Mumbai and the Future of Terrorism

Should we have been surprised by the terrorist siege of Mumbai? Probably not.
In a January 2005 article in The Atlantic, former White House security official Richard A. Clarke posited an “alternate future” for the post-9/11 decade. Clarke chronicled a series of terrorist attacks on the US homeland. The first wave consisted of simultaneous assaults on hotels and amusement parks; the second of a series of carefully planned shooting and bombing rampages in America’s largest shopping malls. In both ­scenarios, thousands died.

The problem is, attacks of this magnitude do not just exist in the realm of the common imagination.

In 1993, investigation of the first World Trade Center bombing led U.S. counter­terrorism authorities to a conspiracy centred on Omar Abdel Rahman, the so-called “Blind Sheikh.” The conspirators, some of whom would eventually be linked to 9/11, intended to carry out simultaneous attacks on hotels, tourist attractions and transportation infrastructure across Manhattan. The “Landmarks Plot” – as it came to be called – was meticulously planned, highly tactical and timed down to the split second.

And then it happened for real.

In the early morning hours of 26 November 2008, a group of 10 militants armed with automatic weapons and ­explosives carried out a coordinated attack on selected targets across Mumbai, the city that has been characterized as the “Manhattan of the sub-continent.”

By the time it was over, three days later, more than 160 people were dead (including police and counterterrorism officers and two Canadian citizens), and there was widespread destruction across this historic tourist and financial center.

Initially, a group calling itself the Mujahideen of Deccan claimed responsibility (Deccan refers to the extensive plateau region of Southern India). However, it now seems likely that this claim was a diversionary tactic, intended to sow confusion among Indian and international intelligence and counterterrorism agencies.

The attack is currently attributed to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (“Army of the Righteous”). Based in Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba’s ideological roots lie in the long-festering question of sovereignty over Kashmir and, more broadly, in the establishment of an Islamic caliphate across South and Central Asia and Western China. Lashkar-e-Taiba has links to al Qaeda.

Mumbai is no stranger to violence. Since 2006, random bombings of public spaces have been carried out by various Islamic and Hindu factions, and possibly by organized crime groups as well. For the most part, these seem to have been intended primarily to exacerbate existing political tensions, to draw attention to long-standing grievances over Kashmir and, presumably, to settle underworld accounts.

What distinguishes this most recent attack from its predecessors is its highly specific targets: civic infrastructure, historic buildings and monuments and American, British and Israeli nationals.

As important, is the tremendous degree of organization and planning that underlay the attack. The terrorists clearly benefited from extensive pre-operational surveillance and inside knowledge of their targets. They were extremely comfortable navigating the Victorian labyrinth of the Taj Mahal hotel, and separate assault teams moved with ­evident assurance towards targets spread over a wide geographic area.

The attacks were precisely coordinated. Their focus was the Taj Mahal and Oberoi hotels and the Chabad House Lubavitch center, however, simultaneous assaults on railway stations, hospitals, media outlets, restaurants, bars and theaters ensured maximum chaos, distracted police and security forces and, ultimately, slowed and blunted the Counter Terrorism response.

The fallout from Mumbai will exacerbate existing regional tensions.
India has implied that elements within Pakistan’s military and intelligence services knew about the attacks and may have actively colluded in them. Pakistan has countered that there is no evidence of such involvement. The Indian government faces a political crisis stemming from the confusion that seemed to surround its initial response to the attacks. Pakistan, leery of possible Indian action, has moved troops away from the Afghan border to face potential Indian reprisals. This creates a troubling situation of two nuclear powers facing each other over a contested border.

The attacks are also an indicator of the fragility of the entire South Asian region, and the complex interplay between state governments and non-state actors. This has implications for Canadian foreign and security policy, particularly around Afghanistan.

A shift in terrorist operational strategy.
Geopolitical implications aside, the Mumbai attacks may also be an indicator of a real shift in terrorist operational strategy. The world has come to expect terrorist attacks on urban centers and infrastructure to be swift and sudden. The 9/11 attacks, for all of their destruction, took minutes.

By contrast, Mumbai bears many of the hallmarks of a commando or guerilla-type raid. Assault teams in small craft along the waterfront made effective use of intelligence and reconnaissance. They created diversions, success­fully dug in to defensive positions (which they held for days), and took hostages with almost surgical precision. Ten well-drilled militants managed to shut down one of the largest, most important cities in the world, not for hours but for days.

All of this suggests a high degree of strategic and tactical planning, of excellent training and of real professionalism. These are all part of the escalating violence and the increasingly ambitious tactics and strategy that seem to be characteristic of “evolved” terrorist organizations like al Qaeda and – increasingly – Lashkar-e-Taiba.

The Mumbai attacks are as much an act of war as of terrorism. Whatever their strategic intent, the attacks demonstrate that with sufficient planning and expertise, lightly armed and equipped terrorist operatives can effectively stage military or paramilitary operations against significant, more or less secure targets.

Instead of being rooted in the notion of quick hits for maximum effect, terrorist doctrine may be evolving to something much closer to insurgency and guerrilla warfare, in which small groups of operatives confront and, ultimately, undermine the state by disrupting its authority, attacking its symbols and harrying its ­military and security forces.

Have we witnessed the birth of a new “terrorist paradigm” in Mumbai? Time will tell.

One thing is certain, when terrorist groups find something that works, they tend to repeat it.
The notion of using commercial aircraft as instruments of terror was not new at the time of 9/11, nor did it die in its aftermath. The attack on Mumbai proves that a paramilitary-type assault on a large city – as imagined almost a generation ago with the “Landmarks Plot” – is a feasible tactical approach.

If Mumbai indeed represents a step in the evolution of contemporary terrorism, it will have tremendous security implications from a global – and a Canadian – perspective. Just as in Mumbai, an assault of this nature on a large Canadian city would be potentially devastating, both physically and psychologically.

For law enforcement and security agencies, Mumbai underscores the need for functioning intelligence systems and networks. Intelligence is what allows us to understand the nature of the threat and, ideally, to anticipate and neutralize that threat before it materializes.

Mumbai’s other lesson is rooted in reaction and response. It forces us to examine what we would do, as a nation, if faced with an unfolding “Mumbai-type” terrorist attack. Who would respond? Who would deal with the aftermath? Who, ultimately, would ensure that justice was done?

Could Mumbai happen in Canada? Yes. Is Canada ready for its own Mumbai? Perhaps.
Canada has a professional intelligence community that provides well-developed understanding of, and keen sensitivity to global developments. In the RCMP, Canada boasts a national police service that is internationally recognized as a leader in criminal investigations and major case management. Chances are good that we would collect and interpret information to warn us of an impending attack.

An effective response to an impending terrorist act requires that intelligence passes rapidly from collectors to the RCMP. However, this transition of intelligence to evidence remains problematic. In order to develop our national intelligence capability to its potential, we must find ways of breaking down some legislative and statutory walls between intelligence collection and law enforcement response that continue to divide the Canadian intelligence and security community.

Emergency preparedness networks in Canada are extensive and well-coordinated. Logistically, a national response to a “Mumbai-type” attack would proceed smoothly and would engage a range of players, from the Armed Forces, through first responders, to critical infrastructure and local authorities.

Any act of terrorism, even a paramilitary action on the scale of Mumbai, is a criminal act under Canadian law and must be investigated and prosecuted as such.

The challenge that flows from this is to ensure that proper criminal investigative follow-up and case management is incorporated into all aspects of Canadian emergency preparedness.

Responsibility for this falls squarely upon the RCMP, which is in the process of building post-attack contingency planning into its overall counterterrorism response. This planning is being developed in consultation with key federal partners in order to ensure a seamless response to a major ­terrorist attack.

The lessons that we have learned from Mumbai will help us prepare for new possibilities, but there is no such thing as absolute safety, whether from this or any other kind of terrorist action.

Effective intelligence gathering and sharing, and professional intelligence analysis remain critical, particularly when they are integrated into a properly managed, evidence-driven investigation. Together, they increase – by large orders of ­magnitude – both our chances of anticipating attacks before they happen, and of responding effectively when they do.  

Angus Smith is the Officer in Charge, Alternative Analysis at the RCMP National Security Criminal Investigations directorate.
© FrontLine Security 2008