bound and helpless in the helicopters, with gunfire and grenades. Two other Israelis had been killed during the takeover of the Israeli compound. When the incident was finally over, five terrorists were dead and three others were in custody. A German police officer also had been killed. Reeling from international criticism of its handling of the crisis, the West German government undertook a number of reforms – including the creation of the elite anti-terrorist GSG-9 commando unit – to ensure that it would never again be caught unprepared by terrorists. 

Mumbai Parallels – Compounded 

India’s response to the 26 November 2008 terrorist attacks was eerily reminiscent of the botched West German response 36 years earlier. Although Indian intelligence had warned management of the two principal targets – the Trident Oberoi and Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotels – of a possible terrorist attack, both hotels had beefed up security only temporarily, but returned to business as usual when nothing happened. The Indian government failed, moreover, to take any steps to increase security at Mumbai’s seaport facilities. The attackers, it turned out, reached Mumbai via speed boats that had been launched from trawlers. Mumbai is believed to have 15 patrol boats in its waterfront inventory, but none of them, according to reports, were used for patrolling. It is now believed there were only ten attackers, a relatively small number considering the widespread havoc they caused, but they not only were well-armed – with explosives and small arms – but also were equipped with GPS systems, body armor, and cell phones. 

Prior to the attacks, moreover, confederates of the terrorists apparently had carried out an extensive recon of all of the projected targets and the attackers had studied the recon information both on-line and using Google Earth. The terrorists hit ten targets in all, but the two hotels clearly were their principal objectives. Hostages were taken at both hotels, and at a Jewish center known as the Nariman House. The Indian government responded tentatively and without effective coordination between the Mumbai police and government security forces. The coordination problems apparently were complicated, at least in part, by the fact that Mumbai lost three top anti-terrorism officials early in the crisis when their van was ambushed by the terrorists. The city of Mumbai has no rapid-response anti-terrorism or SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) unit, so – after much hand-wringing and bureaucratic bickering – a federal unit, the Marine Commando Force (MCF), was activated. But the MCF is based in India’s capital, New Delhi, which is three hours away from Mumbai by air, and some reports suggest that the Indian Navy wanted a written request from the government before it would release the commandos for the operation. 

A further complication was that the MCF has no dedicated aviation resources of its own, or even the authority to requisition a commercial aircraft, and was forced to wait for a military transport to be dispatched from another location. Moreover, once the MCF reached Mumbai, the local transport it was provided was in the form of buses rather than helicopters. The bottom line is that it took nine hours for the government commandos to reach the scene, and it is not unfair to suggest that each hour’s delay clearly resulted in more casualties. 

The local police who initially responded to the attacks – and for hours were the only security forces on the scene – were hampered by inadequate communications. In addition, they possessed only limited body armor (which was improperly strapped on), substandard weapons, few if any scopes for their rifles, and no night-vision equipment. It goes without saying that they also lacked flash-bang grenades, pin-hole cameras, robots that could be used to search for and detonate explosives, and equipment that reads the heat-signatures of bodies; all of these and other high-tech equipment items are now standard issue for Western SWAT and elite anti-terrorism units. The local police also were not trained in room-clearing operations and/or hostage negotiations. 

Some individual Indian police officers demonstrated commendable bravery, but many of their actions were uncoordinated and even, in some situations, counterproductive. In several locations, the Mumbai police even failed to set up adequate perimeters around the attack sites. In the weeks following the attacks, the Indian government has been under fire, both at home and abroad, for its slow and incompetent response. Home Minister Shivraj Patil and India’s national security advisor both resigned in the wake of the Mumbai debacle. Today, India appears to be raising tensions with Pakistan as a way of deflecting attention from its own poor performance, both before and after the attacks. 

There have been a number of calls for ratcheting up India’s counter-terrorism capabilities, but many observers despair, saying that bureaucratic inertia and corruption would likely hamstring any substantial reform. Western intelligence and counterterrorism services are already incorporating the “lessons learned” from Mumbai into their own training curricula and op orders. If there are any lessons for India itself from the Mumbai crisis it is that the Indian government must be much better prepared to cope with future attacks, that it must create and adequately fund its own dedicated counter-terrorist resources – as well as a clear command and control system to manage such incidents – and that it must provide significantly more financial and other assistance to local counter-terrorist forces. Only in this way will India be able to respond immediately and effectively to future terrorist attacks.

Neil C. Livingstone
Neil C. Livingstone

Dr. Neil C. Livingstone, chairman and CEO of ExecutiveAction LLC and an internationally respected expert in terrorism and counterterrorism, homeland defense, foreign policy, and national security, has written nine books and more than 200 articles in those fields. A gifted speaker as well as writer, he has made more than 1300 television appearances, delivered over 500 speeches both in the United States and overseas, and testified before Congress on numerous occasions. He holds three Masters Degrees as well as a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He was the founder and, prior to assuming his present post, CEO of GlobalOptions Inc., which went public in 2005 and currently has sales of more than $80 million.



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