India's lack of preparedness raised Mumbai death toll

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 3, 2008 

NEW DELHI, India — It took 10 minutes for word of the Nov. 26, Mumbai terror assaults to reach the top of the government of Maharashtra state, but nearly 10 hours for India's best commando team to reach the scene.

That delay may help to explain why it took three days for India's security forces to overpower 10 assailants who police say killed at least 188 people and wounded more than 280.

Indecision by politicians and the delay in launching the commando force, however, don't fully account for the extent of the slaughter, which now threatens to escalate into conflict between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, where the attacks are thought to have been planned.

"This was not the fault of any one organ of the security apparatus, but a systemic failure," said Arun Bhagat, a former chief of India's Intelligence Bureau, India's main domestic intelligence agency.

Indian officials ignored advance intelligence warnings. Police officers ran away from the scenes of carnage because they lacked weapons, and their bulletproof vests were said to be defective. The Indian coast guard doesn't have night vision equipment, much less the more advanced human detection gear used by China, Japan and other countries.

India's security agencies are now rushing to point the finger at each other.

According to anonymous leaks to the daily Hindustan Times from RAW — the Research and Analysis Wing, India's equivalent of the CIA — intercepts of satellite telephone conversations indicated that the terrorists would arrive by sea, using a prohibited route from Pakistani waters, and attack five-star hotels in Mumbai.

The first major sign, the newspaper reported, was a satellite telephone call between a known operative of the Pakistani terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba and an unknown person, which said that an operation was being planned to target a hotel near the Gateway to India, a Bombay landmark, and that the assailants would come by sea.

However, the date of that intercept isn't known, its existence hasn't been confirmed and other security spokesmen say the advance warnings were "not specific enough to act upon."

According to the Hindustan Times, though, on Sept. 24 there was a second conversation about possible hotel targets, including the Taj Mahal hotel, the Marriott, the Land's End and the Sea Rock.

The paper reported that in a third conversation, monitored on Nov. 19, a voice said: "We will reach Bombay (Mumbai's colonial-era name) between 9 and 11."

RAW said the call originated offshore, about 25 miles from Mumbai. The final conversation took place hours before the attack, when RAW officials told the paper they recorded a conversation between Yusuf Muzammil, a member of Lashkar-e-Taiba, and a number in Bangladesh, asking for five SIM cards — used to pay for cell phone calls — for the operation. RAW officials said they deduced that the attackers might have relayed calls through Bangladesh.

The armed men reportedly did arrive by sea, hijacking a fishing trawler in the western Indian state of Gujarat, killing the crew, and sparing the captain until he piloted the ship to near Mumbai harbor, where they killed him.

They reportedly came ashore in rubber dinghies, undetected by India's coast guard. It's unclear whether the alleged advance intelligence about the plot was shared with the coast guard or the Indian navy. Moreover, Indian naval officers say that the security authorities lack night vision gear or other sensors that can detect a low-profile skiff or rubber dinghy or the people in one.

Although India has the world's third-largest military, its 4,500-mile coastline is largely unprotected. The federal government set aside funds to purchase 26 boats for the country's eight coastal states, but Maharashtra state, where Mumbai is, refused them, saying it lacked the funds for maintenance. There also is a severe shortage of helicopters available to the Coast Guard.

Once ashore, the killers reportedly split up into small groups and headed in five different directions.

At 9:21 p.m., according to published reports, two gunmen stormed the main railway station, where they tossed grenades and began firing indiscriminately as they moved from one hall to the next.

There are no metal detectors at the busy station and only a handful of city policemen, equipped mostly with canes to disperse unruly crowds and clad in ill-fitting bulletproof vests. Most of them fled. Maharashtra, India's richest state, has 180,000 policemen, but only 2,221 weapons, of which 577 are earmarked for Mumbai, a city of 13 million.

The railway special police are armed, but they must share weapons, one for every two policeman. In 44 minutes, 53 people were shot dead at the station.

Police officer Zulu Yadav was one of the few who stood his ground. Remonstrating a colleague for not responding, he grabbed his gun, hid behind pillars and fired. As the assailants tried to escape in a stolen car, he killed one and shot at the second, who was captured with the help of another police officer. Zadav's marksmanship stands out, police officials said, for many constables have never opened fire in their lives.

At 9:30 p.m., shooting was first heard at Mumbai's Nariman House, also known as the Jewish Center. There, two terrorists gunned down the rabbi and his wife, as well as several Israeli guests. The center had no metal detectors or armed guards, perhaps because Mumbai's Jewish community has been there for 2,500 years and never needed any. By the time commandos ended the siege three days later, 51 people had died at the center.

The chief minister of the state of Maharashtra, Vilasrao Desmukh, was notified of the first terror strike at 9:30 p.m. However, 90 minutes passed before he contacted the country's top law-enforcement official, Home Minister, Shivraj Patil, to request that 200 commandos be sent to Mumbai and Patil ordered the head of the National Security Guard into action.

The "Black Cats," as the commandos are known, are headquartered in Gurgaon, south of New of Delhi, however, and have no bases anywhere else in the vast country and no aircraft. The only plane available to transport 200 commandos was a Russian-built IL-76 transport plane, but it was in Chandigarh, 165 miles north of New Delhi. The pilot had to be awakened, the crew assembled and the plane fueled.

The aircraft reached New Delhi at 2 a.m., picked up the commandos and took off for Mumbai at 2:25 a.m. — five hours after the attacks began.

Gunmen had stormed the Cafe Leopold, where they opened fire on diners, and taken control of the Oberoi-Trident and the Taj Mahal Palace hotels. They fired at guests through the night, set fires using grenades, and collected hostages, many of whom were later executed, according to police.

By commercial aircraft, it takes two hours to fly from Delhi to Bombay, but flying on the IL-76, the commandos didn't reach Mumbai until 5:25 in the morning. There they were met not by helicopters but by a bus, which they boarded at 6:05 a.m. After being briefed, they divided into groups and set out on their mission.

Some counterterrorism experts say that trained commandos must reach the scene of a terrorist attack no later than 30 minutes after an assault begins. In Mumbai, nearly 10 hours had elapsed.

Among those killed were four counter-terror police, including the head of the state counter-terrorism force, all apparently because they had ill-fitting and inadequate bulletproof vests. A former police officer, Y.P. Singh, told reporters in Mumbai that he'd tested and rejected two lots of vests as defective. He said he was sure that the vests being worn during the melee were from those defective lots.

In those three chaotic days, some heroes emerged. Yadav at the railway station helped capture the sole survivor of the terror assailants. Maj. Shivaji Unnikrishnan of the "Black Cats" went back into the Oberoi to rescue a colleague and was shot. A nanny at the Jewish center grabbed Moshe, the infant son of the slain rabbi and his wife, and ran with him, risking her life.

Some lessons may emerge from the slaughter. Patil, the home minister, is one of the officials who've resigned, and the incident has revealed the deficiencies of India's police, coast guard, commando force and intelligence apparatus.

Indians will go to the polls for national elections in 100 days, and the tragedy is already a central element in the debate. "All this can change only when politicians stop recruiting 'yes-men' to the top echelons of the police," said Julio Ribeiro, a former police chief in Mumbai, "and stop diverting elite commandos towards their own personal security."

Some lessons don't appear to have been learned, however.

On Tuesday, three days after the last shot was fired and the last terrorist's body was bundled out of a first- floor window at the Taj Mahal hotel, a 50-year-old Mumbai resident put his licensed .32-caliber revolver in his pocket and took a train to the main terminal.

"I went in and out of several metal detectors, and nothing happened," said Balasaheb Borkar. When he asked policemen standing nearby why he wasn't stopped, they said they couldn't hear the newly installed metal detector beeping in the crowded, noisy terminal.

(Sundarji is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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