Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 13:33 | SYDNEY
Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 13:33 | SYDNEY

Mumbai: Messages from the ruins


Rory Medcalf


29 November 2008 17:56

As Mumbai’s full carnage emerges, some disturbing implications are also becoming clear. Contrary to earlier impressions, there is growing evidence to suggest a critical external element to this terrorism.

Perhaps some attackers were Indian nationals, as the early claim of responsibility by a supposedly homegrown militant group would suggest. They knew Mumbai well. But their seaborne arrival, their languages and vocabulary, and a reported confession all suggest the operation was launched from abroad, perhaps Karachi.

Their preparation, co-ordination and combat training underline that this was much more than a ragtag group of alienated Indian Muslim youth. And the targeting of Americans, British and Israelis bears the stamp of al Qaeda, whether through command or inspiration.

In short, the view that this was al Qaeda’s first direct strike on India must be taken seriously. The theory that this was a toxic new partnership of al Qaeda, the Pakistani-based Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) and Indian jihadists makes frightening sense. It is most unlikely that the government in Islamabad, even its barely controllable Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, had any direct hand in the attack – though Indians do not forget that LET began life in 1989 as ISI’s tool in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

India has always been on al Qaeda’s list of foes, and in retrospect it is easy to see why it has become an attractive target. Western ‘soft targets’ are becoming harder to find in Pakistan, especially after the Marriott Hotel bombing. India’s frontiers are porous and its economic boom has created a flow of Western business travellers and expanding tourism. India’s broad alignment and comfort levels with the West have also risen. And the celebrated chaos of India’s vibrant urban life makes its cities exceptionally hard to vacuum-seal against terror strikes.

Still, this week’s slaughter in Mumbai amounts to an obvious intelligence failure. Media reports are beginning to hint at clues that Indian agencies may have had before them the Indian Mujahideen’s threat that Mumbai ‘would be next’, and an alleged ‘intelligence alert’ that a group of terrorists had been assigned to strike Mumbai from the sea. If the various bodies in India’s opaque intelligence apparatus were not doing their utmost to share even vaguely actionable information before – among themselves or with Western agencies  – we can expect that there will be enormous pressure for them to do so now.

The performance of India’s security forces in responding to the crisis also raises troubling questions. Their valour and determination is beyond doubt; it is difficult to imagine a Western police force or counter-terrorist organisation in which the chief would lead from the front and be one of the first to fall in the line of fire. And, in fairness, the task of ending at least three simultaneous sieges, room by room, in warren-like city buildings would be Herculean for any security force. Still, the Indian media is now rightly putting the spotlight on what appears to be a grievous lack of interagency co-ordination and readiness.

But the Indian and global media should also take a long and searching look at its own performance. If terrorism thrives on the oxygen of publicity, then Mumbai’s Black November has been given enough air and airtime to fan an inferno, and in a sense we are all culpable.

This act of terrorism has received saturation coverage on the blogosphere. A Wikipedia site sprang up overnight. Hundreds of Mumbai residents constantly updated their observations on the Twitter social messaging service. This built a real-time and openly-available intelligence picture of the situation.

Meanwhile, round-the-clock live coverage by the world’s broadcasters, including India’s dozens of satellite television stations, may have even tactically helped the terrorists, who might well have kept mobile phone contact with accomplices monitoring the media.

Short of a draconian and probably unenforceable media blackout, or an extraordinary code of restraint by the world’s media and citizen journalists, it is impossible to see how to prevent terrorists from continuing to exploit those very qualities of the globalised open society that they seek to destroy.

Finally, there is the question of Mumbai’s famed resilience. The city will bounce back; it has recovered from greater bloodshed in 1993 and 2006. But one city’s resilience is not enough. Mumbai is India’s gateway to the world, so the solidarity of the rest of India and of India’s foreign friends will be essential in preventing a massive crime from becoming some sort of victory for terrorism. Fittingly, the most inspiring response along these lines has come from Suketu Mehta, author of the book that defines this great city.