Terrorism Evolved

India’s “9/11” — the massacre of about 300 persons by Islamist terrorists in Mumbai — suggests that radical Islamists are becoming extremely sophisticated in the planning and execution of suicide attacks. The terrorists are performing their mission by spreading fear. But they are also exposing security weaknesses which must be addressed not only in India but around the world.

Last week, ten terrorists (apparently with the help of some pre-positioned accomplices) launched a wave of deadly attacks at the heart of Mumbai, India aiming to kill thousands and destroy landmarks. The attackers laid bare glaring deficiencies in India’s intelligence and enforcement abilities, but, more important for the rest of the world, the attacks demonstrated a level of sophistication and deadly remorselessness that exposes a new and incredibly dangerous terrorist operational doctrine that has evolved considerably since 2001.

The Mumbai terrorists had a detailed plan that was well executed. Apparently, two of the attackers were members of the staff at the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel, one of the terrorists’ targets, and two others stayed there as guests. They familiarized themselves with the buildings’ layout as well as the details of other nearby targets. They also stored explosives, ammunition and weapons in at least one site for the operation.

Last Wednesday at dusk, the balance of the attackers who represented many nationalities arrived by waterborne craft. Previously, the terrorists seized a trawler, the Kuber, which was used as a mother ship to transport and then launch the terrorists and their equipment off Mumbai’s coastline.

The attackers slipped over the side of the trawler into black inflatable boats laddened with their equipment and powered by outboard motors. They threaded their way undetected to landing sites on a Mumbai beach, a short 15-minute walk from their targets.

Upon arriving at the beach, the twenty-something year-old men stripped off their orange windbreakers, revealing T-shirts and blue jeans. They grabbed backpacks laddened with ammunition, grenades, energy food and weapons and then fanned out in pairs across South Mumbai to unleash their assaults.

There were only ten-trigger pullers in all, according to officials. These men were bright, well-trained and suicidal.

“I think their intention was to kill as many people as possible and do as much physical damage as possible,” said P.R.S. Oberoi, the chairman of one of the hotels attacked.

Ajam Amir Qasab, a Pakistani citizen and the only captured terrorist, told Indian authorities that his group wanted to replicate the attack on the Marriott hotel in Islamabad in Sept. 2008. They chose targets inside Mumbai’s financial sector such as hotels, a train station, and restaurants to maximize casualties.

Qasab confessed that he was a member of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militant group, which has fought Indian forces in Kashmir and is blamed for an attack on India’s legislature in Dec. 2001. LeT allegedly participated in combat training with Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.

The group’s Afghanistan-based training evidently prepared them to humiliate the less capable Indian security forces. Just 10 terrorists pulled off synchronized assaults that caused significant devastation and repelled hundreds of Indian security forces for more than 60 hours in three different buildings.

An Indian commando at the scene confessed that “[a]t times we found them matching us in combat and movement.” Another commando said, “They were either army regulars or have done a long stint of commando training.”

They were very efficient killers as well. A journalist who observed the terrorists firing on innocent civilians said, “They were firing from their hips. Very professional. Very cool.” An Indian marine commando added that the attackers were “very determined and remorseless.”

The captured terrorist told police that his instructions were to “kill to the last breath.” Each man had seven magazines of 50 rounds each, eight hand grenades and an AK-57 automatic-loading rifle.

The terrorists also used sophisticated communications. Reportedly they arrived with GPS devices for navigation and satellite phones. Once at the hotels, they seized cellphones and Blackberries from hostages and used them to monitor international news, coordinate operations among themselves and their Mumbai accomplices, and report to their bosses outside the country.

The British Daily Telegraph reported that the terrorists monitored British websites and Arabic websites popular in England. The use of Blackberrys by terrorists to monitor international reaction to the atrocities and police response is evidence of the highly organized and sophisticated nature of the attacks.

A technological twist came from a previously unknown group claiming responsibility for the attacks. The group Deccan Mujahideen — perhaps associated with LeT — emailed a television station to claim responsibility for the attack. That group used the anonymous “remailer” service — which is the most secure and least traceable way to send an email and further demonstrates their meticulous planning and technical expertise.

This attack should be a wake-up for every large city and nation. Suicide-seeking radicals now have access to military-like training and sophisticated equipment that can paralyze a city and perhaps a nation. India was caught unprepared by the terrorists’ new operational doctrine.

That’s why India’s home minister Shivraj Patil, who is responsible for public safety and internal security, took responsibility for the failure in Mumbai and resigned.

It’s evident that India’s security forces were ill-prepared to handle the crisis. There were systemic problems such as limited information sharing among law enforcement agencies. The commandos that rushed to the scene were equipped with old, bulky bulletproof jackets, no high-powered rifle scopes and none of the sophisticated target detection equipment common among Western security forces.

It’s also noteworthy that a 2007 Indian government report warned that the country’s shores were inadequately protected from infiltration by sea. Someone should ask how a pirated trawler made its way to Mumbai’s shores without being detected.

The Mumbai attack warrants close scrutiny by US homeland security officials. Are American security forces prepared to handle a similar crisis?

Most large American cities have special weapons and tactics (SWAT) teams which perform high-risk operations like counter-terrorism and hostage rescue. They have only a limited capability, however. That’s why in some situations cities may require federal assistance.

Anticipating that terrorist attacks could overwhelm local capabilities, the federal government is preparing to step-in. Federal help could come from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) or a new 20,000 man US military force trained to help state and local officials respond to a domestic catastrophe. The creation of the new force raises serious concerns, however, that a military homeland emphasis undermines the Posse Comitatus Act, a 130-year-old federal law restricting the military’s role in domestic law enforcement.

The Bush administration and some in Congress say these forces are focused on terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction. The rapid-reaction force will be built around an active-duty combat brigade with nearly 80 smaller National Guard and reserve units trained to respond to a domestic chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or high-yield explosive attack. The military’s domestic force should be ready by 2011.

The Mumbai “9/11” attack sends a clear message. Radical Islamic terrorists are becoming more dangerous as their operational doctrine becomes more sophisticated. Without transforming our cities into armed camps that trample civil liberties, governments at all levels must increase their efforts and work together to deny these radicals the means and opportunity to intimidate the world.