December 04, 2008
Mumbai's Days of Terror
BY Dev Chatterjee
Mumbai police patrol in front of the Mumbai CST railway station, a day after terrorists stormed the station.
Editor's Note: As U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made diplomatic stops in India and Pakistan on Wednesday and thousands took to Mumbai's streets blaming their own government's handling of the crisis, we asked Mumbai-based reporter Dev Chatterjee, who works in the Times of India building in the heart of the city, to recall how last week's reign of terror unfolded for him. Included are cellphone images he took as he crisscrossed the city reporting the attacks.
It was a late-night dinner party that may have saved my life. At around 9:50 in the evening on November 26, 2008, I walked out of my office at the Times of India Building opposite the 150-year-old British-built Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) Railway station and boarded a commuter train to my house, 5 kilometers away in Central Mumbai.
Twenty minutes later just as I reached home, I received a call from a colleague asking where I was. "There's a terror attack in the CST railway station... Don't leave the house. It's war out here," he warned. For the next 60 hours, Mumbai turned into a war zone and was prime time television across the world.
The Times of India's CCTV clips later revealed that the terrorists took the same route I take every day but from the opposite direction.
The fact I left 20 minutes early was a secret I kept to myself. Everyday, as routine, I leave my office, cross the street and enter the CST station. If I'd left on time that evening, one of the two terrorists, armed to the teeth with AK-47s and made-in-China grenades, could have targeted me. The Times of India's CCTV clips later revealed that the terrorists took the same route I take every day but from the opposite direction.
I was lucky but 183 others were not. Within hours, 10 terrorists wreaked havoc in India's most cosmopolitan and crowded city, "without showing any remorse" toward their victims, a Marine commando later told me.
The terrorists targeted Leopold Cafe, a restaurant and bar frequented by Western backpackers, the most expensive hotels -- The Taj and Oberoi-Trident -- and Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, one of the most crowded railway stations in the world. They also struck at Nariman House, home to the Orthodox Jewish group, Chabad Lubavitch.
The beach at Fishermen's Colony opposite Badhwar Park, where the terrorists first landed.
The dead included the leader of the anti-terrorist squad for the Mumbai Police, bankers, and even municipal sweepers. Mumbai's image as a world city with a vibrant business and social scene was shattered forever.
Al Qaeda and Kashmir
After 9/11, Islamic fundamentalist groups led by Al Qaeda based in Pakistan joined hands with Kashmiri militants and found a common enemy in India. Since then, a series of bomb blasts across all major Indian cities has killed and maimed thousands. Attacks have been on the upswing this year. In September, serial bombings in Delhi killed 20 and another attack in Ahmedabad killed 55 in July. And then of course Mumbai.
When I asked a Federal Bureau of Investigation officer in the U.S. last fall why the FBI was not treating Indian terrorist attacks the same way it treated the bombings in Madrid, Bali or London, he said the problem in India was a local problem. He meant that local Muslim groups with help from Pakistan-based outfits are fighting the local population. He did not see it as part of America's war on terror.
I asked an FBI officer in the U.S. last fall why the agency was not treating Indian terrorist attacks the same way it treated the bombings in Madrid, Bali or London.
Last week's attacks in Mumbai have proved that theory wrong. Mumbai is now on the global terror map and it will be some time before a Westerner can feel secure again sipping a beer at the Leopold Cafe.
For the first time, the United States has issued a travel advisory warning Americans that India is no longer a safe place for travel. The FBI, and Israeli, British and Australian intelligence agents are now in Mumbai trying to figure out the new front in this war.
A War Zone
According to preliminary investigations by the Mumbai police, the 10 terrorists began their journey on November 22 from Karachi in Pakistan in a small fishing boat. The group then crossed the porous Indian border and hijacked an Indian fishing boat and mingled with thousands of other vessels sailing toward India.
Onlookers and TV crews watch the action unfold at the Taj Hotel on Thursday.
By the evening of November 26, the terrorists had landed in Mumbai -- slipping by hundreds of Indian Navy and Coast Guard ships. They then made their way to their targets by taxi. In the end, nine of the terrorists were killed by Indian security forces, and one, Ajmal Amir Kasab, reportedly from Faridkot in Pakistan, was arrested.
When I reached the Taj early Thursday morning to report on the attack, a 30-member squad of commandos, or "Marcos" as they are known in the Indian Navy, had already stormed the hotel -- one of Mumbai's most famous landmarks situated across from the Gateway of India. Built by industrialist Jamsetji Tata to avenge an insult by the British who would not let him enter a White-only hotel, the venerable building was on fire.
A commando later described the scene to me inside the hotel. "When we went inside, we had no layout of the hotel. We found policemen with outdated World War II rifles. The cops and a few hotel staff were confused and scared to go deep inside the 450-room hotel."
"When we went inside, we had no layout of the hotel. We found policemen with outdated World War II rifles. The cops and a few hotel staff were scared to go deep inside the 450-room hotel."
When the Marcos decided to check the closed-circuit footage, they heard gunfire. "We ran toward the sound of gunfire on the second floor. We started firing and soon realized that the terrorists were well versed with the layout of the hotel. It was pitch dark but they moved seamlessly inside," the commando told me.
The terrorists soon left one room to hide elsewhere in the hotel, and the Marcos found more than a dozen dead bodies and similar numbers of injured people.
"We asked the hotel staff to remove the bodies and give medical aid to the injured. After some time, we heard another round of gunfire and we rushed to the nearby New Taj building," the commando said.
The Indian Army patrols near the Leopold Cafe, a day after terrorists killed 10 at the cosmopolitan cafe.
After a brief exchange of fire, the Marcos found the backpack of a terrorist, which contained 7 credit cards, US$1,200, a Mauritius government-issued national identity card and dried fruits (to survive for long hours during the hostage situation). In a room-by-room search, the commandos rescued more than 200 guests from the Taj and managed to corner the terrorists back into the old Taj building.
By 9:30 Thursday morning, the National Security Group or NSG, which is better trained in urban warfare, arrived in Mumbai from its base in
New Delhi, and the commandos went back to their barracks to stand by.
A mile away, in Nariman House in the upscale neighborhood of Colaba, two more terrorists had taken a Jewish couple hostage. The couple's child was saved by the nanny, but the terrorists had shot and killed the parents within a few hours.
When I reached Nariman House on Thursday afternoon, it had become a fortress, with Indian Army officials surrounding the building and security forces making plans to storm the house.
When I reached Nariman House on Thursday afternoon, it had become a fortress, with Indian army officials surrounding the building and the NSG making plans to storm the house. Indians woke up on Friday morning to watch scenes of security forces being dropped by helicopter into the building to try to save the six hostages inside.
By Friday evening, security forces had cleared Nariman House using high-powered explosives to blast the building's walls. But by then, all six hostages inside were dead.
Inside the Oberoi Trident Hotel, the terrorists showed no mercy toward their victims. This is what one eyewitness said: "They asked us to stand in a queue and were talking on their satellite phones. They were laughing and cracking jokes. When we asked them why they are doing this to us, they replied: 'Don't you remember the Babri Mosque, and the Gujarat riots?'"
It was becoming clear that the terrorists, who looked like college kids in their early 20s, were obsessed with retribution for Hindu atrocities against the Muslims.
Mumbai residents watch as the majestic Taj heritage building goes up in smoke.
In 1992, a massive Hindu mob demolished the Babri Mosque in the Northern State of Uttar Pradesh, believing it was built on the birthplace of the Hindu God Rama. Ten years later, Hindus killed scores of Muslims in the state of Gujarat after a Muslim mob set fire to a railway compartment carrying Hindu pilgrims.
After reminding the hostages of these Hindu atrocities, the terrorists killed all the people in the room. "They were laughing and making jokes about us. I survived because I acted as if I had died," the eyewitness said. By Friday evening, the special forces had killed all the terrorists and swept the hotel. But by then, more than 70 civilians inside had died.
At the Taj, it took security forces almost 60 hours to clear the building of the terrorists, killing the last militant on Saturday morning. By the time the siege ended, the hotel had turned to ashes.
I saw many bodies pulled out from the debris. There were tell-tale signs of victims trying to escape from the burning hotel as some hotel guests had made a rope out of bed sheets and flung it from rooms on the 6th floor.
I saw many bodies pulled out from the debris. There were tell-tale signs of victims trying to escape from the burning hotel.
Anger, Grief, and Recriminations
By Saturday evening, I reached the Hindu crematorium in Banganga, Walkeshwar. The crematorium, which normally handles 45 cremations a month, was inundated with victims. The clerk told me that since Friday he had been receiving four bodies a day and was booked for the next few days. "We are asking people to go elsewhere in the city for cremation," he said, unable to cope. It's Hindu tradition that the dead are burned and their ashes immersed in water.
The Arabian Sea breeze drifting into the crematorium did not cool the frayed tempers as the funeral pyre was lit. The bodies of a couple who had died together at the Oberoi-Trident were placed at the gate while a Hindu priest hummed the last prayers.
Angry and grieving relatives could talk of nothing else but the failure of the Indian government to prevent the attacks and protect Mumbai's citizens. "The security of the nation now should be priority number one," the billionaire businessmen Ashok Hinduja told me. He had come to the crematorium to mourn with one of the families. "We should tackle this problem the same way the world is tackling the liquidity crisis. There should be a unified command structure, which should handle this kind of crisis," he said.
As I left the crematorium to walk back to my office, I couldn't help wondering what might have happened had I not left for that dinner party on Wednesday night.
Dev Chatterjee is a business reporter for The Economic Times in Mumbai, India. He holds a B.A. in economics and journalism from the University of Mumbai and is a former visiting fellow at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.
Pakistan: Cold Comfort
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Kashmir: The Road to Peace?
In this November 2004 FRONTLINE/World Fellows story, Sachi Cunningham and Jigar Mehta make their way across the beautiful mountain territory of Kashmir, which has been a divided state since 1947 and is torn by Muslim-Hindu conflict. Their road trip tests the willingness of neighboring India and Pakistan to re-open the main highway across Kashmir as a move toward peace.
Kashmir: A Troubled Paradise
In this narrated slideshow, Getty photojournalist Ami Vitale presents the beauty and violence of a region claimed by both India and Pakistan.
On a Razor's Edge
In this March 2004 story, FRONTLINE/World reporter Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy returns to her native Pakistan to investigate the clashes between then-President Pervez Musharraf and the increasingly powerful Islamic fundamentalists who oppose him.