Friday, November 28, 2008

Mumbai Mayhem – in the streets and among the pundits

I’ve already seen a fair amount of speculation bouncing around the internet and over the airwaves about the perpetrators of the latest terror attack in Mumbai (aka Bombay), India. Sherlock Holmes at this point would probably be muttering something about the futility of speculation in the absence of sufficient information – and I would suggest that the majority of these pundits still have insufficient information about a group or organization whose latest (if not first) terrorist operation is still ongoing. Certainly my own stints as an analyst taught me this same kind of caution – which as I expect all analysts know is one of the things that drives your policy-maker/decision-maker customers right up the wall.

All of that said, I personally would dare already to disagree about the sophistication, etc. of this attack, based upon what information we already have available.

In the first instance, the principal weapons used by the terrorists appear to be automatic weapons including AK-47s or at least some variation of the Kalashnikov automatic rifle family. This class of firearm is the entry level weapon for both domestic and international terrorists and can be found just about anywhere around the world. Even my daughter has fired one!

The timing of the operation – apparently dusk or early nightfall – offered the attackers both a somewhat covered approach to their objective(s), especially if they did in fact arrive by boat. It also, in Mumbai, offered them a ‘target-rich’ environment. In such a situation, the presence of a large number of civilians offers numerous advantages to the terrorists:

1) multiple targets – the care of the wounded and the identification of the dead impose a major burden on the responding security forces;

2) potential hostages – the assembled civilians in the targeted streets, hotels, restaurants, etc., included a significant number of foreigners (especially UK, U.S., and even Israeli citizens who we understand already were clearly of greatest interest), but also the significant presence of wealthy and/or prominent Indian citizens;

3) cover and concealment – the presence of a large number of civilians offered the terrorists both a crowd within which to lose themselves and a shield that would impose constraints upon the responding security forces.

The multiple targets raise two somewhat contrary thoughts. The targeting of more than one location resulted in dispersal of the terrorists’ numbers vice concentrating their entire force upon a specific target or targets in close proximity from which the terrorists would be able to support each other against responding security forces. On the other hand, the dispersal of targets and the terrorists spread wider panic and forced the security forces to also spread their responding strength. To my mind, along with the absence of masks or any other concealment of the attackers’ identities, this dispersal also supports that as some pundits have already suggested – this group was fully prepared to die in the execution of this attack having maximized the confusion, panic, and physical damage they could create.

The different attacks were not literally simultaneous, according to the timelines so far appearing from Indian and other media sources, although the coordination is evident. The weapons are pretty much the entry level terrorist arsenal of automatic weapons and grenades, and while I would defer to the Indian soldiers who have discussed this, learning the proper use of these weapons is not that difficult for even the average person (or else armies around the world would look very different than they do.). Even the rubber boats (if in fact part of the operation) are available for recreational use in many places around the world.

The one real surprise is that the terrorists were able to plan this attack and raise and equip the force that carried it out without anyone apparently recognizing that this was coming. The Indian security forces were clearly not prepared to prevent this specific attack or anything like it. That part of the terrorists’ operation was reasonably sophisticated – the rest of their operation reflects tactics that can be learned from any of a number of books readily available in public libraries, online, or even in book stores (I have a number of them on my own shelves). They can also be learned from a number of computer/video combat or shooting games – or even via practice with paintball or similar amusements. There are also a number of online sources for overhead imagery that may have facilitated the planning of the attack – assuming that the terrorists didn’t use the old-fashioned technique of actually walking over the ground and checking out the local streets and alley ways. None of the photos of the terrorists so far shown by the media suggest that any of these individuals would have stood out from the crowd if they had been scouting out the area before the attack.

Pending the receipt of that further information I mentioned above, my money right now is on a the attack being the work of indigenous South Asians (Pakistani and/or Indian Muslims) who have been in contact with Al Qaeda. That contact may have taken any of several forms, but it is entirely possible that no more than one or two members of the responsible group, if that many, has had any direct, personal contact with Al Qaeda or its agents.

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