Editor’s Note—This is the last in a four-part series [1, 2, 3, 4] on the November 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai.
V. “By the Grace of Allah”
- An Indian commando rappels from a helicopter during the final assault on Nariman House (Pedro Ugarte / AFP / Getty Images).
November 28. 7:23 A.M. Nariman House.
To the thump of rotor blades from an MI-17 helicopter, a line of NSG commandos readied to slither down a hanging rope to the roof of Nariman House. Alert to their movement, the gunmen tried to get a shot off from the windows but were foiled by snipers’ cover fire, which blasted what glass remained from the upper-floor windows. Intercepts of their phone calls made in the middle of the night indicated that all of the hostages had been executed. The gunmen had abandoned negotiation, so the only move left was a final assault on the building. Again, the approach was top-down: assault from the roof and force the gunmen toward the exits where additional commandos were waiting.
Indian television crews were carrying everything live, and Imran’s handlers in Pakistan were watching, reporting what they could see.
Handler: Fifteen men have climbed down on your rooftop right now.
Imran: They are standing in front of the windows as well.
Handler: What are you saying? Can you see anything there?
Imran: They are firing in the front.
For several heated minutes, the gunman and the handler debated a strategy to protect their position. Another man abruptly took the phone.
Handler 2: You do this. Go towards the roof, throw a grenade at them; and fire at them before they can fire at you. Do this now, in the name of Allah.
Imran: Okay, we will go, remembering the name of Allah.
Handler 2: Bismillah-e-Rehman-e-Rahim.
- A National Security Guard observes the assault from his position in a neighboring building (Saurabh Das / AP Photo).
Noon. Taj Hotel.
In the best of times, when the chandeliers sparkled over gala wedding parties soaked with champagne and music, the Taj ballroom pulsed with life. In the dark, it was suffocating. An hour earlier, Colonel Kandwal had uncovered the body of Major Unnikrishnan in the lounge. Now Kandwal and his commandos were tracking Unnikrishnan’s killers through an ambush-ready void. The passive night-vision goggles they carried were useless without some light source to pick up and magnify. The colonel could only hope the gunmen were just as blind as he was.
Shots shattered the silence. But where were they coming from? Outside, on the seafront, a grenade smashed the pavement and injured three policemen. It appeared to have been thrown from a window at Wasabi, an Asian-themed restaurant on the first floor. Snipers held their aim on the windows; some took positions on a fire truck in case any of them appeared long enough for a shot. The gunmen were running out of space to maneuver, though munitions seemed to be in ample supply. More grenades flew out of the window every so often, jarring security forces below.
It was almost 6 P.M.—more than five hours after they had entered the ballroom—when Colonel Kandwal and his team finally emerged into the hallway that led to Wasabi restaurant. Based on the ground he’d cleared and wireless reports from officers on the street, he knew the gunmen were hemmed in on at least two sides. Near the restaurant’s entrance, a GPS device lay on the ground next to some empty ammo clips and 9-volt batteries. After securing the kitchen entrance, the commandos approached the two doors into the restaurant. One was blocked with a refrigerator. Figuring the batteries might be wired to an IED, they rigged it with their own explosives and blew the door. A volley of gunfire came from the back of the room.
The gunmen’s location confirmed, the colonel contacted his commanding officer who set up commandos just outside the Harbor Bar on the floor below, which was linked to Wasabi by a spiral staircase. Others shifted to guard the two bar exits that opened on the ground floor. The gunmen were nearly cornered, but well dug in. When commandos tried to surge through the doorway, they were met with heavy fire and had to fall back.
Kasab Interrogation: Part III
“I don’t like lies, Kasab.”
Rakesh Maria, the tall, stern director of Mumbai’s crime branch, was growing impatient with his prisoner. During the first session with another officer, Kasab portrayed himself as the victim of an overbearing father who had pressured him into joining the Lashkar to help support his poor family. But Maria, a veteran of some of the city’s toughest terror cases and soon to be made chief investigator of the Mumbai attacks, didn’t believe this story. He decided to try deception. He told Kasab that several of his cohorts had already been arrested and given up every detail about his origins, experience in the Lashkar, the Mumbai operation.
Kasab changed his story. He said he’d dropped out of school years earlier and moved to Lahore to live with a relative. He supplemented menial work as a construction worker with nighttime muggings carried out with a friend named Shafiq. They looked for weapons to up the stakes but had no luck. So they eventually went to a Laskhar office and volunteered, hoping they’d get guns and training. After filling out several forms, the pair was taken to Muridke, the Lashkar headquaters, for a three-week induction period. The next phase took place outside a village in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. The firearms training they sought was finally theirs, rounded out with lectures on Islam; injustices visited on Kashmiri Muslims in India were a leitmotif. At one session, Hafiz Saeed gave a lecture on the importance of fighting, and dying, for Islam. In short order, Kasab went from small-time criminal to believer. He was not alone. There was no going back.
As the training intensified, they were instructed in the use of rocket launchers, mortars, and explosives in the foothills of Kashmir. After three months, thirty-two young men were selected by Uncle Zaki for jihad operations. Half were sent on a mission unknown to Kasab. Three escaped from the camp. Those who remained, he said, were sent back to Muridke and trained to use GPS instruments and marine navigation. One day, six of these men went to Kashmir for an operation. They were never seen again.
Three others with previous operations experience joined the group, including Ismail Khan, the designated field leader of the Mumbai group. Their training cycle complete, the ten young men were shifted to a safe house in Karachi in the second week of September and informed they would launch a massive assault on Mumbai. Kasab was assigned to the train station. With Khan he studied digital and hand-drawn maps and video reconnaissance gathered by Lashkar agents based in India.
The attack was delayed for a month—for what reason Kasab didn’t know. “We were given the best food and the best clothes,” Kasab explained. “Uncle Zaki said we could have anything in the world we wanted before setting out for Mumbai.” The group members, who had always addressed each other by code names, forbidden from saying more, now exchanged personal details. They reminisced about their homes and shared thoughts on the afterlife and the pride their parents would feel in their martyred sons. They imagined the village ceremonies that, in line with Lashkar tradition, would be held in their honor, attended by ranking officials and mujahideen. Inspired orations about their jihad would be made and sweets distributed. Money would be paid, by the grace of Allah, to their families.
5:39 P.M. Nariman House.
Havildar Gajendra Singh had been the first commando through the rooftop entrance. One of the gunmen was waiting for him. Whoomp. A grenade blast sprayed Singh with shrapnel, and a hail of bullets riddled his body. But other commandos followed. The building rattled from exchanges of automatic weapons fire and the explosions of grenades, a pattern that would continue as the day wore on. Commandos were closing in on the pair, but this was a fight to the end. Singh’s death had offered the terrorists an eleventh-hour adrenaline bump.
Now, with dusk threatening, security forces launched a barrage of rockets at the fourth floor from a window across the street. The impact rocked Nariman House at its foundations, and left a smoldering hole. Despite the dense black smoke spilling out from all sides of the fifth floor, the NSG advanced down to level four, where the gunmen were trapped and killed. The NSG officers cleared the rest of the building and made their way down to the ground floor and out into the street. A celebration erupted. The commandos raised their rifles for the cameras.
- The bodies of two female victims are visible through a blasted out window at Nariman House (Vinukumar Ranganathan).
Joshi and several friends were asked to help remove the nine bodies inside. Two of the women victims were stretched across a window-side bed with their hands tied. The rest were scattered on the floor, including one of the kosher inspectors, whose flesh, according to a coroner’s report, was so decomposed that he was probably killed the first night. Joshi and his friends struggled to pick him up.
November 29. Early Morning. Taj Hotel.
The Taj was shaken by synchronized grenade explosions—this time by NSG commandos. By tying them together, one detonating after another, the concussion was intensified. Swathes of the Wasabi restaurant and Harbour Bar were ablaze. Compelled to move by the encroaching smoke, the gunmen descended to a corner of the Harbour Bar where commandos delivered a blitz of firepower. The police at street level could hear muffled screams from within. “For God’s sake, please stop this! We can’t take it anymore!”
The gunfire and grenades kept pouring in, relentless. Shortly after dawn, one of the gunmen smashed backward through a front window and was instantly struck down by waiting commandos. When the fires inside were finally snuffed out, the charred remains of his three accomplices lay on the floor.
December 2008. The Aftermath.
Mumbai is no stranger to terror. But the 26/11 attacks—as they came to be known—set a grim new standard. Over the course of sixty hours, 163 people were killed and more than three hundred were wounded at multiple sites across the southern end of India’s commercial capital. Among those killed were twelve police officers, two NSG commandos, and four more security personnel, women and children, and forty-six Muslims. The overall toll does not include nine of the gunmen who accomplished their goals: a rampant, news-dominating killing spree heard around the world that ended with their own deaths, while India and Pakistan reverted to knee-jerk hostile postures.
In hindsight, many lives might have been saved had more decisive action been taken by Indian authorities at critical junctures. Chief among the many critical moments, where a bolder response might have mitigated the damage done, were the hour that elapsed at CST before the gunmen moved on to Cama Hospital and the almost three hours they spent unchallenged in Room 632 of the Taj hotel where they could have been contained. As it happened, the courage shown by some individual police officers at the outset of the attack, when the city was gripped by fear, was counteracted by a kind of rigor mortis that seeped down from the top of the chain of command. This failure to react creatively was not shared by the attackers themselves. Their ability to adapt sustained their mission and increased its carnage.
A former director of India’s external intelligence agency has asserted that information gathered prior to the attack was sufficient to foil the plot beforehand. He is not alone. It is now known that the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) intercepted several suspicious phone conversations between Lashkar operatives in advance. In mid-September, a seaborne operation was discussed that would target a hotel near the Gateway of India, which sits across from the Taj. Less than a week later, in another conversation, the operative identified hotels that were being considered; they included the Taj. Then, on November 19, a voice on a monitored satellite phone said, “We will reach Bombay between nine and eleven.” The point of origin was traced to Indian territorial waters, and the information was relayed to the Navy. A vessel was finally dispatched to the original location, by which time the source had moved on. (The attackers landed at Badhwar Park 8:30 P.M., just a half hour shy of the caller’s estimated time of arrival).
Additionally, it emerged that the mobile phone numbers used by the attackers were known to the Indian Intelligence Bureau five days before they struck. A police operative had infiltrated a camp and provided SIM cards to be tracked. A note attached to the list recommended that they be carefully monitored. They weren’t. In fact, the enterprising operative was later arrested as a possible conspirator and held in custody for weeks during which the IB accused the police of exceeding their mandate. In this fractious climate, the broader constellation of dots was never connected. In a security conference of chief ministers following the attack, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh lamented rigid bureaucracy and stressed the “need to break down the barriers to information-sharing among the various intelligence agencies.” More important than gathering better intelligence, he said, was an efficient analysis of the intelligence available.
Police on the ground were likewise outmaneuvered. Officers arriving on the scene did so in small groups, and without coordination. Information relayed to command was stuck in a bottleneck. Urgent calls for reinforcements made by officers taking heavy fire were noted and left hanging. Those who wanted to press the fight against the gunmen were ordered, invariably, by superiors to stand down and wait for commandos. Despite previous attacks, the NSG commandos expert in urban combat scenarios were stationed outside of Delhi, a two-hour flight away. Their journey was stalled by a spate of delays, during which sixteen police officers died. Pitted against skilled militants with automatic weapons, grenades, and GPS technologies, most were saddled with defective or outmoded equipment (some carbines and revolvers dating to the World War I-era)—or none at all. Available body armor was shown to have repeatedly failed tests for high-powered rifles. The rounds that killed Officer Karkare near Cama Hospital, for instance, reportedly broke through chest plates he was wearing. He and officers Salaskar and Kamte lay on the ground for at least forty minutes before an ambulance arrived.
Some corrective measures have since been taken, with mixed results. Police Commissioner Hassan Gafoor, the man who presided over the official chaos, was eventually dismissed. Five first response teams with commando training have been formed and positioned around the city, equipped with MP5 sub-machine guns and MP9 pistols. Officials say they can deploy anywhere in less than twenty minutes. An elite unit, Force 1, comparable to the NSG, was finalized this month. Bulletproof and light-armored vehicles have been introduced to police, along with more advanced tactical weaponry and improved training for incoming recruits. Several speedboats needed to patrol the coast have also reached them, and cell phones and SIM cards have been distributed to fishermen serving as lookouts. The Taj hired a private security firm from Israel whose personnel carry concealed weapons to go with extensive surveillance. Similar precautions are expected at the Oberoi when it opens in the new year. At CST station, police now patrol the platforms with Kalashnikovs. Metal detectors have been installed near the entrances, though no one seems to pass through them. Some seasoned police officers on duty during the attacks (who asked to remain anonymous) betrayed skepticism over the city-wide upgrades, claiming it’s a case of show over substance. Cosmetic changes to systemic problems might fool the public, they said, but not those determined to do them harm.
With Lashkar fingerprints all over the attack, the Indian government was quick to blame Pakistan. Pakistan initially denied that the gunmen were Pakistani, then admitted their citizenship but insisted that it had no control. Tense relations between the countries soured further. New Delhi sent dossiers to Islamabad to make its case. A sixty-page summary, mostly based on Kasab’s testimony, underscored the extent of Hafiz Saeed’s involvement. Pakistani authorities eventually arrested seven men linked to the attack, including Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi alias Uncle Zaki, the Lashkar’s chief of operations. Critics say their efforts have been half-hearted. In June, Saeed was detained, and let go, by a Lahore court citing a lack of evidence against him, to the ire of Indian and Western officials who believe he was the mastermind of the Mumbai attacks. Doubts about Pakistan’s pledge to crack down on the Lashkar are buoyed by alleged links its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) maintains with the group it helped create to antagonize India. Retired ISI and military officers are said to continue their role as go-between, yet particulars are scant.
Even if there is genuine will in the political establishment to change course, a stepped up campaign against Taliban-led militancy along the Afghan border has become the priority, in part due to intense US pressure. There is further speculation about a rift in the Lashkar ranks. Some analysts believe Zaki may have orchestrated the attacks independent of Saeed, the spiritual leader, who favors caution. Regardless, Lashkar’s operational structure is intact, with membership running into the tens of thousands. Operatives say interest and funding have increased since the Mumbai attacks. And, according to intelligence officials and current and former members, militants are poised to strike India again.
In the meantime, those people whose lives were shattered on 26/11 have struggled to recapture some sense of normalcy in the twelve months since the attacks. Fongen Fernandes returned to Re-Fresh snack bar three days after the CST shootings. The commuter throngs, he said, were there too, like it never happened. “Death may come in any form, whether I’m home, or asleep, or working here,” he mused. “So what else to do?” Bullet holes in the expensive plate glass of his workplace linger as reminders. They still mark the walls of the Leopold Café, too. When Farhang Jehani reopened the restaurant four days after the attack, he made a decision not to repair them, not to save money but as a symbol of Mumbai’s resilience. “We plucked up our courage of spirit with love and support from customers from all over the world to keep going, like we always do in this city,” he said. “Everything here is the same.” Isaque Bagwan is still standing by at his second story Colaba office should trouble arise. He was awarded the President’s Gallantry Medal for a third time in his thirty-five-year career for his bravery at Nariman House, which is still shuttered. Instead of being scapegoated for his role, Vishwas Nangre Patil was validated when fuller details of his predicament at the Taj came out. Parambir Singh, who responded at the Oberoi, was promoted to inspector general of the coastal district, Maharashtra, a plum assignment that will limit his time in south Mumbai. Renovations to the old wing of the Taj are ongoing. A memorial was placed in the lobby of the Taj tower in honor of those who died; it is a constant reminder of the violence there, but most of the staff has stayed on. Today a Sikh doorman welcomes guests, same as the one at the Trident, but he escorts guests through a door framed by metal detectors and ushers their bags through x-ray machines.
- A Holika Dahan effigy of Ajmal Kasab stands in a Mumbai neighborhood ahead of the Hindu festival of Holi, when the effigy was set ablaze (AFP PHOTO/ Indranil Mukjherjee / AFP/ Getty Images).
Late September 2009. Afternoon. Arthur Road Jail.
The Arthur Road jail was built to accommodate about a thousand prisoners but its crumbling warrens in the city center typically hold well over three times that number. When it was decided that Kasab would be held there, some authorities thought it was too risky. Mumbai’s oldest jail is also its largest, a place where underworld figures have a wide berth. It was feared that some might try to kill the attack’s sole survivor. To accommodate him, a special “explosion-resistant, bullet-proof” cell was constructed. As a secondary precaution, a special court was set up inside the jail.
On the 105th day of the trial, the lacquered press benches were mostly empty. A shopkeeper who lives near Nariman House described what he saw inside the shell-shocked structure in the siege’s aftermath. “Sixteen empty 9mm shells on the second floor . . . blood on the bookshelves . . . the fourth floor of the building was also in damaged condition.” The judge, wearing a cloak and white barrister’s bands around his neck, turned to the court recorder and recited the witness’s statements. He yawned. There were four more hours to go before the weekend recess.
Seated in a wooden holding pen were Kasab and his co-defendents, Fahim Ansari and Ahmed Sabahuddin, Lashkar operatives instrumental in the planning of the attack. Both had already spent months in police custody when the attack occurred—arrested in connection with an earlier attack in Uttar Pradesh. They were surrounded by four Mumbai police officers who did not break their stares. Thickly bearded and waif-like, Sabahuddin seemed as if he might crack if rough-handled. He mouthed a prayer with his eyes closed. Ansari held a cold gaze that was sometimes directed at the gallery, his arms crossed defiantly. The attackers had followed the maps he drew and studied video footage he collected of the attack sites. Almost entirely hidden from view in a white jump suit, Kasab didn’t move. His large, brooding forehead hung low under a shock of hair. He looked resigned.
A month after the attacks, Rakesh Maria had Kasab brought to his office. The prisoner had until then stayed in solitary confinement and had no idea what had happened to his partners. Maria, deadpan, asked if he’d like to see them; Kasab said he would. An officer was summoned and told to take Kasab to where his friends were being held. Kasab expected a reunion. But they drove to a hospital instead of a prison. Inside the morgue, nine corpses—most burned, some grotesquely mutilated beyond recognition—were rolled out. Stricken by the sight and smell, Kasab begged to leave.
In July, Kasab stunned the Arthur Road courtroom with a confession. “I don’t think I am innocent. My request is that we end the trial and be sentenced.” Existing evidence against him—surveillance tapes, recorded phone conversations, eyewitness testimonies, D’Souza’s photograph—was conclusive enough. But Pakistan’s admission that he was a participant was what had sapped the little morale he had left. In front of a rapt audience Kasab corroborated most of what he had previously stated in interviews; however, this time there was no equivocating on the motives. Murder as many as possible—then martyrdom. For your mission to end successfully you must be killed, the handlers had told him. Only martyrs are guaranteed entry to paradise.
The court accepted his plea. But the judge, determined to gain some closure through the grinding machinations of the justice system, ruled that the trial would continue as long as needed to address every charge against Kasab. Weeks away from the one-year anniversary of the crime, testimonies were nearly complete, on the books. The end was always inevitable for the accused; only now its impact had been blunted by rote formality. It was an anticlimax for Kasab. But the delay of his chosen fate will soon be over. A hangman’s rope looms.