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Mumbai’s unanswered questions

Until less than a fortnight ago,the run-up to the first anniversary of the 26/11 nightmare was moving along predictable lines.

Written by Y P Rajesh |
November 20, 2009 3:12:53 am

Until less than a fortnight ago,the run-up to the first anniversary of the 26/11 nightmare was moving along predictable lines. Authorities in Mumbai were planning memorial events and a show of the police’s new might,think-tanks were organising security conferences,some of the places targeted by the ten Lashkar-e-Toiba men were gearing for sombre ceremonies to remember the dead,and the media was busy revisiting families of victims and survivors. And then came the names of David Coleman Headley and Tahawwur Rana,the two alleged Lashkar men arrested by the FBI in the US in connection with plots to launch attacks in Denmark and India. The speculation that has since ensued has also been on predictable lines. The headlines have all but linked the two men with the conspiracy and planning of 26/11 although there has hardly been anything substantial in the public domain to connect them.

The timing is perhaps just a coincidence but the episode is moving in the direction of raising fresh questions about the kind of local help the ten Lashkar gunmen had. This has been one of the more enduring mysteries about the attack despite Mumbai Police arresting alleged Indian Lashkar operatives Fahim Ansari and Sabahuddin Ahmed and accusing them of preparing the ground for the raid by drawing maps,taking photographs and making videos for their Lashkar bosses to plan 26/11.

Some investigators continue to argue how it would still be impossible for the attackers to find the Jewish centre of Nariman House in an obscure lane in south Mumbai unless they were physically guided there after arriving by boat from Karachi. Others have toyed with the theory that at least one of the ten men had made a trip to Mumbai at least once before and this was probably the group leader Abu Ismail,Ajmal Kasab’s accomplice,who was killed in the shootout on Marine Drive. But there is no unanimity on the possibilities,and conspiracy theorists continue to have a field day. The names of Headley and Rana have only made the story murkier and remind us that we still do not know everything we ought to,about a key aspect of 26/11.

That though,is not the only element of 26/11 awaiting closure. Besides being unprecedented in its scale and nature,this assault on Mumbai was also historic for the amount of incontrovertible evidence it gave investigators to trace its origin,with the prize catch of Kasab sitting right on top of that mountain. Pakistan,after a bit of waffling,was faced with no option but to accept that its nationals were involved in the attack and even went as far as arresting six Lashkar members. But the shape of events since then,including the action against Lashkar founder Hafiz Saeed,gives little room for hope that the brains behind 26/11 will be brought to justice,even if it is on Pakistani soil,while the trial in India is fast moving towards its logical end.

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There is one line that politicians,bureaucrats and police officers in Mumbai are in total agreement with,in their assessment of 26/11 and the initial counter-offensive by local police: “it was an act of aggression,like war,it is not fair to believe our policemen were trained or equipped to repulse it.” Looking back at the first few hours of 26/11,and the omissions and commissions on the ground exposed by this newspaper earlier this year,that assessment may not be too off the mark. But attempting to justify that inability of the police in a city long used to terror attacks and gangland violence is doomed to go nowhere. Much has been done over the last year to bolster the armoury of Mumbai police,create a new anti-terror force and bring a unit of the elite National Security Guard to the city even though much more needs to be done by the government’s own admission,with only half the estimated cost of Rs 200 crore spent so far.

While India is not exactly known for its ability to assign blame for lapses in the system that result in grave tragedies and hold people responsible,26/11 was unprecedented as it claimed the jobs of the then-Union home minister,the state chief minister and his deputy who was also the state home minister. A part of that can be credited to the outrage 26/11 triggered,when parliamentary elections were only a few months away. The argument gets bolstered as two of the three politicians have since been more than rehabilitated. But the mea culpa has remained restricted to the political class. Barring the promotion and transfer of the-then Mumbai Police chief,and that too with no specific 26/11 links made,officials at the central and state level have largely remained untouched. This is particularly true for the intelligence agencies who,as it was found,had specific information in the days before the Lashkar boat reached Mumbai but could do little to stop the carnage.

26/11 deserved an inquiry commission on the lines of the US commission that probed 9/11 and went on to blame the FBI and the CIA for intelligence failures. Particularly since the failures in India involved central and state,civilian and military agencies. But all that Mumbai got was a state-level exploratory trip by two retired officials who had to rely on police officers volunteering information,and even those findings were buried. Recently,a senior Mumbai police officer sought to draw another parallel between 26/11 and 9/11. The 9/11 commission,he told this writer,had concluded that the attacks on the Twin Towers were due to the “failure of imagination”. Security agencies there did not consider passenger planes could be used as missiles. In the same manner,Indian agencies failed to imagine an urban guerrilla attack at multiple locations by gunmen who came by sea,he said. India needs to draw one more parallel between 9/11 and 26/11. It needs to ensure that it has the security architecture in place to prevent another major terror strike just as the US has ensured that there has not been another attack after September 11. One year after 26/11,it is safe to say that it is still a work that needs to make a lot of progress.

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