Lethal lapse

Published : Dec 19, 2008 00:00 IST

The body of a suspected terrorist inside the Nariman House building.-REUTERS

The body of a suspected terrorist inside the Nariman House building.-REUTERS

Had Indias strategic establishment heeded the warning signs, the Mumbai attack could, perhaps, have been averted.

IN October, the Lashkar-e-Taibas supreme religious and political head, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, in a signal speech to top functionaries of the organisation, said: The only language India understands is that of force, and that is the language it must be talked to in.

If Indias strategic establishment had been listening, all those people who made the mistake of being in the wrong places in Mumbai on November 26 would still be alive. If more carnage is to be prevented, it is imperative to correct the culture of strategic deafness that facilitated the murderous attacks.

From the testimony of the arrested fidayeen, Ajmal Amin Kasab, Maharashtra Police investigators have garnered their first insights into the role of the Lahore- and Karachi-based Lashkar commanders in organising the attacks. Both the State Police and the Indian intelligence services appear to be confident that they will succeed in demonstrating that the trigger of the Mumbai terror squads guns were pulled by their commanders in Pakistan.

But even as India debates what the authorship of the attacks will mean for India-Pakistan relations, commentators are scrambling to contrast Indias responses to terror to those of the United States. Whereas the U.S. has succeeded in blocking successive attempts to execute attacks on its soil since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the argument goes, Indias failure has been dismal.

Politicians have been quick to blame the intelligence services for failing to predict the Mumbai attack. However, available evidence suggests that despite credible intelligence that terrorists were planning attacks in Mumbai and elsewhere, Indias political leadership failed to act.

Back in 2002, Indian intelligence informants first began reporting that Lashkar operatives were being trained in marine commando techniques along the Mangla dam, which straddles the border between Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK) and the province of Punjab. It soon became clear that the Lashkar, which found it increasingly difficult to penetrate Indias Line of Control defences, was hoping to open new routes across the Indian Ocean, routes that would give it easy access to key cities such as Mumbai.

In 2006, Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil was disturbed when the covert services told him to make specific mention of the need to step up counter-terrorism defences. Among the intelligence that Patil based his speech on was the evolving story of Faisal Haroun, a top Lashkar operative who commanded the terror groups India-focussed operations out of Bangladesh. In September 2006, Haroun was briefly held by the Bangladeshi authorities before being deported, quietly. But a West European covert service obtained transcripts of his questioning by Bangladeshs Directorate-General of Field Intelligence, evidence that shook even the Home Minister.

Haroun, it turned out, had been using a complex shipping network, with merchant ships and small fishing boats, to move explosives to Lashkar units operating in India. Among the end-users of these supplies was Ghulam Yazdani, a Hyderabad resident who commanded a series of attacks, including the assassination of the Godhra pogrom-complicit former Gujarat Home Minister, Haren Pandya, and the June 2005 bombing of the Delhi-Patna Shramjeevi Express. Investigators probing the Haroun story determined his network had helped land a massive consignment of explosives and assault rifles on the Maharashtra coast for an abortive 2006 Lashkar-led attempt to bomb Gujarat.

Indias intelligence services determined that Haroun had been attempting to set up an Indian Ocean base for the Lashkar. Along with a Male-based Maldives resident, Ali Assham, Haroun had studied the prospect of using a deserted Indian Ocean island to build a Lashkar storehouse from where weapons and explosives could be moved to Kerala and then on to the rest of India. In 2007, when evidence emerged of heightened Islamist activity in the Maldives, including the bombing of tourists in Males Sultan Park and the setting up of a Sharia-run mini-state on the Island of Himandhoo, the seriousness of the threat to Indias western seaboard became even more evident.

Last year, the Lashkars maritime capabilities were underlined once again, when a group of eight fidayeen landed off Mumbais coast. On that occasion, a superbly crafted intelligence operation allowed the landing to be tracked by Coast Guard ships. The police in Maharashtra and Jammu and Kashmir, acting on information provided by the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.), were able to arrest the fidayeen. However, it was clear the networks Haroun was able to build were up and running.

On the basis of these warnings, New Delhi moved to step up coastal counter-infiltration measures. In its Annual Report for 2007-08, the Home Ministry detailed the measures put in place for strengthening coastal security arrangements, to check infiltration. In liaison with the nine coastal States and Union Territories, it said, funds had been earmarked to set up 73 coastal police stations which will be equipped with 204 boats, 153 jeeps and 312 motorcycles for mobility on coast and in close coastal waters. The coastal police stations will also have a marine police with personnel trained in maritime activities.

Precise figures are unavailable, but officials in three States told this correspondent that progress in realising the scheme had been painfully slow. Maharashtra and Gujarat both inaugurated over a dozen coastal police stations over the last year, but neither State set up a trained marine police. Fewer than a dozen new boats were made available to the two police forces; without sophisticated surveillance equipment fitted on board, their use for counter-infiltration work was at best rudimentary. And while the I.B. received sanction for hiring small numbers of personnel to man new coastal surveillance stations last year, it got neither boats nor observation equipment.

Early this year, more intelligence became available that the Lashkar had Mumbai in its sights. Investigators probing a New Years Eve attack on a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) camp in Rampur found that the Lashkar unit responsible for the attack also had plans to hit the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) , the Gateway of India and the Oberoi hotel. Uttar Pradesh resident Fahim Ahmed Ansari was arrested in February along with two specially trained Pakistani nationals, Imran Shehzad from Bhimber in POK and Mohammad Farooq Bhatti from Gujranwala in Punjab.

Ansaris interrogation records, which were accessed by Frontline, show he was recruited by the Lashkar when on a visit to Dubai in 2003. The owner of a small paper envelope manufacturing business and a one time activist of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), Ansair met top Lashkar commanders in Pakistan in 2007. He returned to India through Kathmandu late that year. Back in Mumbai, Ansari stayed at Sunlight Guest House from November 28 to December 10 before renting a room off Falkland Road. He then secured a driving licence under the alias Samir Sheikh and enrolled himself as a student at a computer institute near the BSE.

All three BSE assault-team volunteers held Pakistani passports, which they presumably hoped would enable them to escape by catching flights through Nepal. Shehzad carried passport number EK5149331, issued on March 14, 2007, while Bhatti used passport number AW3177021, issued a day earlier. Ansaris Pakistani passport, BM 6809341, issued on November 1, 2007, bears the pseudonym Hammad Hassan.

On the eve of the Mumbai attacks, warnings continued to flow in. In late September, I.B. informants issued warnings that the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel was on the list of a small set of high-profile targets selected by the Lashkar for a suicide-squad attack. The Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), too, on the basis of communications intelligence, learned that the Lashkar had carried out reconnaissance on targets in Mumbais Wasanji Road, including the Leela Kempinski hotel.

Finally, on November 18, the RAW intercepted a satellite phone conversation originating in the Indian Ocean from a ship bound for Indias western coast. In the conversation, a still-unidentified Punjabi-speaking individual notified a contact in Lahore that his cargo would soon land in Mumbai. RAW communications experts determined that the Pakistani landline number was one sometimes used by a top Lashkar commander for operations directed against India, who is so far known only by the aliases Muzammil and Abu Hurrera. Indian Coast Guard ships were scrambled towards the location of the ship.

Luck favoured the Lashkar. Even as the fidayeen squad bound for Mumbai panicked at the heightened Indian naval presence in the area, an opportunity presented itself. On November 15, a Porbandar-registered fishing boat, Kuber, was blown off course by bad weather. From the account of Ajmal Amin Kasab, investigators have determined that the boat was hijacked on the night of November 18. Later, the 10 fidayeen on the Kuber are thought to have shot dead four of the five crew members. After finally landing in Mumbai, the fidayeen broke up into five groups and headed towards targets they had previously trained to locate on high-resolution satellite maps.

Despite the mass of credible intelligence that was available, no system was put in place to guard against the attacks: Mumbai simply did not have the resources to do so. Less than a week before the attacks, additional security stationed in south Mumbai was withdrawn. Maharashtra with at just 147 policemen for every 100,000 population or, expressed in another way, 49.9 policemen to guard every 100 square kilometres, falls well short of global norms simply did not have the resources to keep men tied up guarding every potential target.

Hotels and businesses, for their part, failed to enhance their own internal security systems. Neither the Trident hotel nor the Taj, for example, had access control systems or a system to deal with a terrorist attack or bombing. For weeks before the attacks, police sources told Frontline, Maharashtra Police officials met with top corporate security heads in an attempt to convince them of the need to invest in defending their facilities. Nothing was done.

Even if police personnel had been stationed near the terrorist targets, it is improbable that they could have intervened effectively. Mumbai, unlike any Western city of scale, has neither a specially trained emergency response team nor a crisis-management centre with an established drill to deal with a terrorist assault. In this, it is not exceptional: no Indian city has any crisis-management protocols in place. People contrast the post-9/11 successes of the U.S. with our failures, notes one Maharashtra Police officer, but they should also be contrasting the billions spent by that country with the peanuts we have invested in our own security.

The whole system is premised on the assumption that our intelligence services will get a hundred per cent heads-up on the precise timing of a terrorist attack, one intelligence official says, but nowhere in the world does this happen. Intelligence is only an aid to on-ground policing, not a substitute.

Indias strategic responses were no better. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his foreign policy advisers failed to read the signs that jehadist groups in Pakistan were sharpening their swords.

In a speech delivered on October 19 before an audience of key Lashkar leaders such as Maulana Amir Hamza, Qari Muhammad Yaqoob Sheikh and Muhammad Yahya Mujahid at the organisations headquarters in Lahore, the Lashkar chief made it clear that he saw India as an existential threat. India, he claimed, was building dams in Jammu and Kashmir to choke Pakistans water supplies and cripple its agriculture.

Earlier, in a speech on October 6, Saeed claimed India had made a deal with the United States to send 150,000 Indian troops to Afghanistan. He claimed India had agreed to support the U.S. in an existential war against Islam. Finally, in a sermon to a religious congregation at the Jamia Masjid al-Qudsia in Lahore at the end of October, Saeed proclaimed that there was an ongoing war in the world between Islam and its enemies. He said that crusaders of the East and West have united in a cohesive onslaught against Muslims.

India has learned that not all terrorism stems from Pakistan: the country has faced attacks from Indian Islamists, Hindutva groups and ethnic-chauvinist organisations in the north-eastern States. Each form of hate has fed and legitimised the other. But this circle of hate has been driven, too, by organisations based in Pakistan, jehadist groups that have demonstrated that they, while being friends of Pakistans Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, are enemies of the people of Pakistan.

In his recent address to the nation, Manmohan Singh warned that he intended to raise the costs for those waging a war against India. He could start by demanding that Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari act against such groups and then consider what can be done, if need be, to compel him to do so.

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