5 Lessons From the Deadly Mumbai Terrorist Attacks

As suspicions focus on Pakistani group, new conclusions arise about effectiveness of low-tech plots.

By SHARE
TH_PR_081201gallery_mumbai_sm.jpg

While it's too early to know for sure how many terrorists were involved in the three-day shooting spree in Mumbai, counterterrorism officials in the United States and India are already sifting through the evidence in search of clues.

A Pakistan-based militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, or LET, is the top suspect in the three-day terrorist rampage that left more than 170 people dead, U.S. officials say. "While it's too early to jump to any final conclusions on who may have been responsible for the Mumbai attacks, there are some solid indications that people associated with [LET] were involved," says one U.S. counterterrorism official.

The brazenness of the incident combined with its potential to destabilize the region already has the counterterrorism world searching for lessons learned. Four have already emerged.

The public expects competent law enforcement. By any measure, India's response to the crisis was underwhelming. Initial news reports suggested that some armed police officers hid rather than shoot at the attackers as they fired into crowds of bystanders. Others were simply outgunned. Meanwhile, the country's elite counterterrorism unit took some 10 hours to attack hostage-holding militants because Mumbai, a city of 13 million, has no SWAT-type group capable of fighting back.

The country's top security official, Home Minister Shivraj Patil, has already tendered his resignation. The prime minister, meanwhile, promised to overhaul the country's counterterrorism capabilities and create four more hubs for the elite response unit.

But, in fairness to the Indian security forces, several security experts say that even an American city faced with simultaneous attacks at a rail station, major hotel, tourist hub, and religious center would be hard pressed to muster enough commandos.

Low-tech attacks can do tremendous damage. The attack itself appears to have required little specialized knowledge from the attackers. Automatic rifles and hand grenades appear to have done the most damage.

"This was not a difficult operation for these men to pull off, which is not to place all the blame on the Indian security forces," says Jamie Smith, a retired CIA officer who operated in both Pakistan and India during his career.

Smith, who heads the private security group SCG International, says such attacks would be both crippling to the United States and difficult, if not impossible, to stop.

"Ten guys with guns and hand grenades in shopping malls in 10 different cities—or even spread out in one city—could bring this country to a standstill," Smith says. "Even if this had happened in a city like Los Angeles, there are only so many SWAT officers available to respond."

Terrorists can influence elections. From Madrid to Iraq to Pakistan, the fact that major terrorist incidents occur around elections is no coincidence. The ruling party in India has called for national elections in May, but state elections are already underway with security as a major point of contention between the political parties.

One particularly poignant half-page newspaper ad from an opposition party features a blood-stained wall and the words "Weak Government." Pakistan is no stranger to election terrorism. Candidate Benazir Bhutto was killed by terrorists during a heated election campaign against former President Pervez Musharraf.

The cure may be more deadly than the disease. India and Pakistan, the nuclear-armed neighbors, have fought three wars and been close to several more. The last major military escalation came in 2001, when terrorists attacked the Indian Parliament, killing 15. (The Indian government also laid blame for that incident at the feet of LET.) The group's involvement in the Mumbai attacks could endanger recent cooperation between the nations, which in turn could complicate efforts against al Qaeda in the tribal regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, U.S. officials fear.

"There are larger goals here, namely the hope that an attack against India would end intelligence sharing and cooperation in the region and allow [LET] and other terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, greater freedom to operate," says one U.S. military intelligence official. "These were very public, televised attacks designed to force the Indian people to demand a response from their government. Sometimes the response is more important than the actual attack."