Around 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, a band of 10 young armed militants zoomed up to a fishermen's colony in Colaba, on the Mumbai waterfront, in inflatable Zodiac speedboats. Locals confronted them: unlike the dark-skinned Mumbai fishermen, who speak only Marathi, the regional dialect, the intruders were young, tall and fair-skinned and spoke Urdu with a northern accent. According to local press, the gunmen reportedly told them to mind their business, then gave a raised-thumb gesture, and splitting into small groups, walked off into two different directions. The fishermen reported the suspicious men to a police post nearby, but the tip-off failed to rouse the cops to action.
An hour later, the carnage began. Those gunmen and others, armed with automatic rifles and hand grenades, spread out across southern Mumbai and started shooting into crowds at several city landmarks. By midnight more than 100 people lay dead, including three of Mumbai's top cops, one of them the head of the anti-terrorist squad. The series of well-coordinated and bloodthirsty attacks hit two of Mumbai's flagship hotels, its main Victorian-era railway station, and several other soft targets in the city. Gunmen in both hotels took scores of hostages. The dead senior policemen were inexplicably standing exposed outside the spots where terrorists were holding hostages.
Even as Indian commandos worked to free hostages holed up in the hotels and elsewhere, attention quickly turned to who might have planned and staged the brazen attacks. Beyond those killed and wounded, one victim certainly looks to be the gradually improving peace process between India and Pakistan, nuclear-armed rivals who have fought three major wars between them. While no conclusive links between the Mumbai terrorists and Pakistan have yet been proved, initial reports are pointing to some level of Pakistani involvement. Police have arrested nine suspects, including one from the Oberoi hotel. They claim that preliminary interrogation reports reveal that some of gunmen were of Pakistani origin, and were well-trained in handling guns and explosives. They also carried photo credit cards.
A previously unknown jihadi group called the Deccan Mujahedeen quickly claimed responsibility. (Deccan refers to the great plains of central and southern India.) But security experts think the militants simply floated this name in order to confuse investigators. One of the alleged gunmen spoke to an Indian TV reporter by cell phone; the man did not have a south Indian accent, and in fact spoke Urdu with a Punjabi inflection. The caller told the TV station that he didn't even know what the group's demands were. During the conversation, he asked the TV anchor to wait and then could be heard asking a companion in the background: "Tell me, what are our demands?" Finally the man answered that they demanded that all "mujahedeen" in Indian jails should be freed and that "persecution" of Muslims should stop. The caller disconnected the phone when pressed for further information about their numbers and goals.
Despite the rather flimsy evidence pointing to Pakistan's involvement, Islamabad is expected to come under extremely heavy Indian and international pressure once again to get tough with the extremist organizations that still operate rather openly inside the country. After past terrorist attacks Indian authorities have been quick to blame Pakistan and its shadowy Inter Services Intelligence agency (ISI). This time, too, while the hotels still smoldered, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced in a nationally televised address that the assailants had "external linkages," clearly a reference to neighboring Pakistan. He added that he would tell India's "neighbors" that the use of their territory to attack India would not be tolerated. Many Indians were pointing a finger at the Pakistani jihadi group Lashkar-I-Taiba, which was formed in the early 1980s with the assistance of the ISI to promote an anti-Indian revolt in Muslim-majority, Indian-administered Kashmir.
New Delhi has long accused Lashkar, and by extension Pakistan, of being behind the long-simmering unrest in Indian Kashmir, as well as being instigators of terror attacks inside India. Indian officials, however, conveniently ignore the serious economic, religious, political and social causes of Muslim discontent in Kashmir as well as in much of India, which is home to more than 150 million Muslims, roughly equivalent to the population of Pakistan. There have been five similar attacks, albeit on a smaller scale with fewer casualties, across India in the last eight months. Security agency sources say that the government's response to the attacks has been routine, if not incompetent, and that inter-agency rivalries and non-coordination often result in terrorists having a free hand. In addition, the police are notorious for using crude methods such as rounding up largely innocent Muslim youth and torturing them to extract information, tactics that alienate even moderate Muslim voices.
As a result, Islamic radicalism now seems to be becoming an increasingly serious threat to India just as it is in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Indeed, there may be enough dissatisfaction among Muslims in India to spawn a cadre of native, would-be jihadists who do not necessarily need external support to carry out terrorist attacks. Even so, the precise planning, stealth and coordination involved in the attacks may point to some external assistance, if not inspiration. Pakistan can certainly be faulted for not having dealt a deathblow to Lashkar and several other similar, ISI-assisted, Kashmir-oriented, jihadist outfits such as Jaish-I-Mohammad, a splinter group that was responsible for American journalist Daniel Pearl's kidnapping and beheading in 2002. Despite several much-ballyhooed crackdowns by former President Pervez Musharraf on Lashkar, Jaish and other such extremist groups, these radical organizations were never dismembered or decapitated. They went underground or kept on functioning under different monikers. Unlike Jaish and other Pakistani jihadi groups, Lashkar wisely did not become involved in military strikes against Pakistani security forces. As a result, the army and police crackdown was less harsh on Lashkar than it was on other extremist groups that were in open revolt against Pakistan after it moved to close the infiltration pipeline into Indian-occupied Kashmir in 2003.
To escape any of the government's anti-extremist dragnets, Lashkar cleverly morphed into Jamaat ud Dawah, a so-called Islamic charitable group, after Musharraf banned it following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Today Jamaat ud Dawah openly solicits funds and recruits adherents in Pakistan, particularly in mosques, and has undertaken high-profile relief work in the aftermath of the deadly 2005 Kashmir earthquake and the more recent destructive tremor in Baluchistan, earning it an increased following. The group's radical founder, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, is free and still openly preaches his sermons of hate despite occasional, and brief, stints in jail. Earlier this month, Saeed openly preached to a gathering of tens of thousands of faithful in Pakistan's Punjab province. He called on Pakistan to halt the truck convoys supplying U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan through Pakistan, accused the Pakistani army of fighting the Pakistani people, called on U.S. President-elect Barack Obama to embrace Islam, declared that only by invading India would Pakistan get river waters that he claimed were being criminally diverted by India, and promised the jihad would continue until Kashmir was free from Indian rule.
Meanwhile, Jaish-e-Muhammad, like Lashkar, has established insurgent training camps in the tribal areas. And its leader, Maulana Masood Azhar, is said to be working closely with Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives in the tribal areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Indeed, a spate of reports over the past year or so indicated that Kashmir-oriented Pakistani jihadi groups like Lashkar and Jaish had moved most of their camps and operational centers from Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, where they were born, to the safer environs of the tribal area where the Taliban and Al Qaeda hold sway. For the past few years the Pakistan Army and ISI had put these jihadi groups on a very short leash, not allowing them to infiltrate across the heavily mined and guarded Line of Control that separates the Pakistani- and Indian-controlled sectors of Kashmir. As a result, the bulk of the groups are thought to have shifted their main operational bases to the tribal area.
Lashkar, Jaish and other Kashmiri jihadi groups are believed to be involved in cross-border operations into Afghanistan to attack U.S. and coalition troops operating there. But from their new tribal-areas bases, they also get an opportunity to work closely with Al Qaeda planners operating in the region. Indeed these tribal havens are perfect places for Lashkar and other like-minded, anti-Indian groups to safely plan attacks and then communicate operational ideas to loosely affiliated jihadist groups in India, most probably via the Internet. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Taliban sources tell Newsweek, has never hidden his goal of sabotaging the Indo-Pakistani peace process, even though negotiations between the two countries aimed at establishing normal cross border traffic and trade and finding a solution to the Kashmir conflict are moving at a snail's pace. Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's No. 2 man, is on the record saying he would like to promote an all-out conflict between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. Ironically, the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan had just completed a round of successful talks in Islamabad on countering terrorism and drug trafficking, among other things, the day before the Mumbai attacks occurred.
Unfortunately, Pakistan does not seem to realize the full danger that these jihadist groups it once sponsored still pose to regional stability. The Pakistan military still seems to view the huge Indian army as an existential threat along its eastern border, perhaps a greater menace than the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban and the Kashmiri extremist groups. "(India) is a living threat," says a senior Pakistan official. "You decide what is a threat by looking at the other person's capability: what he can do in terms of troop formations and where those formations are deployed. The intention to go and attack somebody can change in an instant, so Pakistan is focused on India. While it is fighting the war on terror, (Pakistan) has not shut its eyes to the conventional threat."
In view of India's and Pakistan's rather ineffective responses to terrorism at home, strikes by Islamic militants in India are unlikely to disappear. The fact that the Mumbai terrorists were trying to single out British and American citizens, and attacked a building housing some Jewish families, clearly points to an international dimension to this attack. It may not only be a twisted way to get revenge against the alleged maltreatment of Indian Muslims at home, but also to send a message to western powers like U.S. and the U.K., which are New Delhi's close allies, to keep their hands off of India. The attacks further rattled India's already shaky economy by scaring foreigners away from Mumbai, the country's financial capital, and creating uncertainty in this formerly relaxed commercial hub.
The Mumbai attack, however, should make it clear to Pakistan and Indian--indeed to Washington and the region--that is essential for the two countries to work together ever more closely to combat this extremist threat before it derails the fledgling peace process and throws both countries back into the dangerous game in which they view each other as mortal enemies. That would be suicidal. Officials in both countries most probably realize the serious threat that a new round of mutual recriminations would pose to regional security. "It's terrible, it's tragic," says the senior Pakistani official. "I hope we can work together to end this menace which affects us both. Nothing will be served by accusations or finger pointing," he says. "That would only serve the terrorists who want to sabotage Pakistani-Indian relations." That could very well have been the terrorists' ultimate goal.