There are so many reasons why 26/11 should never be forgotten. A megalopolis was taken hostage and in a democratising act of brutality neither the poor or the rich were spared, Indian, Jewish and international targets attacked, making this a universal act of terror that in many ways —its scale, visibility and duration —was far worse than anything else endured in the epoch of terror we are living through. The attackers sailed in, exploiting a long-warned-of vulnerability, about which hundreds of reports —demanding the better securing of the coast —lay gathering dust.
Then there was the ventriloquism practised during the raid —ten gunmen remotely controlled by shadowy handlers who watched their progress via round-the-clock cable news feeds that were never limited or even cut. Inside the buildings, captured loud-mouthed politicians and oligarchs gave live interviews to reporters, complaining about their predicament to news channels, their forceful personalities jeopardising their lives and those of others, by giving away their locations and helping the terrorists decipher what was going on in places where there was no visual feed.
To thicken the fog and deepen the panic, the terror control reached out to its hitmen on the ground using leased Internet phone lines, making it possible to eavesdrop the calls but not locate where they were coming from —the digital equivalent to a dead letter box.
The creation of a seeming city-wide footprint for the attack, one that appeared far bigger than it was, saw taxis deployed to unwittingly carry timed explosive devices, killing the drivers and paralysing the city, with explosions reported in distant neighbourhoods. The disconnect between under-funded public and affluent, go-it-alone private sectors meant that security measures presented by the police and municipality were undone by hotel and restaurant managers —who perceived them as undermining commercial considerations, a friction that remains a relevant today. A legion of brave cops had poor weapons. Bad cops ran away. Entrepreneurial Special Forces defied civic obstructions, traffic and bad equipping, using faulty equipment that was not fit for purpose, to finally defeat the killers in the city. There are more benchmarks.
This appalling, ground-breaking act of terror was never fully excavated —transparently —by the authorities at the state or national level. Instead, the Pradhan commission was hired and produced a desultory 68- page report while in other countries similar attacks prompted the public display of hundreds of thousands of pages of testimony and analysis. See the 9/11 and 7/7 archives for examples. The lack of this kind of visible, profound audit meant that the public was never re- assured, victims were never appeased, while the perceived defensive posture of the city was also never bolstered.
Digging deeper, 26/11 is a permanent reminder that while it is true that no city anywhere in the world would have come out well from an attack of this magnitude, it is equally true that Mumbai did particularly badly. And we should say this loudly, on this anniversary, so as to make sure legislators hear, stopping the faux chauvinism that tells Mumbaikars that everything was fine.
While the police and intelligence service like to say nowadays that 26/11 was merely a failure of imagination, and that all services in the end acted effectively, these dark days are actually a desultory reminder that 26/11 was anything but a failure of imagination.
Numerous intel feeds –derived from foreign-provided humint and techint –described the oncoming attack with clarity rarely seen in these kinds of operations: the likely targets, providing even a range of dates. There was more. These numerous reports suggested how many attackers would be ranged against the city, how they would be deployed (by boat), the weapons they would be carrying, and their strategy upon docking. The reports that also suggested landing areas for the ocean-bound assault —warned too of collaboration in Mumbai by citizens —but also by at least one source inside the state or municipal security apparatus.
And the presaging of 26/11 in intelligence form demonstrated several other unpalatable truths. The internecine skirmishing between security agencies inside India limited Mumbai’s chances of preventing and then ending the onslaught. The mistrust sown between R&AW and IB, and between IB and police, a kind of stove-piping that effected CIA and FBI equally, making 9/11 far harder to prevent, meant that intelligence that was passed along the line arrived at its resting point in a piecemeal fashion, extraordinarily slowly, with reports continually trimmed and tailored, until the senior inspector (30 years in service who was really doing front line work) received single lines of instruction that did not reflect the building gravity of what was coming, or its context and timescale. But with an even sharper look into the intel gathering and reporting process prior to 26/11 what can also be seen is that R&AW’s failings (in particular) was long foreseen by the wisest heads at R&AW. These senior officers have continually canvassed politicians for root and branch reform, warning that R&AW has become calcified by being wed to bureaucratic structures that thwart flexible hiring and firing, proscribing rapid promotion —old protectionist measures that also ensure R&AW will continue to be unattractive to professional young candidates from all ethnicities and religions, denying the foreign intelligence service access to specialists to thwart particular foreign policy and technical challenges.
An agency without a charter, and little working over- sight, whose opacity serves recalcitrant officers more than it does Parliament, or India —where of course many officers are brilliant, insightful, long-suffering patriots hewn in the image of legends like ‘Gary’ Saxena —is ranged against a constant bombardment by hi-tech, lawless regional rivals —and those in the West —operating within mercurial, free flowing, organisations with no limits to their ambition, their access to new technology, their embracing of classless, casteless, colour defying innovation, agencies rapidly learning, languages and with a remit to travel with them. Which leads me to a final observation about 26/11 —one that is part of the mix when New Delhi weighs up the new Indo-Pacific, and the cost of that new alliance. What should never be forgotten is that 26/11 was ultimately a pathological expression of naked self-interest.
The terror controllers had their narrow, bloody agenda —undermining a weak President in Pakistan, who had reached out to India, and of course the savaging of a city in India that remains symbolic of the subcontinent’s dreams. There is a sense also that 26/11 was an act of revenge for the constant, nagging bloodbath in Pakistan’s financial hub of Karachi (which some see as hastened by India). But the US and Europe also had skin in the game.
A source for all of that rich intel that came to India before the Mumbai attacks was Daood Gillani aka David Headley. A close parsing of his modus operandi shows that the sociopath continually used those closest to him to get himself out of a fix.
Busted with his heroin smuggling friends in Pakistan, he got them convicted and himself off the hook. When he was caught red handed in Chicago doing the same, he traded his freedom to work for the US DEA, turning on the US mob. A source for the US DEA, he continued to traffick in Pakistan and post 9/11 when all Confidential Informers were re-assessed along ethnic and communal grounds, as American sought useful Muslims to make sense of the Islamist onslaught, Daood Gillani was handed over to the FBI that was handling the criminal inquiry into the 9/11 plotters. That criminal case that required arrests and trials would be undermined by the requirements of the CIA. As Headley was passed from the FBI to CIA, so the agency that was charged with capturing or killing the 9/11 figurehead Osama bin Laden —by any means necessary, worked against those attempting to get the guilty tried.
As David Headley cased Mumbai, he gave up details of the impending operation to his US handers, who repackaged the intel, and sent it along the line to R&AW without (as required by good trade craft) ever revealing the source or the source’s proximity, let alone his identity. Then Headley doubled down. To remain in the field, and in play for the Mumbai attacks, he began to provide his US handlers with concrete proof that he had also got near to Al Qaeda, successfully reaching out to gun-for-hire Ilyas Kashmiri, an LeT commander who had thrown his lot in with the Arabs in FATA. Kashmiri had piecemeal access to Dr. Ayman Al Zawahiri, but deep contact with the Al Qaeda system below him, of couriers and field commanders. After years of stalling, Headley and his proposition were too attractive, the arch betrayer kept in the field, inching towards Osama, even as Mumbai burned.
Of course the US did not carry out 26/11. And it would be wrong to accuse Western security agencies of even having exacerbated it. Criminal killers did that. But what Western governments and their agencies did do was —of course –act in their own naked self interest, elevating the targeting of Osama bin Laden, over the threat to Mumbai, an insight into the real world of hard knocks, where special relationships are no replacement for rigorous National Security.
(The author is an award-winning journalist, filmmaker and the author of The Siege, a book on the 26/11 terror attack in Mumbai. Views are personal.)