Expect nothing, live frugally on surprise.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

New terror strategy

Just as 9/11 entered the dictionary of terror, so too will 26/11, the day which will go down as Mumbai’s darkest hour, when terrorists laid siege to the city’s roads, airports, railway station, hospitals and two of its best known luxury hotels, leaving a trail of death and destruction and taking hostages. The scenes were devastating: explosions, raging fires, dead bodies, heavily armed terrorists with rucksacks containing grenades and explosives and firing indiscriminately at people on the streets, and a metropolis on its knees. The most heart-rending sight was Mumbai’s most iconic and beautiful building, the 106-year-old heritage wing of the Taj Mahal Hotel, reduced to a blackened ruin. By daybreak, almost 11 hours after the attack started, the official death toll was 102, with another 300 injured.That this was the best planned, organised, financed and most successful terror attack in India was evident from the fact that 20 hours after the first shots rang out, the terrorists, were still holed up in the Taj Hotel, the Oberoi Trident and a residential building in Nariman Point housing Jewish tenants. The two dozen terrorists held hostages and kept security forces at bay. Mumbai is no stranger to terror but this was the most devastating in terms of scale, preparation, targets and global impact. Everything pointed to the involvement of a major international terror group (the claims by Deccan Mujahideen were dismissed by police), probably the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba but orchestrated by Al-Qaeda.Hostages who managed to escape said that the terrorists asked hotel guests whether they were American or British before taking them hostage. The Taj and Trident are two of Mumbai’s most recognisable landmarks, akin to New York’s Twin Towers, and attract the majority of high-profile guests from India and abroad. European diplomats, American and British tourists, top industrialists and executives were among those in residence. Their eyewitness accounts after they emerged from the Taj showed what a meticulously planned and cold-blooded operation this was, bearing the hallmarks of an international outfit with access to boats, inside intelligence, sophisticated weapons and explosives. The terror drama started shortly after 9 p.m., a time when restaurants and hotels are at their most crowded. The suicide squads who had arrived in the city via rubber boats from the sea opened fire and lobbed grenades at 10 different locations. After the 1993 serial blasts, this is the most audacious strike. From diners and residents at luxury hotels to commuters at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station, and people on the streets, everyone had become a target. Within minutes, the station resembled a graveyard.
The terrorists entered from the Gateway of India and Nariman Point in boats and launched a triangular attack. One team entered Trident Hotel and opened fire in the restaurant’s lobby; another team fired indiscriminately at Leopold’s Café in Colaba and then entered the Taj Hotel.
As confusion reigned, the terrorists hijacked police jeeps to create more mayhem. An Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) team led by its head Hemant Karkare chased them to Cama Hospital, where he, encounter specialist Vijay Salaskar and another colleague were killed.terrorists were killed in a chase near Girgaum as they were trying to escape in a silver Skoda. One was reportedly arrested the next morning. Guests, including six foreigners, and hotel and kitchen staff are among the dead. Panic-stricken guests tried to escape from windows— one used a bedsheet to climb down from his third-floor room at the Taj, but slipped and fell. At 1.30 p.m. on Thursday, Mumbai Police chief A.N. Roy announced that the Taj Hotel had been sanitised and all guests were evacuated but an hour later explosions were still being heard. The damage, however, was equally psychological. All through the night, vehicular traffic was paralysed and the city seemed to have imposed a curfew on itself. By midnight, the biggest anti-terror operation in Indian history was underway. “Hardcore, highly trained, and motivated,” is how Vice-Admiral J.S. Bedi, flag officer commanding-in-chief, Western Naval Command, describes the terrorists. At the time of going to press, the hostage crisis had not ended, showing just how serious this latest attack is and its larger implications. As one police official said, “They (the terrorists) have succeeded, we have failed.” India Today is in possession of an intelligence report from the Mumbai Police which warned of attacks from the sea based on interrogations of terrorists arrested earlier (see box). How the boats ferrying the terrorists managed to evade the coastguard, navy and customs officials who patrol the harbour is a gross security failure and raises some serious questions.
The strikes have shaken the country’s intelligence and security agencies like nothing before. They were unprepared for such an unprecedented commandolike operation.
“The meticulous manner in which the operation has been planned and the guerrilla tactics that have been used has footprints of Al-Qaeda, making it perhaps their first operation in India,’’ said a senior intelligence official, pointing to the fact that places frequented by foreigners were targeted. Sources said that the Research and Analysis Wing had received inputs six months ago that a group of terrorists—part of the Al-Qaeda’s Islamic Jihad Union—was being trained along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to carry out attacks in India. “The issue was discussed at a Joint Intelligence Committee meeting but was treated as unactionable,’’ says a high-placed official. The terrorists landed in small dinghies each carrying four to five persons. “Terrorism in India has reached a new level with these attacks. This is terror in the real sense where common people in public places can be sprayed with bullets or have a grenade lobbed at them any time,” says a Home Ministry official.
The attack on Mumbai will impose fresh strains on Indo-Pakistan relations. It came just after a meeting between the two foreign ministers where India talked tough on terror. While intelligence sources see an imprint of the Lashkar-e-Toiba in the attack, interrogation of an arrested terrorist confirmed that they were Pakistani nationals. It comes after the attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul where a Pakistani link has been proved. This strike was intended to damage the ongoing peace process. The Lashkar continues to run its operations in Pakistan, and recently, much to India’s anger, Pakistan had cleared the purchase of a bulletproof Land Cruiser for Jamaat-ud-Daawa supremo Haafiz Mohammed Syed, who is the ideologue for Lashkar and has been holding rallies asking followers to hit Western targets.
The strategy is clear: cripple India’s economic nerve centre, create fear among tourists and foreign investors and undermine India’s global image. The suicide squad has chosen high-profile five-star hotels to capture international attention since they are frequented by Western delegations and tourists. Apart from sending a message to the Government of India, it was a signal to the international community about the strength of terror groups in the region and was also intended to target opinion makers and movers and shakers who frequent these hotels. “It was a daredevil act and certainly had collusion of a terror group like the Al-Qaeda, along with some Pakistan-based terror groups aimed at creating high visibility with panic,” remarked a senior official. Given the size and scale of the hostage crisis, this will go a long way in setting India back economically in the short-term. Says former director-general of police, Dr. P.S. Pasricha, “This was an aggression meant to hurt the psyche of an entire nation. They wanted to ignite trouble in the country and hurt our economy.” That was partly achieved on November 27, as the Bombay Stock Exchange shut down. The prime minister made it clear that Pakistan was behind the attack. In his address to the nation, he said that groups behind the attacks were based “outside the country” and used unusually strong words to add that there will be a cost if “suitable measures” are not taken by the neighbours.
It requires an extraordinary response from the Government to deal with this situation. The attack came as a shock for the UPA Government still battling the worst ever year for terror attacks. There is a growing feeling of insecurity and vulnerability in the country.
At the cabinet meeting called by the prime minister on November 27, the overwhelming view was that the UPA will have to take a tougher line on tackling terrorism with a combination of stringent anti-terror laws and better ground level intelligence, even if it means curbing human rights and democratic freedom. “The police, the security agencies, the investigators and even the intelligence will have to reorient themselves to cope with the new phase in terrorism. Security agencies will have to go beyond treating terrorists as criminals. They are using the highest level of military tactics and we have to respond accordingly with effective measures,’’ says a Home Ministry official. The prime minister has proposed the creation of a federal investigation agency to deal with terrorism and that existing laws be tightened to ensure that there are no loopholes for terrorists to escape the law. India also has to ensure better coordination among security and intelligence agencies and tighten up controls on the borders and the coastline and close coordination between state and Central intelligence agencies. India now needs to seek the help of international security agencies. Immediately after the attack, the messages of support for India from the international community, including the new leadership in America, suggest that the time for focused international cooperation has never been more opportune. US President-elect Barack Obama conveyed to Indian ambassador to the US Ronen Sen his strong resolve to fight terrorism. India also has to demand tough action through the UN and bilaterally for punitive actions against countries that support, finance and shelter terrorist groups and, in case of noncompliance even explore sanctions on them. Till that happens, Mumbai remains a city under siege, its citizens traumatised, its political leadership lacking resolve and credibility and two of its iconic structures gutted. Mumbai is to India what New York is to America. The attack on the Twin Towers was an attack on the entire free world and was a pivotal moment in the global war against terror. Mumbai’s 27/11 needs to elicit the same response. Anything less would be inviting a bigger disaster


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