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Lessons of Mumbai


As a symbol of modern India, Mumbai highlights India’s successes with both democracy and capitalism. In addition to its preeminence as a financial, entertainment, and cultural center, Mumbai is India’s largest city and one of the most densely populated cities in the world. All this, as well as its accessibility and assailable security, combined to make Mumbai an ideal target for Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorists on November 26, 2008 (Forster, 2012, p. 1). While this particular event was confined to India, this type of devastating attack could occur almost anywhere in the world, including the United States. The successful LeT attack on Mumbai provides both instruction and inspiration for future acts of terrorism, but also it presents significant opportunities to inform global counterterrorism efforts. The Mumbai event and its lessons can be analyzed by considering the traditional elements of terrorism, identifying the unique aspects of this attack, assessing India’s response relative to the mission areas of Presidential Policy Directive-8 (PPD-8), and understanding implications for U.S. homeland security.

The Mumbai event displayed four characteristics traditionally associated with terrorism. First, the attack was premeditated with evidence indicating that planning and reconnaissance for the attack started as early as mid-2007 (Rabasa et al., 2009, p. 3). Additional evidence supporting premeditation included terrorist activities to identify vulnerabilities, pre-position weapons, secure area maps, and gain familiarity with the external and internal layouts of targeted sites. Second, the violence was politically motivated as demonstrated by the specific targeting of British and American nationals as well as the Jewish Chabad Center (Rabasa et al., 2009, p. 1). Further, the LeT or the “Army of the Righteous” (Forster, 2012, Video) viewed India as part of the “Crusader-Zionist-Hindu” alliance and considered their attacks on India as support for a more global Islamic struggle to free Kashmir and break up India (Rabasa et al., 2009, p. 1). Third, noncombatants were the focus of the attack. The terrorists selected soft targets (Rabasa et al., 2009, pp. 23–24) that included a major train station (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus), hotels (Taj Mahal Palace and Trident-Oberoi), hospitals (Gokuldas and Cama & Albless), a cinema house (Metro Theatre), and a popular tourist spot (Leopold Café). As a result, the terrorists were able to target noncombatant Indian citizens as well as foreign nationals over a 62-hour period leaving 172 dead and many injured (Forster, 2012, p. 1). Finally, the terrorists were associated with the sub-national group LeT operating out of Pakistan with possible support from elements of the Pakistani government and military (Rabasa et al., 2009, p. 2). Additionally, the individual Pakistani attackers themselves could be viewed as clandestine agents. Since all but one of the perpetrators were killed, little is known about their backgrounds. Even the lone survivor knew relatively little about the other nine attackers (Matthews & Reed, 2009, Documentary).

While the Mumbai attack manifests the key elements of traditional terrorism, it is also representative of the new 21st century terrorism. This is demonstrated by unique characteristics relative to strategy, operations, and tactics used in the attack. At a high level, this event reflects an emerging, evolving strategic terrorist culture capable of sophisticated thinking in the selection of high-profile targets and the execution of strategies to promote terrorist objectives. This particular Mumbai attack is unique in the diversity of targeted sites within Mumbai as well as its audacity and scope. Further, the attack positioned LeT to garner international attention for its cause, inspire its followers, and potentially recruit from the broader Pakistani expatriate populations around the world (Rabasa et al., 2009, p. 18). From an operational standpoint, the Mumbai attack was notable for its duration, its military-style precision and control, and the complexity of its operations, all of which were enhanced by the potent use of technology. By attacking multiple locations with four separate teams, the attack planners were able to reduce operational risk during their siege of Mumbai (Rabasa et al., 2009, p. 6). The degree of coordination among the attackers and the use of an “external handler” to control and urge them on were also distinguishing features of the attack and facilitated holding a city of over 20 million people in the grip of fear and panic for 62 hours (Forster, 2012, Video).  Finally, the tactics employed by the terrorists contributed to the unique characteristics of the Mumbai attack as well. The unique feature was not the use of new tactics; it was deploying previously used tactics in new combinations. This is illustrated by the use of conventional weapons: 9-mm handguns, machine guns, AK-56 automatic assault rifles, grenades, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). No unconventional weapons were used, but the terrorists used conventional weapons in unconventional ways (Rabasa et al., 2009, p. 5).

As the terrorist spectacle played out in real time to a global audience, it was clear Mumbai represented not only a strategic failure for Indian homeland security; but it was also an operational and tactical failure. PPD-8 provides a framework to objectively assess the Mumbai attack in terms of five mission areas: prevention, protection, mitigation, response, and recovery (Brown, 2011, pp. 17–21). The following summary uses mission area definitions (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2011b, p. 3) as a context and benchmark to evaluate India’s performance.

—Prevention “refers to those capabilities necessary to avoid, prevent, or stop a threatened or actual act of terrorism” with the focus on imminent threats. While Indian counterterrorism forces eventually stopped the attack, they failed to discover the plot in advance or repel the attack during a nascent stage. This situation was due in part to failures in the Indian intelligence community, poor communication and coordination among the governmental entities, and inadequate coastal surveillance (Rabasa et al., 2009, p. 9).

“refers to those capabilities necessary to secure the homeland against acts of terrorism and manmade and natural disasters.” Despite previous attacks on Mumbai, India appeared unable to address its transportation and maritime security issues or to harden obvious targets. Also, local groups with responsibility for counterterrorism had inadequate equipment and training to protect against serious terrorist threats (Rabasa et al., 2009, pp. 9–10).

—Mitigation “refers to those capabilities necessary to reduce loss of life and property by lessening the impact of disasters” and can occur during any of the mission areas. The core capabilities of planning, public information and warning, and operational coordination are shared across the five mission areas (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2011a, p. 3) were performed at unacceptable levels during the Mumbai crisis. Preplanned response strategy was deficient. Public information and warnings were provided by the news media, often inaccurately reporting the number and location of the terrorist attackers. In addition, poor coordination among first responders was further exacerbated by the lack of adequate equipment and communication interoperability (Rabasa et al., 2009, p. 10).

—Response “refers to those capabilities necessary to save lives, protect property and the environment, and meet basic human needs after an incident has occurred.” While a response should have occurred within 30 to 60 minutes, the terrorists were not seriously engaged until the Black Cat Commandos arrived from Delhi nearly ten hours after the attack began (Rabasa et al., 2009, p. 10). Prior to that, there was a serious lack of local leadership with “chaos” and “paralysis” becoming common descriptors of the unfolding drama. In fact, the local response (Matthews & Reed, 2009, Documentary) was characterized by incomplete protocol execution (e.g., the police froze and went into meltdown) as well as inadequate equipment (e.g., one outdated handgun for two train station police officers) and training for the local police and medical responders (e.g., some of the wounded waited up to 16 hours before help arrived).

—Recovery “refers to those capabilities necessary to assist communities affected by an incident to recovery effectively.”  The length of the siege and the terrorists’ ability to operate relatively unchecked for much of that time resulted in more extensive damages, both physically and psychologically, than if the attack had been curtailed more quickly. Accordingly, the delayed response led to a delayed and more extensive recovery. As in other mission areas, poor strategic communications and public information management hampered recovery efforts.  As a consequence of the poorly handled communications and the resulting deep psychological scars, an “unprecedented public interest lawsuit” was filed against the government, asserting that it “failed to discharge its constitutional duty” to protect Indian citizens (Rabasa et al., 2009, p. 11). The nearly irreparable loss of confidence in Indian governmental institutions only served to lengthen the recovery process.

Based on this assessment, India performed poorly in all five mission areas. As a result, there is an urgent need for India to address these shortcomings and reduce its obvious vulnerabilites since it will continue to be a terrorist target for the foreseeable future (Rabasa et al., 2009, p. 14).

The implications for American homeland security are clear. In particular, a Mumbai-like event could happen in the United States, and even some might say that it already has happened in the form of 9/11.  The combination of globalization and technology has allowed terrorist groups to learn, adapt, and expand on the lessons of Mumbai. The 2010 Mumbai-like plots uncovered by European intelligence to be carried out in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany (Forster, 2012, p. 1) should act as a wakeup call. Given its many soft, symbolic, and internationally recognizable targets, the United States needs to develop effective strategies and capabilities to counter an event like Mumbai. As one of the external handlers warned, Mumbai was just a “trailer to the main feature.” No place is safe (Matthews & Reed, 2009, Documentary). 

Understanding the challenge of Mumbai-like threats is essential to the counterterrorism process. The Mumbai attack highlights new strategic, operational, and tactical elements indicative of agile, adaptive, and dynamic terrorist innovation (Rabasa et al., 2009, p. 21).  There is also something else evident: the patience and persistence of the strategic terrorist culture. Former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld observed that the United States faces “a long, hard slog,” and the former Director General of MI5 described the jihadist threat as “deadly and enduring” (Woo, 2010, p. 1). Studying the Mumbai attack can be invaluable for all its lessons, including its most fundamental:. Twenty-first century terrorism is a new game, and playing it by the old rules can have disastrous consequences.


Brown, J. T. (2011). Presidential policy directive 8 and the national preparedness system: Background and issues for Congress, Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service. Retrieved from http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/homesec/R42073.pdf.

Forster, P. (2012). Case Study 1: Mumbai (Text and Video). P ADM 802: Multifaceted Approaches to Homeland Security, Pennsylvania State University.

Matthews, E. (Producer), & Reed, D (Director). (2009). Terror in Mumbai (Documentary). Retrieved from http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/terror-in-mumbai/.

Rabasa, A., Blackwill, R. D., Chalk, P., Cragin, K., Fair, C. C., Jackson, B. A., . . . Tellis, A. J. (2009). The lessons of MumbaiSanta Monica, CA: RAND Corporation. Retrieved from  http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/occasional_papers/2009/RAND_OP249.pdf.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security. (2011a). National preparedness goal (1st Ed.). Washington, DC: USDHS. Retrieved from http://www.fema.gov/pdf/prepared/npg.pdf.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security. (2011b). Presidential policy directive-8: National preparedness. Washington, DC: USDHS. Retrieved from http://www.dhs.gov/xabout/laws/gc_1215444247124.shtm.

Woo, G. (2010). Terrorism risk. In J. G. Voeller (Ed.), Wiley handbook of science and technology for homeland security. New York, NY: Wiley. Retrieved from http://www.rms.com/publications/dhshandbook_terrorismrisk_woo.pdf.


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