NATIONAL SECURITY: Will Australia heed the lessons of Mumbai?
by John Miller
News Weekly, December 20, 2008
The recent Mumbai massacre marks a new strategy of Islamist terrorism, the "urban jihad", which, using readily available telecommunication and satellite technology to deadly effect, can paralyse major cities. Former senior intelligence officer John Miller warns of the likelihood of further attacks of this nature, not only in India, but in Western democratic countries, including Australia.
On November 26, a terrorist group of unknown size attacked Mumbai's Taj Mahal hotel, the nearby Oberon Hotel, Café Leopold and a Jewish cultural centre, Chabad House. Early media reports suggested that the terrorists specifically selected Westerners - Americans, British, Jews and Australians - as their hostages and victims. However, the majority of victims were Indians. The precise number of people killed is still unknown. I have seen a low estimate of 165 and an open-ended one of 200, but the official figure as of December 10 was 179 and is yet to be finalised.
Information from many sources suggests that the terrorist group, numbering at least 15 members, travelled almost 1,000 km by sea, undetected, from a beach near Karachi, Pakistan, to Mumbai, India's most populous city.
The terrorists landed in an inflatable rubber dinghy from the Kuber, a captured Indian fishing vessel, not long after nightfall. A co-opted fisherman had his throat cut - the first to die. From there, it was less than a 15-minutes walk to their major targets.
The group fanned out across the city, hitting 10 spots in two hours. They chose some of the best-known landmarks, many popular with foreigners and the city's elite. Many of the attacks ended in minutes. But at two luxury hotels and a Jewish centre they dug in, fending off hundreds of commandos for days.
More disturbingly, reports from India suggest that 15 terrorists came ashore from the rubber dinghy, but only nine bodies and a captured terrorist are accounted for, which raises the possibility of another attack.
As for the attack itself, the terrorists acted swiftly and ruthlessly. Indian authorities have stated emphatically that the attackers were professionally trained, combat-hardened and armed with modern equipment - grenades and the ubiquitous AK-47 assault rifles - in other words, not necessarily suicide volunteers.
They had scouted their targets ahead of time. They knew the hallways and the basements. They even carried bags of almonds for energy.
The soldiers who fought the gunman say they were tough, bitter opponents. "It's obvious they were trained somewhere.... Not everyone can handle the AK series of weapons or throw grenades like that," an unidentified member of India's Marine Commando unit, his face masked in black, told reporters after his units stormed the hotels. The attackers, he said, were "very determined and remorseless".
The attacks commenced at 09:10 pm (local time) on November 26, and ended 60 hours later. In the early stages, local police fought bravely, but they were eventually out-gunned. They lacked sufficient body armour and had pistols and Lee-Enfield .303 rifles (a century-old design) which were no match for the AK-47.
In something of a tragedy, the Maharashtra state anti-terrorism chief, the popular and competent Hemant Karkare and three of his senior officers were killed by terrorists despite having body armour, but unfortunately not up to the modern standard of equipment, such as the layered Kevlar.
It was seven hours before India's elite commandos, the "Black Cat" antiterrorist unit, arrived. They commenced a thoroughly professional counter-attack and overcame the terrorists, killing nine and capturing one alive.
The terrorists' elaborate long-term planning for the November Mumbai massacre has been confirmed by evidence from a separate Indian investigation dating back several months. On February 10 this year, police arrested four Indian Muslims and two Pakistani nationals in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
According to Amitabh Yash, director of the Special Task Force of the state police, they were charged with involvement in a commando-style raid on a Central Reserve Police Force camp in Rampur that killed at least seven officers and one civilian on December 31, 2007.
One of those arrested was Mumbai-born Muslim, Faheem Ahmed Ansari, who was found carrying a fake Pakistani passport and maps and sketches of several targets in southern Mumbai, including the Taj Mahal hotel, the Chhattrapati Shivaji terminus (Mumbai's main railway station) and other sites, which were attacked in November's Mumbai massacre.
"We can't be sure of their intentions, but all of them were moving to Mumbai with weapons when they were captured," Mr Yash told the London Times (December 6, 2008).
Especially noteworthy, not only for the Indian police and security services but also for Western intelligence agencies, is the sophisticated but readily available technology that the terrorists used in Mumbai to deadly effect.
Using Google Earth - an invaluable resource for an adversary - and at least one Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver, the terrorists meticulously mapped their targets in Mumbai. The record of position changes in the retrieved GPS receiver apparently provided evidence that the operation originated from Pakistan.
The terrorists also used advanced cyber tools, such as TV monitors, to view the meticulous and live Indian TV coverage of the security reaction to their activities - a nice touch. They were able to observe the movement of senior police coordinators towards "their" hotels. They literally knew where and at whom to snipe or aim a grenade. The Indian authorities, unlike the Britain during the 7/7 London attacks, exercised little if any control of their country's media during the terrorist siege.
The terrorists also used Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), e.g., Skype (i.e., software for making telephone calls over the Internet), to communicate back to Pakistan and maybe even between the two besieged hotels.
VoIP is much more difficult to intercept than normal phone or mobile calls. The Indian authorities, in order to read the VoIP in real time, may have sought rapid assistance from the US National Security Agency (NSA), which has the "brute force" computer capacity necessary. India would not only have requested deciphering of messages, but would have asked the NSA, and US security agencies in general, to home in electronically on the terrorists' origins.
Who was ultimately responsible for the Mumbai terrorist attack? At this stage, many people simply blame Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), a terrorist organisation allegedly established by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) which has an extremely chequered history, owing to its one-time work with Britain's MI6 and America's CIA, as a link to the Afghan mujahedin fighting against Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1985.
Of course, in retrospect, that is probably where the sword turned in the West's hand: the ISI has become a law unto itself and supports Muslim fundamentalist groups whose aims, stripped of their rhetoric, are to establish a caliphate and annex parts of India.
For various reasons, the Western press has focused on the concept of an Al Qaeda operation and, having a bet each way, there is talk of a joint Al Qaeda-LeT action. From the mass of information I have examined and the number of expert sites visited I can tentatively posit the following:
• The attacks in Mumbai were almost certainly carried out by LeT, possibly, but not necessarily in conjunction, with Al Qaeda.
• Notwithstanding exaggerations by media commentators (including Greg Sheridan in The Australian) that this was India's 9/11, manifestly it was not. It was the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai that was attacked, not the actual Taj Mahal or any other important national symbol.
• It is also extremely likely that the terrorists had internal support in Mumbai, which is a very cosmopolitan city, quite possibly from long-term sleeper agents. This is an extremely important factor: if it can happen in Mumbai, then it can happen anywhere.
• Pakistan's ISI might be involved, but this is speculative, given that the Pakistani government has sworn to crack down on terrorist activities. A greater danger probably exists in the form of retired ISI veterans who are prepared to assist jihad. This is probably the nub of the question: to what extent is ISI officially involved in LeT operations? That is a question that deserves an answer.
There is a certain poignancy to the remarks of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, who lost his own wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, to terrorist assassins a year ago. He said:
"Pakistan was an ally of the West throughout the Cold War. The world worked to exploit religion against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan by empowering the most fanatic extremists as an instrument of destruction of a superpower. The strategy worked, but its legacy was the creation of an extremist militia with its own dynamic.
"The challenge of confronting terrorists who have a vast support network is huge; Pakistan's fledgling democracy needs help from the rest of the world. We are on the frontlines of the war on terrorism. We have 150,000 soldiers fighting Al Qaeda, the Taliban and their extremist allies along the border with Afghanistan - far more troops than NATO has in Afghanistan.
"Nearly 2,000 Pakistanis have lost their lives to terrorism in this year alone, including 1,400 civilians and 600 security personnel ranging in rank from ordinary soldier to three-star general." (International Herald Tribune, December 9, 2008).
So an event such as the Mumbai tragedy could happen anywhere - even here in Australia.
The Rudd Government has recently announced a new counter-terrorism "tsar" in the form of a former SAS Major-General Duncan Lewis, previously First Assistant Secretary of the National Security Division in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
I wish him and his staff well and hope they heed the lessons of the Mumbai massacre and study closely the recent Melbourne and Sydney terrorist trials.
- John Miller is a former senior intelligence officer.