On a business-as-usual morning in March 2004, terrorists launched a coordinated attack on Madrid commuter trains killing 191 people and wounding 1,755. The government, with only three days remaining before general elections, quickly blamed Basque-separatists groups. Almost all the conclusions reached in the immediate wake of the bombings turned out to be wrong. The government fell. Many blamed the miscues on misspeaking after the disaster, not how officials responded to the carnage. In the aftermath of last week’s attacks in Mumbai, it is worth reflecting on the lessons of Madrid. Responding to terrorist incidents with conjecture and guessing, rather than facts, is just not a good idea.
Much of the Mumbai speculation on the three days of running-gun battles between terrorist and security forces so far verges on the ridiculous. Suggesting, for example, that these attacks are particularly “sophisticated” and bear the “hallmarks” of a particular group seems premature. It may turn out that the coordinated strikes with small arms and explosives launched across the city were the product of a well organized conspiracy, but it is hard to conclude that just by the attacks themselves. After all, it does not really require much effort to outfit ten men for an afternoon’s killing spree or organize simultaneous attacks at several locations. Nor does it take a terrorist mastermind to case targets beforehand or adopt inconspicuous dress before the assault. (Both measures were apparently undertaken.) In short, armed assaults are among the simplest attacks to organize, particularly when aimed at public, undefended targets and when the perpetrators are not worried about getting out alive. Frankly, any group of “gang bangers” could have pulled off the massacres in Mumbai.
Likewise, analysts were too quick to jump to conclusions based on the nature of the sites attacked. The Western media made much of the fact that places struck included those frequented by foreigners. Shootings, however, also occurred at, among other places, a crowded train station where the likelihood of finding tourists and overseas businessmen would be pretty slim. In fact, many more Indians than foreigners were killed. The dead and injured also included Hindus as well as Muslims.
Finally, the government and many analysts zeroed in pretty quickly on Pakistan-based insurgent groups as the likely source of the conspiracy.
There has been reporting, for example, that there were intelligence reports weeks before assaults of a “sea-borne” strike sailing from Pakistan. Likewise, there has been television coverage of a freighter allegedly used to transport the killers and accounts as well that teams were ferried ashore in small boats. Additionally, other press reports include stories of captured militants who admitted to being part of Pakistan-based groups.
In the days and weeks ahead, the facts will no doubt sort themselves out. Some of the stories and “instant” analysis may turn out to be perfectly accurate. They might just as well turn out to be partially true, inaccurate, or even fabricated. In addition, even as the real truth starts to come out it will have to compete with the conspiracy theories and rumors that always abound after these kinds of incidents. Separating fact from fiction will take a while.
Officials might well regret acting before knowing. There is much at stake. Over the long term, it is going to require the joint action of Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan to address the scourge of transnational terrorism that is rooted in the region. The worst possible scenario is for either Pakistan or India to advance claims now that turn out not to be true later, undermining what little trust, confidence, and counterterrorism cooperation that exist between the countries.
At the same time, even if the Mumbai massacres turn out to be foreign-launched assaults that should come as cold comfort. In recent years, there has been a disturbing domestic radicalization trend in India that should not be ignored.
While the facts of Mumbai terror are still fuzzy, there is much that can be done. Even before the attacks last week, it was pretty clear India had a serious terrorist problem.
Indeed, while according the Human Security Research Project the rate and number of transnational terrorist attacks (as well as the appeal of radical extremist agendas) have been declining in recent years, India is an exception bucking the trend. Terrorist attacks in the country, from both domestic and foreign sources, are on the rise — and worse, the number of casualties per attack is up as well. These are problems that cannot be ignored.
India’s counterterrorism and intelligence programs are fragmented. That needs to be fixed. There is also a lot more the United States and India can do to enhance cooperation on counterterrorism efforts, anti-radicalization programs, and intelligence sharing. Finally, there is a role here for cautious U.S. diplomacy and behind-the-scenes coordination working to rebuild fragile trust and confidence in the Indian-Pakistani relationship. None of these initiatives requires knowing exactly who is behind the Mumbai murders, but they are tasks that need to be done to deal with the threat of terrorism in South Asia.