Adrian Levy, co-author of The Siege: The Attack on the Taj, opens up about his investigation into 26/11.
The siege of Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Hotel began on November 26, 2008. For three days, Mumbai caught the world’s attention. Five years later, authors Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark piece together the event that brings back memories of fear, insecurity and anger for countless Indians. The Siege: The Attack on the Taj puts together shocking revelations, tragic experiences and suggestive evidence in an in-depth account of 26/11. Excerpts from an interview with Adrian Levy, who was in India recently:
I’ve read about how one of the motivations for choosing this subject was the fact that you believed that no one had taken 26/11 seriously enough?
I was in India during 26/11; in Delhi. And I was amazed by this one feature of modern Indian society: “the march forward” Everything marches on and there is not much reflection on what happened in the past. It also struck me that Mumbai was a watershed. It was a very different kind of terrorist attack. Structurally different; the impact massively different. Though only 166 people died — and I don’t mean in it in a reductionist sense — the terror created by that insecurity was vast. I also think there was a sense of political humiliation; that a foreign invader could hold a megalopolis like Mumbai hostage. I felt it too.
For me, these became good enough reasons to move on with the subject. I did a number of interviews with senior policemen and people in intelligence and everyone used the same phrase: Mumbai was a failure of imagination. I kept wondering what that meant. It sounded like they were saying that Mumbai was so lateral, so different and surreal, that we could never have imagined it. I wondered if that was true. I got hold of the Pradhan Committee report and talked to people who had helped with it. I thought it was very desultory, a kind of an insult to the people of Mumbai. There was a feeling that people were basically protecting their backsides, a feeling that people were laminating the truth. I wondered why that was and whether or not there was more to this story.
And was there more to this story?
There is significantly more. That was primarily my motivation. That the Pradhan report couldn’t do justice to a story like that. So we began doing our own Pradhan. We basically began reconstructing events. What we were going to try and do was create the essence of (what happened in) Mumbai. Cathy and my idea, right from the beginning was to create a focal point; to use the Taj as a focal point and spin out from there. Our idea was to gather together a list of people and then make that list larger and then build that list again and use each person to contact more. Once we’d done that across an inordinate number of countries, to test it against other evidence. i.e. get hold of as many people as possible, the sms, CCTV evidence, and create the timeline. There is no one timeline of Mumbai, another thing I find bizarre.
While writing the book, we tracked down basically everybody who could be an observer, to understand the nuances. The Pakistan foreign minister was in Delhi during 26/11. So when the attack happened, there were no more flights and he was grounded. We went to meet the man accompanying the foreign minister, a neutral figure and a civil servant in the true sense. He recounted for us the utter surprise in the room. The political establishment was completely wrong- footed. They had absolutely no idea. It is very hard in Pakistan to know what’s going on at any one time, particularly if you are a politician. The interesting thing about the ISI that is that the institution is very complex and evolved; one of the reasons it is so successful is probably because it’s not in control of itself. The Lashkar-e-Toiba, which we spent a long time inside, is like a ball of wool. There are people who all the time tell you that they are army officers and former intelligence officers and no one knows whether they are retired or serving. That ambiguity means that you are never clear. What we are clear about is that Lashkar-e-Toiba is an instrument, a paid instrument of the foreign policy of the military and intelligence service. That is what it is, what it’s conceived for what it does but that is not to say that the intelligence service organisation could control or limit it.
Perhaps the part of your book that has created the biggest waves is the claim that the ISI had a mole, dubbed the “Honey Bee” in your book, in the Indian security establishment.
One of the main aims of this book is to spin all of the events round 360 degrees. We can do that because we are not stuck by the protocol of two different justice systems. We can skip over a hot border and talk to Pakistani legal teams and investigator and we can talk to Indian intelligence and security service, military diplomats, The Taj staff… Matching those against technical evidence and the timeline, using CCTV coverage, cell phone records etc, our idea was to find out what was seen and known at the time. Honey Bee was one of those facts, not an opinion.
The key thing to remember here is that this was an attack by a Pakistani outfit against India. India did not attack itself; that India was the victim and not the protagonist. So any attempt by a news organistion to suggest that, in some way, India shot itself in the foot or collaborated in the attack is a misrepresentation of 26/11.
At three locations of significance in Karachi of the Fidayeen squad, evidence came to the fore, and similar evidence was gathered in the training base of Muzaffarabad, Chilabandi hills. This evidence was analysed before it was sanitised and presented in reports. The raw data is significant. It says lots of things. One is that the operation probably only cost $40 thousand to hold the fourth largest city in the world hostage. With new technology that’s all it takes. The second thing that came to light was the possession of training material and the bragging by the ISI that they had an agent. Whether or not that is literally true we will not be able to test. But what was clear was that Lashkar-e-Toiba was in possession of training manuals that originated, as it seems to be the case, in India.
Then there is the NSG. When they were finally allowed to do what they do best, they discovered the strategy being used against them in three key places was their own. So we can say that the Fidayeen trained in a way that was recognisable to the NSG. The Gulf intelligence agencies discovered similar things and got hold of the same materials.
As a caveat, some of these materials are in the public domain, and you can find it if you know where to look. So, is this a case of ISI counter intelligence, an attempt to bring down India and lessen the impact on Pakistan? Potentially. But the people who have revealed the material are not part of that dog and pony show and the NSG have also made their observations. On that basis alone, it made sense to report about the Honey Bee.
Do you think The Siege will become instrumental in spurring further investigations?
I think there are lot of things we would like people to take away from The Siege. The first is a real sense of passion about the people who surmounted it, the ones who died in it and the ones who survived. The heroes and the villains. I hope we’ve created very rounded figures based on the consensus of the truth. I think we’ve reconstructed the NSG operation in a way that no one has done before. I think we’ve explained the political catastrophe behind the late mobilisation in a way that’s never been done before. I would say that the failure to come clean about the intelligence that predated the incident is actually the most significant of all, something which would have come out if Pradhan had not been muted.
Is it possible to get people to talk, to present the full picture?
We can’t find the full picture. What we can do is zero in on small areas that are worth digging into. In every book we’ve written, we’ve found people who are inside the services who are angry, ashamed and frustrated with what they do. If you know them long enough, they will eventually tell you things. If you censor yourself by saying that this person won’t talk, then that person won’t talk. If you keep at it, ring their bells and knock on their doors continually, if you assure them that you’ll treat what they say securely and try to find some balance, then they will talk.
We set out to do this 18 years ago and we promised to be as fluid as possible, to carry people with us and never betray their trust. People are still talking to us. In the books, except for a few unfortunate spelling errors that we’ve since then corrected, we’ve not made any big errors. This is because we try to find a consensus. While people will deny this afterwards to protect themselves, we often give them entire sections of the book in advance so they can read their own quotes after we tape their interviews.
In fact, personal losses are much trickier to write about than Honey Bee. You’ve got people’s lives in your hands, their hearts. You have to create a legacy that’s fair and emotive, one that does them justice. These are the people who have to live their life with grief, and you have to capture the essence.
How is it working together for a book like this with a minefield of information and hypotheses to grapple with?
Well, it’s good and it’s bad. It’s good because our whole project has always been to work with the long form, recreate drama in a way that lots of people can read rather than make it overly academic. With these projects, when you disappear down a rabbit hole, the other person can pull you out and tell you that you are absolutely chasing the wrong thing. I’ve written entire chapters that were worthless and then Cathy cut them. That’s what you have to do, brutally but not with vindictiveness. We test things between each other. We create an exoskeleton and then research and travel independently. Then we come together and swap information and give parts to each other to edit. Our house has a revolving door. We are constantly balancing things between us.