Mumbai Attacks.. Terror Strategies Will Fail

Dr. Ayman El-Dessouki: Mumbai Attacks.. Terror Strategies Will Fail

  • 1 December 2008

The terrorist attacks which took place in Mumbai on November 26, 2008 and lasted for three days, were the longest and deadliest of their kind that India has faced in recent years. Analyses of the attacks vary widely. Some analysts have focused on the planning, sophistication, coordination and tactics employed in these attacks, while others have been interested in the identity of the assailants and their motivations. Still, a third group of commentators has been concerned with the economic effects of the attacks on India, as Mumbai is the country's financial hub and economic capital. This feature would analyze the strategies adopted by the terrorists involved in these attacks (whether they belong to the Deccan Mujahideen, the group that has claimed responsibility for the attacks, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba that has carried out attacks in India earlier and has been blamed by India for these attacks but has denied involvement, or the Indian Mujahideen that is an Indian militant group that sprung up about a year ago).

Terrorists employed three main strategies in these attacks; fedayeen-style operation, attack on foreigners, and the targeting of relations between India and Pakistan. These strategies are new in the Indian context, as will be illustrated later, but quite old as radical groups have employed at least one of them in countries like Egypt, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Indonesia.

Unlike previous terrorist attacks in India, which targeted mainly Indians in populated and crowded areas, the Mumbai attacks appeared to have targeted foreigners and the posh hotels they frequent. Terrorists carefully picked their targets, most importantly Oberoi and Taj hotels, a Jewish community in the Chabad House, and the Leopold Café and Restaurant. All these places are a favorite haunt of foreigners, Israelis in particular. In addition, the assailants singled out those carrying American and British passports in the Oberoi and the Taj hotels and herded them to the roofs of the buildings.

By targeting foreigners, terrorists sought to gain more publicity around the world and spread the message to people in Muslim and Arab countries that they are fighting for their issues by challenging US and Western hegemony and exacting revenge on Jews and their supporters in the West because of their terrible crimes in Palestine and so on.

The three-day campaign of Mumbai killed about 30 foreigners, but claimed the lives of 170 Indians, leaving hundreds more injured. It is obvious that the ratio of fatalities between foreigners and Indians is disproportionate, and this indicates the failure of the terrorist strategy to target foreigners. The second point here is that terrorists failed to garner the expected public support in Muslim countries for their actions. On the contrary, people around the world¿including Arab and Muslim countries¿condemned the Mumbai attacks, and many governments offered various kinds of assistance to India. For example, the US, the UK and Interpol sent a delegation to India to help in their investigations. This means the worldwide publicity that terrorists were seeking proved counterproductive for them, as many countries from across the globe stood together against Mumbai attack. More importantly, the attacking foreigners by terrorist and radical organizations, notably in Egypt, has already proved to be a failed strategy. In the 1990s, the Al-Gemaa Al-Islamiyya (a radical group) in Egypt was actively involved in targeting tourists. The most gruesome operation conducted by this group was the Luxor Massacre, which resulted in the death of 66 people, including 57 Western tourists and 6 locals. But the leaders of Al-Gemaa Al-Islamiyya couldn't achieve any of their goals, most importantly winning public support and weakening the Egyptian regime. On the contrary, most of its leaders gained the wrath of Egyptians and ended up in prisons. In late 1990s, Al-Gemaa Al-Islamiyya decided to renounce violence and was penitent to the same regime it had sought to topple.      

Unlike previous terrorist operations in India (like those in Mumbai itself in 1993 and 2006), which carried out simultaneous bomb blasts or suicide attacks without resorting to taking hostages, Mumbai attacks employed a new technique, the style of the 'fedayeen' that believes in fight to the death and killing till the last breath. This approach caught the attention of terror experts because it was indicative of the boldness and audacity of the terrorists as well as the dilemma facing the Indian security forces over whether to attack the terrorists or throw a siege around the action scene. A third source of interest for experts has been, that unlike other recent attacks in India, the damage continued to escalate even after the initial shock, and gathered in strength as well as changed its form even as the smoke and noise from the blasts cleared.

In fact, 'fighting to death and taking hostages' is not a new strategy, as Chechen radicals and Saudi extremists have previously resorted to such methods in 2002 and 2004 respectively. However, this strategy has a major flaw; as there is always a danger of one or some terrorists getting captured, which could be a precious catch for intelligence agencies. That was evident in Mumbai attacks. Indian security forces captured one of the assailants, who told investigators that he was a Pakistani. He revealed that the attackers were trained by Lashkar-e-Taiba, blamed for attacks in Indian-administrated Kashmir and elsewhere. More important, the suspect admitted that the operation had been launched from the Pakistani port city of Karachi, from where the attackers initially set out by boat.

Finally, Mumbai attackers were trying to damage relations between Pakistan and India, just after a short period of dialogue between the two countries since Pakistan's new democratic government took office earlier this year. In other words, the militants wanted India and Pakistan to "remain at each other's throat so they can flourish."  They may have succeeded in the short term, but their strategy is going to fail in the long term as the experience of Egypt-Sudan relations in the 1990s shows us. The radical elements of the National Islamic Front in Sudan, under the leadership of Hassan Al-Turabi, managed to strain Egypt's relations with Sudan in the mid-1990s for a short period. In the long run, the National Islamic Front's strategy failed, as the two countries normalized their relations.

The Mumbai attacks have strained India-Pakistan relations to their most dangerous levels in years. Not since the December 2001 suicide attack on the Indian Parliament, which India blamed on Pakistani groups and which brought the two countries to the brink of war, have there been such open Indian accusations against elements based across the border. This has sparked fears of a war between nuclear neighbors. The Indian government, as usual, was quick to blame the attacks on Pakistan, thus rejecting the possibility that there was a potent network of homegrown terrorists in India. For years, India and Pakistan have blamed each other for terror attacks in their countries. For its part, the Pakistani President and government strongly condemned the attacks, denied repeatedly of any responsibility and vowed to take action against any Pakistani citizen or group, operating from within its borders, if found involved in the attacks. Moreover, President Asif Zardari stressed the need for strict measures to eradicate terrorism and extremism from the region. Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Reza Gilani urged the need for concerted efforts to make the region a peaceful place. Furthermore, Pakistan's foreign minister has asserted that terrorism is a menace threatening humanity and humanity should join hands in fighting this scourge. However, in light of Indian accusations, the Pakistani government quickly withdrew from its initial offer of sending the chief of the country's intelligence agency to India to aid in the investigations and sent a lower-level intelligence official instead. On the other had, it was revealed on December 7, 2008, that the Indian government was considering a range of measures to show a tough stance against Pakistan. These measures could include suspension of a five-year-old cease-fire with Pakistan and perhaps even an end to the dialogue process between the two. In order to prevent further deterioration in the relations between the two countries, US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, arrived in India, on December 3, 2008.