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Mumbai attacks show method amid madness

By Sumantra Bose
London School of Economics

Ambulance outside Taj Mahal hotel
The audacity of the Mumbai attacks on shocked India
India's cities are no strangers to indiscriminate terror attacks. Such attacks have occurred regularly, and with steadily increasing frequency, in recent years.

Mumbai, India's financial capital, has been targeted before.

In March 1993, a series of car bombs were detonated at public landmarks across the city, including the stock exchange, killing 257 people.

Those attacks, in which the city's underworld played a key role, followed Hindu-Muslim violence in the city during December 1992 and January 1993. Working-class Muslims were the principal victims, often shot at point-blank range by members of the city's police force.

In July 2006, a series of bombs planted on Mumbai's commuter train network killed 183 people.

Other Indian cities have been regularly targeted as well, particularly Delhi, the capital.

In October 2005 bombs exploded in crowded Delhi markets on the eve of the festive day Diwali, the festival of lights. More than 60 people were killed.

Most recently, in July 2008, bombs exploded at a number of congested public locations in Ahmedabad, the capital of the western state of Gujarat.

Parliament House was attacked in 2001
India's parliament was attacked in 2001, leaving nine people dead.

Gujarat, one of India's most prosperous states, saw large-scale killings of Muslims in 2002 after an arson attack on a train in the state killed 59 Hindu nationalist activists.

More than 50 people were killed in the Ahmedabad bombings.

A previously unknown group, the Indian Mujahideen, claimed responsibility.

The Ahmedabad attacks were particularly vicious in that bombs were detonated outside the emergency facilities of city hospitals just as people injured in other explosions were being brought in by ambulances.

Frontal assault

So what is new about Mumbai, November 2008?



It is tempting to label the attackers as 'crazies' - but such a dismissive appellation may be misplaced
Sumantra Bose

The obvious novelty is the use of frontal assault tactics instead of timed explosive devices.

This is new in the urban Indian context. There was one notable exception - an attack by a five-man squad armed with rifles and grenades on India's Parliament in New Delhi in December 2001.

The attackers were narrowly prevented by alert staff from gaining access to the building, where hundreds of parliamentarians and ministers were attending a session.

They were gunned down near the entrance by security personnel after an hour-long battle.

Nine guards and parliament stewards also died.

This attack led to the crisis of 2002 between India and Pakistan.

The Indian government blamed Pakistani religious radicals, and embarked on a major military build-up on the border with Pakistan, to which Pakistan responded with its own mobilisation.

The stand-off eventually wound down later in 2002 after months of tension and brinkmanship.

But frontal assaults, usually carried out by two-man teams firing semi-automatic rifles and lobbing grenades, were the favoured tactic of the insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir between 1999 and 2003.

Fidayeen technique

Scores of such attacks were carried out by "fidayeen" (literally "death-defying") squads in Indian-administered Kashmir during that period.

Ahmedabad saw rioting after the Gujarat killings in 2002
Ahmedabad saw rioting after the Gujarat killings in 2002
In many instances, these attacks led to confrontations lasting anywhere between 24 and 72 hours between the raiders and security forces, who were often constrained by the presence of trapped civilians.

Most of the locations targeted were Indian military and police installations in the Kashmir Valley, particularly in the regional capital Srinagar.

But some attacks targeted civilians, especially in and around the Hindu-majority city of Jammu, in the southern part of Indian-administered Kashmir.

The perpetrators were not members of the main homegrown Kashmiri insurgent group, the Hizb-ul Mujahideen ("Warriors of the Faith").

The fidayeen technique - a rudimentary form of "shock and awe" warfare - was introduced into Kashmir by Pakistani radical organisations that entered the Kashmir insurgency from the mid-1990s onwards.

The large majority of fidayeen attacks in Kashmir were perpetrated by one such organisation, the Lashkar-e-Toiba, headquartered in Pakistan and founded and led by Pakistani religious radicals.

The Lashkar-e Toiba did over time recruit a handful of local Kashmiris as fidayeen cadre, but most of the attackers were Pakistani nationals who had crossed into Indian-administered Kashmir.

Fidayeen attacks have died down in Kashmir since India-Pakistan relations thawed from 2004 onward.

But the deployment of exactly the same tactic in central Mumbai shows that this technique has now found a new and even more dangerous theatre in which to operate.

Method

The tactic is thus not without precedent, but the mayhem in Mumbai may nonetheless mark a new chapter in the evolution of urban terrorism in India.

Bombs planted in markets and on commuter trains kill and maim working-class and middle-class Indians.

The gunmen who attacked two luxury hotels, and a fashionable cafe frequented by visiting Westerners, have brought the "war" - as they see it - to India's elite class, and to affluent Westerners living in or visiting India's most cosmopolitan city.

If reports that the gunmen specifically looked for American and British citizens to take hostage are true, it would suggest that this terrorist spectacular had little to do with the prejudice and discrimination many Muslims do encounter in India.

It is tempting to label the attackers as "crazies". But such a dismissive appellation may be misplaced.

It is more than likely that the masterminds are seasoned operatives and that the foot-soldiers, young as they may have been, had undergone rigorous training for months, perhaps years.

The attacks also show every sign of having been designed to maximise media attention on a global scale.

In other words, there is a method to the madness.

Sumantra Bose is Professor of International and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics. He is the author of Contested Lands: Israel-Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, Cyprus, and Sri Lanka, published by Harvard University Press.

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