It has taken seven years for the Mumbai attacks to be displaced from their pre-eminence as a terrorist spectacular with an inspired twist: coordinated, multiple-location shooting and bombings in a major city, causing mass casualties and the onset of paralysing fear. Paris is now seen to have overtaken Mumbai. Senior British officials say that for years they prepared for a “Mumbai-style” attack and are now braced for a “Paris-style” one.
Is there a difference? Yes, in terms of telescoping the complexities of a multi-pronged, multiple-event terrorist attack into a simple linear operation. The Paris attack was short – it lasted three hours – mainly executed by locals. It is consequently easier to replicate in Europe than Mumbai’s 59-hour siege by 10 foreign infiltrators.
Michael Leiter, former director of the US National Counterterrorism Center, says Paris “will be a game changer”. The attacks sleekly modified the Mumbai operation.
A week before Mumbai’s seventh anniversary, it’s worth remembering the precision, planning, strategic detail and sheer audacity of that assault upon India’s commercial capital.
It was executed using military tactics, with the terrorists travelling from Karachi to Mumbai by sea, fanning out across the city in neat pairs to attack the main railway station, five-star hotels, a hospital, a trendy cafe and a cinema hall. Timer bombs went off in taxis. One set of terrorists even boldly joined battle with officers at a police barricade. Each member of the team of attackers carried a large rucksack containing an AK-47 assault rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition, a pistol, eight hand grenades and improvised explosive devices.
Across Mumbai, people were taken hostage and shot dead and grenades casually tossed into hotel lobbies while the terrorists’ controllers – safely outside India – monitored events and relayed information to their men on the ground. It was a siege on a great metropolis and it was so strikingly original in planning and execution that the Mumbai police were found to have been totally unprepared, even as the Indian authorities took 12 hours to get elite commandos to the scene.
The attack claimed 166 lives and left nearly 300 injured. It was a lengthened moment of pure terror for all that it lasted three to four days and it left India acutely traumatised.
After 26/11, the Indian media’s 9/11-patterned shorthand for the Mumbai siege, it became a byword for the vulnerabilities of cities in an age of evolving terrorist threats. Intelligence agents and counterterrorism police officers from around the world tried desperately to learn the lessons of Mumbai and assess their own capitals for weaknesses.
ISIL was yet to emerge so the concern was all about deadly copycat attacks by Al Qaeda in western capitals. Sure enough, in October 2010, western agencies discovered plans for “Mumbai-style” attacks in Britain, France and Germany.
These were said to have been proposed by Osama bin Laden himself in messages couriered to Al Qaeda affiliates and partners. But the plot was foiled and oddly enough, Mumbai or even a mini-Mumbai has not been repeated elsewhere. Until now. What changed?
First, the metamorphosing ambition of ISIL, which former CIA official Patrick Skinner describes as “not just about inspiring any more, but motivating”. He says the group now seems to want to “project its terror further and more deliberately”. This is significant in the context of ISIL’s recent battlefield reverses.
Second, ISIL wants to make the main war, being waged against it in Syria and Iraq, more costly for the participating governments. The attacks in Ankara, Beirut and Paris and the alleged bomb on board the Russian flight from Sharm El Sheikh are reminiscent of the series of Chechen suicide operations in Moscow and other Russian cities in 2004. Then, the second Chechen war was raging far away in the Caucasus and the attacks were seen as a way to frighten ordinary Russians and their government into easing off.
Third, ISIL has assured access to local manpower willing to lash out at Europe for real or perceived injustices. The young westerners who joined the group and have since returned to their home countries are a dangerously live resource. France is thought to have some 500 “returnees”.
The Sunday Telegraph newspaper reports that about 60 per cent of 750 Britons who travelled potentially to join ISIL have returned. Belgium – which has sent the highest per capita number of fighters to Syria of any European country – has constantly been identifying and neutralising planned attacks on its soil. Nine months ago, after a series of raids and shoot-outs in Brussels and the town of Verviers, Belgian security forces announced that they had foiled plans by returnees to attack the police.
At the time, Abdelhamid Abaaoud – now said to be the mastermind of the Paris carnage and who was the alleged target of a major police raid in St Denis today – managed to get away.
Last, but possibly most crucial, is what counterterrorism analyst Harleen Gambhir describes as ISIL’s accelerating campaign to “polarise western society … provoke overreactions by European governments against innocent Muslims, thereby alienating and radicalising Muslim communities throughout the continent”.
Ms Gambhir, who is with the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, quotes ISIL’s promise to destroy the “grey zone” of coexistence between Muslims and the West. “An anti-Muslim backlash will generate even more [ISIL] recruits within western societies,” she says.
There is a terrible ring of truth in this and most security experts warn that it is reasonable to expect more Paris-style attacks. Especially because of “the fragility of free societies”, as former CIA director general Michael Hayden puts it. They find it inherently unpalatable and ultimately unsustainable to use unaccountable law-enforcement measures to stamp out terrorism.
In free societies perhaps there cannot be freedom from fear – of terrorism – in the foreseeable future.