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The Long War Journal – Analysis: Mumbai attack differs from past terror strikes

Are we prepared for these new kind of sophisticated attacks?

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Almost two days after terrorists attacked the Indian financial hub of Mumbai, the military is still working to root out the remnants of the assault teams at two hotels and a Jewish center. More than 125 people, including six foreigners, have been killed and 327 more have been wounded. The number is expected to go up, as Indian commandos have recovered an additional 30 dead at the Taj Mahal hotel as fighting has resumed.

The Mumbai attack is unique from past terror strikes carried out by Islamic terrorists. Instead of one or more bombings at distinct sites, the Mumbai attackers struck throughout the city using military tactics. Instead of one or more bombings carried out over a short period of time, Mumbai I entering its third day of crisis.

An attack of this nature cannot be thrown together overnight. It requires planned, scouting, financing, training, and a support network to aid the fighters. Initial reports indicate the attacks originated from Pakistan, the hub of jihadi activity in South Asia. Few local terror groups have the capacity to pull of an attack such as this.

While it is early to know exactly what happened in Mumbai as the fog of war still blankets the city, multiple press reports from India allow for a general picture to be painted. An estimated 12 to 25 terrorists are believed to have entered Mumbai by sea. After landing, he attack teams initiated a battle at a police station, then fanned across the city to attack the soft underbelly of hotels, cafes, cinemas, and hospitals. Civilians were gunned down and taken hostage, while terrorists looked for people carrying foreign passports.

Preparation

While the exact size of the assault force and the support cells is still not known, police estimate about 25 gunmen were involved in the attack. The number of members of the supporting cells that provide financing, training, transportation, and other services could be two to four times this number. Operational security for such a large unit, or grouping of cells, is difficult to maintain and requires organization and discipline.

To pull off an attack of this magnitude, it requires months of training, planning, and on-site reconnaissance. Indian officials have stated that the terrorists set up “advance control rooms” at the Taj Mahal and Trident (Oberoi) hotels, and conducted a significant amount of reconnaissance prior to executing the attack. If the news about the “control rooms” is accurate, these rooms may also have served as weapons and ammunition caches for the assault teams to replenish after conducting the first half of the operation.

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A terrorist outside the train station in Mumbai.

The planners of the Mumbai attack appear to have chosen able military-aged males. Witnesses have described the men as young and fit. Some of the gunmen appear to have been well trained; some have been credited with having good marksmanship and other military skills.

A witness who saw one of the teams land by sea adescribed the gunmen as “in their 20s, fair-skinned and tall, clad in jeans and jackets.” He saw “eight young men stepping out of the raft, two at a time. They jumped into the waters, and picked up a haversack. They bent down again, and came up carrying two more haversacks, one in each hand.”

An Indian official claimed the attackers used “sophisticated weapons,” however this may be an overstatement. Reports indicate the gunmen used automatic rifles, hand grenades, and some machineguns, as well as several car bombs. The terrorists did not have sophisticated weapons such as anti-aircraft missiles to attack helicopters supporting Indian counterterrorism forces.

Getting to Mumbai

One of the more intriguing aspects of the attack is how the teams entered Mumbai. Reports indicate at least two of the assault teams arrived from outside the city by sea around 9 p.m. local time. Indian officials believe most if not all of the attackers entered Mumbai via sea.

Indian Coast Guard, Navy, Mumbai maritime police, and customs units have scoured the waters off Mumbai in search of a “mother ship” that transported one or more smaller Gemini inflatable boats used by the attackers. A witness saw one of the craft land in Colaba in southern Mumbai and disgorge eight to 10 fighters.

Two ships that have been boarded are strongly suspected of being involved in the attacks: the Kuber, an Indian fishing boat, and the MV Alpha, a Vietnamese cargo ship. Both ships appear to have been directly involved. The Kuber was hijacked on Nov. 13, and its captain was found murdered. Four crewmen are reported to still be missing.

Indian security officials found what they believe is evidence linking the boat to the attack, as well as linking the attackers to Pakistan. “A GPS map of south Mumbai was found along with a satellite phone on the ship, Coast Guard officials confirmed,” The Times of India reported. “There were reports that this phone was used to make calls to Karachi immediately before the shootings began in Mumbai.”

Indian police also detained three terrorists from the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, a terror group closely allied with al Qaeda. The three men are said to be Pakistani nationals, and claimed to have been part of a 12-man team that launched from the MV Alpha. They said the MV Alpha departed from Karachi.

Another Indian official said that it is “suspected that the Pakistan Marine Agency helped the terrorists hijack the trawler (the Kuber),” although this has not been confirmed. Another unconfirmed report indicated the Kuber originated from Karachi, Pakistan.

The attack

After landing in Colaba, the terrorists moved north and attacked the Colaba police station, possibly as a single unit. The attack on the police command and control node disrupted the police response and pinned down police units.

The Mumbai police paid a heavy price. Early in the fight, the attackers killed the chief of Mumbai’s Anti-terrorism Squad and two other senior officials. At least 14 police were reported to have been killed during fighting throughout the city.

From the Colaba police station, the assault force broke up into smaller teams and fanned out to hit secondary targets throughout Mumbai. At least one police van was hijacked and the terrorists drove around the city, firing automatic weapons from the truck at random targets.

In all, ten locations, including the police station, were attacked. The assault teams struck at vital centers where foreigners were likely to congregate: the five-star Taj Mahal and Trident hotels, the Nariman House (an orthodox Jewish center), the Cama hospital, the CSP train station, a cinema, and a cafe were all struck almost simultaneously. Two Taxis were also blown up near the airport in the north and the docks in the southern part of the city.

At the Taj, Trident, and Nariman House, several bombs or hand grenades were tossed into the lobbies and in other areas. The Taj Mahal Hotel was set on fire due to the blasts.

Gunmen opened fire indiscriminately in the hotel lobbies and at the cafe, cinema, train station, and the Jewish center. At the hotels, gunmen then sought out foreigners holding American, British, and Israeli passports.

More than 200 hostages were reported to have been held at the Taj and scores more at the Trident and the Jewish center. Mumbai was under siege as police and counterterrorism officials struggled to regain control of the city.

The counterattack

Police appear to have regained control of the situation at the CSP train station, cafe, and cinema relatively quickly, however they were unable to handle the hostage situation at the hotels, the hospital, and the Jewish center. Police officials admitted they were “overwhelmed” by the attacks and unable to contain the fighting.

After a delay, more than 200 National Security Guards commandos and a number of elite Naval commandos, as well as an unknown number of Army forces were deployed to Mumbai. The hotels, the hospital, and the Jewish center were surrounded as the special operations forces prepared to assault the buildings.

Commandos are in the process of clearing the Taj and the Trident in room by room searches. Some of the rooms are reported to have been rigged with explosives. Several National Security Guards commandos have been reported to have been killed or wounded in the fighting. Indian forces are also storming the Jewish Center after air assaulting soldiers into the complex. Curiously, it does not appear the terrorists have executed hostages once they were taken.

At this time, police said seven terrorist have been killed and nine have been detained. Several more are still thought to be hiding in the Taj and Trident hotels, and the Jewish center.

Indian Mujahideen claimed responsibility

A group called the Deccan Mujahideen, or Indian Mujahideen, has claimed responsibility for the Mumbai strike in an e-mail to local news stations. While the Indian Mujahideen’s role in the attack has yet to be confirmed, at least two of the terrorists fighting in Mumbai indicated they were linked to Islamic terrorists.

One of the terrorists phoned a news station demanding jihadis be released from jail in exchange for prisoners. “We want all Mujahideens held in India released and only after that we will release the people,” a man named Sahadullah told a media outlet. “Release all the Mujahideens, and Muslims living in India should not be troubled.”

Another terrorist named Imran phoned a TV station and spoke in Urdu in what is believed to be a Kashmiri accent. “Ask the government to talk to us and we will release the hostages,” he said. “Are you aware how many people have been killed in Kashmir? Are you aware how your army has killed Muslims. Are you aware how many of them have been killed in Kashmir this week?”

The Indian Mujahideen has taken credit for several recent mass-casualty attacks in India. The group claimed credit for the July 25 and 26 bombings in Ahmedabad and Bangalore. At least 36 Indians were killed and more than 120 were wounded in the attacks. The Indian Mujahideen took credit for the Sept. 13 attacks in New Delhi that resulted in 18 killed and more than 90 wounded. The group also claimed credit for the bombings in Jaipur last May (60 killed, more than 200 wounded), and bombings in Uttar Pradesh in November 2007 (14 killed, 50 wounded).

In several of those attacks, an Indian Mujahideen operative who calls himself “Arbi Hindi” e-mailed the media to claim responsibility. Arbi Hindi’s real name is Abdul Subhan Qureshi, an Indian national who is believed to be behind many of the recent terror attacks inside India. Qureshi, a computer expert, is beleived to have trained hundreds of recruits to conduct terror attacks in India. He is often called India’s Osama bin Laden.

Indian intelligence believes the Indian Mujahideen is a front group created by the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Harkat ul Jihad al Islami. The Indian Mujahideen was created to confuse investigators and cover the tracks of the Students’ Islamic Movement of India, or SIMI, a radical Islamist movement, according to Indian intelligence.

The Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Harkat ul Jihad al Islami receive support from Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence to destabilize India and wage war in Kashmir. Both of these terror groups are local al Qaeda affiliates in Pakistan and conduct attacks in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The Indian “occupation” of Kashmir helped spawn these groups.

Reports indicate signals intelligence has linked the attackers back to Pakistan. Intelligence services are said to have intercepted the terrorists’ conversations via satellite phone. The men spoke in Punjabi and used Pakistani phrases.

Indian politicians have been quick to point the finger at Pakistan. Gujarat state Chief Minister Narendra Modi accused Pakistan of allowing terrorists to use its soil as a terror launchpad. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh blamed terror groups backed by India’s “neighbors,” a reference to Pakistan. Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee said ‘elements in Pakistan’ were behind the Mumbai attacks.

A unique attack

The Mumbai attack differs from previous terror attacks launched by Islamic terror groups. Al Qaeda and other terror groups have not used multiple assault teams to attack multiple targets simultaneously in a major city outside of a war zone.

Al Qaeda and allied groups have conducted complex military assaults on military and non-military targets in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Somalia, Algeria, and Pakistan. But these are countries that are actively in a state of war or emerging from a recent war, where resources and established fighting units already exist.

Al Qaeda has also used the combination of a suicide attack to breach an outer wall followed by one or more assault teams on military bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, as well as at the US embassy in Yemen. But again, these attacks are focused on a single target, and again occur where the resources and manpower is available.

Previous terror attacks in non-war zone countries such as India, London, Spain, the United States, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, and elsewhere have consisted of suicide or conventional bombings on one or more critical soft targets such as hotels, resorts, cafes, rail stations, trains, or in the case of the Sept. 11 attack, planes used as suicide bombs.

The only attack similar to the Mumbai strike is the assault on the Indian Parliament by the Jaish-e-Mohammed, aided by the Lashkar-e-Taiba, in December 2001. A team of Jaish-e-Mohammed fighters attempted to storm the parliament building while in a session was held. A combination of mishaps by the terrorists and the quick reaction of security guards bunted the attack.

The Mumbai attack is something different. Foreign assault teams that likely trained and originated from outside the country infiltrated a major city to conduct multiple attacks on carefully chosen targets. The primary weapon was the gunman, not the suicide bomber. The attack itself has paralyzed a city of 18 million. And two days after the attack began, Indian forces are still working to root out the terror teams.