26/11 Mumbai Attack: Copy of Al-Qaeda’s ‘Landmarks’ Plot in 1993?

Rarely does a terror entity evolve and conduct an attack that is completely new and novel.

Updated26 Nov 2019, 07:36 AM IST
Opinion
6 min read

While most details of the ‘26/11 Attacks’ on Mumbai are in the public domain, two issues remain undocumented: the close connections between the LeT and Al-Qaeda (AQ) and that ‘26/11’ was not the world’s first hybrid, unconventional attack- but was a copy-cat of an aborted AQ attack known as the ‘Landmarks Plot’.

Before we discuss this, here is a brief background.

Jihad in Afghanistan

The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. Thereafter, the US-Saudi bloc bankrolled a jihad in Afghanistan and thousands of mujahideen reached Afghanistan to fight the Soviets.

Between 1980 and 1984, Palestinian religious scholar Shaykh Abdullah Azzam, realizing that the Arab jihadis fighting in Afghanistan required organization and support, established the ‘Maktabal-Khidamat’ (MaK) astride the Pakistan-Afghan border. The US government (in the ‘Monograph on Terrorist Financing’, by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States) later labelled MaK as the “precursor to Al-Qaeda”.

It is from the MaK that Osama bin Laden (OBL) established the Bait al-Ansar (House of Allies), the military training camps necessary to train the jihadis and finally, the AQ in 1988. According to Michael Scheuer, Head of the CIA’s anti-OBL unit, about US$ 600 million passed through Osama’s charity fronts between 1980 and 1989, most of it through the MaK.

Azzam did not support the killing of non-combatants and terrorist tactics. By the end of 1988, Osama’s relationship with Azzam deteriorated; Azzam was assassinated in a car bomb attack (late 1989; Afghanistan); and hardliner Ayman al-Zawahiri took over as the main ideologue of the AQ. Zawahiri, the mastermind of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, then began transforming the AQ into a terrorist organization.

Pakistan’s Terror Export in the 80s

The Soviet-mujahideen conflict was in full bloom in 1982 when Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi moved from Pakistan’s Punjab to Paktia (Afghanistan) to participate in the fighting. In 1984, Lakhvi, a fanatic supporter of the Ahl-e-Hadith (AeH), an extreme interpretation of Islam, established his own AeH-based militant group.

Around the same time, Hafiz Saeed was appointed to General Zia ul-Haq’s ‘Council on Islamic Ideology’. He also taught Islamic studies at Lahore’s University of Engineering & Technology. He went to Saudi Arabia for higher studies, where he met Abdullah Azzam, Osama’s mentor. Azzam encouraged Hafiz Saeed to also start a politico-militant-social organisation like the MaK.

Hafiz Saeed. 
Hafiz Saeed. 
(File Photo: IANS)

In 1986, Saeed and Lakhvi joined hands, and along with foreign militants, set-up the Markaz al-Dawa wal-Irshad (MDI) (‘Center for Call & Guidance’) at Muridke (near Lahore; current HQ of the LeT-JuD). Besides ‘social’ activities, the radical MDI also began fighting alongside the Salafist-adhering ‘Jamaat al-Dawa al-Quran wal-Suna’ (JDQS) in Afghanistan. In 1990, the MDI formally established the LeT as its militant wing under Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi.

Similarities Between Al-Qaeda and LeT

It is not difficult to trace similarities between the two organisations. It can be done almost mechanically like the following:

Abdullah Azzam
Both Osama and Hafiz Saeed were deeply influenced by him. 
Pakistan
Founder militants of both the MaK- Al-Qaeda and JuD-MDI-LeT came from here. Both were aided by the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment as well as by foreign patrons.
Radical Islam
Both organisations subscribe to radical strains.
Deaths of Founders 
Just as the killing of Abdullah Azzam allowed Osama-Zawahiri to take control of the AQ and turn its focus towards terrorism, the deaths of Jamil al-Rahman (leader of JDSQ) and Allama Ehsan Elahi Zaheer (leader of Jamaat AeH) allowed the JuD-MDI to grow stronger.
Social Service Front
Both entities had a ‘services’ as well as militant wings; gained experience in the Afghan crucible; and went on to set-up self-sustaining, social service organizations and well-organized militant-terrorist wings.
Reliance on Networks
Like the AQ, the JuD-LeT’s ideological framework attracts members from outside of Pakistan including Saudi Arabia. From the AQ, the LeT learnt that establishing networks is the most efficient way to manage resources, carry out attacks, and remain resilient.

1993 New York ‘Landmarks’ Plot

A pivotal point in the Cold War was the Soviet defeat and withdrawal from Afghanistan – the USSR broke up in 1991. The USA however, just abandoned its ‘rent-an-army partners’ who helped it defeat the world’s other superpower. Osama construed this as a gross betrayal. In January 1991, a US-led coalition attacked Iraq, which Osama saw as “a violation of the sanctity of Arab territories”. He then began plotting attacks on Continental US.

One plan, masterminded by Ramzi Yousef, involved storming Manhattan island with terrorists armed with automatic rifles, grenades and IEDs, and killing as many people as possible in multiple targets. The objective was to undermine the security and effectiveness of New York as a center for financial and diplomatic dealings. The attack, which later came to be known as the “Landmarks” Plot, called for teams to hit:

The Waldorf Astoria hotel
The Waldorf Astoria hotel
(Photo: Reuters)
Hotels Waldorf-Astoria, St Regis and UN Plaza
These hotels host many VIPs, diplomats and business leaders.
The Lincoln and Holland tunnels
These connect Manhattan to New Jersey through the Hudson River.
A mid-town Manhattan heliport
This was used by business executives and VIPs for traveling from lower Manhattan to various New York airports.

What Happened to the ‘Landmarks’ Plot?

The militants conducted extensive pre-operational surveillance both inside and outside the targets using HUMINT, hand-drawn maps and videos of the layout and design of the buildings, security cameras and disposition of security personnel. The attack was to be conducted at night, when the level of protection is lower. The plan involved two separate teams:-

  • Team One: infiltrate/book into hotels and disguise themselves as kitchen employees.
  • Team Two: split into 2-3 man cells; use stolen delivery vans for reaching the hotels.
  • Team One to use hand grenades to create diversions as Team Two stormed in and killed as many guests as possible.
  • The plan also involved explosions in the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels in order to block reinforcements to Manhattan as well as key escape routes.
  • Separate militants were to use boats to attack the mid-town heliport on the waterfront in order to trap VIPs seeking to escape via the heliport or water-transport.

However, an informant infiltrated into the militant group called the US federal authorities just as the plan was moving into the attack phase in July 1993. Eight individuals were arrested and later convicted. Mastermind Ramzi Yousef, one of the main perpetrators of the Feb 1993 World Trade Center bombing, was later arrested in 1995 in Pakistan and extradited to the USA. Incidentally, Ramzi’s maternal uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a senior AQ member, was the main architect of the 9/11 attacks.

Similarities between Landmarks Plot and ‘26/11’

Mumbai is to India what New York is to the USA - financial centers and home to stock exchanges. Both are high-profile soft targets.

Both involved extensive pre-op surveillance. For 26/11, David Headley acted for the LeT. Both plans involved (i) infiltrating hotels to gain inside information and store weapons; (ii) attacks on peripheral targets to cause confusion and a diversion from the main targets; and (iii) use of watercraft to gain access to less guarded locations.

The 26/11 terror attacks on the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai.  
The 26/11 terror attacks on the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai.  
(Photo: PTI)

Being centers of trade and surrounded by water, both Mumbai and New York have high levels of maritime traffic. This meant that movements from the water wouldn’t raise suspicions. Both plots envisaged use of common vehicles to move around the city.

The attack on Mumbai was commenced from Karachi. It also had involvement of the LeT and some elements of the ISI - both have some connections with the AQ leaders. Considering all above, it is certain that ‘26/11’ had its genesis in the original plan prepared by Ramzi Yousef and other AQ operatives.

Terrorism experts opine that a plan’s failure does not mean the threat has been eliminated – as many established terrorist groups are known to use past targets and plots. There is also evidence to suggest that once terrorists hit upon a successful model, they are likely to follow that model more than once. In other words, various sequences of an attack cycle and the target can change - but rarely does a terror entity evolve and conduct an attack that is completely new and novel.

(Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier from the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Published: 25 Nov 2019, 01:12 PM IST
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