Months before the 26/11 attacks took place, British, US and Indian intelligence agencies were already spying on the online activities of the Lashkar-e-Toiba’s Zarrar Shah, tracking his Internet searches and messages.
But they failed to piece together the larger design, according to a report published in The New York Times on Monday.
“What happened next may rank among the most devastating near-misses in the history of spycraft. The intelligence agencies of the three nations did not pull together all the strands gathered by their high-tech surveillance and other tools, which might have allowed them to disrupt a terror strike so scarring that it is often called India’s 9/11,” said the report, ‘In 2008 Mumbai Attacks, Piles of Spy Data, but an Uncompleted Puzzle’.
According to the report, “The British had access to a trove of data from Mr Shah’s communications, but contend that the information was not specific enough to detect the threat. The Indians did not home in on the plot even with the alerts from the United States. Clues slipped by the Americans as well.”
Relying on US NSA and British eavesdropping agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) documents, as well as documents filed in court, the report said that Shah had begun researching VoIP systems, online security, and ways to hide his communications as early as mid-September.
“As he made his plan, he searched on his laptop for weak communication security in Europe, spent time on a site designed to conceal browsing history, and searched Google News for ‘indian american naval exercises’ — presumably so the seagoing attackers would not blunder into an overwhelming force,” the report said.
It added, “Shah repeatedly displayed some key interests: small-scale warfare, secret communications, tourist and military locations in India, extremist ideology and Mumbai. He searched for Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’, previous terror strikes in India and weather forecasts in the Arabian Sea, typed ‘4 star hotel in delhi’ and ‘taj hotel’, and visited mapsofindia.com to pore over sites in and around Mumbai, the documents show.”
Shah also showed interest in Kashmir, the Indian Punjab, New Delhi, Afghanistan and the United States Army in Germany and Canada. He constantly flipped back and forth among Internet porn and entertainment sites while he was carrying out his work, said the report.
“He appeared to be fascinated with the actor Robert De Niro, called up at least one article on the singer Taylor Swift, and looked at funny cat videos. He visited unexplainable.net, a conspiracy theory website, and conducted a search on ‘barak obama family + muslim’, it said.
Soon after British intelligence gained access to his communications, Shah contacted a New Jersey company posing as Kharak Singh, an Indian reseller of telephone services based in Mumbai, and haggled over the price of the VoIP service that was later used for calls exchanged between the ten gunmen who attacked Mumbai and their handlers in Pakistan.
“Analysis of Zarrar Shah’s viewing habits” and other data “yielded several locations in Mumbai well before the attacks occurred and showed operations planning for initial entry points into the Taj Hotel,” the report quoted an NSA document, adding, “That viewing history also revealed a longer list of what might have been future targets.”
The report quoted Shivshankar Menon, India’s foreign secretary at the time, as saying, “No one put together the whole picture… Not the Americans, not the Brits, not the Indians.” Memon was also quoted as saying, “Only once the shooting started did everyone share” what they had, largely in meetings between British and Indian officials, and then “the picture instantly came into focus”.
Zarrar Shah is one of the 35 wanted accused named by the Mumbai Police in the 26/11 chargesheet. According to Ajmal Kasab’s confession, in mid-September, 2008, Shah and other Pakistani handlers used Google Earth and other material in the LeT’s media wing control room at Baitul Mujahideen to show Kasab and the other nine gunmen their targets in Mumbai.