“Finally, on 26 November, the GPS had sounded their arrival off the coast of Mumbai, and they had called Karachi to find out what to do with the captured captain. It fell to Ajmal Kasab to act. He had just turned twenty-one and felt compelled to prove his worth. Two others held the Indian sailor down, while Ajmal slit his throat. Blooded, they jumped into a yellow dinghy that pulled them onwards towards the glistening Indian city.”
This is not a scene from an action thriller but an excerpt from the prologue of The Siege: Three Days of Terror Inside the Taj, a thoroughly researched book on the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. It’s a true story that’s as thrilling as any work of fiction.
The story is set in the financial hub of India, Mumbai. A city of extreme contrasts. Home to the destitute, the sick and the poor. It’s lavish hotels and mansions the playground of the sixth highest number of billionaires in the world.
It is in the spectacular Taj hotel that we find many of the city’s ‘elite.’ Surrounded by their armies of private security contractors and hotel staff, they sipped their cocktails and dined in fine restaurants, blissfully unaware that their protection is but a thin veil. The guards at the hotel were unarmed and the Mumbai general duties police were only issued WW2-era bolt-action rifles. Worse still, the police ‘Striking Mobiles’ had no ammunition for their FN FAL assault rifles.
When ten highly trained fedayeen from the backwaters of Pakistan attacked, each with eight magazines for their AKs, eight grenades, a 9mm pistol with three mags, and a fifteen-pound RDX improvised explosive device, the results were predictably disastrous.
Three days later the last of the terrorist pairs were finally neutralized. In this time they’d attacked five targets and killed 165 people. Elderly, women and children were all brutally massacred in an attack that rocked the counter-terrorism establishment. A new threat had been realized; the active shooter scenario had become a devastating reality.
The Siege shares the experiences of all sides involved, including the victims, the security forces and (surprisingly) the terrorists. It looks into the human side of tragedy, telling the story of heroes like the Taj hotel’s General Manager who refused to leave, survived the attack but lost his wife and two sons. The hotel’s celebrity Head Chef who lost seven of his staff, gunned down in the kitchens, and insisted on personally cleaning the blood off the floors. Or the NSG Major who rescued a team member wounded by a grenade, before being gunned down leading an assault.
These tragic stories are made all the more bitter when the litany of failures behind the government response is revealed. Despite US intelligence services providing accurate and detailed threat warning for the attacks, the Mumbai police were hopelessly unprepared. The national counter-terrorism response force, the NSG, were ready to deploy within 30 minutes of the first shots but, due to a lack of aviation assets, they didn’t arrive until seven hours of brutal bloodshed had already passed. When they finally arrived they had to commandeer local buses to get to their target.
Hindsight is a beautiful thing, but surely the threat warning would have warranted forward deployment of the national CT unit? The question has to be asked: Did key decision makers actually get the US intelligence? Did Indian CT legislation even make forward deployment possible?
Investigative journalists Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott Clark conducted a level of research for The Siege: Three Days of Terror Inside the Taj that has eclipsed any official investigations. Not only did they relive the events through the victims, security forces and officials, but they also interviewed terrorists. They talked to the Lashkar-e-Taiba co-founder. They visited the families of the terrorists, and had access to the lead Pakistani investigator before he was murdered in Islamabad. These interviews were combined with court documents, mobile phone intercepts, police evidence books, interrogation reports and even visits to Lashkar training camps. This book is the definitive guide to what actually happened and why.
So when the authors make claims that David Headley, the American Lashkar operative who conducted planning and reconnaissance for the attack, was probably a US intelligence source at the time, their allegations come with a hint of credibility. A former heroin smuggler and DEA-informant, Headley was highly-valued by Lashkar. If, in fact, he was reporting back to Langley while working for Lashkar, he would have been one of their most prized CT assets. LeT at this time was branching out to global operations and the intelligence community was scrambling to keep tabs on its activities. LeT’s trust would also have given Headley fringe access to Al-Qaeda, still a top US national priority at the time.
Some have criticized the US for running Headley as a source while he was radicalized. What they don’t realize is that often the best source of information comes from within the enemy and that comes at a risk. Indian officials have privately acknowledged that keeping a measure of control over Headley was the right thing to do, but lamented that the US did not share his identity with them. However, you can be damn sure that RAW doesn’t share the identities of their most sensitive high-level sources with the CIA, it just doesn’t work that way. But I digress.
Some of the most fascinating parts of the book cover the recruitment and training of the young fedayeen. We journey with them through the brutal year-long course that transformed the impressionable youths into hardened fanatical killers. Without a doubt, they would have fired more rounds preparing for OPERATION BOMBAY than the entire Mumbai police force put downrange in a year.
Once trained, they were shown their targets using videos recorded by Headley, the American operative. Levy and Scott Clark describe how ‘The Owls’, Lashkar’s IT and communications specialists, showed the fedayeen trainees how to use Google Earth and ‘Street View’ to do a virtual reconnaissance. They were able to utilize the 3D model of the Taj on Google Earth to conduct interior walkthroughs, models that were paid for with the hotel’s marketing budget.
Within the pages we also learn of Lashkar’s support network in India. Assets like ‘Honey Bee’, ISI’s New Delhi-based agent inside the Indian security forces, who supplied training manuals and maps, and ‘The Mice’, a logistics element located in Mumbai. ‘The Mice’ purchased fashionable clothes for the terrorists, transforming them from bearded backwater Pakistanis, into clean-shaven backpack-carrying Indian students.
There is no doubt in my mind that The Siege: Three Days of Terror Inside the Taj is the most comprehensive account of what remains one of the most sophisticated Islamist terrorist attacks since 9/11. The research is unparalleled, and the details are combined into a well-crafted story that gives insight into the people on all sides of the attack and the reasons why it was so effective. Five stars and a must read for anyone working or interested in the world of counter-terrorism.
Jack Silkstone is the author of the PRIMAL series. His latest book, PRIMAL Mirza, tells the story of a Lashkar terror plot against New Delhi and features a variety of Indian SOF units including Para Commandos, Special Group, and the National Security Guards.
Get PRIMAL Mirza on Amazon
Catch up with Jack Silkstone at primalunleashed.com
For more on the tactics of LeT, read the series by Escape The Wolf:
- LET, A Smarter Breed of Terrorist: Lashkar-e-Taiba – Part 1
- The New Al Qaeda. LeT Part 2: Pakistani Intelligence (ISI) and Tactics
- Terrorists Embrace Technology: LeT Part 3
(Featured Image Courtesy: IBN Live)