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Ten years after 26/11 Mumbai terror attack: Is India any safer now?

Mumbai terror attack. (Photo: Reuters)
Sometime in the dark hours of 23rd November 2008 a small cargo vessel slipped out of Karachi harbour; its passengers-ten non sea faring men who had been specifically trained for a purpose and indoctrinated for martyrdom. This ship reached the waters off Porbander in the early hours of the 25th. One of our many powered fishing boats, Kuber, was called alongside, ostensibly to exchange fish for diesel, a practice not uncommon. As it tied up alongside, four of its five crewmen were killed, and the ten men transferred to it along with several sacks of equipment. The boat was ordered to steer for the coast of Mumbai which it did arriving there soon after sunset on the 26th. As night fell, the intruders inflated the rubber craft carried by them, lowered it in the water and boarded this small boat each armed with an AK 47 rifle, ten loaded magazines, and ten grenades. The fifth crew was killed and the craft sped shore-wards, the fishing village off Cuffe Parade its destination. It travelled the three odd miles quickly and beached unnoticed by about 9 PM; the fishermen were glued to their TVs. The ten people crossed the fifty odd yards to the busy road, hailed passing taxis and in five groups of two each, headed for their destinations- Chatrapati Shivaji Railway Terminus, the iconic Taj Mahal hotel, two hotels located at Nariman Point, Leopold Café on Colaba Causeway and a Jewish hostel located not far away. The rest is history; Mumbai was under seaborne attack. Over the next three days in which more than 160 were killed and 300 injured as also nine of the ten people who had invaded our territory traversing nearly 400 miles of sea, India saw a war for which it was not prepared; less than a dozen terrorists had traumatized a nation of more than a billion people. It was plain chance that one of them was captured alive and the story told.

How could this have happened and can it happen again, is a question that poses itself often as we stand at the tenth anniversary of the attack. First, even if desiring such a mission was high on the wish-list of known Jehadi groups, the planning and execution were clearly beyond their capabilities; certainly, the Pakistan military or intelligence agencies had to be involved. Later events showed that a Pakistani turned US citizen named David Headley had earlier been commissioned to visit Mumbai several times to identify possible targets and provided relevant information to the sponsors. Second, and even more important, with the several intelligence gathering agencies that we have, how could we have no inkling of what was being planned. All intelligence revolves around four basics viz. What, Where, Whither and When. Later enquiries revealed that of these all but one-Whither-were known to one agency or the other but were not collated and analyzed into some holistic possibilities. So, there were no precautionary warnings or patrols at sea and the terrorists sailed through, literally.

This brings us to the more relevant question of whether such a thing can happen again.  Even with reasonable intelligence, looking for a ship at sea, much less a boat is like searching for a needle in a haystack. In this context, analysis of all available inputs and preemptive response require close coordination and execution; neither was visible at that time. Today, fair progress has been made in getting these two imperatives in some order just as there has been substantial increase in coastal platforms available to the Navy and the Coast Guard and Marine Police forces of coastal states but there are still many loopholes to be plugged. A National Maritime Agency (NMA) mooted by this government in 2014 to oversee activities at sea is only on paper and a great number of our more than two lakh fishing boats are still to fit automatic identification systems; not all coastal states have beefed up their marine police sufficiently. There are air and coastal sea patrols at random and a few radar stations have been set up and some coordinating mechanisms put in place in major ports but these are only basic measures. The sea has no check points or perimeter fencing. Sanitizing it is very difficult and unity of command and control is essential.  Whether raids like that of ten years ago can happen again is debatable but to think that they can be ruled out will be premature; mindsets across the border are not going to change anytime soon. Simply put, we need to further tighten our preparedness to cope with such situations in which, sadly, the terrorists will always hold the initiative.

(The writer is a former Commander in Chief of the Eastern Naval Command)

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