Mumbai's Lessons: the terrorist perspective

The smoke has now cleared from the heart of Mumbai's business, diplomatic and tourist centre, gunfire and explosions replaced by the comforting cacophony of traffic and commerce. The 10 men immediately responsible for bringing India’s commercial capital and its 20 million residents to a virtual halt for 60 hours are reportedly dead or captured.

India’s police and intelligence agencies, aided or observed by their foreign counterparts, now face the task of subjecting every move made by the 10 known raiders to close forensic examination, charting and collating every stage of their actions in order to attribute responsibility for the raid while learning lessons that may prevent or mitigate further attacks.

It must be assumed a similar process is underway by those who trained and then sent the gunmen into Mumbai, as well as among numerous other groups intent on damaging their opponents across the world. While the specifics of the Mumbai raid - notably the identity and motives of the attackers and their sponsors - are still uncertain, the technical details of the operation are certain to provide a wealth of tactical and generic information that will be absorbed into planning and target selection by other terrorist groups.

Purpose

From the terrorist perspective, the Mumbai raid was a great success. A small, well-trained team was able to conduct a series of attacks against what appear to be both opportunistic and carefully selected targets. Gaining maximum media coverage, usually through causing or threatening mass casualties, is a key element in terrorist – as opposed to insurgent or guerrilla attacks.

However, masses may in the ruthless dynamics of political atrocities often be qualified by ‘quality.’ The principal targets selected in the Mumbai attack – iconic hotels and a restaurant popular with foreign visitors and a Jewish religious centre – served to globalize the raid. The attack on Mumbai’s main railway station and other exchanges of fire with the police within a relatively small area of the city’s commercial district served – deliberately or not - to divert and spread the security and emergency services. If the general purpose of the raid was to humiliate the state and increase diplomatic tensions with neighbouring powers, then it succeeded.

Execution

The raid was carefully planned and executed. Operational security (‘Op Sec’) – the maintenance of tight control over information relating to the attack – appears to have been good, with an absence of actionable ‘chatter’ to alert the security service. This may have been helped by the focus of many of the world’s intelligence agencies on other events, notably concerns over a ‘spectacular’ attack timed to influence the outcome of the US presidential elections. While Indian intelligence and police agencies and departments insist they did obtain information about a potential operation against Mumbai in the weeks preceding the raid, insufficient data or failures in processing the information meant any warnings were lost.

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The attackers

The decision of the raid organisers not to use suicide bombers but individuals who were clearly prepared to die in an attack characterized by the use of firearms rather than explosives runs counter to most recent terrorist actions. The only comparable terrorist attack outside a major war zone was the December 2001 assault by five gunmen – all of whom were killed - on India’s parliament in New Delhi.

The ability of the gunmen to keep the Indian security forces at bay for nearly two days reflects the strength of their dedication (or indoctrination), as well as military skills. They appear to have operated in two-man teams, and to date there is no indication they communicated with other attack ‘cells’ or a control centre, relying instead on their own orders or initiative.

The attackers’ confidence in moving around Mumbai at night suggests familiarity with the city, and perhaps the interiors of the main hotels. Information given to the media from interrogating the only known surviving terrorist suggests the men arrived by sea, countering reports they had lived in Mumbai for up to month before the attack.

From the generic terrorist perspective – and those charged with preventing further attacks - these factors may prove the most crucial as they define the raid. In particular terrorist attacks launched from the sea without warning, in the manner of commando raids conducted by regular military forces, may well increase following the Mumbai raid as they enable operations to be planned beyond target country’s national boundaries, greatly reducing the threat of discovery or interception.

Lessons

The broad lessons for terrorists are whether the Mumbai raid is repeatable in their area of operations. With few exceptions – notably Israel – the answer is that it probably is. Once funding and weapons are secured, any group intent on staging a similar attack would require access to water for training – there are allegations from Indian security service sources that the Mumbai attackers were trained on a reservoir on the Pakistan-Kashmir border – and a mother ship.

‘Op sec’ would be a priority, with diversionary ‘chatter’ modulated to distract and confuse electronic interception. The targets for the attack would remain similar to the Mumbai raid – upmarket hotels, iconic buildings and perhaps markets, railway or bus stations in order to distract and overburden the local security forces and police.

There is also no shortage of targets. Thousands of small freighters and large fishing boats, many of them barely under any form of national control, ply the world’s oceans and any one of them is theoretically capable of bringing armed terrorists close to any maritime city.

GM Greenwood is a consultant with Allan & Associates, a Hong Kong–based security risk and crisis management company.