It was reality television at its most horrific. For three days last week, a spellbound world watched as a handful of heavily armed and well-trained Islamic terrorists paralyzed Mumbai, turning India’s financial center of 20 million inhabitants into a war zone. When the guns fell silent, the carefully planned and brutally efficient series of attacks had claimed the lives of about 200 people, including five Americans; injured as many as 300; and thrown the world’s largest democracy into turmoil.
According to Indian officials, ten men took part in the attack, targeting a Jewish center (the Nariman House) and two luxury hotels (the Taj Mahal and Oberon-Trident). Though the killers searched out American and British citizens, they often murdered indiscriminately. Among the victims were 26 foreign nationals, including an American rabbi and his wife, and 20 Indian commandos and policemen.A total of six Americans were killed.
Jews were a clear target. One terrorist, Azam Amir Kasab, reportedly a member of the Pakistani-supported terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Righteous), which has targeted India in the past, and the group has battled Americans in concert with the group with which it is affiliated, al-Qaeda. Kasab, a Pakistani citizen from Kashmir, told police after his capture that Israelis were targeted in order "to avenge atrocities on Palestinians"; hence, the attack on Nariman House. The Times of India reported that some of the terrorists even slept in the Jewish complex on an earlier reconnaissance mission in the city, passing themselves off as Malaysian students.
In targeting Jews, the Mumbai terrorists were most likely following instructions that al-Qaeda’s former chief in Saudi Arabia, Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin, laid out for jihadists in a 2004 internet-published essay titled “The Targets Inside Cities.” In it, al-Muqrin sets out degrees of value for killing innocent civilians in terrorist attacks. At the top of al-Muqrin’s list are Jews, with Americans and Israelis first, and British Jews second. Next come the Christians, with Americans again occupying first place, and the British following. These are then divided into professions, with businessmen the top target and tourists and military personnel also highly ranked. Seemingly random, last week’s attacks may well have been inspired by al-Muqrin’s directory of death.
There may also be a strategic reason for last week’s carnage. The attacks were meant to undermine the reconciliation process between India and Pakistan underway since President Asif Zardari assumed office last August in Islamabad. Ironically, just before the attack, India and Pakistan had signed an accord to “control cross-border terrorism,” among other things. By attacking India, Islamic radicals hoped not only to rupture the two countries’ improving relations, but also to draw Pakistani troops away from their current offensive against the jihadists’ sanctuaries in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Indeed, under its new government, Pakistan has seen an upsurge in counterterrorism. Besides being the first Pakistani president to call Muslim fighters in Kashmir terrorists, Zardari also recently took on the powerful Pakistani secret police, the ISI, abolishing its political wing. Islamist elements in the army and the ISI, which set up many of Pakistan’s terrorist groups as well as the Taliban, view the insurgency in Indian Kashmir as their contribution to jihad. After three lost wars, they know they cannot wrest the disputed, Muslim-majority province from India by force, so they have been waging a low intensity, proxy war against their larger and militarily more powerful Indian neighbor for nearly three decades.
Mumbai may have been a part of this ongoing war. This proxy war first took the form of Pakistan providing Sikh separatists in India’s Punjab state with arms and training in the early 1980s. Then, a Pakistani-sponsored upsurge in violence occurred in Indian Kashmir after the Afghanistan conflict against the Soviets ended in 1989. Pakistan sent hundreds of now unemployed mujahedeen there. Terrorist attacks followed in the 1990s, with the worst occurring in Mumbai. In 1993, thirteen bomb explosions killed about 250 people throughout the city. It is believed the ISI had a hand in these atrocities.
It is likely that Mumbai, India’s version of the Big Apple, was attacked again last week because of its diversity, wealth, and financial importance. With their indiscriminate slaughter, especially in the two luxury hotels favored by the business class, the terrorists had hoped to frighten away foreign investors. In this way the terrorists’ may have hoped to blunt India’s economic upsurge, which will see it become one of this century’s global economic powers.
Still another reason for last week’s attacks may be related to the fact that Islamic radicals want to see India destabilized so that an Islamic state, or states, is erected in its place. An e-mail sent to a television station, purportedly from the terrorist group responsible for the Mumbai attack, said it wanted a state set up for India’s Muslims. India has about 140 million Muslims, the second largest number in the world after Indonesia.
With an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group in Pakistan the prime suspect in the Mumbai attacks, a rupture in Pakistani-Indian relations is now a mounting concern. In his few months in office, Zardari has already shown a willingness to confront the danger the Islamic extremists pose. To make sure that these efforts are appreciated, and that Pakistan does not become a suspect in India – something that seems to be happening – the Pakistani government would do well to offer India full and transparent cooperation as it investigates the attacks.
India, meanwhile, must improve its counter-terror tactics. The country has experienced 15 major terrorist attacks since 2003, in which hundreds of its citizens have been killed. This “death by a thousand cuts” as one terrorism expert called it, can probably be stopped now only with substantial foreign expertise, including from Israeli and American intelligence services. Indian security agencies seem incapable of halting the growing crescendo of destabilizing attacks, some of them by home-grown Islamist groups, and their response to the recent attacks served to underscore these fatal flaws. For instance, it took the Indian commandos that finally defeated the terrorists nine hours to get to Mumbai from New Delhi.
The Mumbai attacks are already being described as a defining moment in India’s history. As more becomes known about the perpetrators, the tragic scale of the attacks is already too clear. The hope now is that this crime against humanity will spur India’s security services to be better prepared when the terrorists strike next. In the confusion of the past several days, the possibility that such attacks will again threaten the country is, alas, the one thing that no one doubts.