The savage truth behind Mumbai carnage

AHM Shamsuddin ChoudhuryAHM Shamsuddin Choudhury
Published : 25 Nov 2021, 10:47 PM
Updated : 25 Nov 2021, 10:47 PM

Nov 26 comes back every year to remind us of one of the world's most petrifying events that was perpetrated in the Indian city of Mumbai. On that day in 2008, a group of 10 terrorists launched an attack at five places in Mumbai, killing 178 innocent people. Those assailed included not only Indian citizens but also nationals of the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom and other countries who were resident at two of Mumbai's high profile hotels — Taj Hotel and Trident Hotel. The hotels were the primary targets of the attackers. They did not confine themselves in the hotels only, but extended their area of operation to a cafe, frequently visited by foreign tourists, a railway station, commercial and residential complexes.

The worst part of the scenario was that the savage and nefarious onslaught was planned, promoted, inspired, financed, manned and finally materialised directly by the authorities of a neighbouring country, Pakistan. Infallible evidence that subsequently emerged confirm beyond any iota of doubt that the secret services of the Pakistan Army orchestrated and ensured the success of the obnoxious homicidal lunacy.

The diabolic attack shocked people at every corner of the world, who were stunned by the horror. Armed directly by the Pakistani authorities, those disdainful entities gunned down 140 Indians and 25 foreign nationals. They were members of a notorious Pakistani terror group named Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which came to the attention of the world populace for their roles to spread violent terrorism in the whole of South Asia. They publicly speak of jihad, raise funds, frequently by coercing the people and have been continuing with recruitment operations within the knowledge of the Pakistani authorities, with total impunity. They also brought into animation the heinous concept of suicidal assault in South Asian countries.

It is widely believed that the attack on a Dhaka restaurant, Holy Artisan, on Jul 1, 2016, was also backed by Pakistan's ISI.

The Mumbai attack is significantly different from LeT's previous gruesome acts. In Mumbai, they targeted Western nationals as well along with the Indian civilians apparently with a view to drawing wider world attention. Besides the hotel and the café, the targets included a Jewish cultural centre and the assault continued for four days.

Fortunately, in the end, the Indian law enforcers succeeded to apprehend one of the attackers, named Ajmal Kasab, a Pakistani citizen, whose arrest made it possible for the world to know much of the hidden information, which Kasab disclosed during investigation and interrogation. It is him who confirmed that there were nine others with him, all Pakistanis. At the invitation of the Indian authorities, a team of FBI specialists arrived, to whom Kasab re-confirmed the information he had previously supplied to the Indian law enforcers. He divulged to the FBI functionaries that all the reprobates, inclusive of himself,  were members of LeT, that they commenced their journey from the Pakistani port city of Karachi, taking recourse to mobile and internet technology. At all times during their journey and operation, they maintained contact with those who remained in control in Karachi to monitor their acts and transmit directions.

Simultaneously some functionaries from some intelligence services in the West met with the head of analyses at Pakistan's military intelligence service, named Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI). Steve Coll, a journalist who won the Pulitzer Prize two times and had closely been following terrorist activities in Pakistan, said in his book that an ISI official was assigned the responsibility to steer the operation. Coll stated that the Pakistani response contained a bundle of contradictions. He also observed that at the diplomatic level Pakistan promised to co-operate in the post-attack investigation while insisting that any link to Pakistani territory was unproven. However, Coll said, at the local level, attempts were made to erase the evidence that connects Pakistan generally and LeT especially. Even former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif was critical of Pakistani response and observed a few years afterwards that Pakistan's failure to bring to book those responsible for the Mumbai attack had eroded Pakistan's credibility globally.
In June 2001, Pakistani current affairs magazine Newsline carried a report accusing ISI of instigating domestic terrorism. The report indicated that during the democratic government of 1988-89, when a civilian prime minister ruled, the army officers of ISI had used Islamist proxies to discredit them.

There is a similarity between the Hyderabad massacre in 1988 and the Mumbai carnage. Two decades apart, teams of shooters mowed down civilians in public spaces in both cases. The perpetrators succeeded to flout the dictates of the law. The suspected mastermind of the Hyderabad massacre, Qadir Magsi, was acquitted in 2017, while the prime suspect in the Mumbai attack, LeT military chief Zaki ur Rahman Lakhvi was released on bail in 2014, after which the case ended in fiasco as the prosecutors and the judges received death threats.

Some Western analysts explicitly identified "S" wing of ISI as the sponsor of transnational terrorism. They said ISI being an intelligence monolith, it is uniquely positioned to calibrate homegrown militancy within Pakistan and divert violence towards foreign targets when necessary and that such "extraversion" has been Pakistan's main policy instrument since the 90s, as was admitted by Pakistan's former interior minister, Naseerulla Bahar. A Pakistani-American Jihadist named Dawood Gilani, nicknamed David Headley, arrested in the US for planning a Mumbai-style attack in Denmark, admitted in the US court that he was an informant of the US Drug Enforcement Agency with the duty to infiltrate the underworld criminals of Pakistan, and while performing this job he attracted ISI's attention, which referred him to LeT and he had been acting for LeT ever since.

A person identified only as 'Major Iqbal' became the first Pakistani intelligence operative to be indicted by the US government for terrorism and funding the terrorists. The remainder of the money came to Headley from a LeT operative called Sajid Majeed (often referred to in international media reports as 'Sajid Mir'). Majeed was deputy head of LeT's external operations department and handled jihadists worldwide. By 2008, his name had been linked to terrorist plots in Europe, the US, and Australia. Testimonies from Western jihadists depicted him as a highly influential figure in LeT. Headley stated that the Mumbai operation had been coordinated by Majeed. He also claimed that the 10 gunmen who attacked Mumbai had been trained by former members of the Pakistani army special forces, thus corroborating what Pakistani journalistic research had uncovered; LeT was being advised by professional soldiers.

Eventually, the US allowed Indian investigators to interrogate Headley, who claimed that:

  • The ISI had no ambiguity in understanding the necessity to strike India. It essentially would serve three purposes. They are (a) controlling further split in the Kashmir-based outfits (b) providing them a sense of achievement and (c) shifting and minimising the theatre of violence from the domestic soil of Pakistan to India.
  • Until Headley's interrogation, Indian investigators had struggled to identify a motive; why would ISI officials support a LeT attack on Mumbai which would deliberately kill foreign tourists and bring international opprobrium down on Islamabad? Headley claimed that in 2007-2008, LeT was facing internal rifts as younger cadres wanted to break away from the group due to its subservience to the ISI.
  • In order to keep LeT united under a pliant leadership, some 'S' Wing operatives seem to have arranged for an offensive against India which would earn LeT respect within the Pakistani jihadist community and prevent further defections. The offensive would target third-country nationals because doing so would magnify LeT's achievement. Moreover, because the killing would occur on Indian territory, there would be no obvious link to Pakistan. All that was necessary to de-link Islamabad from the attack was to ensure that the attackers would fight to the death. Controlling the gunmen via telephone was possibly intended to bolster their morale in this regard.
  • The unexpected capture of Ajmal Kasab by the Mumbai police during the night of Nov 26, 2008 robbed the plan of its key asset – deniability. Kasab provided details of the training process that the gunmen had gone through in Pakistan.
  • The next breakthrough was Headley's arrest 11 months later.

Finally, in May 2012, authorities in Saudi Arabia extradited a man to India who provided even more details of the Mumbai attack. This was Zabiuddin Ansari, an Indian jihadist who had fled to Pakistan in 2006. Although not trusted by LeT with operational details of the Mumbai plan, he was sufficiently close to Sajid Majeed to be given an important task: teaching the gunmen common Hindi phrases. The idea was that they would telephone Indian television news channels during the attack and make political statements.

  • Ansari also claimed that the weapons and ammunition used in Mumbai had been provided by the ISI. Indeed, he went on to state that ISI officials had been present in the LeT control room in Karachi during the attack. One ISI officer identified by Ansari was Major Sameer Ali, whom Headley had also named as the ISI official who first referred him to LeT.

In December 2008, acting on the information provided by Western partners, officials from Pakistan's Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) raided LeT camps. Zabiuddin Ansari later suggested that key plotters, among them Sajid Majeed, escaped arrest upon the advice of ISI officers. The raids did catch seven LeT operatives, among them Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi, whose voice was heard on the telephonic intercepts directing the gunmen in Mumbai.

On Aug 3, 2015, former FIA chief Tariq Khosa, who supervised the Pakistani side of the Mumbai investigation, published a write-up in the Dawn, the country's largest English newspaper, revealing several pieces of information. Although he refrained from mentioning role of the ISI, Major Sameer Ali, Major Iqbal and Sajid Majeed, but nevertheless made it clear in unambiguous terms that the 10 gunmen had been members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, that forensic evidence of their training had been obtained from a camp in Sindh province, that their control room in Karachi had been located, and that the ship which had transported them to Indian waters had been seized by the FIA. For writing this article, Khosa was widely criticised. Perhaps anticipating this, as a professional police officer, Khosa made the following observation:

  • Pakistan has to deal with the Mumbai mayhem, planned and launched from its soil. This requires facing the truth and admitting mistakes. The entire state security apparatus must ensure that the perpetrators and masterminds of the ghastly terror attacks are brought to justice. The case has lingered on for far too long. Dilatory tactics by the defendants, frequent change of trial judges, and assassination of the case prosecutor as well as retracting from original testimony by some key witnesses have been serious setbacks for the prosecutors.
  • In January 2009, New Delhi provided a 69-page dossier to Islamabad on the Mumbai attack. The dossier included transcripts of LeT controllers, foremost among them Sajid Majeed, ordering via telephone the execution of Western captives. For good measure, India also shared this dossier with 14 other countries whose citizens had been killed in the attack. Thus, from December 2008 to January 2009, Pakistan was under increasing diplomatic pressure to show progress in its own investigation; this led to the arrests conducted by the FIA.
  • Once the pressure subsided, however, Islamabad appears to have switched from cooperation to confrontation. Over the course of nine years (2008-17) there were as many changes of judges, delaying the court proceedings interminably. As mentioned by Khosa, one of the prosecution counsels was assassinated in 2013.

Yet, despite all the diplomatic pressure that it faced, Islamabad still resorted to apparent subterfuge. It directed police forces to seize JuD properties but did not give permission for them to conduct arrests.

The Mumbai attack demonstrated that even after 9/11, terrorists did not necessarily become hostis humani generis ('enemies of all mankind'). At the very least, Pakistan has proven inconsistent in acting against terrorists based in its territory, a binding obligation according to UNSC 1267. The attack remains an open case, with Pakistani state complicity still-debated, but the role of LeT and individual officers within the ISI is now perceived in most quarters as beyond serious dispute. One policy question remains: what should be the international community's response to another Mumbai? Given that the US has struggled to find a suitable set of instruments for deterring state-sponsored terrorism against itself in the 1980s by non-nuclear powers, the question assumes greater relevance in a nuclear South Asia. As far as India is concerned, it has shown restraint on more than one occasion, to little avail.

Recently, the Biden administration has urged a federal court in Los Angeles to extradite Pakistani-origin Canadian businessman Tahawwur Rana to India where he is sought for his involvement in the 2008 Mumbai terror attack. Rana, 59, has been declared a fugitive by India, where he is facing multiple criminal charges for his involvement in the Mumbai attack. He was rearrested on Jun 10, 2020, in Los Angeles on an extradition request by India.

          The case stands shifted from Lahore Terror Court to Islamabad Terror Court. India has recently rejected Pakistan's latest list of terrorists involved in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks noting that Pakistan glaringly omitted the mastermind and key conspirators including Hafiz Muhammad Saeed and Zakir-ur-Rehman Lakhvi.

          Lakhvi was sentenced by a Pakistan court in January 2021 for a period of five years in prison on terror financing charges. However, he was only convicted on the charges of collecting and dispersing money for terrorist groups. While in reality he was one of the major culprits as he had spoken to the attackers during their journey and may have been in touch during the attacks.

          Out of 27 witnesses initially named, now, after 13 years 4-5 have died of natural causes and the rest are retired and old.  Witnesses are unwilling to travel to Pakistan owing to security concerns.

Kasab was tried in India and was sentenced to death, and hanged on Nov 21, 2012. Incidentally, I was in Delhi on the day to deliver a lecture organised by the International Council of Jurist. When Indian journalists asked for my view, I stated without any hesitation that Kasab's hanging should be appreciated by all peace-loving people globally. My comment was published in all leading dailies.

The allegation that Pakistan is still patronising and exporting terrorism is vindicated by the fact that Financial Action Task Force has refused to clear Pakistan's name from its 'Grey' list.

The Author is a retired Justice of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh.