It’s that time of the year again when we mark the date of a terrible event, when 10 gunmen, quite literally strolled into Mumbai and went on a killing spree that left 166 people dead and more than 300 injured. Don’t just dismiss this as a statistic. Each of those who died expected to go home, eat their dinner, meet up with a friend or have a cup of coffee. The date 26 November 2008 will forever be etched on someone’s wall. Yet, few today remember the horror of that November day or the time when terrorist attacks seemed to be the rule rather than the exception. That’s both good and bad. It’s good because it proves that counter-terrorism and good foreign policy is working. It’s bad – really bad – because it might lead to a dangerous complacency among those who should know better.
A Recap For Those Who Forget
Given this forgetfulness, let’s do a recap. Armed with automatic weapons and hand grenades, the terrorists targeted civilians at the Chhatrapati Shivaji railway station, the popular Leopold Café and two hospitals, with the maximum publicity at places where the operation shifted to hostage-taking. That was at a Jewish outreach centre, the opulent Oberoi Trident, and the Taj Mahal Palace.
This bald narrative doesn’t cover tales of astonishing bravery, such as that of ex-army Assistant Sub-Inspector (ASI) Tukaram Omble, who held down Ajmal Kasab, taking a hail of bullets but enabling the capture of one terrorist. Then there was the outright courage of police officers like the Chief of the Anti-Terrorist Squad Hemant Karkare, Ashok Kamte, Inspector Vijay Salaskar, Shashank Shinde and Constable Pawar. This naming names is due to a certain well-followed Twitter handle who demanded to know jeeringly which policemen had ever been killed in a terrorist attack.
There are a few who are as ignorant, and one can only hang one’s head in shame.
There were others, too, who showed courage beyond duty, like nurse Anjali Kulthe, who hurried pregnant women at the hospital to safety, and railway station announcer Vishnu Zende, who continued to direct passengers away from the danger zone, in spite of being shot himself.
At a time when self-interest and corruption have this and other countries by the throat, it’s as well to remember those who saved your necks, and others unknown who continue to do so in the line of duty.
And the 26/11 Saga Continues..
That’s the point. Terrorism is far from over. Remember that the country that sponsored terrorists continued to shelter many thousands more; that one of those who masterminded the attack, Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi, was arrested but remains in touch with his cadres; that a mysterious Sajjid Mir who organised not just 26/11 but also planned attacks in Denmark is still at large; that while Pakistan listed 19 low-level operatives in a “most wanted’ list, that was that; that a ‘Major Iqbal’ of the ISI, the first ISI officer ever to be indicted in a US court, remains unknown.
And here’s the cake. David Headley, part drug dealer, part humbug, who assisted the Lashkar-e-Taiba in reconnoitring target sites in Mumbai, escaped extradition to India with a plea bargain. His friend Tahawur Rana, formerly a doctor in the Pakistan Army and who assisted Headley, is yet to be extradited to India 18 years later.
And the icing on the cake? That Pakistan, despite being proved beyond doubt to have managed the whole exercise, continues its policy on terror, on both borders.
In Kashmir, it means a more sophisticated terror strategy that not just sends weapons but also provides online training for those who want to fire one. In Afghanistan, its ‘terror army’ is now in power. On terrorism, there is no such thing as an ‘international community’. You’re on your own.
Threats Are Multiplying for India
The threats, meanwhile, are multiplying, both in and around the country. The ‘takeover’ of Afghanistan by Pakistan is the largest threat yet – a whole country for Pakistan to play with, not to mention five thousand machine guns of all types, night vision equipment and armoured vests already moving towards Afghan markets and to Pakistan. Ominously, the Taliban demand for these weapons has fallen, which means they’ve got more than enough, even as correspondents photographed unopened boxes of weapons.
The threat, however, is not so much the Taliban themselves. They have enough to keep them busy for a while. The problem is that ‘Cabinet’ ministers like Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani and his extended family, now in charge of intelligence, communication, refugees and other departments, may assist, or, at the minimum, turn a blind eye to terrorist plans by comrade-in-arms Lashkar-e-Taiba or the AQIS (Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent), who were among the first to congratulate the Taliban on their victory.
Then there is the elusive Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK), which was recently assessed to have expanded hugely from an earlier presence in a few districts to a presence in nearly all 34 provinces.
That is worrying. The ISK – or rather some parts of it – boasts of several Indian cadres, mostly from Kerala, but also recently from other states, including Delhi.
Just days ago, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) convicted Nashidul Hamzafar from Waynad, Kerala, who was deported in 2018 when we had friends in Kabul. Well, that’s probably not going to happen now.
Pakistan Has Found New Launchpads
The core of the problem is that new terror threats are likely to be highly multi-faceted. For instance, it could be an apparent ISK or an al Qaeda attack, but controlled from Islamabad, using the Haqqanis.
With Pakistan under the eye of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), funding and actual movement of weapons and cadres would probably be via the narcotics networks, which has a good egress into India. Remember the three tonnes of heroin seized in Gujarat recently, and which originated in Afghanistan and was routed through Iran.
While large established networks don’t usually back terrorists given their desire to avoid all security focus, the smaller ones do. Tying all this together is the fact established by a recent United Nations report that the Haqqanis have links with both al Qaeda and ISK. What they won’t do is use the banner of the Lashkar-e-Taiba or the Jaish-e-Mohammad. Both are too easily identified with Pakistan.
Lessons For India: Don't Repeat the Mistakes
The task of the intelligence community – always hard – is only likely to get tougher. First, it requires intelligence sharing more than ever before, to include customs, revenue, and everyone with a presence on the coasts, borders and in the dense jungles that are today’s cities.
Second, this sitting together can’t be only for the usual ‘briefing’ of the top leadership. It means discussion at working levels, right up the chain.
Third – the most vital – is not just intelligence collection but analysis, and this by those entirely uninvolved with any single agency. This was once done through the Joint Intelligence Committee, which indeed correctly predicted a possible high profile hotel attack in Mumbai. What it did not have was a date.
As Steve Coll notes in Directorate S, the 9/11 attacks happened in part due to analysts’ warnings being ignored or not passed down the chain.
And that brings us to the fourth. Assessments have to move up and through agency circles, and then returned with pithy comments or questions. That brings rigour to the final assessment. Such rigour could have predicted the Chinese attack in Ladakh.
And finally, remember, commemorate and celebrate our heroes. This remembrance is vital for our national security.
(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)