Indian intelligence did take note of a US warning about an impending terrorist attack on the landmark Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which was ravaged last month by Islamist terrorists in Mumbai. The date on the warning was September and when it failed to materialize by the end of the month, New Delhi decided the attack had been abandoned.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources, the second half of October and first half of November went by without any further mention of Mumbai on the Islamic networks. US intelligence did not cancel its original alert but refrained from following it up by nagging the Indians to find out if they were still on guard for a major terrorist attack.
In fact, US intelligence was itself put off guard by a trick.
The National Security Agency (NSA), which is responsible for collecting and analysis of foreign signals intelligence, had been monitoring Lashkar e-Taiba phone calls through the Abu Dhabi-owned Thuraya satellite system, which as a primary source of clandestine data on violent Islamic extremist organizations.
Suddenly, in the first week of October, Lashkar e-Taiba operatives stopped talking about Mumbai over their phone conversations.
At the same time as this was noted by the NSA, the Indian spy agency RAW (the Research and Analysis Wing) also stopped hearing references to a Mumbai operation in the Lashkar e-Taiba conversations monitored on their channels. A week after the terrorist rampage which left 174 dead and 350 injured in Mumbai, both agencies realized they had been hoodwinked. The coordinated hush which should have set off alarm bells, put them off guard.
No tip-off to fellow counter-terror agencies
Leading Western authorities on Pakistan, speaking to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources, were surprised that neither the Americans nor Indians picked up on the abrupt disappearance of Mumbai references from Lashkar e-Taiba discourse, or showed any curiosity. Instead, they took it for granted that the Mumbai terrorist plot had been abandoned, breathed a sigh of relief and let it ride.
An Israeli intelligence officer who works with US and Indian spy agencies remarked to this publication that neither had bothered to tip off fellow counter-terror agencies in the region like, for instance, the Israelis or Brits, when they first discovered that the ISI-backed terrorist group had planned to land by sea and attack western and Israeli locations in Mumbai.
Had the first alert been shared with Jerusalem or London, someone there may have smelled a rat and suggested looking more closely into the sudden Lashkar e-Taiba silence on the Mumbai conspiracy before deciding it was off.
If the Israeli official sounded peeved, it is because in the last six months, the close intelligence collaboration between Israel and Indian slackened as Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh tried cultivating friendly ties with president Pakistan Asif Ali Zardari. This climate generated more harmony between Indian intelligence and the ISI elements fighting extremist Islamic groups. Although neither side fully trusted the other, Israel found itself demoted as New Delhi's senior partner in matters of security.
The trick worked like a charm
Plans for the Mumbai attack, as it turned out later, proceeded smoothly with the help of messengers instead of sat phones, unbeknownst to NSA and RAW analysts who failed to take this into account. Here, the Achilles heel of both agencies came to the fore: Never so far in the eight-year war on terror has either peen able to penetrate al Qaeda, the Taliban, or such extremist terrorist groups as the Lashkar e-Taiba. Western intelligence is therefore totally dependent on signals intelligence and when that dries up, the door is shut on the extremists' inner workings and plans.
After the event, US and Indian intelligence concluded that Lashkar operatives were advised by their ISI buddies to spill general information about their planned Mumbai attack over their satellite phones three months before it was launched for the benefit of American and Indian eavesdroppers. Then, six weeks ahead of the operation, they were to stop mentioning it in order to lull the Americans and Indians into assuming it had been cancelled.
The trick worked like a charm.
The Mumbai atrocity plunged the Singh government into hot water. It is caught between strained relations with Pakistan, popular demands in India to punish their neighbor and domestic fury over the politicians' intelligence and security lapses. The Indian police and commando are lambasted for taking 72 hours to overcome 10 terrorists.
Zardari fuels anti-Pakistan fury in Delhi – as per ISI plan
Singh has been trying to navigate the shoals. Monday, Dec. 1, New Delhi demanded the extradition of Lashkar e-Taiba leaders and Indian fugitives associated with them from Pakistan.
On the list were Dawoon Ibrahim, a Mumbai crime boss blamed for serial bombings in Mumbai in 1993 which left at least 250 dead; Maulan Masood Azhar, a Muslim cleric freed from Indian jail in exchange for passengers of a hijacked plan in 1999; and Hafiz Saeed, head of the Jamaat-ud Dawa group as well as founder and spiritual leader of the Lashkar e-Taiba.
At the same time, India refused Islamabad's demand for evidence against the men on the list.
No intelligence agency will part with information that can blow its undercover sources. RAW will certainly not surrender leads to informants in Pakistan or expose its intelligence-gathering methods in that country and other parts of Asia.
In any case, New Delhi fears that sharing intelligence with Islamabad, some of it relayed from US sources, would touch off a second round of terrorist outrages against India – partly to render that intelligence irrelevant.
The next day, president Zardari rejected India's extradition demands out of hand. He said that if evidence were provided, the suspects would be tried in Pakistani courts and if found guilty, punished under Pakistani law.
His reply further fueled the anti-Pakistan fury boiling up in New Delhi and India, exactly as the ISI intended.