A One-Off? Or the Start of a New World Series?
Two and a half months ago in early September, the Indian Mujaheddin announced an attack was planned for Mumbai, India's commercial center. It did not arouse the attention of Indian intelligence, any more than any agency in the West.
It was only on Thursday, Nov. 27, twenty-four hours into the most spectacular Islamist terrorist raid since the 9/11 attacks in America, that counter-terror analysts took a second look at the communique for clues to the hand behind the bloody assault.
By then, only one live terrorist had been captured and he was in no shape to be questioned. Another five were killed. Indian security forces were still short of hard information about the identity of the terrorists, their organization, where they came from and who sent them.
They were only known to have landed by rubber dinghies on Mumbai's southern beach, most probably from Pakistan, the first place to come under suspicion. By Thursday night, the second spent under siege by a city of more than 16 million, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter-terror sources were pretty sure that al Qaeda was behind the efficiently-orchestrated assault.
They are less sure whether the jihadists, having chosen Mumbai as a target-arena within easy reach of their bases in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kashmir, are performing a one-off operation, or launching the first of a series. They fear its sequel or sequels may be staged in other parts of the world to coincide with the end-of year holiday season and the inauguration of the new US president, Barack Obama, in January.
The terrorists spread out in deadly bands like a cluster bomb
Even before Mumbai, Western intelligence services had picked up Web site chatter indicating that Osama bin Laden was contemplating a spectacular attack to seize the limelight as Obama prepared to settle in the White House. But none of the experts dreamed of a raid on the scale of the Mumbai assault or conceived of its clockwork efficiency.
If indeed it is proved to have been the handiwork of al Qaeda, the West faces more spectaculars which may take different forms to astonish the world's counter-terror authorities.
A number of innovations were unveiled in Mumbai.
The customary suicide bombers and car bombs were abandoned. Instead, the terrorists operated for the first time like a cluster bomb which sends lethal bomblets across a wide area.
This was no in-and-out operation. Twenty-four hours later, the terrorists still held the city and hundreds of hostages in a deadly vice.
The 40-60 Islamist fighters, who landed Wednesday on Mumbai's southern beach, broke up into 16 lethal bands which shot up seven or eight pre-arranged target sites. They then commandeered vehicles, some of them military and police cars, and formed three main forces, which seized hundreds of mostly Western hostages at three main locations – the two landmark Taj Palace and Oberoi Trident hotels, and the Chabad center, which is frequented by visiting Israelis and Jews.
By Thursday night, the Indian high command had grasped that even after the three sites were captured, the hostages rescued and the gunmen flushed out, Mumbai would not be relieved of terror. Indian intelligence was certain that not all the terrorists who landed on the beach took part on the hostage-taking attacks; some were holed up in safe houses or hideouts prepared in advance, and were ready to hit a fresh round of locations.
Al Qaeda copies SEAL tactics
For the first time the Islamist organization showed its paces in a large-scale marine commando offensive on a big city, using tactics recalling the US SEALS or Indian marine commandoes.
In the first hours of the attack, India rushed reinforcements to Mumbai's police force of ground, sea and air commando units and the rapid deployment force – MTS. They soon discovered they were facing highly-trained fighters using the same tactics and armed with similar weapons as their own.
The terrorists were equipped with automatic rifles, night-vision goggles and a large kitbag containing standard combat gear, from maps of Mumbai, ammunition, explosives, grenades, navigating instruments and ropes to a first-aid pack.
The only differences were that the terrorists carried no phones or communication instruments or means of escape. They were on suicide missions and did not expect to return alive.
A mother ship brought them to a point in the northern Arabian Sea opposite Mumbai, from which fast inflatables were dropped to carry them ashore.
Some disembarked from the speed boats, while others used Indian fishing boats borrowed from local sympathizers, pointing to the presence of a command group operating in Mumbai.
A forgotten satellite phone may offer the first lead
The Indian navy found a satellite phone in one of those fishing boats searched Thursday night. It may have been forgotten by a crewman from the mother vessel. Checking its SIM may provide a vital lead to the terrorist force's departure point and its dispatchers.
This marine tactic was one of the al Qaeda scenarios most dreaded by US security agencies between 2002 and 2004. They feared that terrorist bands dropped secretly on a US beach from a mother vessel would sneak into the North America and create mayhem.
But in the years since al Qaeda has mostly skirted the United States, this apprehension faded, even though bin Laden's organization owns some 40 merchant vessels.
The Mumbai assault revived that dread for US intelligence and anti-terror services.
DEBKA-net-Weekly's counter-terror experts estimate that around 500 people must have been involved in setting up an operation on the scale of the Mumbai assault, working out of several countries on the Arabian Sea coast.
The gunmen reached their targets at top speed with unerring precision, indicating –
1. Accomplices were waiting on the beach to lead them to their destinations. They could easily have been planted unnoticed by the security authorities among the many thousands of homeless people who sleep on Mumbai's beaches;
2. Their commanders carried out surveillance expeditions for weeks or months before the assault and then briefed the gunmen.
It may take years to uncover all the details of the elaborate Mumbai terrorist operation. In the meantime, Western intelligence and counter-terror agencies are badly bothered by the failure of Indian intelligence and all the world-wide network of terror watchers to pick up a sign that the Mumbai attack was coming.
The very stretch of water traveled by the terrorists is patrolled by the American aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and its strike group. Neither this vessel nor Indian naval intelligence noticed anything amiss.