Zakaria: Behind Mumbai's Terrorist Attacks

The attacks targeted the heart of India's financial district, but the shock waves were felt around the globe. On Wednesday, a group of heavily armed assailants carried out a series of coordinated strikes in Mumbaikilling at least 100, wounding hundreds more, and claiming an indeterminate number of hostages. A group calling themselves the Deccan Mujahedeen claimed responsibility for the mayhem, but their identity could not be immediately confirmed, and many terrorism specialists said they were unfamiliar with the name. Whoever did it took aim at Western passport-holders and prominent targets; among the locations hit were two major hotels, a train station and a hospital. Several top Indian security officials were among the casualties.

Police on the ground struggled to get a chaotic situation under control. Meanwhile, officials in the U.S. and elsewhere rushed to condemn the attackswhile puzzling over the root cause of the violence and wondering, on the eve of the Thanksgiving holiday, whether more violence might be in store. Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, author most recently of The Post-American World, and a Mumbai native, spoke with Tom Watson, managing editor of, about the attacks and the political and social landscape in which they occurred.

NEWSWEEK: The events on the ground are unfolding rapidly. But knowing the country as well as you do, what strikes you about the reports we've heard so far?
I think one of the misconceptions we're seeing so far is the assumption that these attacks were aimed primarily at foreigners. Look at their targets. The two hotels they attackedthe Taj and the Oberoiare old, iconic Indian hotels. It used to be true that these places were affordable only by Westerners. But this is no longer true, and it's one of the big changes over the last ten years in India. The five-star hotels today are filled with Indians. Businessmen, wedding receptions, parties…these are real meeting places now, and even those who cannot afford to stay there often pass through the lobby.

So you think if the aim was to hit Americans, Brits or other Westerners, there would be more target-rich environments?
Absolutely. There's a Marriott, and a Hilton, a Four Seasons….The big American chains all have hotels there, and there are many more distinctly American targets. The Taj and the Oberoi are owned by Indians. My guess is that there will be a lot of Indians involved, and that this will generate a lot of domestic outrage.

The group that claimed responsibility called itself the Deccan Mujahedeen—a name that doesn't seem to register with many of the terrorism experts quoted in news accounts thus far. Does it mean anything to you?
This doesn't strike me as Deccan (the Deccan plateau stretches over much of central and southern India). I would be very surprised if the people who did this actually came out of the area. It's not an area of any particular significance for Islamic terrorism. It isn't as though there's a Deccan separatist region.

Any insight into where the terrorists might come from, then?
An Indian businessman who says he heard the attackers said he didn't understand the language that the young men were speaking. That means that it wasn't Hindi or Urdu… most Indians would recognize the major languages even if they couldn't speak one of them. But most Indians would be unfamiliar with what's spoken in parts of the Kashmir. That's a source of much of the terrorism. My guess is that ultimately this will turn out to be some outside jihadi groups who might also recruit among disaffected Muslims locally.

Muslim militants have been responsible for much of the violence that has plagued Mumbai in recent years. But these attacks seem to be of a different magnitude.
One of the untold stories of India is that the Muslim population has not shared in the boom the country has enjoyed over the last ten years. There is still a lot of institutional discrimination, and many remain persecuted. There's enough alienation out there that there are locals who can be drawn in to plots. That tends to be a pattern, from Madrid to Casablanca to Balisome hard-core jihadis who indoctrinate alienated locals they can seduce.

What's also new and different about this was that it involved suicide attackers. There have been planted bombs in the past. But this is a different level than we've seen in India.

Given the delicate politics of the region—and particularly the tensions between India and Pakistan—do you anticipate Indian officials pointing fingers at their neighbor?
If you wanted to construct a conspiracy theory, it would go like this: elements of the Pakistani intelligence service that would like to get India more drawn into conflict in Kashmir might encourage this sort of thing. That would draw militants in the Pakistani tribal areas away from attacking the Pakistani state, and back to attacking the Indian state. But I've never tended to believe such theories. More plausible to me: this is a classic Frankenstein monster. All these groups have some degree of training and support from Pakistan. But this operation probably does not involve that directly. These groups are now autonomous, self-supporting, and have gone beyond those origins.

Do you suspect an Al Qaeda connection?
I doubt it. My sense is that for the last several years, the core of Al QaedaOsama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahirihas been very weak. This seems more like a Kashmiri, Lashkar kind of thing. They have the organization, they have the recruits, they have a cause they care about. The thing about Al Qaeda is that they've been quite unsuccessful in their core areasattacking American soldiers and American targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan, attacking the U.S. embassies. But it's possible that they are now going where they can, and India is a big soft target. If you go to a five-star hotel in Pakistan, it's like a fort now. There are often two levels of security, and you often have to take a separate car to get from the gate to the door. It's not likely that will happen in India, an open, democratic society.

What strikes you about the way the country has responded in these first hours?
I think India is showing remarkable resilience. They're trying to get back to business as usual. They were planning to open the stock market, which is not far from the Taj; they ultimately decided that that might have been a bridge too far, but they're encouraging people to go back to work. That's the best thing about an open society. They're trying to project an image of resilience.