Analysis by Indranil Banerjie.
More than 24 hours after a group of armed men mounted a series of coordinated attacks on Mumbai, India’s main port and financial hub, leaving more than 125 people dead, it has become painfully apparent that this country is woefully unprepared for terrorist attacks of this type.
As exchanges of gunfire between Indian security forces and the terrorists, who had seized control of two of the city’s finest luxury hotels and a building owned by a Jewish family, continued through Thursday, Indian security experts were unanimous in criticising the federal government for failing to anticipate the attack. It was only after 14 policemen, including three of Mumbai’s top counter-terrorism officers, were gunned down by the militants that the magnitude of the attack dawned on the authorities. The army was called out and specialist commandos were flown in from a base in Manesar, near the capital.
“It’s a systemic failure,” Vikram Sood, former chief of India’s premier intelligence agency, RAW (Research and Analysis Wing), told IPS. ”The precision with which the terrorists carried out their operations suggests that the whole thing had been meticulously planned, with the locations surveyed, and this could only have been done with local help.”
Sood said the government did not appear to have a hold on the problem. “One day the home minister says that Islamist terrorism is the biggest problem and the next day we hear the prime minister stating that Maoist terrorism is the country’s biggest threat.”
India has been hit by a series of terror attacks over the past few months, killing hundreds of people.
A hundred people were injured and 20 killed when five bombs went off in busy market places in New Delhi on Sept. 13. Forty people were killed and over 100 injured in bomb explosions that rocked Ahmedabad in Gujarat state on Jul. 26. Sixty people were killed and 150 injured when 10 bombs went off in Jaipur in Rajasthan state on May 13. And around 60 people died in bombings carried out in the north-eastern state of Assam in October.
Despite the steadily increasing threat perception, the government of Maharashtra state (of which Mumbai serves as capital) has done little to augment its intelligence and counter-terrorism capabilities, experts say. For instance, the police has no marine force to patrol the waters around the state capital.
This gap in security coverage was fully exploited by the terrorists who are suspected to have been moved into the coastal waters off Mumbai by ship before hitting the shores using powered rubber dinghies, four of which have been recovered by the police.
“They [the terrorists] came by the sea route,” M.L. Kumawat, special secretary in the union home ministry confirmed.
The terrorists, estimated to number two dozen, apparently unloaded explosives and weapons from the boats and fanned out to different pre-identified locations. They displayed familiarity with the security systems of the ten places they targeted, said an intelligence operative.
“The vulnerability of the country’s coastal areas has been well known for a long time,” remarked Commander Alok Bansal, a naval officer who is now a research fellow at the prestigious Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA). “Offshore security has traditionally been weak in India and this problem has not received much attention because Indian rulers are sea blind.”
According to police the terrorists commandeered parked cars to reach various destinations. One of the groups walked to a well-known cafe called ‘Leopold’s’ near the seafront, which is a favourite haunt of Western tourists. At this location, they fired on the crowd, and then went on to enter the 105-year-old Taj Mahal Hotel. Another group attacked the equally famous Oberoi Trident Hotel, also on the seafront.
A third group commandeered a police van to reach a railway terminus, shooting at passersby indiscriminately. At the railway terminus they hurled grenades and fired on commuters, causing horrendous casualties.
Yet another group struck at the Cama Hospital. A total of 10 public locations were targeted, including Wadi Bundar and Vile Parle where explosives were used to blow up two taxis. The police were successful in stopping two terrorists who had landed at Girgaum at 10:50 pm on Wednesday. Both gunmen were killed, and police recovered two boats filled with explosives.
While in most places the action was over in hours, terrorists held out through Thursday in the two hotels, taking high-value hostages from among the guests, mostly foreigners and well-to-do Indians. Eyewitnesses who emerged from the Taj Mahal hotel said the terrorists tried to single out guests with British and United States passports.
According to Kapil Sibal, a union cabinet minister, the terrorists had set up ”control rooms” in the two hotels in advance of the attacks and were armed with sophisticated MP-6 automatic weapons, hand grenades and explosives.
Addressing a press conference in New Delhi, opposition leader Lal Krishna Advani reiterated his calls for the restoration of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), repealed by Singh’s Congress-led government, adding that “the government at the Centre and State [Maharashtra] have much to answer for to the nation, but this is not the occasion for me to ask that.”
Later in a televised speech, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised police reforms, the tightening of anti-terrorism laws and the establishment of a federal counter-terrorism agency.