Reflections on 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks

Many of you have inquired about my family and friends after the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Thanks to all for your concern – but more for your curiosity. I’ve spent the past few days thinking about how to respond, and determined that trying to distill my thoughts into a single post may be the best way.

So, here goes…my own humble opinion.

In July 2006, terrorists planted and detonated numerous bombs along different commuter train routes that connect Bombay’s financial center downtown to the northern and eastern suburbs. Prior to that, in 1993, the city played host to some of the most horrific, religiously motivated terrorism the world had seen at that time. And, sandwiched in between 1993 and 2006, Mumbai suffered five separate terrorist attacks, usually in the traditional form of bombings.

The events that unfolded last week in Mumbai were decidedly different, and on many fronts. Many have referred to the latest siege in Bombay as India’s “9/11.” This, they say, will make India “wake up” and realize the depth and complexities of the threats it could face in the 21st century. Up to this point, and even after the 2006 train attacks, the people of Mumbai seemed resigned to the fact that random acts of terrorism were just part of life. On November 27, this mindset may have shifted significantly.

If the terrorists involved in 9/11 wanted to make a blunt statement by attacking America directly, with brute force, on U.S. soil, and going after its financial and political centers, the 2008 Mumbai attacks were analogous to injecting India with a snake venom that will first affect the local area at point of entry but may eventually cripple the entire body.

The 2008 Mumbai attacks were the same as its recent predecessors in that they were well-coordinated, sophisticated, precise, and most likely involved the activation of local “cells” to help carry out a vision that originated outside the host country’s borders. The 2008 Mumbai attacks were similar to 9/11 in that the perpetrators succeeded in creating a spectacle that grappled television audiences with events unfolding in real time, but also had the added element of user-generated reporting from sites such as Twitter.

But, the 2008 Mumbai attacks were different from the rest, a genetic mutation in the Darwinian sense and the foundation for a new face of global terrorism. In order to get noticed, which means getting on TV, rebel rousers have to outdo their mentors and heroes and thought leaders. That means that train attacks, bus bombings, airline hijacking, and so forth are boring. The world expects these kind of attacks. We don’t expect what unfolded in Mumbai to unfold. Until now…

First, the 2008 Mumbai attacks were most likely masterminded north of India, in an area TBD. The visionaries had to have planned these attacks for many months, and in order to execute them with such precision, must have had local helpers with local knowledge and local connections to Mumbai. How else, for example, could the attackers at the Taj Hotel near the Gateway of India obtained records of the room numbers of guests holding foreign passports? How else could another accomplice have found the exact location of one of Mumbai’s rabbis and shot him dead? How else could have the assailants entered Bombay’s turf via speedboat outside the Gateway and then entered the hotels?

The first takeaway, then, is that this attack was simultaneously foreign and homegrown – foreign in terms of its origination, and homegrown in its execution. Mumbai, as India’s financial center, will have to adapt in order to send the right signals to investors. India, as a state, will have to find solutions to control the inflow of these ideas from abroad and also to identify and squash it at home.

Second, the 2008 Mumbai attacks targeted foreigners and locations where foreigners congregate, socialize, and conduct business. Rather than blowing up the entire Taj Hotel, one of the country’s most iconic buildings, these terrorists choose to rip out certain organs from the body rather than injuring the entire body with blunt force. This strategy manifested itself by finding, isolating, and destroying those with foreign passports. Lost in this storyline is that the attackers were also undoubtedly making a statement about Indians who welcome international business and ideas from the West.

The second takeaway, then, is that this attack was chillingly confrontational in nature. There were no hidden bombs planted by shadows – these were commandoes with big guns and specific marching orders. They not only were willing to die for their cause, but they wanted to be seen doing it. It is no coincidence that these attacks were planned for the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, a time where the West is even more glued to the tube. The events unfolded and ended on TV, providing ample time for the pictures of fires, people, and chaos to be broadcast to the world and allow for many TV-based analyses.

As it was toward the end of the 20th Century, global terrorism in the 21st Century remains a battle for ideas. If one stops for a moment and thinks of major terror groups, such as Al-Qaeda, as companies battling each other for the market, the battle for ideas will always be on the search for new markets to expand and mutate. But, the rewards for success in this arena are different – even capturing just 1% of market translates into big payoffs.

And, just like in business, there is no market like India. Though India is predominantly Hindu, many Muslims of course live there, too – about 1 in 4, though in most states that percentage is lower. As India is growing economically and the rewards are trickling down, mostly to Hindus, it creates an environment where honest, hard-working Muslims may find themselves and their families disenchanted with the cost of the changes happening around them. Another way of putting this: they feel as if they don’t get a fair shake. Right or wrong, perception is reality, and the terrorists know this better than anyone else.

Finally, the manner in which India responds will be fascinating to watch. Typically a peaceful nation built on traditions of nonviolence and civil disobedience, the post-1947 and Cold War history of India highlights a nation that became the world’s largest democracy, entered space, became the eye of western business, and is emerging as a vital strategic ally to the United States to act as a counterweight to both China, Russia, and the Middle East. From its creation, India has been attacked many times over but has never attacked another. Some say, it’s not in India’s DNA to retaliate with hard power.

There is now, however, mounting pressure within India, no stranger to accusations of ineptitude, to act and act decisively. Even its mild-mannered economist Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, has said that there will be a “price to pay” for these attacks. All eyes are focused on South Asia as a flash point between India and Pakistan, two countries with nuclear capabilities, a twisted history carved out by westerners, and a place that is growing faster than the leadership can adapt to govern it. And as these terrorist attacks demonstrated that global terrorism has mutated, India may have mutated, as well.

Only time will tell just how so…