Homeland Security

The 26/11 Mumbai Attack: Was it a Preventable Tragedy?
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The heritage wing of the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower aflame, November 26. (Photograph: Uttam Ghosh/rediff.com)

The audacious and diabolic attack by the sea-borne terrorists on the iconic targets of Mumbai on 26 November 2008 stunned the nation like it had never been before. The sixty-hour-long tragic mayhem was witnessed across the world. It was a frontal attack by the terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) which openly declares its avowed objective to disintegrate India. The attack resulted in the tragic deaths of 166 people from India, the USA, the UK, Israel, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Thailand, Singapore, Australia, Mauritius and Belgium besides injuries to 304 others.

…the question that begs answers it why was this attack not prevented or tackled professionally, in spite of repeated intelligence alerts about the possible LeT attack on Mumbai.

In the past two decades, India has faced a series of terrorist attacks – the first major one being the serial Mumbai blasts in 1993 which left 193 dead and hundreds injured. The other sensational terrorist incidents were the hijacking of an Air India flight from Kathmandu to Kandahar in December 1999, LeT attack on the Red Fort in 2000, attack on the State Assembly in Srinagar in 2001, attack on the Parliament in December 2001, attack on Akshardham temple (Ahmedabad) in September 2002, Samjhauta Express (the train between India and Pakistan through Punjab) explosion (66 casualties) in February 2007 and scores of blasts in metropolitan cities across India including Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Jaipur, Hyderabad, Pune, Delhi and Mumbai leaving hundreds dead, maimed and injured.

The 26/11 Mumbai attack received an unprecedented worldwide attention in spite of the metropolis being a victim of terror in the past as well. In 2006 for instance, multiple blasts in suburban trains had killed more than 200 commuters in the city. However, the 26/11 attack was audacious and such an attack had never been witnessed earlier – not to mention on live TV. It resulted in the deaths of several foreign nationals as well, drawing attention internationally. Additionally, LeT’s growing nexus with Al-Qaida and their plan to target the West alarmed the U.S.

26/11 also jolted India’s political establishment in its aftermath. The Chief Minister of Maharashtra and the Union Home Minister had to quit. Several measures were taken to revamp the security systems both at the state and central levels. However, the question that begs answers it why was this attack not prevented or tackled professionally, in spite of repeated intelligence alerts about the possible LeT attack on Mumbai. Although no comprehensive enquiry on the line of 9/11 was ordered by the Union Government, the High Level Enquiry Committee (HLEC) appointed by the Maharashtra Government has come out with a report which throws light on the security system and its response to the 26/11 attack.

The initial denial by the Additional Chief Secretary (Home) about the intelligence alerts and later blaming the ‘Desk Officer System’ is bizarre…

Intelligence Fiasco

The most shocking revelation of the HLEC is on the manner in which the higher authorities handled the numerous intelligence alerts about the possible attack on Mumbai. The HLEC has passed scathing comments on the system which was supposed to have acted upon the intelligence alerts and to have prepared and averted the impending terrorist attack. The HLEC observed:

“All intelligence alerts are mechanically forwarded to operation units either by DGP’s office or Anti Terrorist Squad (ATS) or by the home department. There was total confusion in the processing of intelligence alerts at the level of the State Government.” (The High Level Enquiry Committee (HLEC) Report: Section 1, Para 16.1)

“Both Additional Chief Secretary (Home) and Principal Secretary (Home) initially gave in writing to the committee that they had not received any intelligence alert form MHA (Ministry of Home Affairs). However, the DGP had furnished copies of several important intelligence alerts issued by MHA addressed to the Chief Secretary, Home Secretary and so on.” (The HLEC Report: Section 2, Para 3.90)

“Under the ‘Desk Officers System’ even intelligence alerts received from MHA were directly received and processed by the concerned desk officer instead of the Additional Chief Secretary (Home) directly receiving and handling these sensitive communications. For the committee this is a shocking revelation.” (The HLEC Report: Section 1, Para 18)

The initial denial by the Additional Chief Secretary (Home) about the intelligence alerts and later blaming the ‘Desk Officer System’ is bizarre and speaks volumes about the cavalier attitude and functioning of the bureaucracy entrusted with the safety and security of the people and the nation at large.

The Mumbai Police does have the ATS and Quick Reaction Teams (QRTs), but there was no one to lead them…

The First Responder: Mumbai Police

The Mumbai Police- the first responder was found utterly wanting in facing the terror attack on 26/11. Barring the heroic action of a few police officers, the Mumbai Police, according to the HLEC, responded in a manner as if it were a routine law and order situation. Policemen who rushed to the locations of terrorist attacks had only lathis (wooden clubs). Even the police mobile vans which followed had lathis, gas guns and archaic .303 (of the Second World War vintage with some improvements) rifles to face the terrorists who were equipped with AK-47 assault rifles, hand grenades and lethal explosives. The Mumbai Police does have the ATS and Quick Reaction Teams (QRTs), but there was no one to lead them. The glaring omissions and commissions on the part of the Police Commissioner (CP) himself such as ignoring Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) marked the response of the police under his command. The HLEC severely indicted the Police Commissioner and the system under his command:

“The CP should have been in the command centre in the control room which might have helped in better utilization of forces and prevented duplication of efforts by different police units.” (The HLEC Report: Section 2, Para 3.70.1)

“If each top officer, such as the CP or the DGP treats SOPs in a cavalier manner, why have the SOPs at all?” (The HLEC Report: Section 2, Para 3.70.2)

“Mumbai City policemen were not regularly given firing practice.” (The HLEC Report: Section 2, Para 3.48)

“The Quick Reaction Teams (QRTs) were not used for the purpose they were created for and were split into small groups/units.” (The HLEC Report: Section 2, Para 3.58)

“The QRT was not effective in making an assault in Taj and Oberoi since they were split in small units.” (The HLEC Report: Section 2, Para 3.59)


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“None in Colaba Police Station or for that matter SB II (Special Branch) knew about the existence of a Jewish settlement in Nariman House. Had the operational units been sensitized about the known prejudices of such terrorist groups against Jewish groups, perhaps the threat could have been better handled.” (The HLEC Report: Section 2, Para 3.74)

Such glaring deficiencies in a system can thus make the state highly vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

Costal Security

The Maharashtra State Government is required to patrol the seas up to 12 nautical miles. Beyond that, the Coast Guard comes into play. The Maharashtra security establishment did not have regular interactions with the Coast Guard; notwithstanding the fact that there were regular intelligence alerts about the LeT terrorists plan to reach Mumbai. The HLEC comments:

Despite receiving as many as six alerts about the sea route likely to be used by the terrorists, no significant steps had been taken by the state Government to beef up coastal security…

“The resources available with Mumbai Police were not adequate to conduct sea patrolling so as to intercept the boat used by the terrorists and hence nothing perhaps could be done on receipt of such intelligence alerts.” (The HLEC Report: Section 2, Para 2.10.3)

“The Committee is of the view that the present (coastal security) arrangements are of cosmetic nature.” (The HLEC Report: Section 2, Para 50)

“Despite receiving as many as six alerts about the sea route likely to be used by the terrorists, no significant steps had been taken by the state Government to beef up coastal security by having regular interactions with the Cost Guards.” (The HLEC Report: Section 2, Para 47.1)

“Two Pakistani LeT terrorists (Abdul Majeed and Mohd. Jumed) who were arrested in Rajauri1 told the local Police that 8 militants had almost reached Mumbai in March 2007 but were let off by the Coast Guards. They were later arrested by Rajauri Police. This incident itself would have proved that warning of sea borne attack was real.” (The HLEC Report: Section 2, Para 3.75)

The findings of HLEC are shocking to say the least. The importance of coastal security cannot be over stated but the manner in which this important organ of the security system did not function facilitated the terrorists to reach their target without hindrance.

India has 176.2 policemen for every 100,000 citizen while the US and the UK have 256 and 307 policemen respectively, even though they are not faced with the daunting internal security challenges which India faces…

A Road Map

Have we done enough to build a robust system which can ensure safety and security to our citizens? A string of terrorist attacks in the recent past even in Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and Hyderabad would suggest that a lot needs to be done to revamp the security system that we have. The revamp calls for a number of measures to be taken urgently.

First, there is need to augment the strength of the police force which is woefully inadequate if we compare it with the developed countries like the US or the UK. India has 176.2 policemen2 for every 100,000 citizen while the US and the UK have 256 and 307 policemen respectively, even though they are not faced with the daunting internal security challenges which India faces on account of its geographic location, multicultural society and a number of fault lines due to historic and other reasons. The fact is not only that the sanctioned strength is inadequate, but that there are staggering number of vacancies in different ranks which stood at 5, 39,479 as on 1 January 2012.3 This has further reduced the availability of policemen for security and other tasks. The recruitment process is slow and cumbersome which is evident from the fact that only 82,300 police personnel4 were recruited in the year 2011, which covers only 12 per cent of the vacancies. There is an urgent need to speed up the recruitment process.

Second, selecting the right people for the right job is the key to achieve objectives of any organization. Unfortunately, the recruitment system in the states and Central Police Organizations leaves much to be desired. Human Resource experts are not part of the recruitment committees and there are complaints of corruption and irregularities in the recruitment process. There is an acute need to standardize the norms of recruitment and institutionalize a fair and transparent system of recruitment of police personnel. Police Recruitment Boards headed by senior police officers of impeccable integrity need to be constituted in all states.

…police constables constitute around 80 per cent of the police organization. After their basic training, they are barely exposed to any in-service training program.

Third, training is a critical requirement in developing a competent professional. Presently, barring a few exceptions, most of the Police Colleges and Academies across the country are staffed with disgruntled, cynical and incompetent faculty members. The young trainees, instead of being inspired, are de-motivated and disillusioned. The need, therefore, is to post highly experienced and competent faculty members as is being done in the training institutions of the defense forces. Besides, training institutions in most states lack basic facilities like good libraries, classrooms, equipments, good vehicles, FSL mini labs, etc. There is need to provide conducive environment and modern equipments for training.

Regular in-service training programmes are also necessary for updating professional skills of personnel and keeping them abreast with the developments affecting the security scenario. Currently, police constables constitute around 80 per cent of the police organization. After their basic training, they are barely exposed to any in-service training program. This is unfortunate given that the constabulary is at the grassroots and their performance impacts the response to a terror attack. Even six years after 26/11 there is no improvement on this front. In-service training programs need to be organized for all ranks every year. Mobile training units can also be constituted to train constables at the police station itself in case they cannot be brought to district Headquarters.

Fourth, the crippling shortage of capacity in the Intelligence Bureau (IB) as well as the state intelligence departments is well known. After the recent Hyderabad blasts, Praveen Swami – a noted security analyst – aptly remarked, ‘Even after five years after 26/11, India faces intelligence famine which is mainly due to capacity deficit’.5 To have adequate intelligence-led policing, the capacity of intelligence agencies both at the central and the state level needs to be substantially augmented.

Instead of creating a new organization, NCTC can be a part of the IB.

Fifth, a bulk of the police forces in India is operating at technological levels that date back to the early twentieth century. However, to remain ahead of criminals and terrorist organizations, the police must harness leading edge technologies for prevention and detection of crime. It is reported that average visitor to Central London is captured on film three hundred times in a single day. In developed countries, technology is used to track law breakers, including terrorists, using bank and other electronic records. A person can be profiled by medical history, by consumer tastes, by travel habits etc. It is high time that Indian police also takes advantage of leading edge technologies in all areas of police functioning.

Sixth, although the NIA has been created (with legal powers to investigate terrorism related cases all over India), what is more important is to have an outfit on the pattern of National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) of the U.S. Such an agency would have all India jurisdictions to prevent terror attacks by pre-emptive actions. Instead of creating a new organization, NCTC can be a part of the IB. It is unfortunate that even after six years of 26/11 there is no national consensus on the powers and jurisdiction of the proposed NCTC.

Seventh, the reorganization of Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) needs to be pursued as a critical national security reform. Presently, the ministry is responsible for a large number of matters which have no connection to internal security. These include – census of population, registration of births and deaths, implementation of the provisions of the constitution relating to official languages, appointment of Governors, Padma awards (national awards in India), nominations of members to the two houses of Parliament (Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha), freedom fighters’ pensions and the schemes for rehabilitation of migrants from former West Pakistan/East Pakistan, provisions of relief to Sri Lankan and Tibetan refugees, constitutional, legislative and administrative matters relating to Union Territories including National Capital Territory of Delhi, prevention, mitigation and preparedness to deal with national and man-made disasters and for co-ordination of response, relief and rehabilitation after a disaster strikes and many more. But proposals for restructuring and reform remain confined to comments and files.6 More importantly, given the federal nature of India’s security architecture, the resistance of states in bringing about change is enormous who perceive proposals as the Union Government’s move to encroach upon their police powers.7

…China’s internal security budget at $119 billion is higher than their defence budget and almost double than our internal security budget…

India, being a vast country affected by a million mutinies, has scores of burning issues that require focused attention of the Union Home Minister, Home Secretary and other top echelons in the Ministry on a daily basis. The need of the hour is either to carve out a separate ministry for internal security or shed the subjects not directly connected with internal security and policing issues.

Finally, the state must invest more liberally for strengthening and modernizing the internal security system. Here we can learn from China, which earmarked $123.65 billion8 in the year 2013 for internal security compared to $9.86 billion that the Union Finance Ministry set apart for internal security, including modernization of police forces of India. An interesting point to be noted is that China’s internal security budget at $119 billion is higher than their defence budget and almost double than our internal security budget that the Union and State Governments earmark for spending.


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The response of the state through the police and intelligence system to the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai was anything but professional. In the aftermath of 26/11, quite a few significant measures like the creation of NIA, NSG hubs in metropolitan cities, etc have been taken but a lot more remains to be done to improve the functioning of the state police forces and the intelligence apparatus including effective operationalisation of NATGRID and NCTC, which is the least that the people of India can expect after the tragedy of 26/11.


  1. A town of Jammu and Kashmir closes to the border with Pakistan.
  2. Bureau of Research and Development Publication: Data on Police Organisations in India as on Jan 1, 2012, page V
  3. Bureau of Police Research and Development: Data on Police Organisations in India as on Jan 2, 2012, page 38.
  4. Ibid, page VIII.
  5. Praveen Swami, ‘Five years after 26/11, India faces intelligence famine’, The Hindu, February 27, 2013.
  6. P. Chidambaram as Union Home Minister proposed a radical restructuring of the security architecture at the national level while delivering the 22nd Intelligence Bureau Centenary Endowment Lecture titled ‘A New Architecture of India’s Security’ in Delhi on 29 December 2009. He proposed that India must be able to set up the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) by the end of 2010 and once set up, NCTC must have the broad mandate to deal with all kinds of terrorist violence, directed against the country and its people.  The Home Minister also suggested restructuring of the Ministry of Home Affairs and said that the Home Minister should devote the whole of his time and energy to matters relating to security. http://pib.nic.in/newsite/erelease.aspx?relid=56395 (accessed on 21 August 2010). Chidambaram’s proposal did not move anywhere, he later moved as Union Finance Minister. —  For an analysis of the plan proposed by P. Chidambaram as Union Home Minister see, Ajay K. Mehra, ‘Chidambaram’s Architecture Needs States’ Support’, Uday India, 23 January 2010. Also see, Ajay K. Mehra, ‘Security Architecture: A Federal Perspective is Imperative’, Toronto, Indo-Canada Outlook, February 2010. http://www.indocanadaoutlook.com/0210_security_architecture_a_federal_perspective_is_imperative_by_ajay_k_mehra.html (accessed on 21 August 2010).
  7. Ajay K. Mehra, ‘Federalism and Public Security in India’, Uday India, 12 May 2012. Also see, Ajay K. Mehra, ‘Public Security and the Indian State’, Paris, Fondation Maison des sciences de l’homme Working Papers et Position Papers, No. 2, March 2012, http://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/docs/00/68/11/49/PDF/FMSH-PP-2012-02_Mehra.pdf (accessed on 21 August 2013)
  8. The Hindu, March 6, 2013.
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Mahendra L Kumawat

Mahendra L. Kumawat, IPS (Retd.), Vice-Chancellor of Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Jodhpur, India. He has been awarded President of India Medal for Distinguished Service in 1997.

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One thought on “The 26/11 Mumbai Attack: Was it a Preventable Tragedy?

  1. Agree with the author’s assertion that prior warnings were sufficient to provoke emergency measures. The facts are that the state and federal leaders were fast asleep at the steering wheel while the Mumbai car crashed. In that incident alone, over 150 ordinary citizens without the privileges of six-gun-totting-Sakaram’s protection, became the victim of cold bloody murderers from Pakistan. This was not the first or the second such development but many in a series of Jihadis crossing border and duck-shooting Indians, exploding bombs in public places and causing parliament insurrections. The blame lies squarely on the shoulders of the Federal and State leaders. Why is it that in the United States after 9/11 almost all Islamic suicide bombers, anarchists and terrorists were apprehended long before they could say allah-uh-Akbar before pulling the trigger. The key to this success is the state of preparedness. It includes nationalizing the security apparatus, appointing a Federal Czar preferably a military character, but definitely not a politician, and setting up a network of federally controlled rapid response organizations through states. The command and control normally supersedes all other agencies in order to respond within minutes, not hours or days. The fact that such a development has not already occurred in India shows the utter failure of the government and may be too late to prevent Mumbai 2.

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