India's terror reaches new level

 

The scale of the terrorist attack on Mumbai has shocked the city and the world - and the deaths of foreigners have finally brought attention to a deadly and worsening problem, writes Rahul Bediin Mumbai 

MUMBAI IS A CITY scared and confused after this week's shooting spree by terrorists which left at least 160 people dead and some 330 others injured. This proud and teeming city was left frightened, deserted and insecure.

The assault, by a group of between 10 to 15 fidayeen or suicide gunmen, and which started on Thursday, was a shocking terrorist strike, not only in the numbers killed but in its meticulous coordination, planning, execution, audacity and sheer ruthlessness.

Officials estimate that the number of fatalities could rise significantly as more bodies were likely to be recovered from the city's two luxury hotels, the iconic Taj Mahal and Trident-Oberoi. Yesterday afternoon, the bodies of Jewish Rabbi Gavirel Hotzberg and his family were discovered after the siege at his house was ended.

An unidentified and masked Marine Commando Force officer involved in the operations to end the drama told reporters yesterday that there were bodies lying strewn around the hostage centres. "There was blood all over," he said indicating that the numbers killed were far higher than the 160 counted so far.

National Security Guard (NSG) personnel backed by the army, marine commandoes, police and paramilitary took control of the hotels and Rabbi Hotzberg's house after extended and fierce firefights, interspersed with grenade blasts and extended, nerve-wracking gaps when nothing happened.

After the hostilities ended yesterday, hundreds of hotel guests, mostly foreigners who had been held by the smiling, and unmasked gunmen, were released in batches and taken to safe locations. Security personnel scoured the two hotels looking for panic-stricken people hiding under beds, in bathrooms and any niche offering concealment from the killers.

On Thursday, the gunmen, armed with AK-47 and AK-56 assault rifles, grenades, vast quantities of ordnance and gas masks, arrived in three inflatable dinghies launched from a trawler a short distance from Mumbai's coastline. This "mother vessel", which had been hijacked earlier has since been seized by the Indian Coast Guard along with the three dinghies, a satellite telephone, a GPS and a detailed map of south Mumbai.

They landed at three separate locations and split into well-coordinated teams that moved swiftly through crowded streets in an obviously well-practiced manoeuvre that provided no opportunity to the security forces to effectively engage them at any point. Some of them even mingled with the panicking crowd, eventually escaping in a hijacked police car in which they drove around the city firing randomly at passersby until police shot them dead.

"The terrorists were well orientated and determined to succeed in their goal of targeting Mumbai's most visible symbols patronised by the rich, famous and by Westerners," says a senior security official.

Previous strikes in Mumbai, almost exclusively serial bombings, had largely targeted the poor in cramped trains and depressed neighbourhoods which did not ensure "high voltage" publicity and global media attention, he added.

They did not effectively cripple India economically as investment continued to flow in undeterred. But now market analysts are sceptical about scarce finance finding its way to an unsafe India. Tourism is down by 40 per cent and cricket fixtures, the oxygen for Indian sports fans, have been called off by England and Australia. "Through this strike the militants have dealt India a deathly blow," believes political analyst Dorab Sopariwala.

SECURITY SOURCES say the refusal of the gunmen to enter into any kind of negotiation with the authorities clearly indicates that it was a suicide mission. "They wanted to become shahid . There was no compromise, says a senior military official.

Unsheathing their deadly cargo packed in haversacks, the gunmen burst into south Mumbai's busy business and entertainment district around 9pm on Wednesday, firing indiscriminately into crowds for a period lasting more than three hours.

They struck at 10 different locations, opening fire first at the packed Leopold Cafe, patronised by western tourists, before moving on to the Taj Mahal and Trident-Oberoi and the crowded 19th century Chatrapati Shivaji train terminus, one of the world's busiest. Two hospitals were also targeted.

"I saw one of them casually reload his assault rifle and begin shooting afresh as if it was just an ordinary, everyday event," according to eyewitness Sheikh Pasha.

Eventually, the siege began late early on Thursday, with the terrorists holding between 70 and 80 hotel residents and guests hostage, many of them foreigners. At least two or three gunmen also took control of Nariman House close to the Taj hotel, the headquarters of the ultra-orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch movement of Hasidic Jews.

Rabbi Holtzberg operated Jewish centres globally which provide education and culture, community schools and services, and his Mumbai headquarters were visited frequently by Hasidic Jews from Israel. "Targeting the Hasidic Jewish group in Mumbai has implications beyond the immediate," warns a security analyst. Tracking down the nondescript and unassuming Jewish centre in the warren of alleyways required a high degree of intelligence and penetration, he adds.

The terrorists were familiar with the layout of the two hotels - evidence that they had done a thorough advance reconnaissance.

India has close strategic, military and intelligence sharing ties with Israel, an association that is opposed by neighbouring Pakistan and many Muslims in India.

MEANWHILE, LEADING the assault under Operation Black Tornado was carried out by commandoes trained for deployment on anti- terrorist and anti-hijacking missions.

They were around 30 years old, skilled in handling firearms and explosives and unafraid of dying," according to a NSG officer who led one of the raids into the Trident hotel. They were ruthless professional killers, he added.

The unknown Deccan mujahideen group has claimed responsibility for the strikes, but sources at security agencies believe it is merely a smokescreen for the Indian mujahideen, which has claimed responsibility for the recent serial bombings in the capital New Delhi and in Ahmedabad in the west - or by extension an adjunct to the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba.

The al-Qaeda associated Lashkar-e-Taiba based at Mudhrike near the Pakistani border city of Lahore believes that the necessity for jihad has always existed and democracy is one of the "menaces" inherited from an alien government. It fought alongside al-Qaeda against the US-led coalition in Afghanistan in 2001 and subsequently has emerged as a military and social force of formidable standing.

Prime minister Manmohan Singh also hinted at Pakistani involvement, declaring that those who had launched the gunmen on Mumbai were based "outside the country". He warned "neighbours" who provide a haven to anti-India militants against pursuing such a cynical strategy. But over the years, local roots to these terrorist groups have emerged as the country's 130 million Muslims feel increasingly vulnerable to Hindu extremist violence as in 2002 in western Gujarat state when some 2,000 of them were killed in a pogrom lasting several weeks.

Some Hindu politicians portrayed Muslims as the enemy and a bulwark against India's prosperity. This, in turn, diluted and dented Indian secularity and, in many cases, led to local Muslim groups turning extremist. Many have recently been involved in a spate of bombings across India in association with groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Muslims constitute around 13 per cent of Indias population of over 1.2 billion, and some analysts believe that if they continue to be vilified, demonised and in many cases wrongly accused of terrorist crimes, it could prove apocalyptic for the country's future.

SPREAD OF TERROR - ATTACKS IN INDIA

IN RECENT YEARS, India has witnessed a growing number of attacks against civilians. Most have involved indiscriminate bombings in public places, unlike the coordinated armed assault on multiple sites in Mumbai, which began on Wednesday.

March 13th, 2003A bomb attack on a commuter train in Mumbai kills 11 people. Indian authorities blame Lashkar-e-Taiba, a network of Muslim extremists from Pakistan. An alleged accomplice dies in a shoot-out.

August 25th, 2003Two bombs hidden in taxis kill about 60 in Mumbai at the Gateway of India and at Zaveri Bazaar.

August 15th, 2004A bomb explodes in the north-eastern state of Assam, killing 16 people, mostly schoolchildren.

October 29th, 2005Sixty-six people are killed when three blasts rip through New Delhi's Sarojini Nagar market, which was busy before a Hindu festival. A caller from the Front for Islamic Uprising, a group linked to Lashkar-e-Taiba, claims responsibility.

March 7th, 2006At least 15 people are killed in three blasts in the northerly Hindu pilgrimage city of Varanasi. Recent arrests reveal the role of Indian mujahideen.

July 11th, 2006More than 180 people are killed in seven bomb explosions at railway stations and on trains in Mumbai. Indian officials initially blamed Lashkar-e-Taiba, but recent local arrests suggest that Indian mujahideen was involved.

September 8th, 2006At least 32 people are killed in a series of explosions, including one near a mosque, in Malegaon town, 160 miles north-east of Mumbai.

February 19, 2007Two bombs explode aboard a train heading from India to Pakistan; at least 68 passengers, most of them Pakistanis, burn to death. The bombs were carried in briefcases placed on the floor of the train.

May 18th, 2007A bomb explodes during Friday prayers at an historic mosque in the southern city of Hyderabad, killing 11 worshippers. Police later shoot five people in clashes with hundreds of enraged Muslims protesting the attack.

August 25th, 2007Three coordinated explosions at an amusement park and a street stall in Hyderabad kill at least 40 people. Recent arrests and confessions have pointed to Indian mujahideen.

May 13th, 2008Seven bombs rip through the crowded streets of the western city of Jaipur, killing at least 63 people in markets and outside Hindu temples. The bombs are carried on bicycles, hanging from the handles and bars in cloth bags.

July 25thEight small bombs explode in Bangalore, killing at least one woman.

July 26thAt least 16 small bombs explode in Ahmedabad, killing 45 people. Indian mujahideen asserts responsibility for this and the May 13th attack in Jaipur.

September 13thAt least five bombs explode in crowded markets and streets in the heart of New Delhi, killing 23 people. Indian mujahideen asserts responsibility. Two suspected bombers are killed in a shoot-out when police raid a hideout associated with the group.

October 30thAt least 83 people are killed in 11 blasts in Assam. Authorities blame local militant group United Liberation Front of Asom, acting with help from Bangladesh's outlawed Harkat-ul-Jehadi-al-Islami.

- (LA Times-Washington Post)  Rama Lakshmi