How the horrific terror attacks on the financial capital of India altered the country’s counterterrorism apparatus forever.
“Get down, lie on the floor and no flash, please,” yelled a jawan from the Punjab Regiment, sitting atop the Gateway of India, with a sniper rifle aimed at Mumbai’s iconic Taj Mahal Hotel which had come under siege a day before as a result of the 26/11 attacks. This November marks the 14th anniversary of the horrific attacks.
Every reporter and photojournalist who was present there with me at the Gateway of India had no idea what was going on but, had it not been for us, the world wouldn’t have really come to understand the enormity of those terror attacks that altered the counterterrorism apparatus of India forever.
Just as I attempted to lie down on the stony courtyard, a bullet zipped past me. Minutes before that I and my colleague were planning to break into the hotel from its rear gate that witnessed a bloodbath the night before which was still going on. For a second, I froze as I realised that this wasn’t just another terror attack. It was a war.
Suddenly, from the top floor of the old building, a grenade was hurled towards the sea facing the main road in front of the hotel. Within seconds, the hotel turned into a towering inferno and a deadly fight ensued between security forces and the gunmen firing and hurling grenades from inside. It was November, the sea was still and the majestic building was in flames.
A group of young men aged between 20 to 25 years had held India’s financial capital hostage.
Referring to the incident last month, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, while addressing the United Nations Counterterrorism Committee, of which India is the chair for this year, said: “While one of the terrorists was captured alive, prosecuted, and convicted by the highest court in India, the key conspirators and planners of the 26/11 attacks continue to remain protected and unpunished. When it comes to proscribing some of these terrorists, the Security Council has regrettably been unable to act in some cases because of political considerations. This undermines our collective credibility and our collective interests.”
The evening of November 26, 2008, was a lazy one. I had gone to sleep early when my wife, who was catching up some evening news on the TV, told me there was some firing reported on the streets of Mumbai. My initial thought was that it was an underworld gang war.
I checked my phone and saw numerous missed calls from my colleague in Mumbai. I called him back. He was in great panic as he briefed me about the attacks. TV channels were still uncertain of the purpose and the people behind the attacks. But seeing the number of policemen and civilians dead, I sensed the attack had nothing to do with the local mafia.
I took the earliest flight to Mumbai. There was a sense of panic at the Mumbai airport. Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) men were checking everyone and police dogs were sniffing around nearly everything.
The city was deserted. Taxis had suspended the services and hardly any vehicles could be spotted on the streets. Colaba looked like a shooting arena. People had circled around the area and were chanting Bharat mata ki jai to boost the morale of the policemen. The Mumbai police looked clueless about what was going on. Occasional sounds of hand grenades could be heard from the hotel. Sounds of gunfire shook the ground, coupled with the sounds of ambulances carrying the dead and the injured. It was still unclear who the gunmen were.
At around 7 pm on November 27, news arrived that Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) operative Ajmal Amir Kasab had been arrested while speeding a stolen car along with his accomplice who was gunned down by Mumbai police. Residents of the city were still in shock, trying to process what had just happened to their beloved aamchi Mumbai.
I saw National Security Guard (NSG) commandos around Chabad House, located at 5 Hormusji Street, Colaba, with packets of pasteurised milk and Heckler & Kotch pistols. That gave me a sense that a massive, prolonged operation was underway.
The Taj was still burning. Many soldiers had died. I saw Mumbai policemen chanting Bhagwan – God – while going in for a battle with old versions of INSAS rifles, which was nothing in comparison to the modern military grade equipment that the attackers were carrying. Few policemen carried AK (Avtomat Kalashnikov) variants. Foreign tourists from the besieged hotels were being escorted out. The city of Mumbai looked dead and pale. A Bohra Muslim to whose home on the third storey of a building I climbed to get the images of the Operation Black Tornado (attack by NSG using Mi-17 chopper) was cheering for the NSG soldiers, while his daughter clad in black burkha left for her office, a private bank, despite the city being in the grip of terror. Banks, hospitals, press and many other important institutions had to carry on as the city needed to breathe despite the horrendous attack.
Mumbai took no time to swing back to action. However, the mark of the bullets on walls and heaps of dead people will never be forgotten.
For days to come , while investigations were on, names of the orchestrators started coming up – David Colman Headley, Illiyas Kashmiri, Hafiz Sayeed, Major Haroon Ashiq, Tahawwur Hussain Rana, Sajid Mir to name a few.
American citizen David Colman Headley was interrogated by the US authorities. After lots of negotiations, India got a chance to interrogate Headley.
The story goes back to February 27, 2003 when the Sabarmati Express returning from Ayodhya was burnt in Godhra. The train carried many radical Hindu men chanting Jai Shri Ram, the Hindutva war cry, to provoke Muslims at the Godhra station. It didn’t stop there. In the days to come, Gujarat witnessed widespread carnage while the state law and order machinery looked the other way. In Pakistan, radical groups were up in arms for revenge.
A man called Babu Bajarangi, a Bajrang Dal leader, was behind the Naroda-Pattita massacre killing many Muslims. He was jailed for life till the SC gave him bail in 2019.
Back in Pakistan, people like Hafiz Sayeed and Maulana Masood Azhar were ready to exploit the situation and raise cadres to assault India. David Colman Headley aka Dawood Gilani, a Pakistani American citizen who worked for the DEA and CIA, was moved by videos where Babu Bajrangi was seen hurling abuses at Muslims. Headley joined Lashkar-e-Taiba to avenge what he thought was an assault on Islam. Meanwhile, a bigger conspiracy was brewing.
India and Pakistan both hurt each other using their respective intelligence outfits, R&AW and ISI. But that was mostly limited to smaller attacks, whether in Baluchistan or in Kashmir. But this time, out of the radar of both ISI and Pakistan’s military intelligence, few former veterans from the rank of an NCO to a major from Pakistan’s elite Zarrar Company, grouped to engineer an attack against India. Major Haroon Ashiq was one of them. In the US operations against Al-Qaeda and Taliban post 9/11, Major Haroon and his brother Khurram witnessed and took part in the operations led by Pakistan Army to eliminate terrorists in the erstwhile FATA region. Seeing the killings of fellow Muslims and compatriots, they left the army to join LeT.
NATO forces were using the Gwadar port to transport ammunition, food and medical supplies for the troops stationed in Afghanistan to fight Al-Qaeda terrorists. Earlier, Ilyas Kashmiri raised his own brigade and named it Brigade 313 to fight in Kashmir and elsewhere. Kashmiri who was once nabbed by the Indian police had managed to flee from the custody. Al-Qaeda’s Laskar-e-Zil was to coordinate with likeminded groups to coordinate attacks. That is how Kashmiri and Major Haroon met to mount attacks on NATO supplies.
From there, the plans got bigger and from 2007, Major Haroon planned to execute a 9/11 type attack in India and started raising money for his ambitious operation. Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus was totally in the dark. While the operations in NWFP and FATA were underway, Major Haroon planned to launch a massive attack on Mumbai which could trigger a war with India. While India and Pakistan would spend all the energies in the war, the Pakistani forces would be shifted from its western border to its eastern front. The attacks against the Al-Qaeda would then be halted, giving the cadre enough time to regroup.
Haroon assigned the task of executing the plan to Major Abdur Rehman who was an India expert.
Haroon had come to know that ISI was planning to launch an attack in Kashmir sometime in late 2007-08 by sending in highly trained militants. An unimpressed Haroon thought of it as an outdated method.
Haroon, along with LeT commanders Abu Hamza and Abdur Rahman, studied the map of India and chose western city facing the Arabian Sea, Mumbai and the Colaba region. It is south Mumbai’s posh and densely populated area inhabited by rich, middle class and foreigners visiting the city.
Headley was sent to do the reconnaissance in 2007. For that, he along with other LeT operatives got in touch with Tahawwur Hussain Rana, a commercial immigration agent based out of US. Together, they floated a fictitious company and Headley visited Mumbai to scout the city’s vulnerable places, which would have international implications if attacked.
Meanwhile, LeT’s senior commander Zakirur Rehman Lakhvi began to organise the attack by selecting the right people and the job was given to Sajid Mir.
Mumbai attacks were executed and it shook the world. It was totally an unconventional attack which India had never expected and the Pakistani establishment would never dare to orchestrate.
Just two weeks prior to 26/11, Paksitan’s former SSG chief Major General Amir Alvi cleaned up the Al-Qaeda operatives and Taliban in NWFP. He was commanding one of the elite services in the Pakistan Army but never knew that the elements who once served his branch would one day take his life. He was assassinated in Islamabad by three motorbike-borne gunmen while he was driving. Major Haroon Ashiq was the man behind his execution.
Despite the enormity of the 26/11 attacks, India and Pakistan didn’t go for war, much to the dismay of the orchestrators. Instead, a docket of investigation was shared with Pakistan on the case. Initially, Pakistani authorities denied that the men were from Pakistan but they knew Major Haroon was becoming bigger than the state and was fully willing and capable of planning a Mumbai-like attack on the Pakistani soil as well. Reluctantly though, Pakistan had to agree. Hafiz Sayeed and Lakhvi were arrested . However, Major Haroon was still at large.
ISI went all out to get the men who unleashed a terrorist attack that could have led to a full-blown war. In 2009, they nabbed Zahid Iqbal of Kashmiri’s 313 Brigade. The arrest opened the can of worms and names of Headley and co-conspirators came to the fore.
As Haroon was on the run and organising more attacks, DG ISI, Ahmad Shuja Pasha, initiated a major hunt against him. Meanwhile, Haroon kidnapped a Hindu film producer Satish Anand, closely related to Indian film actress Juhi Chawla. Anand couldn’t pay the ransom but was set free after, according to some reports, he embraced Islam. Haroon was in desperate need of money. He kidnapped a rich Qadiani, Sarawar Khan, from Islamabad. Only that it was a trap laid by ISI. Before he could act, Haroon was arrested. It was clear now that the ISI wasn’t the only powerful institution in Pakistan. There were non-state actors whose writ ran as well.
These non-state actors launched number of attacks against India’s security establishment. Some of the major conspiracies and attacks included the hijacking of IC 814, fidayeen attack on the J&K assembly, Parliament attacks, Akshardham temple attack in Ahmedabad, Mumbai train bombing, Mumbai 26/11, Delhi bombing, attack on the Uri Army base and finally the 2019 Pulwama suicide attack that killed more than 40 CRPF men traveling in a bus that was ripped into pieces. Almost all of these attacks were linked to JeM and its chief, Masood Azhar. In 2019, Masood was eventually listed by the UN sanction committee 1267 as a terrorist. Earlier, in June 2018, Pakistan found itself on the FATF grey list from which it was removed on October 22, 2022.
After Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in August 2021, there was fear that the territory might again be used as a terror launch pad. Meanwhile, after their exit from Afghanistan, Americans were keen on eliminating bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri. With a specific intelligence input from Pakistan, US used the over-the-horizon technique to kill him in a surgical drone attack.
Pakistan provided what the US wanted. US, in return, approved the $450 million F-16 sustainment programme to Pakistan. Even bigger award was Pakistan’s removal from the FATF grey list.
A rejuvenated Pakistan, despite the political upheaval led by Imran Khan, will keep bringing up Kashmir. More so in the backdrop of the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35-A and the bifurcation of J&K into two union territories. Meanwhile, despite BJP’s tall claims, a permanent peace is nowhere in sight in the valley of Kashmir.