A Decade on from the 2008 Mumbai Attack: Reviewing the question of state-sponsorship27 Jun 2019
On the night of 26 November 2008, ten Kalashnikov-wielding terrorists attacked Mumbai. They stuck simultaneously at five locations, shooting dead 140 Indians and 25 foreign tourists. American and British passport-holders were executed in two luxury hotel complexes. At a Jewish cultural centre, Israeli nationals were tortured before being killed. A fourth location, a café frequented by Western backpackers, was enfiladed with automatic fire. Only at the city’s main railway station, the site of the largest number of deaths, were all the victims Indian. The gunmen seemed at war not just with India, but with the world.
A decade later, the findings of several international police investigations and dozens of analytical studies triggered by the attack have been largely forgotten. This paper seeks to help break this silence by presenting a detailed interpretation of what transpired, with particular focus on an inconvenient reality: the potential role played by state-sponsorship of terrorism. Throughout the discussion that follows, this paper switches between three different analytical views of the Mumbai attack. One perspective, which is most strongly-held in India, holds that it was a state-sponsored covert operation by a Pakistani intelligence agency. A second opinion, more frequently encountered among American and European analysts, takes the more limited view that ‘rogue’ elements within Pakistan’s intelligence service ISI were involved in the attack. Finally, there is the interpretation favoured by Pakistani officials, which holds that the Mumbai attack involved no state-based actors whatsoever.
As is so often the case with matters relating to intelligence agencies, ascertaining exactly what happened and why is a difficult enterprise in which few facts are undisputed. This paper is an extensively-researched interpretation of the Mumbai attacks ten years after their occurrence. It acknowledges that differing perspectives will yield different outlooks on what transpired. With that in mind, its aim is not to provide a ‘definite’ answer on the role and extent of state-sponsorship of the attack. Instead, it seeks to disprove point three and show that state actors did indeed have a hand in the attack.
What happened on ‘26/11’?
Following the Mumbai attack, suspicion swiftly focused on Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a vast jihadist group based in Pakistan. Although notionally banned by the Pakistani government since 2002, LeT held ostentatious fund-raising rallies and operated urban recruitment centres without any official interference. It had pioneered the concept of suicidal mass-casualty assaults in South Asia, reportedly upon the advice of a former Pakistani Army SWAT operator. But, unlike previous LeT assaults on India, those of 26 November 2008 (or ‘26/11’) were different in two respects.
First, the 26/11 attack targeted Western nationals, as well as Indian civilians. This ensured there would be much greater global interest in ascertaining the perpetrators’ true identities than with previous attacks that ‘only’ targeted Indian citizens. Second, during previous raids, LeT gunmen had stormed a single location and fought to the death. Without anyone left to interrogate, the attackers’ country of origin would be difficult to verify. In Mumbai, the gunmen attacked multiple sites simultaneously and sought to manoeuvre in the densely crowded city. However, unfamiliar with the topography, one of the attackers was unable to barricade himself in in time. Local policemen swarmed him while he was on the move, losing one of their colleagues in the process. The arrest of this gunman, whose name was Ajmal Kasab, was a game-changer. For the first time, India captured a participant in a suicidal attack with high interrogation value.
Kasab was immediately questioned by Prashant Marde, an officer of the Mumbai police. The gunman confirmed that there were nine other shooters in the city, and stated that all were Pakistani nationals. Aware of the international ramifications of these revelations, the Indian government permitted the American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to interrogate Kasab directly. A team of FBI officials flew in from New York to learn what they could about the attack. Kasab independently confirmed to the FBI what he had told the Indian police: he was a Pakistani citizen and a member of LeT, and the attack was being directed in real-time from the Pakistani port city of Karachi via mobile and internet telephony. This digital trail connecting the gunmen in Mumbai with controllers in Karachi proved crucial.
Simultaneously, Western intelligence officials in Islamabad met with the head of analysis at Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). According to Steve Coll, a double Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who closely examined Pakistani links with terrorism in his book Directorate S, the ISI official was confronted with intercepts of serving agency operatives directing the gunmen in Mumbai. The official Pakistani response in the following days was a bundle of contradictions. At the diplomatic level, Islamabad promised to cooperate in the post-attack investigation while insisting that any link to Pakistani territory was unproven. However, at the local level, attempts were being made to erase the evidentiary trail leading to Pakistan generally and LeT specifically. Even at the time, this response drew criticism from former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Nearly ten years later, Sharif observed that Pakistan’s failure to deliver justice for the Mumbai victims had eroded its credibility globally.
This feature-length op-ed is divided into two parts. The first focuses on what Pakistani, American, and Indian investigations into the Mumbai attack discovered about LeT and ISI involvement in the attack. The two levels of involvement – that of LeT as a jihadist group and that of the ISI as an arm of the Pakistani government – are treated separately. The Pakistani investigation focused only on the former, the American focused on both aspects while highlighting the LeT angle, while the Indian investigation concentrated primarily on Pakistani state culpability. Importantly, all three concurred that LeT had carried out the Mumbai attack. The second part of the paper will examine what the Indian and American governments have done since 2008 to secure Pakistani cooperation in shutting down this group. By contrasting Indian and American efforts to cooperate, with the lack of such cooperation from Islamabad, this paper concludes that this is in part due to the US’ ambivalence to pursue LeT.
Data used in this paper has been compiled from American court documents, Western scholarship, and Pakistani and Indian English-language journalism. The Pakistani and Indian sources reflect respective national biases, but they converge on the basic reporting of facts – it is on matters of interpretation that they differ. Pakistani journalists have provided the bulk of information about Islamabad’s historically close ties with Lashkar-e-Taiba. A recent increase in media censorship has limited public discussion on this issue, but Western analysts based outside of the country have continued to pursue this topic. The efforts of the ISI and Pakistani army to shield LeT from international sanctions have been periodically reported on. There has also been focused reporting by American journalists on ISI involvement with terrorism.
LeT and the ‘S’ Wing
In June 2001, the Pakistani current affairs magazine Newsline carried a report in which a wing of the ISI, known as the Security or ‘S’ Wing, was accused of instigating domestic terrorism. The report suggested that during the democratic interlude of 1988-99, when civilian prime ministers ruled the country, the army-officered ISI had used Islamist proxies to discredit them. There has long been suspicion that elements within the agency had engineered a massacre by Sindhi extremists in the city of Hyderabad on 30 September 1988. Around 250 people were gunned down in just 15 minutes, mostly from the minority Muhajir community (descendants of refugees who emigrated from India in 1947). The next day, Muhajirs in Karachi retaliated against innocent Sindhis, fracturing the efforts of civilian politicians to form a united front against the military regime then in power. Throughout the following decade, rumours persisted that the ISI supported breakaway factions within mainstream political parties, providing them with firearms to target each other. These rumours were sometimes endorsed by officials from other security agencies within Pakistan.
There is a similarity between the 1988 Hyderabad massacre in Pakistan, and the attack which took place in Mumbai two decades later. In both cases, roving teams of shooters mowed down civilians in public spaces. In both cases, the perpetrators escaped conviction. The suspected mastermind of the Hyderabad massacre, a Sindhi politician named Qadir Magsi, was acquitted in 2017. The main suspect in the Mumbai case, LeT military chief Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi, was bailed in 2014 after a court case in which prosecutors and at least one judge received death threats.
After 9/11, some international scrutiny had come to be focused on ISI’s alleged support for militant groups. In 2006, aware of mounting suspicion, the agency created a counter-terrorism cell to liaise with Western counterparts. American scholar Stephen Tankel suggests that ‘S’ Wing operated at cross-purposes with this new cell called ISI-CT:
ISI-CT was technically the directorate responsible for counterterrorism efforts in Pakistan. Because it was formed at the behest of the United States and funded with CIA money, however, ICI-CT was perceived within the Pakistani security establishment as an externally sponsored orphan […] In reality, ISI-CT has a limited mandate that clashes with the service’s more powerful External Security Wing (ISI-S), which is responsible for directing intelligence and security operations outside Pakistan, and, in this capacity, manages the militant portfolio. As a result, since its inception, ISI-CT has been constrained and repeatedly undercut by ISI-S.
Some Western analysts have explicitly identified ‘S’ Wing as a sponsor of transnational terrorism. However, due to the fact that the ISI is an intelligence monolith, it also has an internal function, rendering the agency simultaneously responsible for both foreign and domestic operations. This means that it is uniquely positioned to calibrate home-grown militancy within Pakistan, and divert surplus violence towards foreign targets when necessary. Such ‘extraversion’ has been Islamabad’s main policy instrument for preserving domestic security since the early 1990s, as acknowledged by the late Pakistani interior minister, Naseerullah Babar.
International views of the ISI and terrorism
As long as the victims of cross-border terrorism in South Asia were Afghan and Indian nationals, Western governments did not seem to focus on this specific form of terrorism. This changed, however, after the US and its NATO allies invaded Afghanistan. A 2009 New York Times article described ‘S’ Wing’s role in supporting attacks on American troops in the country. The article stated that ‘[t]he support consists of money, military supplies and strategic planning guidance to Taliban commanders.’ This description matches that which the ISI has long been reported to provide Pakistani militants fighting in Kashmir.
ISI, according to the assessments of Anglo-American scholars such as Robert Johnson and David Ignatius, favours offensive covert action at the expense of objective risk-evaluation. The result is an operations-oriented mind-set rather than an analysis-oriented one. Thomas Ricks, a columnist with Foreign Policy, considers this predisposition as a factor that, in his view, has led the ISI to miscalculations, including for example, the Mumbai attacks. Although initially treated with scepticism, a growing number of Western scholars now endorse the Indian claim that 26/11 occurred with some level of ISI foreknowledge. Siegfried Wolf, a German researcher, observes that Islamabad’s denials about supporting terrorists have been undermined by statements emanating from its own officialdom. Shaun Gregory, a British professor specializing on Pakistani security policy, has noted that the ISI’s positive tone with Western intelligence services has camouflaged a ‘do-nothing’ policy on counterterrorism.
The motive and masterminds of Mumbai
It is now time to examine an important revelation that emerged during the post-Mumbai investigations. A Pakistani-American jihadist called David Headley (original name: Daood Gilani) was arrested in October 2009 for planning a Mumbai-style terrorist attack in Denmark. While in US custody, he claimed that he had been an informant of the American Drug Enforcement Agency, tasked to infiltrate the criminal underworld in Pakistan. His travels to the latter country had brought him to the attention of the ISI, which had referred him to Lashkar-e-Taiba. Thereafter, Headley appears to have been tasked as a reconnaissance agent for LeT. He undertook several trips to Mumbai over the course of three years, beginning in 2006 and continuing until after the 26/11 attack. It was due to his reconnaissance videos and photographs that LeT was able to plan and rehearse for a precision-strike.
According to Headley’s testimony in a US court, he had been trained by the ISI in intelligence collection techniques. Of the $29,500 he received from Pakistani sponsors, $28,500 came from a serving ISI officer. This officer, identified as ‘Major Iqbal’ in American court documents, became the first Pakistani intelligence operative to ever be indicted by the US government for terrorism. The remainder of the money came to Headley from a LeT operative called Sajid Majeed (often referred to in international media reports as ‘Sajid Mir’). Majeed was deputy head of LeT’s external operations department and handled jihadists worldwide. By 2008, his name had been linked to terrorist plots in Europe, the US, and Australia. Testimonies from Western jihadists depicted him as a highly influential figure within LeT. Headley stated that the Mumbai operation had been coordinated by Majeed. He also claimed that the ten gunmen who attacked Mumbai had been trained by former members of the Pakistani army special forces, thus corroborating what Pakistani journalistic research had uncovered; LeT was being advised by professional soldiers.
The American government convicted Headley on US soil but refused to extradite him to India. Some officials in New Delhi suspect that Washington has sought to protect its fragile relationship with the ISI, which would be damaged if Headley revealed further details of ISI involvement in 26/11. These same officials suspect that the US intelligence community was aware of Headley’s work for LeT in Mumbai but ‘overlooked’ it in the hope that he could help locate Osama bin Laden. Interestingly, even during the years that it ran him as an agent, LeT had an identical view of Headley, seeing him as an American spy sent to infiltrate al-Qaeda but who could be collaterally used to reconnoitre targets in India.
Eventually, the US did allow Indian investigators to interrogate Headley, who claimed that:
The ISI (…) had no ambiguity in understanding the necessity to strike India. It essentially would serve three purposes. They are (a) controlling further split in the Kashmir-based outﬁts (b) providing them a sense of achievement and (c) shifting and minimizing the theatre of violence from the domestic soil of Pakistan to India.
Until Headley’s interrogation, Indian investigators had struggled to identify a motive; why would ISI officials support a LeT attack on Mumbai which would deliberately kill foreign tourists and bring international opprobrium down on Islamabad? Headley claimed that in 2007-2008, LeT was facing internal rifts as younger cadres wanted to break away from the group due to its subservience to the ISI. In order to keep LeT united under a pliant leadership, some ‘S’ Wing operatives seem to have arranged for an offensive against India which would earn LeT respect within the Pakistani jihadist community and prevent further defections. The offensive would target third country nationals because doing so would magnify LeT’s achievement. Moreover, because the killing would occur on Indian territory, there would be no obvious link to Pakistan. All that was necessary to de-link Islamabad from the attack was to ensure that the attackers would fight to the death. Controlling the gunmen via telephone was possibly intended to bolster their morale in this regard. Furthermore, many such remotely-guided assaults had been carried-out in Indian-administered Kashmir in the past, without any serious diplomatic consequences for Pakistan.
The unexpected capture of Ajmal Kasab by the Mumbai police during the night of 26 November 2008 robbed the plan of its key asset – deniability. Kasab provided details of the training process that the gunmen had gone through in Pakistan. The next breakthrough was Headley’s arrest 11 months later. Lastly, in May 2012, authorities in Saudi Arabia extradited a man to India who provided even more details of the Mumbai attack. This was Zabiuddin Ansari, an Indian jihadist who had fled to Pakistan in 2006. Although not trusted by LeT with operational details of the Mumbai plan, he was sufficiently close to Sajid Majeed to be given an important task: teaching the ten gunmen common Hindi phrases. The idea was that they would telephone Indian television news channels during the attack and make political statements. Usage of Mumbai-specific slang would, LeT hoped, confuse listeners as to their real nationality and make them appear home-grown.
Ansari also claimed that the weapons and ammunition used in Mumbai had been provided by the ISI. Indeed, he went on to state that ISI officials had been present in the LeT control room in Karachi during the attack. One ISI officer identified by Ansari in this regard was Major Sameer Ali, whom Headley had also named as the ISI official who first referred him to LeT. The convergence of their two accounts – one delivered in American custody and the other in Indian custody – lent credence to the argument that ISI had foreknowledge of the attack.
It should not be forgotten that 26/11 took place at a time of steadily improving Indo-Pakistani relations. Hence, the Indian political leadership felt a sense of betrayal, a feeling that was further sharpened by Islamabad’s attempts to deny that the attackers were Pakistani nationals. It took 42 days before Islamabad admitted that Ajmal Kasab was a Pakistani. By this point, Islamabad had started to lose credibility for denying the obvious, and admitting to Kasab’s nationality was a low-cost way to (re)gain, at least some, political capital with foreign governments.
International pressure and a half-hearted investigation
In December 2008, acting on information provided by Western partners, officials from Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) raided LeT camps. Zabiuddin Ansari later suggested that key plotters, among them Sajid Majeed, escaped arrest upon the advice of ISI officers. The raids did net seven LeT operatives, among them Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi, whose voice was heard on the telephonic intercepts directing the gunmen in Mumbai.
On 3 August 2015, former FIA chief Tariq Khosa, who supervised the Pakistani side of the Mumbai investigation, published an op-ed in Dawn, the country’s largest English newspaper. His article avoided mention of the ISI, Major Sameer Ali, Major Iqbal and Sajid Majeed. But it did state in unambiguous terms that the ten gunmen had been members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, that forensic evidence of their training had been obtained from a camp in Sindh province, that their control room in Karachi had been located, and that the ship which had transported them to Indian waters had been seized by the FIA. For writing this article, Khosa was widely criticized. Perhaps anticipating this, as a professional police officer, Khosa made the following observation:
Pakistan has to deal with the Mumbai mayhem, planned and launched from its soil. This requires facing the truth and admitting mistakes. The entire state security apparatus must ensure that the perpetrators and masterminds of the ghastly terror attacks are brought to justice. The case has lingered on for far too long. Dilatory tactics by the defendants, frequent change of trial judges, and assassination of the case prosecutor as well as retracting from original testimony by some key witnesses have been serious setbacks for the prosecutors.
Pakistan’s FIA had made a determined initial effort to track down the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack, which led to the breakthroughs listed by Khosa. Yet, all major developments in the case were prompted by information shared either by Western security agencies or by India. In January 2009, New Delhi provided a 69-page dossier to Islamabad on the Mumbai attack. The dossier included transcripts of LeT controllers, foremost among them Sajid Majeed, ordering via telephone the execution of Western captives. For good measure, India also shared this dossier with 14 other countries whose citizens had been killed in the attack. Thus, from December 2008 to January 2009, Pakistan was under increasing diplomatic pressure to show progress in its own investigation; this led to the arrests conducted by the FIA.
Once the pressure subsided, however, Islamabad appears to have switched from cooperation to confrontation. Over the course of nine years (2008-17) there were as many changes of judges, delaying the court proceedings interminably. As mentioned by Khosa in the above-cited op-ed, one of the prosecution counsels was assassinated in 2013. A judicial official told journalists that the Pakistani government’s official policy was to not pursue the case against LeT, since the beneficiary of this would be India. In 2018, another counsel was removed, ostensibly for not agreeing to this policy.
Thus, despite constant reminders from New Delhi, as well as sporadic ones from Washington, that action against terrorism was in Pakistan’s own interest, no progress was made. Tellingly, there was no mention of the ISI as far as the Pakistani investigation is concerned. Only much later did senior American officials reveal in their memoirs that ISI chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha had blamed ‘rogue operatives’ for the attack. Pasha had told the Pakistani ambassador to Washington that Mumbai was “our people” but it wasn’t “our operation”. Yet, none of these alleged ‘rogues’ ever faced prosecution in Pakistan.
Attempts at a cover-up?
To understand the importance of the Mumbai attack for Indo-Pakistani relations, it is important to see them in context. By 2008, four years of diplomatic initiatives aimed at normalizing relations between New Delhi and Islamabad had matured. On the night of 26 November, the Pakistani foreign minister was in New Delhi for talks on strengthening security cooperation. The US and UK had been urging both sides to investigate terrorist attacks jointly and efforts were being made to create a security architecture for doing so. Trust between both sides was at its highest since the 1999 Kargil Crisis, almost a decade before. In this context, New Delhi’s priority was to avoid losing the positive momentum that had been built up. Mindful that 26/11 might have been a rogue operation by LeT alone, the Indian government initially responded in a restrained manner. It called upon Islamabad to cooperate, in the interests of both countries, in efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Pakistan responded with a blanket denial that any of its citizens were involved. In the first week of 2009, the Indian government upped the ante, stating that 26/11 could not have occurred without assistance from elements of the Pakistani state. Within days, Islamabad issued a tersely-worded statement acknowledging that Kasab was a Pakistani national. Later, the US discreetly used the Mumbai attack as a source of leverage over Pakistan. Permitting Headley’s interrogation by Indian officials in June 2010 served as a warning to Islamabad that more embarrassments may follow. In 2012, the United States fired another two shots across Pakistan’s bow. That April, it announced a $10 million reward for information which could lead to the conviction, on terrorism charges, of LeT chief Hafiz Saeed. By declaring a reward for information leading to his conviction, the US seemed to be sending a double-edged message: implying that, although it had no concrete evidence of his involvement in 26/11, it was serious about highlighting his association with terrorism. The second warning shot was less ambiguous. In August 2012, the US Treasury included Sajid Majeed in the Specially Designated Global Terrorists list. However, since he was safely in Pakistan, no action was taken.
A non-existent ban
Some Pakistani civilian commentators have claimed that Islamabad’s actions against LeT are choreographed to match the level of Western interest in the group. They argue that the priority of the Pakistani security establishment is not to target extremists, but rather, to silence those who criticize extremists. Towards this end, the military seeks to actively steer popular discussions on domestic security. In November 2015, media networks were banned from reporting on Lashkar-e-Taiba and its increasingly political activities. The ostensible reason was Islamabad’s compliance with UNSC Resolution 1267. Yet, this justification was strange, since, as of 2015, the Pakistani state had yet to ban LeT, or its front organization Jamaat ud Dawa (JuD). LeT had been designated by the UN Security Council in May 2005 as an al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist entity, and JuD was likewise categorized in December 2008. For nine years after Mumbai, the Pakistani foreign office misleadingly described the twin LeT-JuD organizational infrastructure as ‘banned’.
However, a 2009 investigative report by Herald, Pakistan’s leading current affairs magazine, revealed that JuD had never actually been placed on the government’s ‘proscribed’ list. To oblige the UN, Pakistan’s foreign office announced a symbolic ban on the JuD dated 11 December 2008 – one day after the UN Security Council designated JuD a terrorist organization – but this announcement had no legal force within the country. All that happened was that JuD was placed on a government ‘watch list’ – an internal directive that the group’s activities should be kept under observation. Only in February 2018, when Pakistan faced the threat of being censured by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF – a group of 34 wealthy countries that included several of its aid donors), did Islamabad officially ban JuD.
Yet, despite all the diplomatic pressure that it faced, Islamabad still resorted to apparent subterfuge. It directed police forces to seize JuD properties but did not give permission for them to conduct arrests. These ‘seizures’, however, amounted to dispatching a government bureaucrat to oversee the normal functioning of these locations, but not to closing them. Thus, the Pakistani state did not seem to enforce the official proscription of this group. As of November 2018, according to government officials, JuD was once again no longer a banned organisation, as the restrictions imposed in February had lapsed. In February 2019, following renewed pressure from the FATF, Islamabad once again announced a ban on JuD. Initially, it sought to repeat its earlier tactic of 2008-18 (i.e. officially declaring that the organization been proscribed while in practice merely putting it on a watch list). However, on this occasion, Indian newspapers were quick to point out the discrepancy, potentially embarrassing Pakistan at a time when international attention was focused on JuD. A day after the Indian media reported that JuD was still active in Pakistan, Islamabad added the group to the list of proscribed organizations. At the time of writing, it is unclear if this move is likely to be any more permanent than the ‘ban’ imposed in 2018.
In part, the problem is a structural one. A 2010 study found that a majority of Pakistanis do not believe that jihadi groups based in Pakistan, and that operate in Indian Kashmir, engage in terrorism. In fact, most Pakistanis surveyed simply did not know if these groups, such as LeT, intentionally attack civilians. Relatedly, the study found that, although Pakistanis in general view terrorism to be a problem, and neither support the tactic nor believe it is justified by Islam, they are more willing to accept terrorism against foreigners (incl. Indians and Americans). An inhabitant of Kasab’s village told a journalist in 2010 that the Mumbai gunman had not committed a crime because he had killed citizens of ‘an infidel country like India’. Such views might be more widespread in Pakistani society than Islamabad would like foreign audiences to know. There is also the problem of inadequate information. As observed by Joshua White, a US counterterrorism analyst, many Pakistanis perceive LeT as a charitable organization, in contrast to foreign observers who are more aware of its violent side. Madiha Afzal, a Pakistani scholar based in the United States, points out that knowledge of terrorist organizations tends to be stronger outside the country than within.
Potential linkages between LeT and Al Qaeda
According to British investigative journalists Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad may have been built on land purchased by Lashkar-e-Taiba. Western intelligence agencies uncovered evidence of this when reviewing paperwork obtained from the building’s architect. Scott-Clark and Levy make another claim in their critically-acclaimed book The Exile, which chronicles bin Laden’s years on the run:
In 2008, according to two former aides to the Lashkar-e-Taiba leader Hafiz Saeed, Osama had travelled to Manshera to attend an extraordinary meeting for the Mumbai operation of November 26, 2008 (which had become known as 26/11). It had been facilitated by Lashkar, overseen by the ISI’s S-Wing and sponsored by Al Qaeda.
Furthermore, documents seized in the US commando raid that killed bin Laden found that Hafiz Saeed had been corresponding with the al-Qaeda chief right up to the latter’s death. Osama himself had taken a keen interest in the arrest and trial of David Headley by American authorities in 2009-2010. It was these findings that led the US to declare a reward for information that would lead to Saeed’s arrest and conviction.
The Indian perspective, post-Mumbai
The need to prove Pakistani linkages to the Mumbai attack at the diplomatic level dominated the Indian policy response, even to the extent of excluding military retaliation. Shivshankar Menon, India’s foreign secretary at the time of 26/11 who later went on to serve as National Security Advisor, offered the following rationale for why India did not go to war:
Let’s consider what might have happened had India attacked Pakistan. Most immediately, the fact of a terrorist attack from Pakistan on India with official involvement on the Pakistan side would have been obscured. Instead, as far as the world was concerned, the incident would have become just another India-Pakistan dispute….Faced with a dispute between two traditional rivals, the world’s default response is to call for peace and to split the blame and credit 50:50 in the name of fairness or even-handedness. This was just what the Pakistan Army wanted.
Menon argues that by not escalating in 2008, India created a policy option to employ legal methods against the attack’s perpetrators. Even so, Pakistan did not reciprocate with cooperation but rather, took as little action against LeT as it could get away with. Menon suggested in 2016 that, with the Mumbai trial stalled in Pakistan, New Delhi had no incentive to hold back in the event of another large-scale attack. His assessment was proven accurate within weeks, when Indian forces raided LeT camps in Pakistan-administered Kashmir in retaliation for a jihadist assault on an Indian military base.
Conclusion: Terrorism is not always a stateless phenomenon
This op-ed opened with three hypotheses about the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai. The first, widely held by Indian analysts both within and outside government, asserts that the attack was part of a long-standing campaign of covert warfare waged by the ISI through ‘non-state’ proxies. Such an argument is grounded in a crucial earlier event in Mumbai’s history. On 12 March 1993, more than 15 years before the 26/11 attack, a series of synchronised bombings ripped through the city, killing 257 people. Police investigators discovered that the bombs had been planted by members of a local drug trafficking gang, whose leaders were Indian crime lords based in Dubai. When New Delhi sought the extradition of the gang leaders, the Dubai authorities pressured them to leave the United Arab Emirates. What happened next remains controversial to this day: Indian government spokesmen insisted that the fugitives found refuge in Karachi, a claim that Pakistani spokesmen denied. Over a year later, one of the fugitives was arrested while travelling through Nepal. After being handed over to Indian police, he stated in a television interview that the remaining masterminds of the 1993 bombings were living in Karachi under the protection of the ISI. Although his statement might have been dismissed as having been made under coercion, it was reinforced through photographic, video- and audio-recorded ‘evidence’.
After the bombings, New Delhi launched a diplomatic offensive to convince the US to declare Pakistan a state sponsor of terror. As part of this effort, India’s external intelligence service provided the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with an unexploded detonator, which had been recovered from a bomb that had failed to go off in Mumbai. The detonator was of American manufacture and its serial number was traced to Pakistani military stocks, which had been built up by the US during the Soviet-Afghan War. The CIA however, argued that the mere fact of the detonator’s origin did not amount to proof of Pakistani state sponsorship of the bombings, given the possibility of low-level pilferage. It further claimed that the incriminating detonator had been ‘accidentally’ destroyed during tests in its laboratory. Decades later, bitter memories of this event linger in the corridors of the Indian security establishment. The 1993 bombings and their unsatisfactory aftermath spawned two precepts in India’s assessment of international terrorism: that Pakistan as a state would, at a minimum, provide shelter to terrorists attacking India, and that even when presented with forensic evidence of Pakistani state agencies’ involvement in a specific incident, the US would prefer to look the other way as long as its own interests were not targeted.
Indian suspicions of Pakistan in relation to Mumbai were, thus, fifteen years in the making when the 26/11 attack occurred. Even so, it must be acknowledged that India and the US have since moved much closer towards cooperating against jihadist groups, especially LeT. Sajid Majeed now features in the FBI’s most wanted list of terrorists for his role in 26/11. The agency, using his better-known name of ‘Sajid Mir’, has noted that he is ‘believed to be residing in Pakistan.’ Likewise, the mastermind of the 1993 Mumbai bombings has been described by the United Nations Security Council’s ISIL and al-Qaeda Sanctions Committee as a resident of Pakistan, notwithstanding Islamabad’s continued denials.
The second hypothesis, favoured by most Western analysts, is that individual ISI officials were complicit in the 2008 attack, along with the leadership of Lashkar-e-Taiba. This line of argumentation stops short of blaming the Pakistani state as a unitary actor. Instead, it sees potential for ‘rogue operatives’ to pursue a private jihadist agenda using state resources. Such a school of thought would explain why serving ISI officers such as Major Iqbal and Major Sameer Ali might have supported the attack, or why personnel from the Pakistani army special forces (either serving, retired or technically on ‘leave’ from active service) might have trained the gunmen who stormed Mumbai. It would also explain overlapping details between the interrogation accounts of Kasab, Headley, and Ansari, despite the fact that all three men played different roles in the attack and were interrogated under different conditions, two of them (Kasab and Headley) as part of a joint Indo-US investigatory effort.
The third hypotheses about the 26/11 attack, that it was the work of a non-state actor alone, is unsupported by the historical record. Pakistan’s failure to pursue the trial of the alleged perpetrators suggests either a complete lack of investigatory capacity or a sign of bad faith. Given that Islamabad took just two months to conclude the trial of a Pakistani citizen who helped the CIA eliminate Osama bin Laden (sentencing him to a lengthy prison term), the balance of probability tilts towards the Pakistani state having adopted a highly selective approach to counterterrorism. On the specific issue of ISI involvement in the 26/11 attack, Pakistan has yet to explain why it opposed the extradition of Zabiuddin Ansari from Saudi Arabia to India, if his later confessional statements to Indian police were completely without merit. Since these statements explicitly placed serving ISI officials in the LeT control room in Karachi, a claim that appears to be corroborated by Steve Coll’s reporting about Western intelligence intercepts made during the attack, it seems that Ansari was revealing more than Pakistan would like the international community to know.
The Mumbai attack of 2008 demonstrated that even after 9/11, terrorists did not necessarily become hostis humani generis (‘enemies of all mankind’). At the very least, Pakistan has proven inconsistent on acting against terrorists based on its territory, a binding obligation according to UNSC 1267. The attack remains an open case, with Pakistani state complicity still-debated, but the role of LeT and individual officers within the ISI is now perceived in most quarters as beyond serious dispute. One policy question remains: what should be the international community’s response to another Mumbai? Given that the US has struggled to find a suitable set of instruments for deterring state-sponsored terrorism against itself in the 1980s by non-nuclear powers, the question assumes greater relevance in a nuclear South Asia. As far as India is concerned, it has shown restraint on more than one occasion, to little avail.
About the Author
Prem Mahadevan is a researcher in intelligence studies. For almost nine years, he worked as a terrorism analyst with the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. In this capacity, he briefed Swiss and EU policymakers as well as NATO and the Global Counter-terrorism Forum on transnational threats presented by Pakistan-based jihadist groups. He advised Indian security agencies on best practices for responding to multiple ‘active shooter’ attacks and authored tactical studies on the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack for Indian and European security think-tanks. His books include Islamism and Intelligence in South Asia (IB Tauris, 2018) which summarizes 27 years’ worth of Pakistani media reports on state patronage of jihadist groups. The present ICCT paper was derived from research for this book, conducted entirely at the Center for Security Studies.
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 Ibid., p. 374.
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