- Beginning on the evening of November 26, Mumbai, India,
a city of 13 million people, was disrupted by a terrorist attack that
was worse than anything it had ever before experienced in a long history
of exposure to violence. Ten determined terrorists, equipped only with
rifles, handguns and grenades, took the lives of nearly 200 people, defaced
and nearly destroyed famous Mumbai landmark hotels, and wounded over 300
more people before they were stopped. It was a well-planned and executed
piece of carnage that took Indian police and counterterrorism forces nearly
sixty hours to bring to an end.
- Why it took so long to contain this attack of only ten
shooters will remain a serious question, but the terrorists, only one
of whom was taken alive, were obviously well prepared. They separated,
attacked at least five separate sites, knew their way around the places
they assaulted, and in some degree were aided by the early unwillingness
of police to shoot back. Moreover, the terrorists apparently came prepared
for the long haul with ample supplies of ammunition and bags of sliced
almonds to stave off hunger. In that respect they did not behave like
martyrs, although they certainly had reason to expect death. But the puzzles
they left behind are certainly much larger than life.
- The official Indian narrative, at least as of now, is
that the terrorists were members of a Pakistani group called Lashkar-e-Taiba
(LeT). That group is usually associated with the half-century old Indo-Pak
struggle for Jammu and Kashmir, and it reportedly has a suicide group
called the fidayeen. However, the principle link of the Mumbai attacks
to the LeT is the confession of the surviving member of the group of ten.
That statement appears to have been obtained after several hours of interrogation
by Indian authorities who have no qualms about torture, and therefore
the smooth and complete story that emerged could be as much if not more
a matter of what he was led to say rather than what he confessed. We are
unlikely to know.
- Pakistani authorities have not bought the story, and
they have asked for proof. Meanwhile, they have rounded up a number of
LeT members, but they have refused an Indian request to extradite the
Let members to India. The LeT prisoners, say Pakistani authorities, will
be dealt with under Pakistani law.
- There are many loose ends. The present narrative has
the group arriving by a boat they seized earlier from its owner, coming
ashore with all their gear in hand, and openly taking two taxis to their
target destinations. That appears inconsistent with the report that they
knew the sites they attacked very well and had well-planned approaches
to them. Such preparation could mean either prior planning visits to the
sites or the aid of people on site who provided planning information.
Those preparations also plausibly suggest that the attacks were domestic.
- Further inconsistencies have been introduced by police
reports that one or more of the shooters had yellow wrist bands, a trademark
associated with a domestic Hindu extremist group. Furthermore, so far
the people arrested by Indian authorities in connection with the attacks
have been Indian nationals. The inconsistencies lead knowledgeable observers
of the India terrorism scene to assert that the Mumbai attacks were domestic
- Domestic roots for such an attack are not improbable.
Over the past decade India has lost more than 50,000 casualties to terrorist/
insurgent attacks. Although they tend to be concentrated in two main areas,
Jammu/Kashmir and the northeast region including major states of West
Bengal and Assam, India has almost 200 terrorist, extremist, separatist
groups. Many of these groups are small and/or inactive, but as many as
a dozen Jammu/Kashmir groups are active and important, while about an
equal number of group are active in the northeast. Hindu extremists have
led brutal attacks on Muslims.
- Sticking out in this landscape is a sub-continental reality
of which few outsiders may be aware. Three former British territories
(India, Pakistan and Bangladesh-the former East Pakistan) share numerous
trans-border population problems. To begin with, the population of Pakistan
is about 105 million, of which nearly 2 million are Hindus. On the Indian
side of the frontier, Hindus dominate the country's 1.3 billion population,
but there are an estimated 150 million Muslims of Indian nationality.
In the east, Bangladesh has a Muslim population of roughly 150 million,
but its Hindu minority (about 30% of the population when the territory
was formed in 1946) has been systematically expelled and probably numbers
no more than a million.
- Historically complicating this landscape are trans-border
affiliations, loyalties, and periodic conflicts. Present states of India,
Pakistan and Bangladesh are geographic products of the British retreat.
While loyalties and tribal affiliations may extinguish or become less
important in time, there are still strong Indian and Pakistani feelings
about the region called the Punjab, now divided between India (roughly
one third) and Pakistan. That region remains an unsettled ethnic and cultural
mix as do Jammu and Kashmir, and the northeast region that mainly is defined
by the Ganges River that flows through the Indian heart of it and the
Brahmaputra River that flows out of the Himalayas, across India's state
of Assam and through Bangladesh to the Bay of Bengal. The potential clashes
in these regions are only partly about Hindu/ Muslim differences. Assamese
groups, for example, want to secede from India.
- One of the problems with assessing Mumbai is that there
are political pros and cons with all the choices. Indian Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh probably would prefer an outsider attack, because a domestic
source, whether Hindu or Muslim, has enormous political implications.
If his government has to go after Hindu extremists, for example, such
prosecutions could undercut Congress party political chances.
- Singh probably understands the politics of the situation
better than most. He was born in 1932 in the town of Gah in pre- independence
Punjab in what is now Pakistan. He is the first member of the Sikh faith
to become prime minister, and as a leader of India's Congress Party, he
undoubtedly has struggled with the problems of minority religious affiliation
that complicate Indian politics. Addressing a congress of jurists on December
13, he cited the history of deadly terrorist attacks across India in the
past several years (cases of Hindu, Muslim and other domestic attacks)
but said the problem needed to be approached with caution. His dilemma
is that attacking Muslims on either side of the Indo/Pak frontier will
unsettle communities on both sides of that frontier, and even proof of
guilt-which is by no means obvious at this point-- is no defense against
- The US War on Terrorism complicates the situation as
well. US raids into Pakistan have angered many Pakistanis and threatened
the stability of Pakistan's newly reinstalled democratic government. A
crass reality of the post Mumbai decision environment is that US justification
for continuing its operations in Afghanistan and its raids into Pakistan
is supported by proof of a Mumbai attack by Pakistani extremists, but
an indigenous Hindu or Muslim attack would be no help in that regard.
If the US and Israel encourage and support an Indian attack on reported
Lashkar-e-Taiba sites in Pakistan, the situation of that government would
probably deteriorate further.
- The reality of the Mumbai attacks is that they were a
product of enduring racial, cultural and religious differences within
regional societies as well as trans-border tensions and animosities that
plague the entire subcontinent. Those conditions are not new, and they
are by no means close to resolution. Realistically they cannot be resolved
by mere exercises of police power or a heated up war on terrorism. Should
India succumb to the temptation to respond by conducting raids into Pakistan
against Lashkar-e-Taiba, that will only increase tensions between two
nuclear-armed countries; it will also exacerbate Hindu-Muslim tensions
within India and the rest of the subcontinent.
- Reportedly, Indian authorities have asked for Israeli
help in mounting an attack on LeT sites in Pakistan. If the Israelis
respond to this nod, they will do so only with full US awareness and blessing.
Such a move fits the US and Israeli models for fighting terrorism; under
those models, national borders do not matter, and civilian casualties
are unimportant. The brutal fact, however, is that even if such raids
succeeded in eliminating LeT as a group, nothing would improve in India,
tensions would mount between the two countries, and warfare could easily
result between two nuclear powers in which either side could decide the
way to end it is to go nuclear. A no more cheering prospect is that in
the aftermath of Indian raids the already fragmented Pakistani political
system would simply collapse, creating the first situation in which the
government of a nuclear power loses control of its nuclear weapons and
materials. Only the terrorists and their supporters would benefit from
- Those prospects demand patience and careful action by
concerned regional governments, but the situation requires total hands
off by outsiders. Governance in Pakistan is fragile. It is not helped
by US raids into Pakistani territory which weaken the authority of an
already challenged government. An India raid could possibly cause Pakistanis
to rally around their present democratic leadership, but it could as easily
cause that government to disassemble.
- On the Indian side, Manmohan Singh knows that if he fails
to look decisive his party's political prospects are dim. However, if
he were to choose to attack the Hindu right that may have arranged, sponsored,
or facilitated the Mumbai attacks, his party could well be voted out in
the next election. This boils down to a situation in which the least costly
response may be to stand still. That choice could take the form of investigating
the attacks while buying as much post attack time as possible for matters
to cool. This choice would be wise, but it takes a great deal of political
nerve, perhaps more than may be available.
- The writer is the author of the recently published work,
A World Less Safe, now available on Amazon, and he is a regular columnist
on rense.com. He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US
Department of State whose overseas service included tours in Egypt, India,
Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Brazil. His immediate pre-retirement positions
were as Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National
War College and as Deputy Director of the State Office of Counter Terrorism
and Emergency Planning. He will welcome comment at