Mumbai Massacres: We Can't Respond Without the Facts

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.