The 26/11 attack has been the subject of study by the intelligence and security agencies of many countries in order to examine whether the modus operandi (MO) used by the terrorists in Mumbai called for any changes in the counter-terrorism strategies adopted by them. The US Senate Committee on Homeland Security held a detailed hearing in order to understand how and why the terrorists succeeded in Mumbai and how to prevent such incidents in the US.
It was terrorism of a conventional nature rendered smarter by modern communications equipment and a good understanding of the way modern media operates. Counter-terrorism failed in Mumbai because it was not as smart as the terrorists were. Smart counter-terrorism is the need of the hour. That is the primal lesson from Mumbai.
The Mumbai attack caused concern right across the international counter-terrorism community not because the terrorists used a new MO, which they had not used in the past, but because they used an old MO with destruction multiplier effect provided by modern communications equipment and lessons drawn from the commando courses of regular armed forces.
Counter-terrorism failed in Mumbai because it was not as smart as the terrorists were.
There were 166 fatalities in the sea-borne commando-style attack in Mumbai. Only five of them were caused by explosives. The remaining were caused by hand-held weapons (assault rifles and hand-grenades). There had been commando-style attacks with hand-held weapons by terrorists in the Indian territory even in the past, but most of those attacks were against static security guards outside important buildings such as the Parliament House in New Delhi, the US Consulate in Kolkata, a temple in Ahmedabad, etc.
The 26/11 attack was the first act of mass casual terrorism by the jihadi terrorists against innocent civilians using hand-held weapons. The previous two acts of mass casualty terrorism with fatalities of more than 150 were carried out with timed improvised explosive devices (IEDs) — in March 1993 and in July 2006, both in Mumbai.
The 26/11 attack was the first act of mass casual terrorism by the jihadi terrorists against innocent civilians using hand-held weapons.
The increasing use of IEDs by the terrorists since 9/11 had led to strict anti-explosive checks even by private establishments. The killing with IEDs tends to be indiscriminate with no way of pre-determining who should be killed. Moreover, the publicity earned from IED attacks tends to be of short duration. As was seen during the attack on the Parliament House in December, 2001, the visual impact of TV-transmitted images of attacks with hand-held weapons as they were taking place tended to be more dramatic. In an attack with hand-held weapons, the terrorists can pre-determine whom they want to kill.
In Mumbai, 80 people were killed in the terrorist attacks in two hotels and at Narriman House and 86 persons in public places such as the main railway terminus, a hospital, a cafe, etc. Fifteen members of the security forces were killed by the two terrorists moving around with hand-held weapons in public places, but only three members of the security forces were killed during the intervention in the two hotels and the Narriman House. The attacks in some of the public places by the two terrorists on the move lasted about an hour, but caused more fatalities.
In an attack with hand-held weapons, the terrorists can pre-determine whom they want to kill.
The static armed confrontations in the hotels and the Narriman House lasted about 60 hours, but caused less fatalities. The static armed confrontations got the terrorists more publicity than the attacks by the two terrorists on the move in public places. By the time TV, radio and other media crew came to know about what was happening in public places and rushed there, the attacks were already over. In the hotels and the Narriman House, the media crew were able to provide a live coverage of almost the entire confrontation. Mrs Margaret Thatcher, the former British Prime Minister, had once described undue publicity as the oxygen of terrorists. The terrorists in Mumbai had 60 hours of uninterrupted oxygen supply.
Within a few hours of the start of the confrontation, the security staff of the hotels reportedly switched off the cable transmissions to the rooms. The terrorists were, therefore, not in a position to watch on TV what was happening outside, but their mobile communications enabled them to get updates on the deployments of the security forces outside from their controllers in Pakistan who, like the rest of the world, were able to watch on their TVs what was happening outside. This could have been prevented only by jamming all mobile telephones. Such jamming could have proved to be counter-productive.
The attacks in some of the public places by the two terrorists on the move lasted about an hour, but caused more fatalities.
Of course, it would have prevented the terrorists from getting guidance and updates from their controllers in Pakistan. At the same time, it might have prevented the security agencies from assessing the mood and intentions of the terrorists and could have come in the way of any communications with the terrorists if the security agencies wanted to keep them engaged in a conversation till they were ready to raid.
The Mumbai attack poses the following questions for examination by all the security agencies of the world:
- Presently, the security set-ups of private establishments have security gadgets such as door-frame metal detectors, anti-explosive devices, closed-circuit TV, etc, but they do not have armed guards. It would not be possible for the police to provide armed guards to all private establishments. How can one strengthen the physical security of vulnerable private establishments and protect them from forced intrusions by terrorists wielding hand-held weapons?
The terrorists were, therefore, not in a position to watch on TV what was happening outside, but their mobile communications enabled them to get updates on the deployments of the security forces outside from their controllers in Pakistan who, like the rest of the world, were able to watch on their TVs what was happening outside.
- What kind of media control will be necessary and feasible in situations of the type witnessed in Mumbai? This question had also figured after the Black September terrorist attack on Israeli athletes during the Munich Olympics of 1972. Since then, the position has become more difficult due to the mushrooming of private TV channels and private FM radio stations.
- How can one ensure that mobile telephones do not unwittingly become a facilitator of on-going terrorist strikes without creating operational handicaps for the security agencies? The Israelis, who had taken military action against the Hamas in Gaza, had severely curtailed media access to Gaza. The Hamas sought to overcome this by having visuals of the fighting transmitted to foreign TV channels through mobiles. Copy-cats of this are likely in future.
Smart counter-terrorism has four components — prevention through timely and precise intelligence, prevention through effective physical security, crisis or consequence management to limit the damage if prevention fails and a capability for deniable retaliation if the terrorists operate from the territory of another State. In Mumbai, intelligence was available, but considered inadequate by the police and the Navy/Coast Guard, physical security by the police and the security establishments of the targeted places was deficient, coastal surveillance by the police and the Coast Guard was weak, the consequence management by the National Security Guards (NSG) and others was criticized as tardy and lacking in co-ordination and deniable retaliatory capability was not available.