Mumbai under attack – Dealing with Unknown Perpetrators
RUSI Analysis, 28 Nov 2008
Terrorist attacks in India spring from a complex and combustible mix of indigenous discontent, tensions in Kashmir, the pervasive hand of Al-Qa'ida, and fraught Indo-Pakistan relations. As the dust settles from the Mumbai attacks, it is an open question as to which direction the apportionment of blame and pursuit of the perpetrators may head.
By Samir Puri for RUSI.org
On the evening of 26 November the Indian financial capital of Mumbai came under assault by armed gunmen, leaving nearly 300 injured and at the time of writing a confirmed death toll of 125. The situation, in what is an ongoing crisis, remains shrouded in uncertainty. What has been clearly seen are the broadcast pictures of a blazing inferno that engulfed one section of the Taj Mahal hotel, a bloodstained and baggeage-strewn scene at Chhatrapati Shivaji railway station and an ongoing hostage situation at another hotel, the Trident Oberoi. Other targets are said to have included a restaurant, a hospital and the police headquarters in southern Mumbai.
The most astonishing facet of this tragic episode is the modus operandi of the attack. The attackers reportedly deployed into southern Mumbai using motorised inflatable dinghies, potentially launched from a larger vessel offshore (their method of insertion has since been discussed by Indian navy sources on local media). Once ashore, the armed men mounted what can only be described as a commando-style raid on multiple fixed locations throughout the city. The exact sequence of events is undetermined, although the sieges around the hotels have lasted the longest. Using small arms and grenades to kill indiscriminately, take hiostages and challenge security forces, the attackers have exhibited a degree of organisation and audacity that one might otherwise expect in a wartime context. The assault has required Indian security forces to encircle and then secure – room by room, floor by floor – the buildings in question. That an act of terrorism targeting an otherwise tranquil urban environment has not been exclusively characterized by bomb blasts – suicide or otherwise - is of extremely high significance.
A public claim of responsibility has been voiced by the little-heard of group calling themselves the Deccan Mujahedeen. Little is known of the identity of the attackers, but eyewitnesses have described them as South Asian and Hindi-speaking. The central question is therefore: to what extent is this an indigenously conceived attack and to what extent is there a connection to foreign jihadists? Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has already said in an address to the nation that the perpetrators were based ’outside the country’. Moreover, the attackers’ alleged demands for UK and US citizens as hostages suggests, at the very least, a fusion of motives with the grievances of global jihadists. Reports of an Israeli rabbi being held hostage in the city’s Jewish centre, add further credence to this.
Historically, Mumbai is no stranger to the scourge of devastating terrorist attacks. In July 2006 nearly 200 people lost their lives in a series of co-ordinated bomb attacks on commuter trains. According to Mumbai police, the bombings were linked to Lashkar-e-Toiba(LeT),a Kashmiri militant group of long standing that have previously received Pakistani support. Already evident in the synchronicity of the 2006 attack were some of the hallmarks of the Al-Qa'ida brand. Further back in history, the notorious destruction of Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid mosque by Hindu fundamentalists in December 1992 provoked a revenge attack – the following year, thirteen explosions occurred in Mumbai. after bombs were delivered in motor vehicles, through sewers and placed in a hotel, killing 257 people.
Two questions arise from this. Firstly, to what extent is this terrorist incident the latest grisly chapter in Mumbai’s unfortunate history as a battleground for Hindu-Muslim tensions? Secondly, to what the extent have the Kashmiri groups – who have a longstanding ire against India - forged connections with al-Q’aida? This latter concern has steadily accentuated in tandem with Al-Qa'ida’s consolidation of its position in Pakistan’s tribal areas and their outreach to groups like LeT. That said, the Al-Qa'ida core leadership has tended to pay only limited attention to India, with Hindus appearing far less frequently as the target of their publicised vitriol than the standard ‘Zionist-Crusader’ dictum. And India's large Muslim populace has not tended to provide a strong recruitment base for jihadists, although exceptions are clearly evident.
’If vengeance against Hindu fundamentalism drives recruits to join the Tempered Jihad, the quest for power in Pakistan drives their patrons,’ writes Praveen Swami in a recent issue of the Contemporary South Asia journal. For Swami, the Jihad taking place in India has been very carefully calibrated in order to advance Islamist political objectives by being an intermittently devastating thorn in India’s side, without necessarily triggering a wider Indo-Pakistan conflict.
After Mumbai has been subjected to a sustained assault of this kind, the potential for diplomatic fall-out between New Delhi and Islamabad is very high. This would be the case if India chooses to point the figure of blame westwards to its Pakistani neighbour. Although Indo-Pakistan relations have improved dramatically since 2001 – when Pakistan-backed Kashmiri militants attacked the Indian parliament, triggering a stand-off between the conventional military forces of the two countries and bringing them to the brink of nuclear war – a firm declaration of blame against Pakistan would be a severe development indeed. That said, the peace process – although generally stalled – was at least able to weather an accusation by Indian authorities that the Pakistani Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was involved in the 2006 Mumbai train bombings.
Terrorism is a multilayered problem involving embittered non-state actors driven by indigenous causes (Hindu ’domination’ of Muslims), India’s military presence in Kashmir and the contagion of international Jihadist terrorism. Added to this confusing and combustible mix is the backdrop of Indo-Pakistan inter-state tensions. As the dust settles from the Mumbai attacks, it is an open question as to which direction the apportionment of blame and the investigation and pursuit of perpetrators may head.
Samir Puri is an Analyst for RAND Europe
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.
Further Analysis: Terrorism, Central and South Asia, Indo-Pakistan Conflict