Hamilton, Madison, and Jay

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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Could what happened in Mumbai happen here?

The terrorist attacks in Mumbai signalled a new phase of the war on terror. A group of well-stocked terrorists slipped into Mumbai, conducted surveillance on their targets, and launched a lightning fast assault on an unsuspecting city. David Ignatius asks if it could happen on our soil next time:

Like the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in America, the Mumbai terrorist assault last week began with a hijacking. Islamic militants seized a private fishing boat at sea rather than commercial jetliners, according to U.S. counterterrorism officials. But the attackers displayed the same deadly ability to coordinate a complex operation against multiple targets as did their predecessors on Sept. 11.

The terrorists were from a Pakistani group called Lashkar-i-Taiba, which has loose links with al-Qaeda, U.S officials believe. The attackers began by boarding the boat in the Arabian Sea and killing the captain. They then piloted the boat toward the Mumbai harbor. As they neared the coast on Wednesday, Nov. 26, they launched several rubber lifeboats for the final amphibious assault.

The attack was meticulously planned: The raiders dispersed to several targets across the crowded city that had been studied by advance reconnaissance teams. They maintained communications silence on the way in, U.S. officials believe. And most important, they carried with them enough guns, ammunition and supplies for a long battle inside India's largest city.

Then the mayhem began: The terrorists stormed their targets -- three luxury hotels, a Jewish cultural center, a railway station -- turning the nearby streets into a free-fire zone. It took about 10 hours for Indian anti-terrorism commandos to arrive at the besieged hotels, and it was almost three days before all the attackers had been captured or killed.

The Mumbai attacks were a ghastly reminder of the threat still posed by al-Qaeda and related terrorist groups. The militants have the training, the logistical support and, most of all, the determination to pull off spectacular attacks. They read their enemies' tactical vulnerabilities well -- understanding in this case that urban police forces have trouble combating moving bands of shooters. And they appeared to have had a cleverly divisive strategic goal -- of reanimating tension between India and Pakistan just as the two were beginning to make common cause against terrorism.

For Americans watching the carnage, the obvious question was: Could it happen here? U.S. officials say the answer, unfortunately, is yes. And then comes a second question: If America is hit with another Sept. 11-style terrorist assault, how should the country react?

The Department of Homeland Security has been worried for more than a year about the danger of seaborne attacks. With an estimated 17 million small vessels plying the thousands of miles of U.S. coastline, the vulnerability is obvious. The DHS announced a "small-vessel security strategy" in April to focus on ports and coastal waterways, and it has held four regional small-vessel "security summits" this year, in Buzzards Bay, Mass., Long Beach, Calif., Orlando and Cleveland. A fifth such gathering is planned for Houston next month.

Technology is improving for detecting radiological devices that might arrive at seaports. But defenses are thin against bioterrorism and are almost nonexistent against seaborne attackers of the sort who terrorized Mumbai.

What would happen if roving gunmen infiltrated U.S. cities and started shooting? Most U.S. police departments aren't well prepared to deal with such "active shooters," as they're called. Police are trained to cordon off an area that's under attack and then call in a paramilitary SWAT team to root out the gunmen. But what if the attackers keep moving and shooting? The response can be haphazard, as was clear in such disparate incidents as the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks in the Washington area and last year's massacre at Virginia Tech.

"Mumbai is a worst-case 'active shooter' problem," says a former CIA officer who helped organize a DHS pilot program on the subject last summer for police chiefs. "It had multiple shooters, multiple locations, mobile threats, willingness to fight the first responders and follow-on SWAT/commando units, well-equipped and well-trained operatives, and a willingness to die. Police department commanders in America should be scratching their heads and praying."

Mumbai is a worst-case scenario, but the question remains as to whether or not this could happen here. It can. I hate to sound so doomy, gloomy, but it could very well happen here. And the CIA guys is right. With that many terrorists (40, I believe is what Indian officials are saying was the contingent involved) remaining mobile, connected to each other through BlackBerrys, and utilizing up-to-date intelligence our police forces would be overwhelmed in a matter of moments. There aren't enough SWAT or counter-terror forces in most major metropolitan cities to contend with such a threat.

And before a few of you say I'm nuts, and there's no way in Hell that could be carried out here, need I remind you that the 11 September hijackers lived in America and worked here for months before launching their attack? Right now a lot of people have forgotten that day, and what the terrorists did to pull off their attack. We've grown complacent, again, which is the first invitation to another attack. After 11 September the nation was vigilant; on guard for a new attack. Now, not so much.

The only benefit we have over Mumbai is an armed populace. But the last thing we need is cowboys roaming the streets hunting these guys. The police wouldn't be able to identify friend from foe, especially if some of those cowboys run home and get larger armaments. (This isn't a plea to rid this nation of people who like to collect and shoot weapons like AK-47s, or AR-15s, or any other sort of what would be classified as an assault rifle. It's a statement of fact that civilians joining with police in such a gun battle could be mistakenly shot by police. Does anyone really want to see that?)

The solution is better trained counter-terror/SWAT teams around the country. It would also be helpful to expand those ranks just a bit more. The best way to stop such attacks is to be prepared for them, and to remain vigilant. That means that not only do police and counter-terror forces have to keep their eyes and ears open, but so do we. Had anyone in Mumbai spotted these guys, and noticed how twitchy they might have been, authorities could have been tipped off. They could have been apprehended. (Yes, I'm aware that we have said, as has England, that we tipped off Indian authorities to the possibility of an attack, and even India has admitted that. But without the who, what, where, when, and how to help authorities warnings won't really help anyone. Telling someone that "Hey you might be attacked" is about as helpful as President Bush receiving a memo that al Qaeda planned to hit America with jetliners, maybe.)

This is a nightmare scenario. I know a lot of people who say that the terrorists would never hit America this way because the populace is armed. While that's a comforting thought, it's not plausible. The last thing the cops need to contend with is an armed populace hunting animals like those in Mumbai down in the streets. And we don't need to complicate their jobs by being there. They can do the job on their own, but before that happens they need to be better equipped, better prepared, inflate their ranks, and as always, stay vigilant.

Publius II

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008 have again brought to the fore the tragedy that is Pakistan. Pakistan is a country that has been the incubation center for a host of dangerous terror groups including the Lashkar (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed and Taliban. These groups have been developed, armed and inspired by the ISI and elements of the Pak army.

The tragedy of Pakistan is that the elite will not do anything against these elements as their business interests could get harmed. The politicians will not act against these groups for fear of dismissals or assassinations. And the common folk are too distant to know the goings-on of the army. That leaves the media.

In the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, the Pak media instead of using this opportunity to expose the Pak intelligence and army establishment has gone into a jingoistic and nationalistic direction. Thereby they have now complicated the situation completely and turned public opinion in Pak into a point of no return. Now no Pak politician can cooperate with India even if he wanted to.

One can argue that the Indian media was also jingoistic and nationalistic post the terror attacks. But they spared no politician and put the blame for intelligence failures squarely on the leadership leading to a raft of resignations. Alas, not so in Pakistan. There the media has shielded the instigators, their guardians as well as the politicians who are guilty of inaction. Pakistan's tragedy is that it is Pakistan. India's tragedy is that its in the neighborhood.

December 3, 2008 at 11:51 AM  

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