Terrorism and Crowded Places: Lessons from Mumbai

Understanding terrorism is problematic. It is a rare occurrence, not amenable to statistical modelling. It is therefore difficult to look at a single event, or set of events, and determine what this event ‘tells us’ about terrorism, either globally, or in a specific local context. It is especially problematic to talk about trends given the low frequency of attacks. Nonetheless, a strategic reading of terrorism serves to highlight how groups use unpredictability and uncertainty to achieve political goals, whilst current research often highlights how disorientation may be used in terrorist campaigns to attempt to alienate authorities from their citizens by fostering over-reaction.[1]

There is political pressure to learn lessons from terrorist events, with each new attack promoting a wave of self-reflection, raising questions about the possibility of such an attack – by similar groups using similar methods and tactics – occurring in the UK. It is possible, given the way terrorist events are regarded and because of the questions often asked, that we could be in danger of learning the wrong lessons, and therefore repeating the same mistakes.

This pressure is increased because of the expanded range of actors who are now expected to take some measure of responsibility and action to reduce risk.[2] The contemporary resilience agenda in the UK expands the counter-terrorism role downwards and horizontally, far beyond its traditional location within the political executive. As a concept, resilience interacts with a range of social and economic policies, and involves the prioritisation of the safety and security of communities against a range of hazards, including terrorism.[3] This is important in strengthening social resilience, and the need for the government to work in partnership with businesses and communities was further recognised in a recent major report by the Institute of Public Policy Research.[4]

This expansion of responsibility is not without implications. Existing approaches to counter-terrorism (CT) rely upon the government’s interpretation of threats. For example, the identification of a specific threat towards crowded places in the UK is reflected in the National Risk Register (2008), the National Security Strategy (2008, updated 2009), and the refreshed National Counter-terrorism Strategy (2009); as well as specific guidance for built environment professionals, such as planners, who are being encouraged to consider and design CT measures at ‘at risk’ locations. In short, more and more actors are expected to ‘learn lessons’ and interpret terrorist attacks. The November 2008 attacks in Mumbai were no exception, and led to a host of policy responses, guidance and advice being immediately disseminated by government agencies; this included sending a team from the Metropolitan Police to Mumbai. However, immediacy in post-terrorism environments is not necessarily desirable; instead considered responses to counter-terrorism strategy are more likely to yield beneficial ‘lessons learned’.

The Mumbai Attacks

The Mumbai attacks started on 26 November 2008 and lasted for approximately three days. The targets centred on the southern business district, Colaba and Nariman Point. The terrorists moved through parts of Mumbai in small teams. Reports indicate around 150 people were killed, with a further 200-300 wounded. It appears the heavily armed terrorists split into tactical groups, heading to various locations in Mumbai. Two took a taxi to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly the Victoria Terminus), two headed to the Oberoi Hotel, two moved to the Café Leopold, two headed to Nariman House, whilst four moved to the Taj Mahal Hotel. The groups maintained communication, and clearly had some local knowledge of the region and targets. Once in the Terminus, the two attackers began to fire indiscriminately, killing and wounding scores of passengers. The Terminus itself was an identifiable landmark, a symbol of the city embedded in the social, cultural and political life of Mumbai.

In the UK the events in Mumbai initiated a wave of ‘could this happen here?’ thinking. Fuelled by media speculation, this tended to draw attention to specific novelties associated with the Mumbai attack: for instance the use of automatic weapons and grenades rather than vehicle or person-borne bombs; the taking of hostages; the attack on multiple targets in a co-ordinated raid; the use of small boats to access targets; and the use of mobile phones and other information technology. Despite the allegedly new elements, the event was read in a way that fitted into already existing frames of reference, contributing to an ‘official’ War on Terror narrative. For example, the multiple, co-ordinated attacks were considered to bear the hallmark of Al-Qai’da, well before any declaration of responsibility. Focusing upon tactical methodologies (such as attacking railways) can lead to the assumption among politicians and military practitioners that they are facing an existential terrorist threat.

Elements of the Mumbai attacks are prefigured in previous conflict zones such as Chechnya. In that case, large-scale hostage-taking was used as part of a broader anti-Russian guerrilla war effort in 1995 and 1996. More recent attacks including the Moscow Theatre siege and the events in Beslan also raised the issue of hostage-taking where the perpetrators exhibited suicidal intent.[5] Numerous commentators misread these attacks, which were a strategic extension of the prevailing war in Chechnya, by applying a ‘terrorism methodology’.

Pre-emptive Policy for Inevitable Attack

A defensive counter-terrorism approach assumes the inevitability of some kind of terrorist attack. Based on cultural attitudes to risk, however, ‘possibility’ can sometimes be conflated with ‘probability’, with terrorism risks trumping other sources of risk. Moreover, new types of threat are added to the risk list, whilst old threats are never removed from the list of possibilities. In part, this is the result of the media’s obsession with novelty, whereby elements of events are taken out of context and made into a ‘story’. The continual expansion of the range of threats, particularly when they are unreflectively added to existing fears, is a risk in itself, creating a counter-terrorist spiral. Each ‘new’ threat prompts a drive to pre-empt the realisation of that threat, with the danger that this leads to expensive, disruptive and potentially unnecessary interventions.

The counter-terrorism spiral can also have negative social consequences. For instance, it may lead to the decreased usability, accessibility and attractiveness of public spaces due to poorly considered and obtrusive top-down counter-terrorism interventions. This approach also continually stretches resources that could be used elsewhere. It is impossible to defend against all imagined and unimagined scenarios, but because the threat of terrorism is easily imaginable, it threatens to overwhelm prevention of, and preparation against, dangers with a lower profile, but significant social impact.

Alternative Lessons from Mumbai

We can learn lessons from Mumbai if we focus not on the conventional question regarding ‘who are the terrorists, and what weapons and methods will they use to attack us’, but on broader questions of response and resilience.

Research on public responses to disasters and emergencies, including terrorism, suggests that, contrary to counter-terrorist mythology, there is a distinct absence of public panic in the wake of disasters.[6] Whilst the aftermath of the 1993 bombings in Mumbai saw inter-communal rioting, this was largely the result of pre-existing community tensions, and was palpably absent following the 2006 railway bombings and the 2008 attacks. Instead, the latter two events were noted for the resilience of Mumbai’s various communities, their contribution to relief efforts and their ability to ‘bounce back’. Appropriate, light-touch responses by authorities can build upon and foster these capacities; top-down impositions run the risk of disengagement and abstinence, as citizens leave safety solely to under-resourced professionals.

It is important to note that the majority of deaths in the 2008 attacks occurred in the first hour, followed by a tense drawn-out period of days when attackers barricaded themselves into buildings, taking hostages with them. It was the targets of the attack and the ensuing hostage-taking, rather than the death toll, which elicited extended international news coverage. From the variety of locations that were attacked in Mumbai, it is possible to understand that whilst a range of sites are potentially exposed to terrorist attack, this risk is not distributed equally. Understanding this distribution requires considering the symbolism and meaning of the targets chosen. For example, the railway station has a rich symbolic history linked to colonial rule. It also operates as a physical and emblematic entry point to Mumbai. Thus particular physical locations have a sense of meaning, making them focal points of political, social and economic geography. This symbolism is parochial and contextual rather than universal, highlighting the importance of drawing on local knowledge.

Fostering a sustainable resilience and counter-terrorism agenda requires building upon the existing capacity for social and infrastructural resilience against a wide range of hazards. This is opposed to the more common model of assuming vulnerability to novel or imagined threats or attack vectors, and then imposing externally derived and mandated ‘solutions’. As UK resilience is mainstreamed, it is highly important to ensure the involvement of key stakeholders in decision-making that affects them, especially when these decisions will have long-term consequences. Furthermore, there is a requirement for professional solutions that draw together a range of actors involved in the planning, design, construction, management and operation of public places.[7]

The alternative lessons outlined here highlight the need for conscious and considered reflection rather than knee-jerk reaction, so as to support decision-making processes for the evaluation of actual probabilistic terrorism risk. Local knowledge can be used, and networks of stakeholders can be properly consulted and engaged in building resilience, rather than being directed from the top. Finally, there is a need for considered engagement with the concept of risk, to maximise social and infrastructural resilience and minimise the negative social consequences of terrorism.

Jon Coaffee
Centre for Urban and Regional Studies
University of Birmingham

Cerwyn Moore
Political Science and International Studies
University of Birmingham

David Barnard-Wills
Political Science and International Studies
University of Birmingham


[1] Peter Neumann, and M L R Smith, The Strategy of Terrorism: How It Works, and Why It Fails (New York: Routledge, 2008), p. 32.

[2] Jon Coaffee, ‘Redesigning Counter-Terrorism for “Soft” Targets’, RUSI Monitor (Vol. 6, No. 12, March 2008).

[3] Jon Coaffee, David Murakami Wood and Peter Rogers, The Everyday Resilience of the City: How Cities Respond to Terrorism and Disaster (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), p. 1.

[4] Institute for Public Policy Research, ‘Shared Responsibilities: a National Security Strategy for the UK: the Final Report of the IPPR Commission on National Security in the 21st Century’ (London: IPPR, 2009), p. 72.

[5] Cerwyn Moore and Paul Tumelty, ‘Foreign Fighters and the Case of Chechnya: A Critical Assessment’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism (Vol. 31, No. 8, 2008), pp. 425–27.

[6] Ben Sheppard, G James Rubin, Jamie K Wardman and Simon Wessley, ‘Terrorism and Dispelling the Myth of a Panic Prone Public’, Journal of Public Health Policy (Vol. 27, No. 3, 2006), pp. 219-45.

[7] Jon Coaffee, Cerwyn Moore, David Fletcher and Lee Bosher ‘Resilient design for community safety and terror-resistant cities’, Proceedings of the Institute of Civil Engineers, Municipal Engineer (Vol. 161, Issue ME2, June 2008), pp. 103-10.

Explore our related content