Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Curious Hybrid of Mumbai

The attacks in Mumbai have been over for some twenty-four hours. Indian authorities have re-established order but we don’t yet know who perpetrated the attacks or why. And there is a disconcerting feeling that these attacks were different; they were somehow apart from the norm of modern terrorism. There is a curious sense that these attacks were a hybrid – but why? And is this feeling an accurate assessment?

One reason for this sense is that the domestic media here in the US – by which I mean CNN – has been repeating the notion that these were different for the duration of the attacks. Rumors that the attackers singled out Westerners colored the coverage.

Another reason for this sense of differentiation is that the rhetoric of the last seven years have hammered into us the wrongheaded notions that terrorism is an ideology (it is not); and terrorist acts perpetrated by Muslims can all be lumped together – Islamic Terrorists – and that those acts are necessary different than terrorist acts perpetrated by westerners.

But these reasons do not sufficiently explain the nagging sense that the Mumbai Attacks are different. First let us describe what we do know: (1) ten or (likely) more terrorists of-at this time-unknown nationality and religion (2) attacked 6 sites in Mumbai (3) using AK-series rifles, grenades and plastic explosive; (4) 10 of these men were carried into Mumbai by a zodiac-like craft; (5) at three sites the attackers took hostages, secured and defended the positions from security forces; (6) no known demands were made; (7) no credible claim of responsibility has been made; (8) one denial, by Lashkar-e-Taibi, has been issued. From these facts we can infer that the attack was well planned and highly organized, the attackers appear to have been well trained and have had good intelligence on the sites attacked – this attack was resource intensive.
Terrorism is a class of tactics used by many types of groups pursuing many different ends. Often it is used by groups engaged in struggles for ‘national liberation’. The specific tactics used by these groups have divided fairly neatly into two distinct groups: those designed to focus attention on the struggle – macabre theatre; and those designed to make an ‘occupation’ too costly to maintain by inflicting significant casualties on the occupier by attacking hard and soft targets. Sometimes a particular attack is used as leverage for some other end: taking hostages and demanding the release of political prisoners, for instance.

Part of what makes the attacks in Mumbai so unnerving is that they don’t appear to fit neatly into either group of tactics. While the duration of the attacks and media response fit the profile of macabre theatre, the real damage and casualties inflicted push the bounds of this definition (historically). More importantly, no warning was issued, no credible claim of responsibility has been made, and nothing was demanded – all are trademarks of attacks designed to spotlight a struggle.

Similarly, while the attacks caused terrible casualties, the terrorists inexplicably released hostages. Again, no claim of responsibility was issued – simply inflicting great damage without attribution does not advance the ‘cause’, whatever the ‘cause’ may be.

The most curious aspects of the attacks are that the terrorists attacked, held and defended fixed positions, and that the terrorists issued no claim or demands. A few modern examples of terrorists attacking and holding fixed positions have been perpetrated by Chechens: the take over of the Beslan school and the attack on the Moscow Theatre. Both of these attacks were against fixed positions and involved the taking of hostages. However, in both of these attacks, the terrorists issued specific demands.

To some extent this analysis assumes perfect execution on the part of the attackers. It may be that despite the apparent effectiveness with which the attacker took over the Taj and Oberoi, the operation was botched. It could be that the goal was to kill many more westerners than were actually killed and the enormous number of Indians killed was accidental. It could also be that the attack was disrupted by Indian security forces – perhaps, it will be revealed that the terrorist were attempting to plant explosives in the Taj and Oberoi and the release of hostages and defense of the buildings were attempts to delay security forces until the buildings could be destroyed, live on television. If this is the case then the comparatively superficial attacks elsewhere in Mumbai may be explainable as diversionary attacks. It is unlikely, however, given the duration the terrorists controlled the buildings that they were unable to plant explosives.

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