The lessons of Mumbai

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
2 December 2008

The attacks in Mumbai of 26-29 November 2008 are as devastating as any since those of 11 September 2001. Their spectacular media impact is part of their character. This very worldwide publicity, however, can make it easy to forget that many other major incidents in these seven years - even outside Afghanistan and Iraq, the two main theatres of the "war on terror" - have similarly been carefully mounted complex operations against multiple targets.Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

Paul Rogers's most recent book is Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group (ORG) 

India's commercial capital has been hit many times before; this was the latest of a series of over a dozen attacks on Mumbai since 1993 (see Ajai Sahni, "Massacre in Mumbai: the Pakistan connection", 11 July 2006). But the pattern of which the latest is part is also international and very widespread, as just six of many examples illustrate: 

▪ in November 2002, the Paradise Hotel at Kikambala in Kenya was attacked at the same time as an attempt was made to shoot down an Israeli charter-jet taking off from nearby Mombasa airport

▪ in May 2003, four different sites with western connections were bombed in Casablanca

▪ in November 2003, there were two double-bombings within a fortnight in Istanbul, the first against two synagogues (killing twenty-three people) and the second against the HSBC bank and the British consulate (killing thirty-two, including the British consul)

▪ in March 2004, the Atocha railway terminus in Madrid was the centre of a series of multiple attacks on trains arriving in the city

▪ in July 2005, coordinated assaults on a marketplace and two hotels in the Egyptian resort of Sharm-al-Sheikh killed eighty-eight people

▪ in November 2005, fifty-seven people were killed in the bombing of three hotels in Amman (see "Jordan catches Iraq's fire", 10 November 2005).

Four concerns

There are four distinct aspects of the Mumbai attacks that are noteworthy in themselves and particularly worrying for counter-terrorism forces.  

The first is the degree of calculation involved, especially in choosing to target a variety of locations that guaranteed both Indian and non-Indian victims. The great majority of the people who died (150 out of 174 estimated at the time of writing) were Indian nationals, most of them at the station and hospital. It seems clear that in this respect the main aims of the operation included inducing as much fear as possible, both in Mumbai and across India, and creating problems with Pakistan. There was also a very strong international element, symbolised by the assaults on India's best-known hotel (the Taj Mahal Palace), the selection of this and other western tourists, and the targeting of the Jewish centre at Chabad House.  

Kanishk Tharoor, "What to make of the Mumbai attacks" (27 November 2008)

Saskia Sassen, "Cities and new wars: after Mumbai" (29 November 2008)

The second aspect is the sheer level of organisation that went into the whole operation, including detailed reconnaissance and planning, sophisticated logistics and well-trained and determined paramilitaries. Moreover, the attackers were prepared to die, not in the manner of suicide-bombers but in sustained operations that could be expected to last for (at least) several days. 

The third is the cellular element. The perpetrators of the scores of major incidents in over fifteen countries that have occurred since the attacks on New York and Washington on 9/11 may have been connected at an ideological level, but in most cases they have acted in intimate groups that are very hard to penetrate. The very absence of identifiable central organisation or hierarchical direction can be understood as a source of resilience.

The fourth aspect is that this highly dispersed and amorphous jihadist movement is a learning phenomenon as well as an evolving one. During the five and a half years of fighting in Iraq since the war of March-April 2003, the different insurgent groups involved learned from experience - sometimes adapting faster than the United States forces. The same thing has happened in the longer war in Afghanistan, with the added element that Iraqi tactics and weapons have been transferred across (see "Iraq's gift to Afghanistan", 20 November 2008).  In the same way, other groups will study and learn from the Mumbai experience and adjust their plans and targets accordingly. 

Three rewards

The perpetrators of the Mumbai atrocities are possibly linked to the Kashmir-orientated Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure / LeT), with a particular (if as yet unproven) Pakistani connection. Almost certainly, however, they are but part of an even wider phenomenon. From their standpoint, the attacks have achieved three aims.  

First, they have raised tensions between India and Pakistan. The result is to make it likely that the Islamabad government, will - from a position of relative military weakness - redeploy forces from western Pakistan towards the Indian border. This will benefit Taliban and al-Qaida militants.  Since many Kashmiri-orientated paramilitaries have relocated to western Pakistan this is no small achievement. 

Second, they have dominated the world's media for four days in a manner unparalleled since 9/11 itself. The Israeli media, in particular, has been hugely affected; the slaughter in the Jewish centre has caused national anguish.    

Third, they have caused deep unease among counter-terrorism forces.  What is now clear is that a dedicated and extreme group can use light weapons to cause havoc in a major city (see Saskia Sassen, "Cities and new wars: after Mumbai", 29 November 2008).  In particular, the taking of large and high-profile hotels can lead to days of conflict in the media spotlight. 

This is one more example of the evolution of asymmetric warfare - the ability of the weak to take up arms against the strong. In the coming months there will be intense efforts to uncover the extent of the Mumbai operation and the organisation behind it. More generally, measures will be taken to increase security at hotels, railway stations and other locations across south Asia and beyond, as security agencies digest the implications of the attacks. 

On past evidence, far less attention will be paid to the underlying factors that have given rise to the al-Qaida phenomenon and its many related groups, including the network responsible for these attacks.  Unless that changes, Mumbai will be just one more instance of the violent action-reaction process that has so characterised the past seven years.

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