Mumbai Attack's Success Could Spawn Copycats

NW DELHI // Wednesday’s night-time assault in Mumbai is just the latest and loudest in a steady drumbeat of mayhem across India.

Since September 11, the number of terror attacks in India has steadily increased, slowly at first but all in a rush of late: from 2002 to 2005, two attacks each year; in 2006, three attacks; in 2007, four attacks; and this year, at least seven major attacks since May, resulting in more than 300 killed and about 1,500 injured.

With the latest attack, two aspects stand out. The first is that a handful of young, presumably inexperienced men – in some of the grainy photos the attackers look like teenagers – were capable of executing such a sophisticated attack. Such brazenness underscores the lack of security in Mumbai and across much of India.

More worrisome still is the tactical shift the attacks suggest. Traditionally, Indian terror attacks spring from long-standing Hindu-Muslim tensions, which have been simmering and occasionally boiling over since before partition. Terrorism in India has for decades been little more than an increasingly deadly game of communal tit-for-tat. But this assault was aimed at foreigners.

American and British foreigners were targeted in particular, according to witnesses – and this may mark a reorientation away from religious animosity and towards a more diffuse, al Qa’eda-style anti-westernism.

Just look at the targets. The 137-year-old Leopold’s is one of Mumbai’s longest-running restaurants, and deservedly popular. Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus is the city’s largest train station and is frequented not just by locals but also foreign travellers who come to gaze in awe at the stunning Gothic exterior that has made the former Victoria Terminus a Unesco World Heritage Site. The Oberoi Trident hotel at Nariman Point is often filled with foreign business travellers. Senior executives from personal goods behemoth Unilever and members of European Parliament were among those holed up there on Wednesday night. Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, finally, is not only a world-class hotel popular with high-end tourists and businessmen, it is also an iconic landmark.

Considering the success of the attack – at least 101 killed, nearly 300 hurt, the Mumbai stock exchange shutdown, the city stopped in its tracks – it is likely to inspire more. Hundreds of locals, tourists and foreign businessmen have already begun recounting the horrors of what they assumed would be a pleasant night out.

As word spreads and the message sinks in, foreigners are sure to raise questions about visiting or doing business in India. What precautions should I take? Will I be safe? Are Indian authorities capable of protecting all of their monuments, lodgings and transport and business hubs?

So the pressure is on Delhi, where terrorism has become a political football, tossed back and forth depending on the latest news. New, harsher legislation is tabled but rarely passed, as blame is laid at the feet of one among a clutch of shadowy, acronym-bearing terror groups. The names hardly matter as little is ever revealed about their infrastructure and not a single conviction has been handed down.

After Wednesday, however, the concern might become less political and more sincere; India’s international reputation – among this budding power’s most prized possessions – is at stake. Despite a wealth of experience dealing with terrorism – after Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, India has suffered the most terrorist attacks in the world over the past two years – Indian authorities do not appear up to the task.

At 126 per 100,000 inhabitants, India’s police-to-population ratio is less than half that of most developed nations.

They respond slowly to attacks and do nothing to prevent them. Note how the Mumbai attackers, armed to the teeth with machine guns and hand grenades, were comfortable enough to calmly stroll around undisguised, controlling some of the most high-profile sites in the country for more than a dozen excruciating hours.

Further, these attacks came months after a known terrorist organisation had warned of a major attack on Mumbai. Even with ample time and motivated by clear intent, India’s intelligence personnel were unable to find any warning signs.

This may be the result of a severe shortage of information-gathering personnel, as found by a government-sponsored intelligence assessment in 2001 – the recommendations of which have yet to be implemented. But it is more than a matter of numbers. India’s police and intelligence forces suffer from inadequate training, equipment and technological support and a misguided mandate.

To combat the Maoist insurgency raging across the Indian heartland – which Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, has repeatedly called India’s “greatest internal security threat” – the best and the brightest are often steeped in guerrilla warfare. Thus they remain unfamiliar with the slow, methodical cat-and-mouse of counter-terrorism.

Ajai Sahni, the director of the Institute for Conflict Management, a security think tank, think that combating India’s growing terror menace, “demands a transformation, a virtual reinvention, of how we look at and practise policing in this country”.

For the time being, India has little chance of preventing any future attacks, thus endangering its 1.2 billion citizens and millions of foreign guests – along with its rising international profile.

-- ran on page 1A of The National, www.thenational.ae, on Nov 28.

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