Terrorist Rampage Ended in Mumbai (Updated)

After nearly three days the terrorist rampage that has rocked India’s financial capital, Mumbai, has ended in a hail of bullets as Indian forces killed the last three gunmen who had barricaded themselves within a luxury hotel:

MUMBAI, India — A 60-hour terror rampage that killed at least 195 people across India’s financial capital ended Saturday when commandos killed the last three gunmen inside a luxury hotel while it was engulfed in flames.

Authorities searched for any remaining captives hiding in their rooms and began to shift their focus to who was behind the attacks, which killed 18 foreigners including six Americans.

A previously unknown Muslim group with a name suggesting origins inside India claimed responsibility for the attack, but Indian officials said the sole surviving gunman was from Pakistan and pointed a finger of blame at their neighbor and rival.

Islamabad denied involvement and promised to help in the investigation. A team of FBI agents also was on its way to India to lend assistance.

Some 295 people also were wounded in the violence that started when heavily armed assailants attacked 10 sites across Mumbai on Wednesday night. At least 20 soldiers and police were among the dead.

Orange flames and black smoke engulfed the landmark 565-room Taj Mahal hotel after dawn Saturday as Indian forces ended the siege there in a hail of gunfire, just hours after elite commandos stormed a Jewish center and found at least eight hostages dead.

“There were three terrorists, we have killed them,” said J.K. Dutt, director general of India’s elite National Security Guard commando unit.

Many are now trying to understand why and how the attacks happened. Suketu Mehta, a journalist writing in an op-ed in the New York Times, points to Mumbai’s openness and that the city is a “soft target”:

Mumbai is a “soft target,” the terrorism analysts say. Anybody can walk into the hotels, the hospitals, the train stations, and start spraying with a machine gun. Where are the metal detectors, the random bag checks? In Mumbai, it’s impossible to control the crowd. In other cities, if there’s an explosion, people run away from it. In Mumbai, people run toward it — to help. Greater Mumbai takes in a million new residents a year. This is the problem, say the nativists. The city is just too hospitable. You let them in, and they break your heart.

In the Bombay I grew up in, your religion was a personal eccentricity, like a hairstyle. In my school, you were denominated by which cricketer or Bollywood star you worshiped, not which prophet. In today’s Mumbai, things have changed. Hindu and Muslim demagogues want the mobs to come out again in the streets, and slaughter one another in the name of God. They want India and Pakistan to go to war. They want Indian Muslims to be expelled. They want India to get out of Kashmir. They want mosques torn down. They want temples bombed.

And now it looks as if the latest terrorists were our neighbors, young men dressed not in Afghan tunics but in blue jeans and designer T-shirts. Being South Asian, they would have grown up watching the painted lady that is Mumbai in the movies: a city of flashy cars and flashier women. A pleasure-loving city, a sensual city. Everything that preachers of every religion thunder against. It is, as a monk of the pacifist Jain religion explained to me, “paap-ni-bhoomi”: the sinful land.

Al Jazeera notes the intelligence failure:

The attacks were not simply about spreading terror and creating chaos, but also served to humiliate the government as they proved that a handful of men could paralyse a city and frustrate highly-trained security forces.

People were left wondering how the Indian intelligence agencies failed to anticipate an attack of this proportion.

The scale and execution of the foray points to acute planning for a sustained period of time. It was the first time that the sea route was exploited for access – the assailants used boats to reach the urban peninsula.

That’s what baffled me about the attacks. This wasn’t the same as a suicide bomber blowing him- or herself up in a crowded marketplace. That could have been achieved at a fraction of the cost of this particular set of attacks. These attacks had planning and coordination; the young men who forced their way into some of Mumbai’s fanciest hotels and restaurants had received a level of training and preparation. That incurs a cost; such resources are too valuable just to throw away.

I have no more explanation than anybody else and can only offer a handful of guesses. It may have been a probing attack. If that’s the case Mumbai can expect more such attacks and soon, indeed, I would have already expected a followup.

It may have been intended to discredit the government or provoke an over-response. If that’s the case, the attacks would seem to have failed. At this point the “rally ’round” effect seems to be outweighing the questions and there hasn’t been an overreaction. Yet.

This attack was distinctive in that Westerners seem to have been the targets. If we’re the audience for whatever message was being sent, it’s misfired. There just doesn’t seem to be enough coverage of the events here.

UPDATE

Here’s an excerpt from a commentary on the attacks from David Cid, director of the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism:

In the past three years nearly 4000 were killed in India by terrorists, but our attention is captured only by the spectacular, and so our adversary engages in an increasing spiral of barbarity, and the world watches. Targeting the West, they killed or captured Americans and British nationals, the captives likely to be killed later at leisure.

There is both practicality and symbolism in the choice of targets; modernity, plurality and the influence of the Western World were transformed from symbols of hope to symbols of horror. Mumbai is a world away, and 12 hours by air from San Francisco.

Apparently, I’m not the only one thinking along those lines.

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Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.

Comments

  1. capital L says:

    Westerners were the primary targets of the attack, but one can hardly say that an event of this magnitude fails to deliver a message to India. Furthermore, as with the Bali bombings, the tourism industry will undoubtedly be disrupted–all but the most blinkered Westerners considering a trip to Mumbai will become aware of this.

  2. Triumph says:

    This attack was distinctive in that Westerners seem to have been the targets.

    FYI: This isn’t true. Of the 195 people killed, only 9% were non-Indian [and we know for sure that some of non-Indian were non-Western so that figure is even lower].

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I fully acknowledge that I’m making a WAG—I said so in the body of the post. To the best of my knowledge no Westerners were killed in the attacks in 2006 in which nearly 200 people died. This is distinctive.

    You can’t conclude what you’re trying to conclude from the numbers you’re using, Triumph. The issue isn’t how many white balls were pulled out of the urn—it’s now many were in the urn to begin with. I’d speculate that the attackers were trying to get a heightened level of international attention by going after targets bound to get more coverage in the international media. But it’s still just a WAG.

  4. Triumph says:

    Dave- I would agree that the militants wanted to get media attention and that killing foreigners would do that–you just have to compare it to the violence that has been going on in Orissa by Hindu nationalists [100 people killed over the last several weeks].

    But the places where most of the killings occurred were not places with a preponderance of Westerners. Reports suggest that the largest proportion of the deaths occurred at the VT station, the Mazagon dockyard, and the domestic airport. Also, Metro Adlabs and the government-run Cama hospital and GT Hospital were targeted. These are all places where Indians VASTLY outnumber Westerners.

    Metro Adlabs occasionally gets Westerners, but it is more well-known as a red-carpet theater for Bollywood premiers.

    I go to Mumbai about twice a year on business and have stayed in the Oberoi. I can tell you many Westerns stay there, but the majority of guests tend to be wealthy Indians (same goes with Cafe Leopold). It is a popular place for elaborate weddings (same with the Taj)

    I think Methu’s analysis seemed right–these are radical conservative Kashmiri’s who picked the epicenter of Indian secularism as the target.

    There is little evidence–thus far–to suggest an al-Quaeda style Islam vs. the West subtext to these attacks.

    On Capital’s point–this is not going to have a dramatic impact on tourism. Most Westerners who go to that area of Mumbai are there on business. The city is too important for people to be scared off by this. I will anticipate more security, certainly. We are scheduled to go in January and haven’t even thought about canceling the trip because of this.

  5. Bithead says:

    Many are now trying to understand why and how the attacks happened.

    There is both practicality and symbolism in the choice of targets; modernity, plurality and the influence of the Western World were transformed from symbols of hope to symbols of horror. Mumbai is a world away, and 12 hours by air from San Francisco.

    The reasons behind the attack aren’t all tha hard to figure out. How many of the dead were armed to protect themselves?

    Around 200 killed. Another three hundred injured. None could fire back. By definition, a soft target.

    Thing is, history is loaded with examples that we should have learned this lesson from.

    Just ask Virginia Tech.
    Or, Columbine.
    Or Israeli athletes who were at Munich.

    Why were planes chosen on 9/11? Because they knew since everyone but they themselves were unarmed, nobody could resist. They were correct.

  6. belloscm says:

    “Mumbai is a “soft target,”… Anybody can walk into the hotels, the hospitals, the train stations, and start spraying with a machine gun. Where are the metal detectors, the random bag checks?”

    I stayed at the Taj last month, two metal detectors and bag check stations (manned by hotel staff) from the taxi queue to the lobby entrance. No armed guards, though.

    Better yet, the terrorist’s infiltration by sea must really sting as the largest naval base in India is only about 300 meters north of the Taj. I went on a 2 hour harbor cruise and witnessed no naval or Coast Guard patrols in the vicinity of the Naval Base or the Mumbai Oil Terminal. I think that this will change.

  7. Triumph says:

    You can’t conclude what you’re trying to conclude from the numbers you’re using, Triumph.

    As the dust is settling, it appears that this canard about the Mumbai terrorists wanting to target Westerners is being revealed as shortsighted.

    This isn’t surprising to anyone who has experience in the country and is indicative of this false assumption held by many Westerners that the world revolves around them.

    From today’s NYTimes:

    Contrary to earlier reports, it appeared that Westerners were not the gunmen’s main targets: they killed whomever they could. By Saturday evening, 18 of the dead were confirmed as foreigners; an additional 22 foreigners were wounded, said Vilasrao Deshmukh, the chief minister of Maharashtra State, where Mumbai is located.

    Rattan Keswani, the president of Trident Hotels, said he had found no basis for reports that gunmen had rounded up holders of American and British passports at the Oberoi and herded them upstairs. “Nothing seems to suggest that,” he said, noting that a range of nationalities was represented among the 22 hotel guests who died, in addition to the 10 staff members, all Indian.

    This was pretty clear from the earliest reports, given the geography of the attacks.

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    Triumph:

    If revelations prove me to be wrong I’ll acknowledge my error. I don’t think we know yet.

    However, I want to caution you: if you ever accuse me of lying again in one of my posts, I’ll ban you from the post.

  9. Triumph says:

    if you ever accuse me of lying again in one of my posts, I’ll ban you from the post.

    Sorry, Dave. I acknowledge being a bit careless with my words.

    A charge of mendacity requires that the accused is actually conversant with the history and social geography of India–something that was not evident in the post.

    The “Mumbai-terrorists-targeting-Westerners” meme in this case is indicative of a Palin-style analysis rather than a Cheney-style analysis.