When the ‘house of magic’ burned

Compelling account of Mumbai terror attacks, pulling together everything known plus some things unknown

November 26, 2013 12:46 am | Updated May 26, 2016 09:30 am IST

THE SIEGE — The Attack on the Taj: Adrian Levy, Cathy Scott-Clark; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 499.

THE SIEGE — The Attack on the Taj: Adrian Levy, Cathy Scott-Clark; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 499.

Five years after the Mumbai attacks, there is much that is unexplained about that outrageous act of cross-border terrorism that took 166 lives and left 300 injured, and plenty of residual anger. It is a huge sticking point in relations between India and Pakistan. On the Indian side, Ajmal Kasab, the single gunman who was captured, was tried and hanged, but there has been little or no accountability for the failures that allowed the attacks to take place, and for the lapses in dealing with it. After initial denials of links to it, Pakistan for the first ever time launched an investigation into a terrorist act in India alleged to have originated from its territory. Unprecedentedly too, the investigation found that the attacks had been planned in Pakistan. Seven men were arrested, some of them senior members in the Laskhar-e-Taiba’s heirarchy. But as if it had said and done too much without meaning to, Islamabad’s initial burst of enthusiasm dimmed all too quickly.

The case now languishes in the Rawalpindi anti-terrorism court. It has passed through the hands of six judges; the special prosecutor was shot dead in May this year, just before a scheduled appearance in court in the Benazir Bhutto murder trial. Last week, the lawyer representing one of key accused stood down from his brief, citing his wife’s ill health. Meanwhile, Hafiz Saeed, the founder of the Lashkar-eTaiba, who — going by the confessions of Kasab, and David Headley, arrested in 2009 by authorities in the United States in a different case — was present at important junctures during the planning of 26/11, addresses public rallies across Pakistan, railing against India.

Two well known British investigative reporters, Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, have now brought together everything that is known about the Mumbai attacks and its perpetrators, plus some that was unknown, in their book The Siege: The Attack on the Taj. Even though much of what is in the book is already in the public realm, the book is a compelling read in the way it reminds us of how badly wrong everything went for India on those three days.

Thriller effect

The book’s focus is on the siege of the Taj. It puts the personalities who ran it, the guests who were present in the hotel at the time of the attack, those who survived and helped others to live, policemen and other security officers at the centre of the narrative, to the point where it starts reading like an Arthur Hailey thriller. Except that Hotel was fiction and did not have 10 men, mostly all from Pakistan’s Punjab province, who were familiar with the Taj’s layout, were trained to kill and had enough ammunition to blow up the entire place.

But leave aside the Lashkar-e-Taiba. During the attacks and in the days after it became public that several intelligence warnings had been received about the threats to Mumbai. As the book reveals, 26 warnings came to R&AW, India’s external intelligence agency from the CIA, from August 2006, mentioning precisely the targets attacked on 26/11: Leopold Café, the Oberoi Trident, and the Taj. Some warnings spoke explicitly of an attack from the sea.

Despite specific directions to the Taj from the police that it needed to beef up its security, the hotel reluctantly put in place some after the September 2008 attacks on the Marriott, and then scaled them back, more worried as the management was to keep up its image as Mumbai’s “house of magic”. On the day of the attacks, Mumbai’s police force was shown up as badly at odds with itself, physically ill-equipped for the situation, riven by rivalries, and to top it all, headed by a risk-averse police commissioner who wanted to take no initiatives himself to deal with the crisis, and blocked all others suggested to him by his officers.

The book also nails the precise forensics — possibly the first detailed account of this aspect of the mismanagement of the crisis -- of the delay in deploying the Manesar-based National Security Guard, who eventually arrived 12 hours after the attack began, though they had been unofficially mobilised 22 minutes after the first shots had been fired at Leopold’s. Their wait for a plane to take them to Mumbai is one of the saddest parts of the book.

Superagent ‘Honey Bee’

It has a detailed section on David Headley, the FBI double agent snared for plotting a terror attack in Denmark but turned out to be a prize catch in the Mumbai investigations. Headley moved easily between Pakistan, India and the U.S, leading separate lives in each country. Back in 2010, it came out that two of his three wives complained at different times to US authorities, only for it to fall on deaf ears, because by that time, the FBI valued him as a source of information on the Lashkar’s activities, as it was feared the group was rebuilding itself in the mould of al Qaeda. As the book points out, Headley was “one of the only American passport holders who could claim, with any credibility, to be moving in the same circles as America’s Most Wanted”; U.S officials were clear that their priority was to disrupt al Qaeda and get Osama bin Laden; he was thought to be critical to both objectives.

An intriguing detail, one that has possibly never been reported before, is the ISI claim of a “super agent” in Delhi called Honey Bee, who was said to be providing “classified files” on the Indian Army and police revealing their training and limitations. Honey Bee comes up as a boast by Headley’s ISI contact, a Major Iqbal. It was Honey Bee’s suggestion that Budhwar Park be used as a landing spot by the 10 dinghy-borne terrorists. But the tantalising references to Honey Bee have no more substance than this. The authors, whose earlier books include Meadow, a gripping investigation of the 1994 kidnappings and hostage crisis in Kashmir, quite uncharacteristically leave the mysterious Honeybee uninvestigated. If they did try to find out more, there is no mention of it in the book. Nor does the book have any clear answers to the question that has been paramount in the minds of all Indians since 26/11: was the ISI institutionally involved in planning and operationalising the attack? Pakistani Majors, Colonels and Generals float in and out of the book's pages but the authors are not clear if they were acting on behalf of their organisation, or in their individual capacities.

Reading the book is to remember that 10 men held not just a city but an entire country hostage over nearly three days. There are extraordinary stories of courage and enterprise in the face of massive odds in this book, but what it leaves you most with is an overwhelming sense of depression about the series of failures in India that allowed the attack to take place, and the missteps that enabled it to last for as long as it did. To top it all is the gnawing feeling that India is perhaps not much safer than it was five years ago.

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