Indians as well as foreign observers of all kinds were quick to call the November 26-29 massacres in Mumbai “India’s 9/11.” Mercifully for India, the 10 terrorists who took part in the attacks on 10 targets in Mumbai, including two luxury hotels, a train station, and a Jewish guest house, failed to murder the number of people they originally had in mind: 5,000. The September 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon killed some 2,975 people.
But the Mumbai attacks were indeed India’s 9/11 in a different sense. Suddenly, Indians of all political parties realized their country was heartbreakingly vulnerable to a squad of determined and well-trained terrorist thugs. Moreover, India was forced to consider what its foreign policy should be after unmistakable evidence emerged that it was in Pakistan that the plots against it had been hatched, planned, and guided. India was now a central target in al Qaeda’s overall jihad against the U.S. in particular and the West in general. Mumbai was not just India’s 9/11, but the world’s.
India’s vulnerability was evident at every stage of the attack. Even before the terrorists made landfall on Mumbai’s Indian Ocean coast, U.S. intelligence operatives had made clear to their Indian counterparts, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) responsible for foreign intelligence and counter-espionage, that NSA intercepts indicated a likely terrorist attack on Mumbai, originating in Karachi. Intelligence specifically identified the attackers as connected to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Kashmiri terrorist group founded in the early 1990s. The Indian government acknowledged receipt of this information but neither its navy nor its coast guard was able to identify the terrorist vessel that was sailing from Pakistani waters toward India. When the terrorists transferred from the Indian fishing boat they had hijacked to Zodiac high-speed dinghies for the final stage, they easily avoided Mumbai port security.
But it was when the attack was well under way in the Taj Mahal and Oberoi hotels that Indian unpreparedness revealed itself most fully. Once it was obvious that local police couldn’t handle the siege, India’s National Security Guard commandos were summoned from their base outside Delhi. They deployed quickly enough to Delhi airport, but found no plane waiting to take them to Mumbai. It took another two and a half hours to locate a military transport. But once they arrived in Mumbai, their problems were not over; there were no trucks or buses waiting to get them into town and they had no maps of the hotels or adjacent areas. They had to wait another hour until Mumbai municipal transport buses could be rounded up to take them into the city. It was altogether nine hours before NSG commandos got into action.
Once in action, the commandos certainly fought bravely, but without any training or experience in hostage rescue. On hearing that a Jewish hostelry in Mumbai, the Chabad House, had been attacked, Israel immediately dispatched a group of its own commandos to the city. While they waited in safe houses, Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak pleaded with his Indian counterpart to allow them at least to rescue the Chabad House hostages, all of whom were Jewish. The Indians refused. “It was purely a matter of pride,” explained a senior Indian journalist. Eventually, the NSG commandos rappelled from a helicopter onto the Chabad House roof and made their way down the stairs. By the time they had shot the two terrorists in control of the residence, all the hostages had been executed, most after torture so appalling that even Indian medical examiners were horrified by what had been done to the bodies.
INDIAN DOMESTIC POLITICAL uproar over the terrorist attacks was immediate. Home Minister Shivraj Patil immediately offered his resignation. The Indian government then announced it would establish a federal agency to co-ordinate a national response to the terrorist threat. It also said it would immediately establish 20 counter-terrorism police academies and beef up patrol boat equipment for India’s cash-strapped coast guard, which has to defend 4,650 miles of national coastline.
If it all seemed a case of closing the barn door after the horses had bolted, there were plenty of Indians ready to point that out. In fact, since 2004 an estimated 7,000 Indians have died in terrorist attacks. Not all of these attacks were Islamist in origin: India’s history of fratricidal Hindu-Muslim tensions certainly accounted for many of the victims. Yet India’s suffering at the hands of Lashkar-e-Taiba and other Kashmir-based groups goes back at least to December 2001, when terrorists later identified with this group attacked the Indian parliament. One prominent Pakistan-based terrorist, Maulana Masood Azhar, founder of the Kashmir-based Islamist group called Jaish-e-Mohammed, was actually released from jail by India in 1999 as part of a deal to free hostages from an Indian Airlines plane hijacked in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Azhar made his way from Afghanistan back to Pakistan, where he was held under house arrest for a year, then released in December 2002.
Pakistan at first denied it was in any way connected to the Mumbai massacre. One Pakistani TV station even attributed the Mumbai incident to “Hindu Zionists.” But as pressure for an armed response mounted from the outraged Indian public, Pakistani and Indian officials alike were quick to tamp down any war talk. With both countries in possession of nuclear weaponry, there would be no room at all for miscalculation if hostilities were to break out. Yet an Indian government official said that if before scheduled national elections in 2009 there were another attack on Indian civilians that could be traced to Pakistan, war between the two countries would be “inevitable.”
Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, an Oxford-trained PhD in economics, has conducted a pragmatic and broader foreign policy since taking office in 2004. He has particularly expanded relations with Israel, to the point that Israel is now India’s second-largest defense contractor after Russia. Despite tense relations with Pakistan over terrorism–culminating with the Mumbai massacre–Singh has sought overall to continue talks aimed at reducing bilateral tensions over Kashmir, whose control by India since 1947 has spawned most of Pakistan’s Islamist groups targeting India. But he now faces a major dilemma. Unless Pakistan seriously curtails the activities of its anti-Indian domestic groups, public pressure for India not to show itself “weak” could explode in a grassroots demand to “punish” Pakistan.
Nowhere are officials more alarmed by this than in Washington. Even since Mumbai, the U.S. has prodded Pakistan repeatedly to clamp down on the Islamist terrorist camps in its territory. In December, Washington successfully persuaded the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Lashkar-e-Taiba’s successor organization, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, its chief, Hafiz Saeed, the notorious terrorist Zakiur Lakhvi, JuD’s chief finance officer Haji Muhammad Ashraf, and an Indian-born Saudi national and fundraiser in Saudi Arabia, Mahmoud Ahmed Bahaziq. Those UN moves nudged Pakistani security forces to raid the JuD camp in Muzaffarabad, detain Lakhvi and others, and place Saeed under house arrest for three months. For the Indians, though, this was insufficient; they felt the U.S. was not doing enough to pressure Pakistan into suppressing its terrorist groups.
The trouble is that the U.S. is hardly better placed to pressure Pakistan than India is. Pakistan’s main problem is that it has been under military rule for the vast majority of the time since it became independent from Britain in 1947. Its army and its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) organization have had close relations with both the Taliban and various anti-Indian terrorist groups since at least the 1980s, when the U.S. relied upon Pakistan to funnel military aid and equipment to the Afghan mujahideen to fight the Soviets. The U.S. has tried repeatedly, so far without success, to place Hamid Gul, a former ISI chief who has been stridently critical of the U.S., on a UN embargo list. Ironically, before she was killed, Benazir Bhutto had written a letter to then Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf warning that, if she died by murder, Mohammed Gul should be among the first people investigated. Gul has described U.S. attempts to nab him as “hilarious.” As for Pakistan’s current democratically elected president, Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s widower, he is not considered strong enough to assert firm civilian control over Pakistan’s cowboy military and intelligence apparatus.
He may not have to. There has been a sign of common sense finally emerging within the military establishment in Pakistan. Defense Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar in December made an unusual admission. “If the whole world is on one side,” he said, “Pakistan does not have the strength to face the whole world. We can fight against our enemies, but we can’t fight an economic war against the whole world.”
Will the tangled political establishment of Pakistan come to the same realization before even more damage is done by its home-grown terrorists? Lashkar-e-Taiba’s goals are brazenly ambitious: to bring down the regimes of India, the U.S., Israel, Russia, and China in the cause of global Islamic jihad. Its reach in the past has extended not only to successful fundraising in Saudi Arabia, but also to sending jihadist agents into Iraq to fight the Americans and to training terrorists from Egypt, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Bangladesh. It is also very plugged in to the global al Qaeda network. The head of the Kashmiri terrorist group Harakat-ul-Mujahideen, Farooq Kashmiri, signed Osama bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa calling on the world’s Muslims to murder Americans.
For better or for worse, India has now emerged as a central element in the aspirations of global jihadists. Though al Qaeda no longer has direct control over all the various national Islamist groups waging jihad, what seems to have happened is that several well-run “franchises” of global Islamist terror are acting on their own initiative, with or without Osama bin Laden’s or Ayman al-Zawahiri’s approval. As EU leaders were preparing to gather in Brussels in mid-December for discussions about the EU economy, for example, Belgian police conducted 16 separate raids on suspected Islamist targets around Belgium. Among the police discoveries: a video tape in which one Islamist appears to be saying goodbye to his friends and family prior to a planned suicide operation.
It’s significant that India, whose closest ally for many years was the Soviet Union, has drawn increasingly closer to the U.S. in the past decade. It remains an open question, however, whether the U.S. can “protect” India and exert sustained pressure on Pakistan, whether bilaterally or through the UN, to set its own house in order. Sooner or later, Pakistan’s rulers, whether civilian or military, will have to decide whose side they are on–al Qaeda’s or civilization’s.