Mumbai Terror Exposed Bureaucratic Bungling, Systemic Failures

Deepak Mahaan | December 8, 2008 | 4:54am EST
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Indian citizens protest in Mumbai against the government’s inability to prevent terrorism following the attacks in India’s commercial capital late last month. (AP Photo)

New Delhi ( – Along with anger over alleged Pakistani links to the Mumbai terror attacks, many Indians also are critical of what they view as major systemic failures that compounded the tragedy.
The absence of a cohesive anti-terror mechanism and strategy made India’s coastline easy to breach, analysts say, while bureaucratic bungling and apathy also helped the terrorists.
But amid mounting criticism of intelligence and security agencies for their failure in preventing the attacks that killed 183 people, a familiar pattern of excuses and finger-pointing is again evident.
Television news channels revealed documents showing that the Intelligence Bureau (IB), India’s domestic intelligence organization, had information as early as December 2006 about terrorists training in Pakistan for a sea-borne attack on Mumbai.
The Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the foreign intelligence agency, said it warned the Indian Navy and Coast Guard as recently as November 19 of a probable attack, along with coordinates of the terrorists’ boat.
But despite the warnings, the police, navy, coast guard and customs authorities were all caught unprepared. Naval Chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta denied receiving any “actionable intelligence” in advance.
The terrorists entered Indian waters on a hijacked Indian trawler whose captain and crew they had killed. Mehta confirmed that a coast guard vessel had approached the trawler but had moved on after being shown papers that were in order.
Critics say a comprehensive search undoubtedly would have exposed the terrorists’ weapons as well as the body of the captain.
Political analyst Arun Shourie condemned the response, given the fact that “the home minister had been warning the police chiefs about such an attack for the last two years.”
Shourie noted that fewer than seven police officials are responsible for the security of the Lakshadweep Islands, some 36 islands located several hundred miles off India’s west coast, despite it being long known as “a major staging point” used by Pakistani terrorists for smuggling arms and personnel into India.
Shourie says security lapses happen because the authorities pay little attention to advice from experts and instead offer knee-jerk reactions to each crisis.
Once the attacks began, Mumbai police faced AK-47-toting terrorists. A retired Mumbai police officer alleged that bullet-proof vests provided to three top anti-terrorist officers, all of whom were murdered, had been of substandard quality -- from a batch that had been rejected earlier.
It also has emerged that a police commissioner’s urgent request to naval authorities to deploy marine commandos had been declined because of bureaucratic red tape.
When the marine commandos eventually reached the two luxury hotels where terrorists were holed up, they refused to go inside, saying they were not trained for such operations.
The terrorists therefore were able to operate freely inside the buildings until the arrival of Special Protection Group (SPG) commandos from New Delhi. Another lapse: although the SPG was battle-ready in 30 minutes, transportation glitches cost valuable time, delaying their arrival at the scene by hours.
A former military officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said anti-terrorist operations need a quick response. Although SPG members showed exemplary courage in flushing out the terrorists, he said, the unit’s “deployment after nine hours not only handicapped the team but also led to heavy casualties.”
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has since announced that SPG units will be located in different metropolitan centers. He also said India would have a unified federal intelligence unit to combat terrorism, although it is unclear when this plan will be put into action
K.P.S. Gill, a retired top police officer credited with having ending terrorism in Punjab in the 1990s, argued that Indian intelligence needs a complete overhaul if similar attacks in other parts of the country are to be prevented.
The existence of intelligence agencies with overlapping functions, serving different central and regional administrations, hampers a fast response, he said.
With little or no accountability, “they usually end up obstructing police action with their archaic rules and functional inadequacies.”
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