Home >Politics >Policy >26/11 anniversary: Has India done enough to prevent a repeat of Mumbai attacks?

Ten years on, security experts say the assault on Mumbai created a new template for terrorists to plan operations across the world. The memory of 26/11 may have faded for some, but India would do well to learn from the siege while plugging vulnerabilities.

G. Parthasarathy, former Indian diplomat

G. Parthasarathy, former Indian diplomat
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G. Parthasarathy, former Indian diplomat

Best defence against terrorism is unity

Public memory in India is short. We are now marking the 10th anniversary of the 26/11 terrorist attack on Mumbai, when 166 people were killed and over 300 wounded. The attack was carried out by 10 terrorists—all Pakistani nationals. They sailed from Karachi to Mumbai, after being motivated, armed and trained in neighbouring Pakistan. While one terrorist, Ajmal Ahmed Kasab, was captured, tried and hanged, the others were gunned down during the attack. Sadly however, we seldom remember the horrors of what transpired on the afternoon of 12 March 1993, when terrorists bombed the BSE, while also targeting major shopping centres and markets, three hotels, the Sahar International Airport and the Air India Building.

As many as 257 people were killed and over 700 injured in the 1993 bomb blasts. While hundreds were arrested following the 1993 blasts, 100 out of 129 accused were found to be guilty, 13 years later. One of the main conspirators, Yakub Menon, was executed nine years thereafter. The mastermind of the blasts, Dawood Ibrahim, an Indian national, still lives comfortably in the elite Defence Housing Society of Karachi. His daughter is married to the son of former Pakistan cricketing star, Javed Miandad. Dawood Ibrahim is wanted not just in India, but is also being sought by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and US drug enforcement agencies.

There is no dearth of evidence available—not just in India, but also in court proceedings in Chicago —about the planning and execution, of the 26/11 terrorist attack. David Coleman Headley (born Daood Sayeed Gilani), and Tahawwur Hussein Rana, a Pakistani born Canadian national, were tried in Chicago on charges of planning terrorist strikes in Mumbai and Denmark. Headley was sentenced to 35 years in prison for his involvement in 26/11. Rana was also imprisoned on terrorism charges, but cleared of any direct involvement in 26/11—a verdict India has contested. In the face of intense international pressure and incontrovertible evidence, Pakistan enacted a farcical trial of Lashkar-e-Taiba commander Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, who was involved in planning and executing the 26/11 attack.

Sadly, families of several victims of both March 1993 and 26/11 terrorist strikes have not yet fully received justice. But, we should never forget that while 26/11 was planned and executed by foreigners, the March 1993 bomb blasts, involving a large number of Indian nationals, flowed directly from a foreign power exploiting a volatile communal divide in India, following communal riots in Mumbai and elsewhere, in preceding months. The 26/11 attack was, however, universally and unitedly condemned internationally and by people from all sections of society in India. Terrorism is best combated when we are united and remain committed to the values and principles enshrined in our Constitution.

G.K. Pillai, former home secretary of India

G.K. Pillai, former home secretary of India
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G.K. Pillai, former home secretary of India

India-Pakistan ties never been the same again

As we were recovering from the two previous wars fought against Pakistan—the 1965 war and the 1999 Kargil war—the attacks of 26/11 in Mumbai, became a watershed moment in India’s relationship with Pakistan.

After the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack, relations between the two countries never remained the same and we never did come back to even platforms.

As then commerce secretary, there was a lot of trade and commerce that was underway with Pakistan. We were getting cement from Pakistan instead of the south. We even converted metre-gauge railways to broad gauge. But 26/11 killed all that and we still have not recovered, so much so that then prime minister Manmohan Singh did not even go back to his ancestral village in Pakistan. That attack changed everything between the two countries.

Today, Pakistan is in denial of the event and claims that it had nothing to do with it.

Just after the 26/11 attacks, we visited Islamabad and the fear of being attacked by India was writ large in Pakistan—something that former national security advisor (NSA) Shivshankar Menon has also written in his book, where he states that India had decided not to attack.

Back then—immediately after the attacks—Pakistan’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) did a good job at unraveling the details of 26/11 attacks—the vessels used, how the attack was carried out, the satellite communication, and so on. The investigators also found a GPS (global positioning system) on a boat and it was traced back to Pakistan soil, near Karachi. We had sought the information and they had complied then.

At some point however, global pressure on Pakistan slackened and they suddenly realized that they could get away by doing nothing. And that is when it stopped.

If that level of cooperation had continued by them, India-Pakistan relations would have been very different today. But the 26 November attack and the events thereafter changed everything.

When the cooperation did stop, India made several attempts to cajole Pakistan to cooperate with us in the probe. Our lawyers and magistrates reached out to them, and all efforts were made. So there was nothing that was lacking on our part. So much so, that when the surviving perpetrator of 26/11 terror attack Ajmal Kasab was captured, for India to give Pakistan access to him was not even considered, because of the obvious risks it would pose.

That pressure on Pakistan still prevails. But at some point, the voices of the groups that control the narrative of terrorism in their country, outweighed everything else.

Dhruva Jaishankar, a foreign policy fellow at Brookings India

Dhruva Jaishankar, a foreign policy fellow at Brookings India
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Dhruva Jaishankar, a foreign policy fellow at Brookings India

Clock hasn’t turned back in terror fight

The 26/11 attack was a watershed moment. It was not the most lethal incident of terrorism in India, or even in Mumbai, which experienced more fatalities in 1993 blasts and the train bombings of 2006. But 26/11 stood out for receiving unprecedented media coverage. The targets were high-profile. Victims from 17 countries lost their lives. These factors had several important consequences.

Firstly, it placed Pakistan at the epicentre of international terrorism. Not only were the perpetrators from Pakistan, but the role of Lashkar-e-Taiba was firmly established, as were links to handlers in ISI. After 26/11, it was not only India crying hoarse about Pakistan’s state support for terrorism. Further developments, including the Haqqani Network’s attacks on Kabul and the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, underscored the role played by Pakistan’s security services in fomenting acts of global terrorism.

Secondly, 26/11 resulted in unprecedented international cooperation for India on counter-terrorism. The role of FBI and others in the investigation opened room for bilateral and multilateral cooperation from which India continues to benefit.

Thirdly, the nature of terror attacks against India changed significantly. The years before 2008 witnessed routine terror attacks against civilians in Indian urban centres. After 2008, with a few prominent exceptions, terrorists began to focus more on security installations, such as in Gurdaspur, Pathankot and Uri, that were less likely to invite international opprobrium.

If these changes were decisive, there were other developments that were less so, such as the institutional reform of India’s intelligence apparatus. While P. Chidambaram, who became home minister after 26/11, outlined an ambitious programme to overhaul the internal security apparatus, many efforts became mired in issues such as centre-state relations. While India’s counter-terrorism capabilities have improved, 26/11 arguably did not result in the wholesale security reforms that had been expected.

The legacy of 26/11 is, therefore, significant. Even though the one surviving perpetrator Ajmal Kasab, was tried, convicted and executed, several key planners remain active in Pakistan. With the passage of time, other developments in Indian security, India-Pakistan relations, and the global environment have threatened to overshadow the events of November 2008. But for global perceptions of Pakistan’s support for terrorism, India’s transnational security cooperation, and the nature of terrorism in India, the clock has not turned back.

Happymon Jacob, author

Happymon Jacob, author
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Happymon Jacob, author

Fateful memories of 26/11

As we commemorate the 10th anniversary of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, we should spare a moment to consider what it has done to us as a nation. We cannot shake off the memories etched deep down our collective psyche, for good or bad. And this can have a defining impact on India’s future journey.

Our inability to get rid of the memories of the Mumbai terror attack lies in the evocative manner in which the electronic media beamed those horrific images into our drawing rooms. But even more so, given how Pakistan has consistently denied the victims their right for a closure by bringing the perpetrators to justice. And yet, 26/11 has had more impact on our national self than our relationship with Pakistan.

The spectre of terrorism and its discontents have come to monopolize our national security imagination. And we have been unable to make peace domestically, thanks, in part, to this highly securitized self-image of “zero tolerance" on terrorism.

Of course, terrorism must not be tolerated, but it matters how we define it. Consider for a moment how we view Kashmiris today. The Indian state’s failure to reach out to the stone-throwing youth is just one example. Worryingly, the denial of closure by Pakistan has prompted us to look for enemies within our own country.

Contemporary India is aggressive, angry, and unhappy. The uneasy thought that we didn’t militarily respond to Pakistan in 2008 seems to shake our national self-respect. What dominates our national imagination is Kargil 1999, 2001 Parliament attack, 26/11 terror attack, surgical strikes, and Kashmiri terrorists. But, are we a nation without any feel-good memories?

We must pursue a closure for the victims of 26/11 and get the Pakistani state to ensure that such tragedies do not repeat. But, we must also reflect on whether securitized solutions have made us feel secure, or not.

Moreover, isn’t the best way to commemorate the victims of 26/11 to unite as a country and not create artificial divisions among us?

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