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Sixty Hours of Terror: “No Hostages Should Remain Alive”

PUBLISHED: November 18, 2009

Editor’s Note—This is part three of a four-part series [1, 2, 3, 4] on the November 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai.

An ornate, castle-like hotel is on fire, a cloud of black smoke rising to meet the blue sky. In the foreground, a flock of birds flies by.
The Taj Mahal Palace & Tower in flames (Priyam Dhar).

IV. “No Hostages Should Remain Alive”

1 A.M. Kasab Interrogation: Part I

Ajmal Kasab spoke before a question was asked: “I have committed a big mistake.”

He lay flat on the hospital mattress, a brown blanket covering his naked body from feet to chest. His hair was wet with sweat. Gauze bandages swathed his arms from wrists to biceps, but the girth of his forearms suggested a solid build. Another patch covered the right side of his neck. Exposed was a gash on his clean-shaven chin. His eyes were squeezed shut as the police interrogator, standing at the edge of the bed, introduced himself to the prisoner and the video camera that was rolling.

“On whose insistence?”

“At the behest of Chacha.” The mysterious Uncle Zaki.

“Who is this Uncle?”

“The one from Lashkar.”

“Lashkar what? Which village is he from?”

“I don’t know about his village. But he has an office . . . He keeps visiting the office.”

“Who sent you here?”

“My father said we were very poor . . . Our condition would improve . . . We will have food to eat, clothes to wear.”

“Was he your real father?” the interrogator asked

“Real father . . . real father,” Kasab mumbled.

“What’s your name?”

“Ajmal Kasab.”

“What’s your age?”


“Where is your village?”

“Faridkot”—in the Okara district of Pakistan’s Punjab province.

The interrogator asked about his family background. Where his father lived and worked, his siblings and their occupations. His surname, Kasab, meant butcher, he explained, but no one was involved in that line of work anymore. He said he quit school years ago and had since taken menial jobs in construction.

Some time in 2007, he said his father took him to Uncle Zaki to work for him. His aggrieved tone of voice implied that he was either forced or misled into doing so. “Uncle Zaki would say, ‘Work with me. You will bring a good name to your family. You will get money. It is Allah’s work.’”

“What happened next?”

“He told my father to leave me in the office. From then on I was in Allah’s custody.”

Kasab said he, along with about twenty-five other recruits, began training in winter, shortly after Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. Their trainers were hardened men who demonstrated how to use grenades, Kalashnikov rifles, and handguns. He said he only knew one other person there.

“Where were you supposed to go after today’s incident?”

“Nowhere. We were meant to die.”

How many accomplices were sent with you?

Kasab tried to dodge the question. He was ordered to wage jihad, he said, was blindfolded and put on a boat. Asked if he’d ever done something like this before, he momentarily broke down. “Nowhere, nowhere,” he said. He only did this because Uncle Zaki promised to give his struggling family a large amount of money.

“How does Zaki look?”

Collecting himself, Kasab described Zaki as a man in his forties with a black beard flecked with white, a veteran of the jihad against the Soviet Army.

“What lecture did he used to give?”

“He would give lectures only once in a while. He would keep very busy. ‘You are Muslims. You have to get rid of poverty. Look at India. They have raced ahead of us. They kill your people. You have to wage jihad against India.’”

Early Morning. Oberoi Hotel.

Getting at the gunmen was not going to be easy. Unlike at the Taj, there were no closed-circuit cameras installed in the hotel’s corridors, making surveillance impossible. In the predawn hours after his return from the shooting scene at Chowpatty Beach, Additional Commissioner Singh had tried splitting available forces into two teams to penetrate the guest areas and to isolate the gunmen, but he had to abandon the plan after grenades came cascading down onto the lobby floor. Tactical advantage belonged to the gunmen and was theirs to lose.

A series of police officers sit on a long, cement bench. They hold Short Magazine Lee-Enfield Mk IIIs, stout bolt-action rifles with undersized-looking clips and leather slings. All look across the street.
Police officers wait restlessly outside the Oberoi hotel (Priyam Dhar).

A dejected-looking man stands in front of an ambulance. A surgical mask is looped around his ears, but it's pushed down under his chin. He wears a disposable plastic smock.
Exhausted ambulance workers outside the Oberoi (Apoorva Guptay).

Looking for a better vantage point, Singh took two ATS officers and went to the rooftop of the Express Towers, a high-rise apartment complex down the street. Rooms at the Oberoi were either blacked out or had curtains drawn. Another pair of ATS officers, meanwhile, had been posted on the terrace of the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA), just opposite the Oberoi. They relayed what they saw to Singh on a wireless: a corner window on the eighteenth floor had been smashed out and a gunman was firing bursts at police on the street; a second gunman, on the side open to the sea, was doing the same. But the officers could still not manage a clear shot.

Singh was not in a mood to sit idle. The loss of innocent life in the city he’d sworn to protect was bad enough, but when Chief Karkare was located, discarded on the street alongside his colleagues, he was found clinging to life. For a brief time, it seemed possible he would survive but then Singh received word that his longtime friend and partner had died in the hospital of his injuries. Singh wanted to strike back, and hard. He decided to join the ATS officers at the NCPA and was running across the street when he noticed a movement on an eighteenth floor balcony. Convinced the shadow belonged to one of the gunman, he snatched a semi-automatic rifle from a subordinate, took aim and fired. The bullets smacked the concrete walls as the figure vanished into the room.

1:37 A.M. Taj Hotel.

Handler: The ATS Chief has been killed. Your work is very important. Allah is helping you. The minister should not escape. Try to set the place on fire.

Gunman: We have set fire in four rooms.

Handler: People shall run helter skelter when they see the flames. Keep throwing a grenade every fifteen minutes or so. It will terrorize.

Kasab Interrogation: Part II.

The interrogator kept up the questioning for more than two hours, angling for a crucial piece of information that might strengthen the authorities’ weak hand. He wanted to know more about the other gunmen, questions Kasab resisted. He offered a brief description of their physical appearance, clothing, and cities of origin. All were Pakistani, he confirmed, all under thirty years old, armed to the hilt.

His own assault rucksack included eight hand grenades, two of Austrian (Arges) make with plastic cases, a bomb of military-grade RDX explosive with steel ball bearings and timer, a pistol with two seven-round clips, and a semi-automatic Chinese-made AK-56 assault rifle with three double magazines, each containing thirty bullets. One hundred eighty rounds in total. A water bottle and a sack of almonds and raisins were also packed, in case he got hungry.

Their instructions were clear. If they landed ashore in the early morning, they were to move to their assigned targets and wait until eleven in the morning when human traffic surged. If they arrived any later, they were to commence between seven and eleven at night, under cover of darkness but while car traffic was still at its peak. Once in motion, the objective was to kill as many people as possible: “Anyone who would come into sight.” Then they were to take a “stronghold, take people hostage, and make demands” of the government. Their handlers would call the gunmen once they were holed up to relay those ransom requests.

2:02 A.M. Taj Hotel.

Gunman: Salaam Aleikum.

Handler: Waleikum as-salaam. How are you doing?

Gunman: All is fine, by the grace of Allah.

Handler: So how many hostages do you have now?

Gunman: We have five hostages now. One of them is speaking in some Kannad language.

Handler: What’s his name?

Gunman (to the hostage): What’s your name? Ramamoorthy . . . He is saying his name is Ramamoorthy.

The handler told the gunman to ask what he did for a living. In an effort to hide his identity, Ramamoorthy lied that he was a university teacher.

“No way a teacher can afford to stay at the Taj,” the gunman scoffed. “You better tell us the truth.”

“I work for a bank,” Ramamoorthy admitted.

The handler conducted an Internet search on his laptop. A picture of the bald and bespectacled Ramamoorthy came up. His appearance fit the description. The handlers in Pakistan seemed pleased by this.

Handler: Okay, no hostages should remain alive.

3 A.M. Taj Hotel.

Ramamoorthy’s room on the sixth floor had served as the gunmen’s de facto command center for close to three hours. All of the Taj gunmen—Arshad, Javed, Shoaib, and Nazir—had gathered there, chattering on cell phones to their handlers, helping themselves to the mini bar. The gunmen seemed relaxed, at peace. Their nonchalance harried the bound hostages. Finally, the word came: the handlers told the gunmen it was time to leave, that they should use their hostages as human shields.

The group was marched out of the room at gunpoint, down a staircase to a fifth-floor room, where they were shoved to the floor, told not to move, and then the gunmen left. Ramamoorthy tried to grasp what was going on. The gunmen were nowhere to be seen. Better to follow instructions? Or would the gunmen kill them when they next returned? An explosion boomed overhead. It demanded a choice. The fire spawned by the blast started spreading across the sixth floor. Dense smoke soon began to fill the hostages’ room.

After struggling for several minutes, the banker managed to free his right hand from the knot at his back, and then his legs. With a pair of scissors he found in a drawer, he helped free the other hostages who were gasping for air and opened windows facing the swimming pool. A hotel staffer ripped curtains from their fixtures and tied them with sheets to improvise a rope. One at a time, they slid down the balcony outside to a ledge on the third floor.

Ramamoorthy, the last left, was exhausted by his surging blood pressure and feared he could not descend alone. He would fall. But flames spilled from the windows above and licked the outer wall with a searing heat; he couldn’t remain here. He collected all the clothing he could find around the room to use as cover and, steeling himself, dashed out of the room, back into the hall to the crack of intermittent gunfire. He jogged down the corridor, arms crossed over his head, stooping in the corners to suck air. On the switch-backed staircase he expected the sting of bullets that never came.

An open door eventually appeared on the third floor, and through the room he could see a window to the street where searchlights flickered. Ramamoorthy managed to pry the window open and, waving his arms, shouted down to firefighters below. “Help me, please. I’m here. Help me.” A ladder was raised. The banker was saved. “You are safe,” a firefighter assured him.

But scores of others were still barricaded in their rooms. By now dozens of TV crews had set up in the plaza across the street, giving a torrent of breathless commentary. Millions of Indians at home monitored developments through the night—though none more intently than the attackers’ handlers in Pakistan. Phone calls intercepted and later transcribed by Indian intelligence revealed how much the handlers relied on the media to offer guidance to the attackers, in particular about the movements of police and commandos. At times, excited journalists at the Taj, Oberoi, and Nariman House even broadcast the exact locations of prominent people trapped inside the buildings. As the hours dragged on, such disclosures were exploited to deadly effect.

3:30 A.M. Oberoi Hotel.

Meltem Muezzinoglu and her husband Seyfi chose the wrong escape route. They had been having coffee after dinner with business partner Ali Arpaciouglu in the Kandahar restaurant when the gunmen blasted in. Guided by a hotel staff member whose hand was badly injured, Arpaciouglu exited with other diners through the kitchen down a flight of stairs to a rear entrance that opened to the street. The Muezzinoglus took one of the front doors and climbed an interior stairwell with a small herd of guests. They stumbled on each other, panting for breath. On the twentieth floor Rehman and Fahadullah intercepted the whole group and had been holding them through the night.

Now, the gunmen lined up all fifteen against the wall in the stairwell.

“Why are you doing this to us?” one woman cried out. “We haven’t done anything to you.”

“Remember Babri Masjid,” Fahadullah shouted back, referring to a sixteenth-century Muslim mosque destroyed by Hindu fanatics in 1992.

“Remember Godhra,” Rehman yelled, in reference to a town in Gujarat state where anti-Muslim riots broke out in 2002 following a deadly attack on a passenger train.

“We are Turkish. We are Muslim,” Meltem shouted. Fahadullah gestured for them to lie face down on the floor. After some discussion, three other women, all foreigners, were told to do the same. Rehman and Fahadullah were unsure whether they were to be killed or ransomed. The rest were shot, their bodies collapsing in heaps on the Muezzinoglus. Bullets ricocheted around the stairwell, some coming back at the gunmen, blowing off one or two of their fingers. The five unhurt hostages pushed free from the dead and those still struggling for breath. (Four of those shot survived—the bodies of their fellow victims absorbing the brunt of the bullets.) At gunpoint, the Muezzinoglus and three foreign women were ordered to walk over the bodies of their fellow hostages and down the stairwell.

Taken one floor down to Room 1979, the Muezzinoglus managed to sneak some phone calls while their captors came and went. One call was patched through to Additional Commissioner Singh. In halting English they described the two gunmen. “One is in blue clothes and the second in black; the one in blue seems more cruel. Each is carrying an assault rifle, maybe also pistols, and a bag full of hand grenades. They are constantly speaking to someone on the phone.” The couple also saw that one of them had left a rucksack on the floor, with more grenades and bullet clips.

Meltem also reported that they were being held with three foreign women, including Lo Hoei Yen, a twenty-eight-year old lawyer from Singapore. Yen relayed that the gunmen had threatened to kill her if security forces entered the hotel. Singh told Meltem not to worry. Help was on the way. “Just be patient,” he said.

3:53 A.M. Oberoi Hotel.

Handler 1: Brother Abdul. The media is comparing your action to 9/11. One senior police officer has been killed.

Abdul Rehman: We are on the eighteenth or nineteenth floor. We have five hostages.

Handler 2: Everything is being recorded by the media. Inflict maximum damage. Keep fighting and don’t be taken alive.

Handler 1: Kill all hostages except the two Muslims. Keep your phone switched on so that we can hear the gunfire.

Rehman: We have three foreigners including women from Singapore and China.

Handler 1: Kill them.

9:30 A.M. Taj Hotel.

Ajmal Kasab had told interrogators that only four gunmen were in the Taj, but no one was ready to take his word. The havoc inside the hotel suggested a bigger contingent. And while security forces at the Oberoi had been able to isolate the attackers in one wing, the Taj was a labyrinthine complex with a twenty-one story tower and a main building constructed in a U shape with varying floor plans. The gunmen, for their part, had a demonstrated knowledge of the layout. It seemed that every time security forces applied any pressure, they would stand their ground or fall back to a safe position and force police to reassess. A half-day’s head start added to their advantage.

NSG officers Major Sanjay Kandwal and Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan had the dual task of rescuing hostages and eliminating the threat. In the lobby of the new Taj, they consulted with Mumbai police and hotel security staff. The black-clad commandos were then split up into fifteen squads of five commandos each. Major Kandwal would lead four teams into the Taj tower by way of a service elevator and work his way down; Major Unnikrishnan would clear the old Taj. Snipers would surround the complex to ensure no one slipped away. Given the dearth of information the commandos had to go on, hair-trigger timing and force were going to be critical in their bid to take back the hotel. The operation was dubbed “Black Tornado.”

They went door to door, calling, “Police! Identify yourself. Open the door and come out with your hands in the air.” When there was no response, a master key was used. If the door was double locked, rendering the master key useless, it was blown off with explosives. This would often scatter heaps of room furniture barricaded against the door, to accompanying screams. Some people were too terrified to emerge, thinking it was a ruse by the gunmen. Weapons leveled, the commandos would sweep in and shake the room down. With 306 guest rooms in the Taj tower and nearly every one booked, it was an onerous task. All clear on the twenty-first floor. Twenty more to go.

9:30 A.M. The Oberoi.

An NSG motorcade at the periphery of the Oberoi had cordoned the area. Lieutenant Colonel RK Sharma, the task force commander in charge of tactical maneuvers, surveyed the scene with fellow officers before Mumbai police briefed him on what intelligence they had gathered. According to the Muezzinoglus’ account, they could assume at least two gunmen were in the building, though hostilities suggested more were involved. Reports from hotel staff indicated additional gunmen might be on the fourth floor as well. For an hour, the officers pored over floor plans to come up with the best strategy. It amounted to a choice between bad and worse.

It was safe to assume there were no gunmen in the Trident, which had been silent overnight. MARCOS (short for Marine Commandos), deployed as an overnight stopgap until the NSG arrived, had secured each of the three passages that connected the two buildings, effectively sealing off the Oberoi. After weighing various plans of attacks, the officers decided that the building would have to be stormed from the top. NSG forces would move level-by-level, room-by-room to secure hostages and subdue the gunmen. It was decided. At 10:30, two NSG squads of about fifteen commandos charged into the building.

10:45 A.M. Nariman House.

Tit-for-tat, the low-intensity exchanges sputtered on through the night. The gunmen fired volleys out of different windows to keep the police from zeroing in to make a move; Indian security forces did the same from their holding positions, reinforced by NSG commandos bearing PSG-1 sniper rifles. Down below, Joshi coordinated the neighborhood support effort, supplying Bagwan’s police and the NSG with home cooked meals and steaming pots of spiced chai to stave off fatigue.

Inside the Jewish center, the gunmen helped themselves to food and communicated with their handlers through a voice-over internet protocol (VoIP) on an office computer. Rabbi Holtzberg’s phone rang. Imran answered; it was Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who had called Rabbi Holtzberg’s cell to check on the status of the hostages, but Imran only spoke Urdu and could not understand. Shemtov called contacts in the situation room in the White House and requested help from the Indian Ambassador and Israeli Foreign Ministry officials. An Urdu-speaking translator was patched through to mediate the call between Shemtov and the gunmen.

“We wish to speak to negotiate with the Indian government,” Imran said in Urdu. “One of our men is in your custody; bring him to us.” Asked if the hostages were all right, the gunman answered: “We haven’t even slapped them around yet.” Shemtov asked to hear the voice of Rabbi Holtzberg. The voice of a woman with an Israeli accent, later identified as Yocheved Orpaz, could be heard shouting in the background: “Please help, immediately, please.” Shemtov again demanded to speak to the rabbi. “You’ve already asked for too much,” Imran said, and the line went dead. Shemtov called again, but now Imran complained that the battery was dying. They knew his demands.

While the negotiation continued, Sandra Samuel and Zakir Hussain slid out from behind the second floor refrigerator where they’d been hiding and crept to the staircase. Samuel heard the faint cries of Moshe, the rabbi’s two-year-old, coming from the floor above. Dashing upstairs, they found the boy on the floor, trembling, blood caked on his pants. Dead bodies lay all around him: his father, his pregnant mother (draped in a prayer shawl), and their two American-Israeli guests, Rabbi Teitelbaum and Bentzion Chroman. In a flourish, Samuel scooped up Moshe and tore down the stairs, out into the morning light.

A mother, holding a toddler, kisses the child on the head.
Sandra Samuel kisses Moshe Holtzberg, orphan of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivka, after rescuing him from Nariman House (Tara Todras-Whitehill / AP Images).

Early Afternoon. Nariman House.

The handler called Imran and told him to put one of the hostages on the line.

Yocheved Orpaz: Hello. Who is that?

Handler: Did you spoke? Did you speak to the consulate?

Orpaz: I am talking to the consulate. They are doing . . . they are making phone calls just now.

Handler: Already made it or you are going to make it?

Orpaz: Yeah. [She sobs.] I’ve already talked to them. I was talking to the consulate just a few seconds back and they are making their phone calls. They have said to leave the line free so that they can get in touch with you anytime and tell you that we are pleased with you. [She cries again.] You understand?

Handler: No, I don’t understand.

Orpaz: They will get in touch with you anytime.

Handler: Don’t worry, just sit back and relax and wait for them to make contact. Okay?

Orpaz was inconsolable. She sobbed uncontrollably.

Handler: Save your energy for good days. Maybe if they can contact right now maybe you will celebrate Shabbat with your family.

2:33 P.M. Nariman House.

Handler: How are you brother?

Imran: Things are fine by the grace of Allah.

Handler: You remember all that I had told you? If the media asks where you are from, tell them you are from Hyderabad in the Deccan; that you are from the city of Hyderabad.

Imran: Hyderabad.

Handler: Yes. And say you are from the Toli Chauki area; say you are associated with the Deccan Mujahideen. And if they ask why you did all this? Are you writing all this down?

Imran: Yes.

Handler: Say it is the duplicitous policy of the government. On one hand they pat our backs, on the other they beat our heads with hammers. The latest example of this is the Sachar Committee Report. The government declares one thing but the administration executes its reverse by wrongly arresting Muslim youth . . . And give them the ultimatum that this is only a trailer; the full film is yet to be shown. And listen, talk confidently, and only allow yourself to talk; don’t let them ask too many questions.

Imran: All right.

Handler: They will ask what is your demand.

Imran: Yes.

Handler: You say, first, release all the Muslims in the jails. Second, hand over the Muslim state to Muslims. Third, call back the Army from Kashmir and give Kashmiris their rightful due. Begin the construction of Babri Masjid immediately. The land of the masjid should be handed over to Muslims right away. Do not maintain ties with Israel.

Imran: With Israel?

Handler: Break off ties with Israel; and give the ultimatum to the Israeli government that it should stop the injustice on Muslims.

Imran: Stop playing with Muslim blood.

3 P.M. Oberoi Hotel.

The clearing operation had fallen into a frantic rhythm. Call and response, enter by key or by force, secure the area. For three levels the NSG commandos encountered no hostility, just a trail of corpses and occasional resistance from petrified guests. Waving their passports and ID cards, the liberated were ushered out of the hotel to a temporary command center where police cross-checked their names with hotel records to ensure no gunmen were hiding among them. Still others with medical conditions were whisked away to nearby hospitals.

Shots were fired at ATS personnel on the terrace of the Centre for Performing Arts. Word was relayed to Lieutenant Colonel Sharma that they appeared to have come from the eighteenth floor. Rather than move there directly and risk an ambush, he opted to clear the top floors first and consolidate his position. At 3:30, he moved down to the nineteenth floor and discovered the bodies of three women. One was that of Lo Hoei Yen, the lawyer from Singapore. This was the floor where the Turkish couple said they were being held; it was fair to assume the gunmen might be waiting there, possibly alternating between the eighteenth and nineteenth floors.

Lieutenant Colonel Sharma then got a message that four men had been sighted on the roof. The snipers were not sure if they should fire or not, and were told to wait. After several minutes, the group raised a white cloth and another NSG squad was dispatched. It was the four lucky survivors from the stairwell shooting. Bleeding from their wounds, they had hidden for hours behind a cooling system until they knew police were within reach.

Visibility was low on level eighteen. Rajesh Kadam, the assistant chief of hotel security who was guiding the commandos, knocked on the door of Room 1856. There was no answer, so Kadam slid the master key into the lock and slowly opened the door. Shots rang out from within the room and the team retreated to the staircase. One member, Major Saurabh, was shot once in the leg, but no one was seriously injured. Lieutenant Colonel Sharma radioed the snipers on the eleventh floor of the NCPA with their location. They worked out a quick plan for a coordinated attack. The snipers would shoot out the windows and pin down the gunmen from the outside, while commandos advanced on the room from the inside. It was now after five o’clock. The team took their positions.

5:07 P.M. India TV live broadcast.

After hours of trying, Imran finally got through the jammed phone lines of India TV. He put on a Kashmiri accent and, as his handlers had instructed, claimed to be from the Deccan Mujahideen.

“We want to negotiate with the government. Only then will we let the hostages go,” he said.

The woman anchor interrupted to ask Imran his motives.

“Do you know how many Muslims are killed in Kashmir by your armed forces? Give them their freedom, why are you creating such a mess there? How much injustice can we tolerate? How much can we sacrifice?”

Imran grew fevered, expressing his anger at Israel for interfering.

“You call their Army staff to visit Kashmir. Why? Who are they to come to Jammu and Kashmir. This is a matter between us and Hindus . . . the Hindu government. Why does Israel come here?”

“Imran,” the anchor interrupted again, “you claim that you are in Nariman House. How many of your friends are there in Nariman House?”

“We know how to survive . . . how to claim our rights . . .”

After Imran hung up, his handlers called to congratulate him.

Evening. Taj Hotel.

Major Unnikrishnan was torn. The woman on the other end of the line was begging him to save her life. Her name was Florence. A hotel employee in her early twenties, she had locked herself the night before into an office room on the second floor of the north wing after hearing gunshots. She was panicked and thirsty. The desperation in her voice tugged at him and swelled frustrations that had festered overnight.

A black police car with darkly tinted windows is riddled with bullet holes. A red siren, intact, perches atop the roof.
A bullet-riddled police vehicle outside the Trident-Oberoi hotel (Apoorva Guptay).

A man dressed in the manner of an English Bobby, carrying a flashlight, walks past a fire truck. His mouth is open, as if shouting.
A fireman calls for assistance outside the Oberoi (Apoorva Guptay).

The massive sixth floor blast and resulting fire had destroyed the lights in much of the old Taj. As the major, aided by night-vision goggles, methodically led his teams through the blackened corridors of the south wing, the few people they were able to rescue were outweighed by the mounting numbers of the dead. Among them: the wife and two sons of the hotel’s general manager, Karambir Kang. The door-to-door searches were brutal. One stubborn gunman managed to wound two of the major’s men in a brief encounter. When they counter-attacked with grenades, the gunman used a hostage as a human shield and escaped. A fire choked the floor, forcing the commandos to regroup.

Better to move than wait, the major resolved. With two squads sent to the third floor to provide cover from above, Unnikrishnan led a third through a kitchen passageway and up to the second floor but could not locate the office where Florence was holed up. At 9 P.M., a third effort was mounted. This time, the gunmen found them—an ambush. The major and a subordinate, Sunil Kumar Jodha, made it up the central staircase to the first floor; the rest of his men were pinned down by bullets and grenades that rained down from multiple directions at once.

Jodha was hit once, then again and again. Eight times in all. Major Unnikrishan dragged him out of the line of fire and returned a blistering volley with his MP-5. Another commando who had crept up behind Jodha helped carry him away. But the major was determined to push the engagement. “Don’t come behind me,” he shouted as he climbed back up the stairs. He took a right down the hallway and braced himself behind a wall and fired diagonally toward the muzzle flashes at the other end of the corridor. They appeared to be coming from the Palm Lounge.

Major Unnikrishnan bolted forward to catch the gunman who was hiding behind the left door. Unbeknownst to him, however, an accomplice waited behind the wall on the other side. As soon as the major swung around to take out the first gunman, he was surprised by a burst from the second. He buckled to the ground, squeezing off several errant rounds as he fell.

6 P.M. Oberoi Hotel.

The snipers bullets had smashed out the windows of Room 1856, and a gunman, crouched under the sill, had stood to shoot back. On that signal, commandos down the hall poured in a torrent of heavy fire to overwhelm the gunmen. The shooting was so intense that fire started in the room, triggering the automatic sprinkler system. Rehman and Fahadullah turned on all the taps in the bathroom, which combined to flood the area with several inches of water. This put the fire out. But the gunmen were trapped.

The chasm of the atrium left just two paths for escape, both guarded by teams of commandos. One of the gunmen lobbed a grenade from the room. The commandos, firmly in place, were not hit and returned fire. The gunmen seemed frustrated, even confused, by their refusal to retreat. One of them shouted: “Have you gone mad? Why are you shooting?” He was answered with more gunfire. By now, the smoke had cleared, and his figure was faintly outlined by a ceiling light. Lieutenant Colonel Sharma, poised directly across the cavernous atrium from Room 1856, had his first open shot. He took it. The wounded gunman slid behind a concrete wall.

“Why are you fighting under cover?” he shouted angrily. “If you have the guts, come out and fire.”

“You are the ones hiding,” Sharma shot back. “If you have more courage, then you come out in the open.”

Nighttime came, and the blacked out hotel sank into darkness. Occasionally, the commandos could hear cries of pain from the room but nothing more. The stalemate held until dawn when a commando fired a volley that connected with the gunman’s head and chest. He collapsed and the commandos moved in, fingers at their triggers.

They found the room torn apart by shrapnel, wire ducts hanging from the roof, and puddles soaking the carpet. One of the shots had passed through the eye of the first gunman. His rifle lay across his lap, a pistol on the floor next to him. Aside from weapons and a cell phone, there was a student ID card in his pocket. The ring and middle fingers of his left hand were missing from some earlier accident. A second gunman, found on the floor of the bathroom by the door, did not respond when shots were fired at him. He’d been dead for some time. There was no one else.

7:45 P.M. Nariman House.

The gunmen were growing weary. Nasir was asleep on the floor. Imran spoke repeatedly with his handler, trying to stay awake and committed.

For nearly twenty-four hours now they had remained holed up with their hostages—Norma Shvarzblat Rabinovich and Yocheved Orpaz—bound on the floor and begging for their lives. But the nanny had escaped with the rabbi’s son, and now the airwaves were filled with news that the gunmen had killed hostages, including the boy’s parents. Imran was beginning to realize that there would be no negotiation; the Indian government would not allow a swap of Kasab and the Nariman House gunmen, or any Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists in Indian jails, for the lives of the Israeli women he still had in custody. He had done exactly as his handler instructed: he had set aside two magazines and three grenades, in anticipation of a final assault, and he was expending the rest of his ammunition to prolong the engagement. But Imran was drained.

His handler knew Indian authorities could mount an attack at any moment, and the gunmen needed to be alert. Reports would later surface that the gunmen, in preparation for the attack, had injected a mix of steroids, cocaine, and LSD to keep them awake and deaden their senses to the carnage they were poised to inflict, but anything they could have taken would have worn off long before. Imran was sinking into exhaustion and despair. His resolve to murder was waning, and his handler was trying to persuade him that killing the hostages was in Imran’s own best interest.

“Keep in mind that the hostages are of use only as long as you do not come under fire because of their safety,” he argued. “If you are still threatened, then don’t saddle yourself with the burden of the hostages.”

Imran was groggy and barely responsive. “Yes,” he said. “We shall do accordingly. God willing.”

The handler also reminded Imran of the conversation with Rabbi Shemtov and the rumors now circulating that Israel had appealed to the Indian government for the right to intercede, a request India had flatly refused.

“If the hostages are killed,” the handler reasoned, “it will sour relations between India and Israel.”

“So be it,” Imran murmured. “God willing.”

A trio of soldiers rush through the night, wearing bulletproof vests and helmets, carrying rifles.
Police encircle Nariman House (Apoorva Guptay).

A police officer stands on the side of a street, hands on his hips.
A policeman outside Nariman House (Vinukumar Ranganathan).

8:40 P.M. Nariman House.

Imran’s handler was growing impatient. An hour had passed and the gunmen still had not shot the remaining hostages.

Handler: Just shoot them now. Get rid of them. Because you could come under fire at any time and you’ll only end up leaving them behind.

Imran: Everything’s quiet here for now.

Handler: Shoot them in the back of the head.

Imran: Sure. Just as soon as we come under fire.

Handler: No. Don’t wait any longer. You never know when you might come under attack.

Imran: God willing.

Handler: I’ll stay on the line.

The line went silent for fifteen seconds—with no sound of shots, no voices.

Imran: Hello?

Handler: Do it. Do it. I’m listening. Do it.

Imran: What, shoot them?

Handler: Yes, do it. Sit them up and shoot them in the back of the head.

Imran: [Nasir] is asleep. He hasn’t been feeling too well.

Handler: I’ll call you back in half an hour. You can do it then.

9:20 P.M. Nariman House.

The news was reporting that the gunmen at the Oberoi were dead and inspection of their bodies revealed that they had sustained multiple wounds to their hands, fingers shot entirely off. It appeared that, in lining up their victims in the stairwell to be gunned down, they had not accounted for the ricochet of their high-velocity bullets. A number of shots had passed completely through their victims and come hurtling back. Their handler had new instructions.

Handler: Stand the women up in a doorway so that when the bullet goes through their heads it then goes outside, instead of ricocheting back into your room.

Imran: Okay.

Handler: Do one of them now, in the name of God. You’ve tied them up, right?

Imran: Yeah. I’ll untie their feet.

Handler: Just stand them up. If they’re tied up, leave them tied up.

Imran protested that he didn’t want to kill the two women in the room where he had holed up with Nasir.

Handler: It’ll only take two shots. Do it in the room where you are now.

Imran: All right, yes.

Handler: Do it. Shoot them and shove them over to one side of the room.

9:30 P.M. Nariman House.

Imran: Please don’t be angry. I’ve rejiggered things a bit and now . . .

Handler: Have you done the job yet or not?

Imran: We were just waiting for you to call back, so we could do it while you’re on the phone.

Handler: Do it, in God’s name.

Imran: Just a sec . . . hold the line . . .

The sound of jostling. A burst of gunfire. Silence. More jostling.

Handler: That was one of them, right?

Imran: Both.

10:26 P.M. Nariman House.

Imran was cratering. With the hostages dead, he knew his fate was sealed, and he was losing the will to go on.

“Brother, you have to fight,” his handler told him. “This is a matter of prestige of Islam. Fight so that your fight becomes a shining example. Be strong in the name of Allah.” Imran was completely spent and sliding toward sleep. His handler worried he might surrender or allow himself to be surprised. “You may feel tired or sleepy,” the voice on the phone told him, “but the Soldiers of Islam have left everything behind. Their mothers, their fathers, their homes. Brother, you have to fight for the victory of Islam. Be strong.”

“Amen,” Imran said.

Tomorrow: “By the Grace of Allah


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Lorraine Berry's picture
This has inspired another blog post here. I am trying to understand why. But all I can see in my head is the terrorized faces of the hostages.
VQR reader's picture
VQR reader · 10 years ago
This write-up is very detail oriented - hopefully this will help law enforcement folks in India clean up their act and be more responsive to the needs of the poor citizens. Rather than spending billions on missiles, give our anti terrorist squad the right weapons and training to fight these deadly terrorists. Get training from US, Isreal if needed. Cut the redtape and move fast…. Our prayers go to the brave Indian commandoes and innocent victims, both Indians and guests of India - hope their deaths are not in vain.
VQR reader's picture
VQR reader · 10 years ago
After almost a year, today some questions are being answered by this detailed report…as to what was happening in the Taj Mahal Palace wing…I was there that night and was shot at…having personally lived through the terror all night till a frightening escape next day morning and many months of sleepless nights reliving, hearing the terror stricken voices of hostages and wondering about the timeline as it related to my room on the 4th floor….this is good work and hopefully will help in saving lives in future.
Lorraine Berry's picture
I cannot imagine what those of you who were there that night went through. Thank you for being willing to talk about it here.
Praveen Ojha's picture
Praveen Ojha · 10 years ago
Well, its for everyone to see who was responsible for this carnage. US has its interest in not twisting pakistan’s hand too much but they know it too well that had pakistan wished, they could easily bring the perpatrators to justice. Instead Hafiz saeed, the chief of Lashkar is a free man since the paki courts did not find any evidence. But sadly, India wants the US to fight its war. That will not happen. The response to this carnage was nil from India. Till date its all about diplomatic haggling at various international conferences about bringing those responsible to justice. Havent we Indians learnt that Pakistan will never change and will continue being a terrorist disneyland? They have two-timed US, a country which provides their bread and butter in aid feeds its impoverished people then why will they ever heed to us? India must take the fight to its enemies and develop a political will to fight its own war. Pre-emptive strike is the call of the hour. Our intelligence system knows too well of all Lashkar locations. Action must be covert and diplomacy must be overt.
Gaurav Singh's picture
Gaurav Singh · 10 years ago
It is the first time that I’ve heard about how Maj Sandeep Unnikrishnan was matyred. All news agencies reported that he went to fight alone telling his men to stay back. The details of what happened after that were not known. How did you get the precise details of how he was shot considering that he was alone at the time? Was there an eyewitness to this incident? Also was there coordination between the NSG combing the floors and the CCTV control room during the Taj operation ? Maybe that would have helped locate the gunmen sooner. I heard reports that the room was destroyed in the fire. Is this true ?
sridhar's picture
sridhar · 10 years ago
Hi, I live in US and feel secure. US has done a good job after 9/11. That is because the most powerful democracy in the world is also most responsive to the demands of the situation. The same cannot be said about India which is a “non-functioning” democracy. Votes are easily bought. Politicians and bureaucrats are corrupt. There is mis-management at every level. Still, somehow the country miraculously keeps going. I think that is because the average man is courageous as the respose to Mumbai attack shows. Ordinary people showed extra-ordinary courage. I read a news item in NY times that 1 year after this incidence, Mumbai and India have not gone through the security changes that US went thr’ after 9/11. This is very concerning. Another attack like this is waiting to happen. Kudos to the writer in writing this riveting piece.
Gaurav Singh's picture
Gaurav Singh · 10 years ago
@sridhar - Terrorism is not a major issue in Indian elections. Development, Secularism and Social equality are. We are a functioning democracy - our issues are different from the West. More people die in India due to hunger and malnutrition than through terror acts. Though middle class people like myself are horrified by such attacks and want better security, the same does not hold true in the case of the poor - for them every day is a struggle. And vote buying doesn’t happen at a large scale - it used to - but Indians today realise that a good government promises them a better future. Please don’t indulge in sweeping generalisations.

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