On 26 November 2008, one of India’s busiest cities, Mumbai, was attacked by ten armed men which lasted until 29 November, killing 164 people and injuring more than 300 people. Indian government claimed that the armed men came from Karachi, Pakistan and the attack was planned by the Laskhar-e-Toiba – a Pakistan based group. One of the attackers, Ajmal Kasab, was arrested alive and later hanged in 2012. According to India, Kasab confirmed the role of LeT in the attack. But what happened before the attack and during the attack in the corridors of the Indian government was behind the curtains until the two acclaimed British journalists and writers, Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark in their latest book, The Siege: three Days of Terror Inside the Taj, investigated the attack. The book opens a box of several internal communications and the strategy of the Indian state. It has been revealed that India had prior information about the attack among other concealed actions which were taken or not taken. In this interview, one of the authors, Adrian Levy speaks to Fahad Shah about the book, their work and the response.
Q. Last time when we spoke you were working on The Siege and as I remember we talked about how it is taking a lot of time and effort. How did the idea of writing this book come?
We were passing through Mumbai just before the attacks with our children and narrowly missed being there. Then were gripped by them for the three days, watching them, like everyone else, on TV, and unable to get a flight to Mumbai. It was obvious even then that this was a new kind of terror. New because of the intercepts that emerged quite quickly which seemed to show that a control room of some sorts was directing these men in the field in an act of ventriloquism. It was also immediately obvious that the unregulated press were feeding the fire-storm as reports on cable news etc. were being utilised by all sides to monitor the attacks.
Subsequently we learned of all the technological innovations: the use of a Skype like telephony system, with leased lines routed through New Jersey; the simple application of broadband, Google earth and cable news channels, by Laskhar-e-Toiba (LeT) handlers; a swarm attack on the world’s fourth largest city, with the gunmen taking strongholds and laying times charges that gave their attacks a larger and wider footprint.
And some of these – particularly the tethering of the gunmen to their controllers back over the border in Karachi – potentially gave us an intimate view inside a fidayeen squad, revealing the relationship between the ‘martyrs’ and their masters, showing how the gunmen had been infantilized by their trainers, who spoke to them like parents: chastising, goading, encouraging.
We wanted to explore LeT’s methodology, and the lives of the boys they recruited. It became apparent the further we went into that world, how disciplined the LeT was and how flexible. Unlike India, LeT had a lessons learned facility and honed its practice based on honest assessments of what had worked and failed in Kashmir and beyond. They studied psychology too, assessing how best to manage the expectations of the recruits, sizing up too which kinds of young men made the best ‘martyrs’ – i.e. those who broadly came from dysfunctional families, without strong father figures. They also had plotted to become a government in a state without governance and watching them lead in the Eastern and Southern Punjab was a remarkable thing. Like Hamas, they offered social welfare where Islamabad could not. They offered medical care and education. They offered pride and a prospect in a land which was the sump of despondency. And some of them, their emir aside, were honest, living frugally, to fight. Hafiz Saeed was different. One only has to enter his Grecian villa in Muridke to see how he lives.
Then there was the absence of a book on 26/11. There were lots of immediate takes on the crisis. But nothing that tried to frame the lives of those who fought back and those who died. This alone made the subject something we wanted to commit too.
Finally, 26/11 was always going to be a powder keg, with India rightfully enraged and Pakistan made to continually suffer for it. Imagine a criminal case where the principal witness is executed by the State that is pressing its neighbor to bring charges against the protagonists. But India did this to Pakistan. Ajmal Kasab, who was undoubtedly ‘guilty’ – albeit a pawn in the games of the deep state – was hanged, so that Pakistani prosecutors could not take a statement from him. Instead Indian prosecutors sent over affidavits that were not only in a form that was inadmissible in a Pakistani court, but that were in Maharathi, with no agreed translation, allowing for an untenable ambiguity.
India was wronged (murderously). But the process was designed to make Pakistan pay, perpetually. Instead of ‘invading’ Pakistan or striking the country, the Islamic Republic was hobbled in the stocks and beaten.
Q. Since the book came in the market, it has become a debate in the media that how Mumbai attacks happened and what was India’s reaction. How much surprising was the information for you?
We never write anticipating a response. We research to become immersed, totally, in a subject. Unless we are in it up to our necks, then we’re not comfortable. Mumbai was the same. We wriggled our way inside the subject and then carried on until we had surrounded ourselves with information and case histories, files and data. It was a giant jigsaw puzzle that we struggled to piece together.
We had at the end an idea of the elements in the book, which were emotive. For us the untold story of the Taj chefs was significant because it really showed the cost of the police’s inaction and it paid homage to men and women who rarely talk in public and live a life ‘below stairs’. We also were aware of the significance of the police mobilization story and the chaos in the control room there, as well as the appalling lapses that led to the NSG being twelve hours late to the fight.
But in the end and beyond the politics, we hoped to present the dilemmas of the victims and the gunmen, showing how everyone was faced down by daunting choices.
Q. After revealed by you in the book, the Indian Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde said that the claims of “a super-agent code-named “Honey Bee” in the Indian establishment aided Pakistan’s ISI in the 26/11 Mumbai terror strikes” would be probed. Is that something you were expecting or the government of India knew this internally?
The government already knew about the ‘mole’, about local hands helping David Headley, about the leaked military material being used by Headley and of course about the intelligence build up that was spectacularly ignored. But they were never going to admit this.
Bits of the story have floated to the surface after we published. Pradhan came out and admitted the Home Minister had been advised that there was a mole and local assistance. The police came forwards and conceded our telling of the story was not dissimilar to their recall of it.
The problem here is that India does not want to review anything publically. There is a common view that post mortems are acts of grievous self-harm, and humiliation or lead to the state being exploited by its enemies. So after 26/11 there was no probe worth its sorts. Pradhan was called but throttled so that it could only review the police – and even then in a very partial and narrow vein.
There was no 9/11 Commission. There was no digitized archive or statements that could now be used as an educational resource – as living history, as happened after 7/7. (London Bombings of 7 July 2005)
This was inquest material placed in the public domain. But India has developed a contra-inquest society.
Q. Cathy Scott and you have been working both on India, Pakistan and Kashmir also. How do you see the relations between the two countries, keeping the unsolved Kashmir dispute at the backdrop?
Kashmir is simmering and remains central to our view of the region of course – especially now with US withdrawal from Afghanistan creating a power vacuum over the border and mass instability in Pakistan undermining its PML N government too.
It seems as if the years of peace are coming to an end. The projected image of normalization is fragmenting. Recruitment by LeT and HM [Hizbul Mujahideen] is once again a key issue. In Tral, boys are signing up to fight. A simmering low-level insurgency is threatening to break into the open. And the roots of it are clear. We watched the process of ‘mediation’ stall spectacularly and then fail (having been abandoned) after the summers of violence in 2010 etc. For a while there was a perfect storm of media attention, with stone pelting and the deaths of children in Kashmir cross-fertilizing with the mass graves issue – even Barkha Dutt was drawn to Dal Lake to stage her show.
But that, it transpired, was all that was on offer: a stage and no meaningful play. No justice for the grieving families of the dead boys, or recognition of their loss – other than the seedy offer of cash for abandoning their cases, many of which still struggle on in the courts, despite being daily sabotaged by the police and security services. And in fact, things are visibly moving backwards – one only has to look at the Kunan Poshpora case to see how poorly the state deals with its responsibilities. Here is the only mass rape that has not caused the Indian media to wring its hands and cry for justice, even after a Judicial Magistrate in Kupwara this summer ordered further investigations into it. Just now the army has responded too. Despite the carefully collated evidence, the affidavits and eyewitness accounts, the army denies Kunan Poshpora took place. And seeks total impunity for the alleged perpetrators.
The lack of commitment to change by a central government paralyzed by every issue from corruption to the economy will be a headline in the history books when these years are written up.
Q. You have written that the India had prior knowledge of the Mumbai attack might happen. As you write, “Six warnings pointed to a seaborne infiltration, which would be a first in India,” why do you think India ignored so many warnings and later during the attack there was slow reaction to stop more casualties?
We do not know why exactly. Was there a political motive for not acting? Or was it simply a lack of care. Foreign intelligence and domestic do not get on. The centre argues with the state that declines to talk to the officers on the pavement. Stove piping of intelligence is partly to blame. Turf wars are also responsible. An institutional lack of care too – a growing feeling in IB [Intelligence Bureau] that the sub continent is littered with warnings that mostly prove false.
But there is something else too. The US did not reveal the source for the intelligence. And if they had perhaps India would have taken it more seriously. It is also worth pointing out that even with the intelligence, deterring the attack would have been difficult. 9/11 was known about many months before, but the CIAs conflict with the FBI led to key suspects being concealed. 7/7 happened even though many of its protagonists were under surveillance in connection with different plots. Knowing and doing are separate actions. But having said that India’s lack of action, or care, is remarkable in this case and the proof of this is the number of IB officers who spoke out about it, feeling incensed by what they see as institutional failure.
Q. Manu Joseph, Indian writer and editor, while talking about the book being written by two British journalists was quoted [by The Telegraph] saying, “When nations go through the kind of collective trauma inflicted by events like the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US, or the November 2008 attacks in India, a reconstruction is frequently not the focus for their journalists and writers.” What do you think of such situations?
After 9/11 everyone wanted to know as much as possible about where Al Qaeda came from. Government and newspapers struggled to understand the differences in Islamic philosophy between these Islamists and the masjids that were springing up in their hometowns, where previously they barely understood the difference between Sunnis and Shias. The derivation of Al Qaeda ideology became hotly debated. Books like The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright followed the story backwards and then forwards. Books like The Black Banners by Ali H Soufan debated the FBI-CIA schism. Intelligence professionals, writers and commentators, produced a body of work that probed almost every detail of our collective ignorance failure. So I think exactly the opposite is true.