Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Remembrance of things past: The three nights that redefined us

A decade on, how prepared are we to deal with a repeat of 26/11? The attacks had a limited political fallout, and helped India strengthen its position diplomatically by getting the world to recognize Pakistan as a terror hub. Mint takes stock of the situation

Security’s improved, but still miles to go

On 26 November 2008, commuters shuffled in and out of Mumbai’s busy Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), while the restaurants in and around the Taj Mahal Palace hotel were abuzz with activity. That evening, unknown to all, 10 Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorists hijacked a fishing vessel in the deep seas and sneaked in through the porous Mumbai coastline. At 9.21pm, the first gunshots rang out at CST.

The next three days claimed the lives of 146 civilians and 20 security personnel, while more than 300 were injured. The assault not only reshaped India-Pakistan relations, but also brought out glaring chinks in India’s internal security armour.

Gaps in internal security

In the months preceding the attack, David Coleman Headley, a key 26/11 conspirator, had made several reconnaissance trips to Mumbai. Just a month before the terrorists struck, the US had warned India about a possible terror strike. However, the gaps in India’s intelligence apparatus failed to recognize the threat.

“As a counter-terrorist operation, 26/11 was a disaster. For Pakistan, this was a very successful operation because 10 men killed 166. The 2 grenadiers unit of the Army and Marcos (marine commandos) of the Navy surrounded the Taj, but it was a failure," said Lt. General (retd) H.S. Panag, a defence expert.

An intelligence official, requesting anonymity, said India needs to look beyond traditional methods of intelligence gathering. “We ignored a lot of intelligence back then when 26/11 happened. Setting up an airtight intelligence network takes time. There are new rules in terrorism everyday and we are still slow on keeping pace with that."

Security audits conducted post 26/11 recommended counter-terrorism squads for the state police. In the days following the attack, the home ministry envisaged a robust intelligence gathering mechanism, the National Intelligence Grid (Natgrid), which uses technologies, such as Big Data and analytics, to analyse huge amounts of data from various intelligence and enforcement agencies to help track suspected terrorists and prevent attacks. But it continues to be a work in progress.

“We have certainly improved. But there are newer methods of infiltration and warfare being devised every day. And if the terrorists can read our systems, they will be able to beat it," said D.P.K. Pillay, research fellow, Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses.

Dedicated first responders

At 12.30am, on 27 November 2008, the centre deployed 200 National Security Guard (NSG) commandos for counter-terror and rescue operations at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, the Oberoi-Trident and the Chabad House at Nariman Point. Almost nine hours after the first shots were fired, at 6.30am the commandos were air dropped in Mumbai. But the initial tactical surprise advantage was lost when the then Union home minister Shivraj Patil announced that commandos were pressed into action. Pakistan-based handlers got to know of it from news channels and alerted the terrorists.

Lessons were learnt. Soon after the terror attacks, the Mumbai Police put together “Force One", a unit which was trained to tackle specific terror attacks and act as first responders in situations akin to that of 26/11, with the NSG acting as the second responder.

An NSG spokesperson said, requesting anonymity, that it has been working with states and their first responder units to prepare for terror attacks.

“We are much better prepared today to tackle another 26/11 if it arises. Over the last 10 years, we have invested money and infrastructure to form Force One. We have quick reaction teams (QRT) and weaponry that are on par with any other elite commando force," said Deven Bharti, joint commissioner (law and order), Mumbai Police.

The centre also set up marine and coastal police stations along India’s 7,500-km coastline. Marine intelligence and maritime security had also undergone a facelift, Bharti added. “A lot of reforms have taken place in coastal and marine security as well. The coast guard has acquired a lot of new vessels and equipment which help fortify our coastal borders. We have in place the ‘Sagar Suraksha Dal’ and the police and fishermen hold regular meetings to assess movement in the seas. The fishermen are our eyes and ears and have worked well with us to ensure better intelligence and security networks."

Security expert Pillay added that while India was ready to face another 26/11, there was “no finish line in the security scenario."

However, India remains grossly underprepared given the fractured coordination within its agencies. “Our recommendation and implementation system is flawed. We have created structures but there is no coordination. There is a complete lack of coordination between the marine police, the coast guard, the state police, the armed forces and the civil structures," Pillay said.

— Shaswati Das, New Delhi

How Congress-NCP government survived the political attacks

Barely two days after the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi visited the city and told reporters that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government should involve the international community to strongly condemn “the violations of the United Nation’s conventions by Pakistan". In response to Modi’s diatribe, the Congress- and Nationalist Congress Party-led state government, criticized his visit as a political stunt.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by L.K. Advani had apparently deployed Modi and wanted him to take an “aggressive anti-Pakistan line and Hindutva image", said a senior BJP leader and MP, requesting anonymity. “But none of our senior leaders, including Advaniji ,wanted to come down to Mumbai so quickly and take a position right here. They did it in Delhi, but someone had to be seen in Mumbai. Munde saheb (late Gopinath Munde) then reached out to Modiji who readily agreed to come."
He, however, denied that BJP had any “electoral ambitions" to exploit the attacks. “Elections were still six months away." But it was apparent that the BJP, and ally Shiv Sena, did not want India’s most internationalized terror attack to be a wasted opportunity—politically. A senior Congress leader, who was a minister in the then Vilasrao Deshmukh-led state government, said that the party had held “back channel" talks with the BJP to persuade them to cancel Modi’s visit.

“The security forces were still trying to take control of the structures. Public resentment was at an all-time high and there was a real danger of the communal situation flaring up. We tried to convince BJP that bringing Modi here would be ill-timed and his presence would have put pressure on the security process, but the BJP persisted."

But whatever electoral ambitions the BJP-Shiv Sena had from 26/11 did not reflect in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, at least in Mumbai. The alliance could not win a single seat, while the Congress-NCP combine won all six seats. Another BJP MP, requesting anonymity, admitted that the party was surprised with the outcome. “It was a wasted opportunity. We probably did not have a strong leader who could channelize the public anger. Balasaheb (Thackeray) had become too old and Advaniji was not any longer the kind of leader that he once was. "

However, he said the debacle had also to do with Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), which was founded just three years ago. “MNS did not win a single seat but damaged us in all six seats. We could have won at least four had MNS not been there."

In the October 2009 assembly polls, too, the BJP and Shiv Sena suffered winning just 46 and 44 seats, respectively, while the Congress-NCP was back in power with 144 seats. The MNS won 13 seats. However, the terror attacks claimed a few political casualties. NCP chief Sharad Pawar sacked then home minister and deputy chief minister R.R. Patil, while the Congress replaced Deshmukh with Ashok Chavan. However, Patil was back as home minister a year later. Deshmukh became a Union minister.

— Abhiram Ghadyalpatil, Mumbai

Global endorsement of India’s position on Pakistan a silver lining

26 November 2008 was seen as India’s 9/11 moment. “It is a watershed because it was the biggest attack on the country," said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. “There was a major surprise element as it came from the sea, it exposed our vulnerabilities. The attack claimed 166 lives, no one was caught and convicted for it and the main perpetrator continues to be free," Sibal said.

In fact, till the 26/11 attacks, terrorism emanating from Pakistan was essentially seen as a subset of the India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir. Some countries even sympathized with what was called as the “freedom movement in Kashmir"—the arming and training of terrorists by Pakistan to break Kashmir away from India as well as inflict a huge cost on the Indian state.

In that sense, 26/11 marked a departure. The Mumbai attack was aimed to impact India’s economic growth. The audacity and ambitious scope of the attack, the complexity of the operation, the diversity of its targets, the prolonged nature of the attack with a mounting death toll made sure that the siege had the world’s news media hooked.

“Mumbai has been studied by both terrorists and counter-terrorists because it set a gold standard for how a small group of suicidal fanatics can paralyze a major city, attract global attention, and terrorize a continent," said Bruce Riedel, senior fellow, foreign policy, at the Washington-based Brookings think tank.

The choice of Mumbai was explained by a paper brought out by the California-based Rand Corp. think tank in 2008 thus: “It is a prosperous symbol of modern India. It is also accessible by sea... The selection of targets—Americans, Britons, and Jews, as well as Indians—suggests that LeT (Lashkar-e-Taiba) intended the attack to serve a multiplicity of objectives that extended beyond this terrorist group’s previous focus on Kashmir and India."

Sibal was of the view that “the killing of foreign nationals including Americans and Israelis caught the attention of the world". It also served to bring home what then Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had told the US Congress in 2000: “Distance offers no insulation" to terrorism. While the former prime minister was presciently referring to the physical distance between South Asia and the US mainland, in the case of Mumbai, being American or of any other nationality provided no protection to those who crossed the paths of the terrorists at the Taj Mahal hotel, the Leopold Cafe or the Oberoi-Trident.

After 26/11, there is “full recognition of India’s position that terrorism emanates from Pakistan", said Dilip Sinha, a former Indian foreign ministry official who was in charge of the Pakistan desk between 2005-07. “But even then, each country has its own arguments when it comes to dealing with Pakistan. The US, for example, thinks it can manage Pakistan and use them as they want to," one of the reasons why the perpetrators of 26/11 still manage to walk free, Sinha said.

— Elizabeth Roche, New Delhi

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