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Indian Forces Fight to Regain Control of Mumbai

November 27, 2008 at 6:10 PM EST
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Commandos continued to battle early Friday to free people trapped in two hotels by militants who launched a series of attacks on 10 sites Wednesday that killed at least 119 people.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Terror in India’s financial capital. We begin with a report from Jonathan Rugman of Independent Television News.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Two dozen or so militants seem to be in their early 20s, possibly students, armed with automatic rifles and grenades.

And one, calling himself Shabdullah, spoke to Indian television today. He was asked what the group’s demands were and, after consulting his fellow fighters, said this.

MILITANT (through translator): We demand the release of all Mujahideen put in jails. Then we will release these people. Otherwise, we will destroy this place.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: The fighters say they’re called the Deccan Mujahideen, or southern jihadists, and there are unconfirmed reports quoting police sources as saying that one captured militant is from a Pakistani group known as Lashkar-e-Taiba.

In 2006, the group, which translates as “Soldiers of the Pure,” was blamed for killing more than 200 people on Mumbai trains and railway stations. A radical Islamic student organization was also accused.

An Islamist attack on India’s parliament in 2001 left a dozen people dead and prompted India to send a million troops to the Pakistani border.

And in his nationwide address today, India’s prime minister appeared to point the finger once again at Pakistan.

MANMOHAN SINGH, Prime Minister, India: It is evident that the group which carried out these attacks, based outside the country, had come with single-minded determination to create havoc in the commercial capital of the country.

We will take the strongest possible measures to ensure that there is no repetition of such terrorist acts.

SHERRY REHMAN, Information Minister, Pakistan: The government of Pakistan and all responsible officials, as well as the president and the prime minister, have condemned it as the worst kind of terrorist attacks that we have seen. Pakistan is both sorrowful and has condoned with all the victims of such an attack.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: The militants arrived in a series of boats. It’s now being investigated whether they left from Karachi in Pakistan.

And one fighter told a TV station he was angry about Muslims killed in Kashmir, the territory disputed by Pakistan and India.

Some Indians are calling this their 9/11, but this year perhaps only Iraq has been bombed more often.

In September, Islamist militants killed 24 in bomb attacks on shopping and leisure targets in Delhi. In July, 52 were reported killed in the bombing of Ahmedabad. Even a hospital treating the wounded was attacked.

And in May, 67 were killed in the tourist destination of Jaipur in Rajasthan.

Most recent attacks have been blamed on extremists from the Indian Mujahideen. And it, too, is a major suspect in Mumbai, though in the past it’s used bombs rather than guns, and foreign hostages have never been taken on a scale like this before.

India’s prime minister says there are vast gaps in intelligence-gathering in such a large and fractious country.

Several groups probably involved

Ashley Tellis
Carnegie Endowment for Int'l Peace
There are only two groups that have the capacity to conduct an operation of such complexity operating in South Asia. The first is al-Qaida. And the second is Lashkar-e-Taiba, or the LET.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the attacks in Mumbai, we turn to two veteran India analysts. Ashley Tellis received two degrees from the University of Bombay. He served on the National Security Council staff during the Bush administration. He's now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

And Stephen Cohen dealt with South Asia as a member of the State Department's Policy Planning Office during the Reagan administration. He has written extensively about India and is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Thank you both for being here.

Stephen Cohen, to you first. Based on what you've heard, what do you make of these attacks?

STEPHEN COHEN, Brookings Institution: This strikes me as a coalition of perhaps several groups, some Indian, some perhaps not Indian, designed to attack the very identity of India, that struck at India's commercial, entertainment, business center. I think it's an attack on the idea of India itself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When you say "coalition," you literally mean several groups coming together?

STEPHEN COHEN: Yes, I think that there may have been -- speculatively, there may have been insiders -- that is Indians in Bombay or some other else -- and probably technical assistance from outside.

Who knows? It could have been al-Qaida, which operates like a foundation these days. You know, and so there may be other groups. The number of possible suspects is, I'd say, four or five, but it might have well been one or two or three of them working together.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ashley Tellis, how do you see this? What do you make of it?

ASHLEY TELLIS, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Well, there are only two groups that have the capacity to conduct an operation of such complexity operating in South Asia. The first is al-Qaida. And the second is Lashkar-e-Taiba, or the LET.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is the group...

ASHLEY TELLIS: This is the group that most Indian analysts seem to be gravitating to.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it is based where?

ASHLEY TELLIS: It is based out of Pakistan and has been embroiled in the troubles in Kashmir for over two decades. Now, all this is circumstantial and inferential because we don't have any evidence, but the complexity of the operations suggests one of these two.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what do you mean the complexity of the operation? These are young people, according to all reports, dressed T-shirts, jeans, carrying rifles, knives. What do you mean?

ASHLEY TELLIS: It's the logistics of conducting something like this. They seem to suggest that they did come to Bombay by sea, that there was some effort to mobilize within the city itself, coordinate their operations across widely dispersed outlets, and synchronize the operations.

This does take a bit of planning. And given that they used different kinds of firearms, went after different sets of targets, it seems to suggest that there was extensive pre-planning involved.

Analysts looking for clues

Stephen Cohen
Brookings Institution
I think one of the purposes of this attack was not only to attack India itself, but also the normalization that's been going on between India and Pakistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you see in the way they carried this out and what they did that leads you to conclude, as you said earlier, that it was a group of different organizations?

STEPHEN COHEN: Well, I think they may have had inside knowledge. The Indian government has been really worried for years now, and there's been a report by the government of India about rising Islamic extremism within India.

And the claim that this is Deccan Mujahideen is not incredible. There are a lot of unhappy -- young Muslims, educated Muslims in both Hyderabad and Bangalore, parts of southern India.

So, by speculation, they could well be a coalition with an inside Indian group, but I think the leadership and the direction and the strategy probably did come from the outside.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What additional clues do you look for? I mean, we've really picked up very little so far.

STEPHEN COHEN: Well, I think if they want to pin this on the Pakistanis or foment an India-Pakistan crisis, which could have been one of the motives behind this, they'd probably leave behind some evidence indicating that these groups came from Pakistan, whether they did or not.

So you have to look for false clues like that, things that are sort of left behind just to infer -- create a -- exacerbate India-Pakistan relations, which have been very good recently.

And I think one of the purposes of this attack was not only to attack India itself, but also the normalization that's been going on between India and Pakistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what do you -- I mean, again, the government, the police have given out very little information. What are the clues you're looking for to help understand what actually happened?

ASHLEY TELLIS: Well, the first and most interesting clue is the set of targets. They've gone after targets that represent Indian success. They've gone after some symbols of the Indian state.

They've gone after many targets that no Indian terrorist group has gone after before, like, for example, foreigners. And in one instance, they seem to have gone after a Jewish hostel in Bombay. And that is kind of peculiar, because it does suggest that whatever else this group is after does seem to have pan-Islamist kind of agenda.

Now the question is, why? My own instinct tells me that part of it is simply aimed at discrediting India, pulling it down a notch or two, showing the world that it's not really safe for business, and using this attack as a means of articulating grievances. And these grievances, I think, span the whole spectrum.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But at this point, you really are -- we really are left to infer and to guess at this point, is that right?

STEPHEN COHEN: Yes, that's because the police and the intelligence services are being very careful. Presumably these people are watching television in the hotels.

There are several 24-hour Indian television channels. And they've said themselves that they're not getting much information. So right now all we have to do is go by inference.

There will be questioning. There'll probably be some live terrorist captured, and this may be traceable to -- eventually, I think they'll discover probably who was responsible for it.

Indian intelligence surprised

Stephen Cohen
Brookings Institution
It probably was al-Qaida or Lashkar-e-Taiba or some other group outside of India, but that they were able to get these young people to serve as, you know, such willing victims and attackers shows great skill, organizational skill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, again, the fact -- you know, as I was just saying to Ashley Tellis, that young men, T-shirts, jeans, and so forth, does that tell you anything about...

STEPHEN COHEN: Well, it tells you that their operational security was very good, that they -- I don't think the people who directed this were the people involved in it themselves.

As Ashley says, it probably was al-Qaida or Lashkar-e-Taiba or some other group outside of India, but that they were able to get these young people to serve as, you know, such willing victims and attackers shows great skill, organizational skill.

And it also shows a failure of Indian intelligence not having picked this up earlier.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And evidently they had not, is that right?

ASHLEY TELLIS: By all accounts, they were as surprised as the rest of us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How unusual would it be if this were a combination Indian and Pakistani or some other...

ASHLEY TELLIS: It wouldn't be unusual at all, because there are large numbers of Indian Muslims who are disaffected. And if someone was planning to conduct an operation like this, I think it would be reasonable to imagine that they'd have at least some local personnel who are familiar with the place, who can essentially serve as guides.

But it is entirely possible that, you know, you could have others who come from the outside. And the outside could be Pakistan; the outside could be by the Middle East; it could be anywhere else in India.

Indian government reaction

Ashley Tellis
Carnegie Endowment for Int'l Peace
It goes to the question of whether the Indian state is really capable and whether it's equipped to deal with problems like this. And I think, when you have crises of this sort, it just shows up the shortcomings.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was reported earlier today, Stephen Cohen, that -- to the terrorist incidents that have happened over the last several years in general, the government of India has tried to play down what has happened. What does the magnitude of this say about how the government needs to react going forward?

STEPHEN COHEN: Well, they're very concerned about this. The chief national security advisor in India is a specialist in terrorists, and there's no question that they're deeply concerned, but they don't want to create Muslim-Hindu riots in India themselves. And they also don't want to strain the relationship with Pakistan.

On the other hand, the Indian army and the Indian military have a strategy to attack Pakistan in case of an episode like this. And I think one of the purposes of this may have been to trigger off, at least to exacerbate India-Pakistan relations, for instance, get the Indians so angry that they actually attack Pakistan, because these groups are also opposed to a liberal, centrist government in Pakistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And in terms -- again, going forward, Indian government reaction, the effect it could have on relations with Pakistan, and for the United States, for that matter?

ASHLEY TELLIS: I think they've been extremely cautious; I think Steve is right. They are trying to protect what they've gained in terms of their improved relations with Pakistan.

They also don't want to exacerbate domestic problems with the Muslim community back at home.

But, you know, it goes to a larger question. It goes to the question of whether the Indian state is really capable and whether it's equipped to deal with problems like this. And I think, when you have crises of this sort, it just shows up the shortcomings.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quickly, next question you'd like to see answered in all this?

STEPHEN COHEN: The U.S. policy has been -- on terrorism has been to work with the Indians, but I don't think there's been that much cooperation, in fact, between the two governments.

At least the Indians have complained to me about this, but I'm not sure whether or not we might increase our cooperation, whether it would be any good.

The real issue for India is, in a sense, what its decision is going to be vis-a-vis a failing Pakistan, whether it wants to work with Pakistan to make it a viable state, or whether it wants to finish off Pakistan.

I think that decision is yet to come, but you could see Indian politics going either way on that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, gentlemen, we are going to leave it there. Ashley Tellis, thank you.

Stephen Cohen, appreciate your coming in.