Attack Highlights India's Security Vulnerabilities

In a terrifying attack that held India riveted for the past 48 hours, a group of highly trained and deeply committed terrorists seized top Mumbai hotels and a prominent downtown building Wednesday, holding more than 200 people hostage for the better part of two days. As special-forces operations to rescue hostages and flush out terrorists wind down, investigators are only now beginning to piece together how the attackers got into the city and took over the properties. India's foreign minister and others within the government are beginning to point the finger of blame at Pakistan—whose intelligence service India believes is a habitual sponsor of terrorist activities on Indian soil.

NEWSWEEK's Jason Overdorf spoke with Ajai Sahni, editor of the South Asia Intelligence Review and executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management, a New Delhi-based think tank that studies terrorism, about the implications.

Newsweek: How are these attacks different from previous terrorist attacks on Indian soil?
Ajai Ajai Sahni:
First is the fact that the sheer scale of attacks is unique. We've had similar kinds of attacks in Jammu and Kashmir fairly regularly, commando-terrorist attacks. We've also seen something comparable in terms of the type of attack in Delhi and the attack on Parliament in 2001. So the pattern is not completely new to certain areas. But it is certainly new in Mumbai, and the sheer scale is unprecedented.

Moreover most attacks outside Jammu and KASHMIR—with the exception of the Parliament attack—have been bomb attacks, usually improvised explosive devices variously placed in soft targets. This is the first time we've seen something like this in a major urban center with quite as many participants. We're certainly looking at between 40 and 50 terrorists who appeared to have landed and launched the attack on Mumbai.

I saw a quote from intelligence sources that an attack of this nature would take 2-3 months to plan. Does that sound like a reasonable assessment?
It's not only a question of a plan. I would like to suggest that [the attack] would have taken a much larger time to mount because the kind of training that is evident and the degrees of motivation that are evident in these terrorists would take literally years to generate.

So this is probably the most organized attack we've seen in India?
You see there are different types of organizations. In the Mumbai blasts in 1993, you had extremely meticulous planning required. What I'm talking about here is a much longer gestation in terms of preparation of manpower—compared with what would be required for the mere placement of bombs.

What conclusions do you draw from that if any?
Well, you've had fedayeen-type attacks in other theaters in India—certainly in Jammu and KASHMIR and in the Parliament attack in Delhi. But this represents a simple escalation of scale in such attacks that will create definitive problems. And what it has also demonstrated is the enveloping vulnerabilities of the Indian system; we do not really appear to have the necessary defenses in place to quickly contain the impact. Even if we are not able to prevent such attacks (and no country can expect to completely exclude the possibility of such strikes), certainly the capacity for containment of the attack is extremely wanting.

News reports suggest that Israelis, Americans and Brits were singled out, segregated and held—possibly for hostage negotiations. What is the significance of this focus on foreigners?
The significance of this focus on foreigners is these are regarded as the prime enemy group, so to speak, by people who are engineering these attacks. Beyond that there does not seem to be any intention on the part of the terrorists to negotiate for any kind of deals or concessions, or the release of prisoners. No such thing has been discussed. It appears that they seem to have come here simply to kill and to die. So we do not see any meaningful kind of effort to initiate negotiations during these attacks.

At this point does there seem to be any kind of signature that could link these attacks to any group that Indian intelligence is already tracking?
There are several little factors that tell you [the perpetrators are] among a certain limited group of suspects. But there are no hard signatures. Fedayeen attacks of this nature on a much smaller scale have been often witnessed in Jammu and KASHMIR and the groups responsible have mainly been Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. If you look at the Parliament attack case, it was principally JEM involved there. What we are seeing is that the possibility of a large number of Indian citizens may also have been involved. There is no definitive identification at this juncture, although several people have been arrested and several of the terrorists have been killed. So we are looking at the usual group of suspects but we are still not definitively clear about their identity.

An outfit called Deccan Mujahedeen is taking responsibility.
That does not exist. That's a red herring intended to divert attention, an effort to project that this is an internal Indian problem, that this has nothing to do with outside forces. Whether Indians were involved in this or not, this could not have been executed without outside assistance or backing.

What are the major repercussions of this attack? The head of Mumbai's antiterrorism squad and several other top cops were killed. Is that a major foul up by law enforcement, to have such key figures exposed on the front lines?
The difficulty here is that once again we have a force that is barely learning how to cope with these things. This is, as far as Mumbai is concerned, an unprecedented pattern of attack. They haven't had something like this before. And the problem in India is that we do not have any systems in which large proportions of force and force leaderships are trained to respond to terrorist attacks. You've basically got a system where you learn on the job. And regrettably the price for that kind of extremely inefficient system is usually paid in blood.

Intelligence sources are saying the attacks bear the hallmarks of an international conspiracy. Do you read that as a precursor to claims that Al Qaeda or Pakistani intelligence may be involved in these attacks?
It would be one or other. I don't know if it would be Al Qaeda per se. But it could be Al Qaeda-related groups, certainly. Even Lashkar-e-Toiba is under the umbrella of Al Qaeda. All these groups we are speaking of as suspects are in some sense linked historically to Al Qaeda. All these groups are also linked to the Pakistan intelligence establishment. So we don't see the possibility of an operation of this scale being mounted without the backing of groups that either currently or historically have links with Al Qaeda or Pakistan intelligence.

In last couple of years, the scope of domestic involvement in terrorism has come as a wake-up call to Indian intelligence. Do you think there is always a reluctance to look inside India's borders first?
I think there is a problem of perception over here with Indian media rather than any problem with the intelligence or law enforcement agencies. Because they have been identifying and neutralizing Indian groups for certainly the past two decades, including Islamist groups in India. So there is no suggestion that they only look for outsiders. It is clearly recognized that even where outside agencies are involved, there are Indian facilitators … as partners or participants in terror attacks. And now we find Indian initiators. But I don't see any proclivity to try to brush this under the carpet in enforcement agencies. They follow what they find as leads. Yes, in certain cases you might find there is a tendency to start looking at groups that have international linkages at the very outset, but that's because of precedent rather than bias. If groups that have been involved in the past have been Pakistan-backed or Pakistan-based, then when a new attack of a certain pattern occurs, it is natural to look in that direction. That becomes the principle line of your investigation, but it doesn't necessarily dictate your conclusion.

What is significance of the timing? Elections are underway.
No significance whatsoever. Because if you take a look at the pattern of attacks, you will always find something or the other happening—elections, big international meetings, etc. These are post facto linkages that we try to establish in trying to determine unique motives. There are no unique motives. The motives of these attacks is basically to inflict the most harm on the system as is possible. And to propagate the extremist cause to the widest possible audience. That's it. This is a long war. Every time a new sort of bullet is fired you don't ask why these people are shooting at us. It's basically part of that long war.

A hostage situation like this is relatively unusual for India. Are there any precedents or policies in place about whether or how to negotiate?
Hostage situations are per se not new. But unfortunately there seems to be no clarity or consistency in the actual policies adopted. After such an event, there is usually a great deal of posturing, and declarations that there will be "no negotiation with terrorists" are made. But the particular government or particular negotiators on the ground and their perceptions determine the direction and outcome of any particular hostage crisis. So I'm afraid even if there are policy declarations, they have never been consistently followed.

In 1993 India saw terror attacks that were a response to anti-Muslim rioting. Do you think the opposite could happen now—i.e., community unrest because of these attacks?
Mumbai has been seeing many such attacks. Ever since 1993, there have been attacks of varying magnitudes every year or two—more than one a year. In each case … there has not been [major] rioting. If there has been rioting at all, it has been occasionally by the community that has lost a lot of people. For example, after the Malegaon bombing [an attack on the predominately Muslim town of Malegaon last September], there were Muslims rioting against the police or rioting in general against public property or private property. There have been no riots targeting the other community. So I would like to suggest that a certain measure of maturity has been visible in the popular response to this. I cannot say the same for certain elements of the extremist fringe groups who seem to be rather eager to prove their machismo and aggression.

Is an investigation into alleged Hindu terrorists a political powder keg, or are most people still relatively even-keeled about the situation?
I personally think people are still relatively even-keeled. If anything, this should impose a greater measure of restraint on the political parties that have been going a bit overboard in politicizing the issue of terrorism, whether it is perpetrated by Hindu extremists or Muslim extremists. As far as mainstream parties are concerned, I think there will be pressure for moderation after these attacks. There has been a very, very slow inching towards a consensual understanding of terrorism. Unfortunately it has not yielded a consensual policy as yet. But I suspect this will build greater public pressure on political parties to stop playing partisan politics, and get down to the fundamental issue of how best to respond …

The fact of the matter is you have Hindus who are terrorists. You have Muslims who are terrorists. You also have Christians who are terrorists. And you will find several other denominations that have proven their capacity for terrorism. We must realize that terrorism is simply a method by which civilians are intentionally targeted. That's it.

This is the sixth attack this year and the political party BJP is claiming the government is soft on terror. But the media is also wondering if India has become a soft target. Is India vulnerable to terror attacks because of any particular failure in the police system? Or is that because it is such a huge place it is difficult to police?
I think India is extremely vulnerable. And the fundamental reason for that is that this is a state that has neglected security for decades. Investment in policing was considered a nondevelopmental—and consequently wasteful—expenditure. We are one of the most under-policed societies in the world. We have a ratio of 126 police per 100,000, whereas the Western ratio is 250-500 plus per 100,000.

Also, our police are under-equipped and under-resourced across the board. There is no really hard counterterrorism core to policing in India, despite our decades of experience as a target of terrorism. Consequently there is absolutely no doubt that India is vulnerable to terrorism and will remain so in the coming years.

I think this government as well as its predecessor has been equally inept and equally neglectful on the issue of terrorism …The principle task of law enforcement and law-and-order management and counterterrorism is the state's under the Indian constitution. It is the responsibility of the state governments that are run by various parties in the country. All major parties have some states under their control. With very rare exceptions, the quality of counterterrorism has been abysmal.

This is one of the first times in recent years that such high-profile places have been attacked. Will that have an impact in drawing more attention to the issue?
This is not first time. There have been several attacks that have targeted the elite. The most significant of these was the Parliament attack, where the core of system of governance, the democratic polity itself, was attacked. And that did see a much higher quantum and quality of response than any preceding attack. So it is correct to believe that attacks on elite targets tend to provoke a greater and more effective response on government's part.