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Case Study: The November 2008 Attack On Mumbai

Written by Roy Stranden

Published 27 April 2012


The attack on Mumbai in November 2008 is not the worst terrorist attack in India according to the number of casualties (Curtis, 2008). Nevertheless, it can be argued that the attack, which lasted for three days, is a major terrorist event for a number of reasons. The main reasons being the number of casualties, the duration of the attack, the massive media attention, and the fact that it involves the relationship between India and Pakistan; two nuclear powers already in conflict over Kashmir.


This short description and analysis does not give a full account of the events unfolding in Mumbai November 2008. Nonetheless, we will look at the preparations leading up to the attack and the attack itself, before we take a look at the perpetrators. After that we will look at the target- and tactic rationale, make a short assessment of the impact of the attack, before we conclude.

Event Map

The preparation leading up to the event started a long time before the actual attack on Mumbai. There was an extensive reconnaissance of targets, in addition to other preparations. These activities started at least as early as 2006 (Richey, 2010; Tankel, 2011). However, some of the targets were not added until a month before the attack (Richey, 2010; Tankel, 2011). The terrorists was also trained for over 18 months at four different locations in Pakistan prior to the attack (Kambere, Goh, Kumar, & Msafir, 2011; A. J. Tellis, 2012).

The operation started on November 22 or 23 when the group of ten terrorists left the port of Karachi in Pakistan on a small boat, before transferring to a larger vessel called Al-Husseini. They later hijacked an Indian fishing trawler on the high seas (Fair, 2009; Government of India, 2008; Kambere et al., 2011). The terrorists killed the crew and ordered the captain to sail them to Mumbai, some 930 kilometres away (Fair, 2009; Government of India, 2008; Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, 2008; Rabasa et al., 2009). They arrived on Wednesday November 26. When they approached the port of Mumbai the terrorist transferred into inflatable speedboats, after killing the captain of the trawler. After landing at Badhwar Park at about 20:30 hours the ten terrorist split into four teams. (Fair, 2009; A. J. Tellis, 2012).

One of the two-man teams took a taxi to Mumbai´s main train station, the Chhatapati Shivaji Terminus. When the two terrorists arrived they started firing and throwing hand grenades on commuters, and continued this indiscriminately killing for 90 minutes before police with adequate firepower arrived and forced them to leave the station. In their flight the terrorist entered the Cama & Abless Hospital, where they continued the killing, before continuing their flight in a hijacked police car, firing along the way. After hijacking another car they were finally intercepted by the police. In the following gun battle one terrorist was killed while the other was wounded and captured. It was later determined that this team killed a third of the total victims (Fair, 2009; Jenkins, 2009; Rabasa et al., 2009).

Another team of two terrorists walked from the beach to Nariman House, a five-story building renamed as Chabad House. Chabad House was a Jewish community centre. On arrival they threw grenades at a gas station across the street from the complex, opened fire on the building, and then entered the lobby. They eventually took 13 hostages. Later they would kill five of them before preparing themselves for the coming police assault. The police killed both terrorists. This team accounted for eight of the total fatalities (Fair, 2009; Government of India, 2008; Rabasa et al., 2009).


A third two-man team of terrorists headed to the Trident-Oberoi Hotel, were they entered Trident Hotel through the main entrance shooting. They then crossed over to the Oberoi and fired bullets into a restaurant. After this the terrorists moved to the 16th and 18th floors of the Oberoi were they kept many guests as hostage. This siege continued for approximately 17 hours before the police managed to kill the terrorists. This group of terrorists managed to kill 30 people before they themselves were killed (Fair, 2009; Government of India, 2008; Rabasa et al., 2009).

The forth and largest team of four terrorists moved towards the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Some of the terrorists briefly entered the Leopold Café and Bar shooting, and eventually killing ten people. Then they moved to the North Court entrance of the Taj Hotel. They walked through the grounds and ground floor of the hotel, killing along the way, before moving to the sixth floor of the Heritage Wing. They set several fires and moved constantly in order to confuse and delay government commandos. The siege at the Taj ended 60 hours later on November 29, when Indian commandos killed the last of the four terrorists (Fair, 2009; Government of India, 2008; Rabasa et al., 2009).



The attackers names were Hafiz Arshad, Javed, Abu Shoaib, Abu Umer, Abdul Rehman, Fahadullah, Baba Imran, Nasir, Ismail Khan (the leader) and Ajmal Amir Kasab (Azad & Gupta, 2011). Nine of the terrorist was eventually killed, while Ajmal Kasab was captured alive (Kambere et al., 2011). There was in addition identified three handlers in Pakistan; Abu Kaahfa, Wassi and Zarar. Wassi was later identified as the key handler (Azad & Gupta, 2011). Confessions extracted from Kasab and other evidence left behind by the terrorists confirmed that all ten terrorists were Pakistani Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) cadres.

LeT is one the oldest and most powerful jihadi groups in Pakistan and is classified as a nationalist/separatist and a religious group (START, 2012; Tankel, 2011). LeT did not evolve until 1990 in the Kunar province of Afghanistan, and was intended as the militant offshoot of Markaz Dawa-wal-Irshad (MDI), fighting the «godless Soviets» (Fair, 2009; Siddique, 2008). MDI was created by Hafiz Saeed, Zafaq Iqbal, Abdul Rehman Makki and Sheikh Abdullah Azzam in 1986. It was established as an Islamic fundamentalist organisation and charity fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (Fair, 2011; Kambere et al., 2011; Siddique, 2008). MDI´s ideology is shaped by the Ahl al-Hadith school of Saudi Wahhabism (A. Tellis, 2009; A. J. Tellis, 2012). MDI received in the period active support from both CIA and the Pakistani Intelligence Service (ISI) to fight the Soviets (Fair, 2009; Kambere et al., 2011; A. Tellis, 2009).

When the Soviet’s withdrew its forces from Afghanistan LeT turned its attention to Kashmir and the conflict with India (Bajoria, 2008; Fair, 2011; Siddique, 2008). The main objective in this conflict is to unite the whole of Kashmir with Pakistan, followed by Islamizing India, and then spread jihad globally establishing a pan-Islamic Caliphate (Bajoria, 2008; Kambere et al., 2011; Rabasa et al., 2009; Siddique, 2008; Tankel, 2009). Tellis (2009, p. 35) writes that «a very distinctive element of LeTs objectives is that it calls for the recovery of lost Muslim lands, that is, lands that were once governed by Muslim ruler but which have since passed to other political dispensations». Indian intelligence services assess that LeT is present in at least 21 countries worldwide with activities such as liaison and networking, facilitation of terrorist acts by third parties, fundraising, the procurement of weapons and explosives, recruitment of volunteers for suicide missions, the creation of sleeper cells and actual armed conflict (A. Tellis, 2009; A. J. Tellis, 2012).

LeT kept a low profile after 9/11 and distanced it self from al-Qaeda trying to present itself as the good Jihadi. They were also aided by Pakistani President Musharraf when he tried to distinguish between LeT as the «freedom fighters of Kashmir» and other Jihadist groups (Tankel, 2009, p. 5). It can even be argued that the leniency given to the group by the Pakistani authorities gave LeT an incentive to be obedient to the Pakistani government, and gave the government a leverage over LeT (Tankel, 2009). LeT was banned in 2002, however, it regrouped under the name Jamaat-u-Dawa (JD) (Fair, 2009). JD is also responsible for a considerable amount of charitable work and educational institutions across Pakistan, in addition to offering ambulance service and mobile clinics (Siddique, 2008).

However, LeT may not have acted entirely alone. Evidence gathered by India suggests intimate involvement of the Pakistani intelligence service ISI in the attacks (Government of India, 2008; Kambere et al., 2011). David Headley has also supported this suspicion (BBC News, 2011; Shenon, 2011). Headley, a Pakistani-American, pleaded guilty of participating in the planning of the attack in 2010 (Richey, 2010).

It is also widely known that Pakistan has developed a number of proxies that operate in India and Afghanistan supporting its objectives, with presumably plausible deniability (Fair, 2011; Rabasa et al., 2009; A. J. Tellis, 2012). LeT are used by Pakistan as instruments of foreign policy and as a strategic tool against India (Fair, 2011; Jenkins, 2009; Kambere et al., 2011; Mannes, Shakarian, Sliva, & Subrahmanian, 2011; Rabasa et al., 2009; A. J. Tellis, 2012). The Pakistani government, however, denies any involvement.


Targeting/Tactics Rationale

The primary objective of the attack may have been to increase tension between India and Pakistan, which hopefully would lead to war or at least halting the peace-process. A peace with India would mean both a breach with LeT ideology, but also make LeT irrelevant for Pakistani authorities (Kambere et al., 2011; Tankel, 2009).

It could also be argued that one of the objectives may have been to create a political crisis between India and Pakistan and thus persuade Pakistan to regroup its forces to defend itself against possible actions by India. This would take forces out of the Afghan frontier areas and take the pressure off al-Qaeda, Taliban and the other insurgent and terrorist groups that operate along the Afghan border (Jenkins, 2009).

A third objective might have been to make the Kashmir conflict part of the global jihad and increase the groups credentials among the jihadists (Tankel, 2009). Americans and Israeli Jews were targeted at Nariman House. However, there are conflicting reports on whether Westerners at the Taj and Oberoi hotels were specially singled out. Nevertheless, it was a change from previous pattern to attack locations that were frequented by Westerners (Tankel, 2009). One of the objectives may also have been to hurt Indian interests economically by threatening business and tourism.

To achieve this LeT turned to a proven tactic. LeT has a history of fedayeen attacks, which means that a small number of attackers storms a target with the aim of causing as much destruction and death as possible until they attain martyrdom. However, they are not traditional suicide missions in the sense that they do not kill themselves, but rather fight until killed by the infidels or manage to escape to fight another day (Fair, 2009, 2011; Kambere et al., 2011; Mannes et al., 2011; Siddique, 2008).

Mumbai is a prosperous symbol of modern India, and as such provide an attractive target. The Taj Mahal Palace and Trident-Oberoi Hotels provided ideal venues for killing many people and as final bastions for this type of attack. Both were also lucrative targets because of the psychological effect of an attack on foreigners guaranteed through international media coverage (Rabasa et al., 2009). Some of the targets were clearly part of the operational plan, while others were added as the attack unfolded (Azad & Gupta, 2011; Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, 2008).


The perpetrators were armed with AK-56 assault rifles, handguns, hand grenades and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and used Global Positioning Systems (PGS) for navigation (Azad & Gupta, 2011; Fair, 2009; Government of India, 2008; Rabasa et al., 2009; Sullivan & Elkus, 2009; United States Senate, 2009). The attack itself were a combination of armed assaults on the public, carjacking’s, drive-by shooting, prefabricated IEDs, targeted killings, building takeovers, and hostage situations (Rabasa et al., 2009; Sullivan & Elkus, 2009). By dividing into separate and smaller teams, and setting off IEDs after leaving a site, the terrorist were able to create confusion and a impression that there was a greater number of attackers (Rabasa et al., 2009; Sullivan & Elkus, 2009). The attack was also highly coordinated and mobile, and the terrorist used handheld communication devices such as cellular phones and satellite telephones to communicate in real time with their handlers in Pakistan. This gave them a common operating picture in addition to warnings and tactical advise (Kambere et al., 2011; Sullivan & Elkus, 2009).

Impact Assessment

The impact of the attack has several dimensions. First of all, the attack, which lasted some 60 hours, killed 166 people and injured many hundreds more (Azad & Gupta, 2011; Tankel, 2011). The death toll included 30 non-Indians, including six Americans and six Jews (Kambere et al., 2011).

The attacks also created fear. The massive media cover combined with the duration of the attack may explain why this attack has had profound effects upon the population in Indian and its government, even though it is not the deadliest attack in the country (Curtis, 2008; Fair, 2009; Rabasa et al., 2009). It is unclear whether LeT anticipated that the siege would last as long as it did. However, slow Indian response, coupled with an active and sensationalist media delivered an operational and media success for the LeT (Fair, 2009). The attack also brought international attention to LeT and their objectives. How this will turn out for the group may be early to say. Nonetheless, due to the media cover they are now getting more attention and publicity for their cause, which in turn could lead to more and new support form sympathizers and followers. On the other side, they also attracted more attention from different world leaders and intelligence communities around the world who might want to spend more resources fighting them.

It also had an impact on the relationship between the two nuclear powers Pakistan and India. Even though Pakistani government denies any involvement in the Mumbai attacks there is no doubt that Pakistani authorities has allowed LeT to operate in Pakistan, and thereby allowed them to both plan and train for the attacks (Tankel, 2009). The Indian government, who demanded that Pakistan take actions against LeT and others involved, knows this. It can therefore be argued that the terrorists succeed in increasing tensions between India and Pakistan, even though it did not lead to direct armed conflict between the two nuclear powers (Jenkins, 2009; Rabasa et al., 2009).

The event has also created a domestic pressure on the Indian government to act. India´s Prime Minister has vowed to overhaul India´s counter terrorism efforts in addition to hiring 7,000 new policemen, investing in new technology and review anti-terrorism legislation (Curtis, 2008).



As a final note, it can be concluded that even though LeT never claimed responsibility, there are numerous evidence clearly suggesting that they planned and executed the attack (Azad & Gupta, 2011; Government of India, 2008). As mentioned earlier, LeT aim to force India out of Kashmir before bringing Islamic rule over India, and then creating a global pan-Islamic Caliphate (Siddique, 2008; Tankel, 2009).

Provoking an all out war between Pakistan and India by attacking India and Indian interests support the objective of forcing India out of Kashmir and bringing Islamic rule over India. It can also be argued that the audacious attack fit with LeT´s objective of creating a global pan-Islamic Caliphate, because there was a marked change in targeting Westerners or places were Westerners are present. It could be argued that LeT put it´s previous rhetoric about making the Kashmir dispute part of the international jihad into practice. By doing this LeT entered more clearly the global jihad galaxy (Rabasa et al., 2009).

The attack also fits LeT´s strategy, in as much as armed conflict is part of LeT´s strategy to achieve its objectives. LeT is one of the world´s deadliest terrorist groups and has killed over 700 people in more that 100 attacks worldwide since 2004 (Mannes et al., 2011). The other strategy not addressed here is the use of non-violent effort such as praying, education and charity (Siddique, 2008).


It could also be argued that the attack fits with a Pakistani strategy of using proxies. LeT, as a proxy for Pakistan, serves Pakistani interest in the conflict over Kashmir. After becoming an overt nuclear power Pakistan has been confident in using proxies such as LeT to prosecute conflict at the lower end of the spectrum. The fact that both nations have nuclear weapons reduces the likelihood of an Indian military reaction (Fair, 2009; Jenkins, 2009; Rabasa et al., 2009).

The reconnaissance of targets, the comprehensive preparations, and the military style execution and stamina suggests a highly organised and structured group. This also fits with the characteristics of LeT´s military style organisation (A. J. Tellis, 2012).

However, it could also be concluded that this attack has not changed much in the conflict between LeT and Pakistan on one side and India on the other. The conflict continues, and is not likely to be resolved through military means.


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