‘The Siege’ Authors On The Taj, Understanding David Headley And What Mumbai Learnt From 26/11

November 25, 2013 7:22 am by
Photo: Kainaz Amaria.

Photo: Kainaz Amaria.

Tomorrow, it will be five years since a group of ten terrorists stormed Mumbai, holding captive The Taj and the Oberoi-Trident hotels, Chabad House, gunning down people at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and Leopold Cafe, and opening fire inside Cama Hospital leaving 166 dead. The Siege: The Attack on the Taj by British investigative journalists Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, is the latest book to outline in harrowing detail the events of the day, particularly as they unfolded at The Taj, where over nearly three days four terrorists left 33 men, women and children dead. Stitched together from hundreds of interviews with survivors, relatives and officials, The Siege is an unnerving reminder as the events of those days fade in our collective memories of not only the bravery of those who stood their ground and fought back, but of the severe lapses and chinks in the city’s armour. Levy and Scott-Clark, who previously wrote The Meadow: Kashmir 1995, an investigation into the kidnapping of six Western tourists from Kashmir by militants in 1995, responded to our questions about the challenges of gathering the material, the warning signs India ignored, and our current strategy on fighting terror. Edited excerpts:

In the aftermath of 26/11, many were quick to point out, particularly the government, that this could have happened in any city in the world. But what comes across clearly in your account is that these attacks, especially the one at The Taj, were preventable and could have been avoided had certain measures been implemented. Can you speak a little about the warning signs that were ignored at every step of the way?
It’s always easier to say with hindsight that things could have been handled better. It was the same with 9/11 and with the London underground bombings of 7/7, when the British authorities wasted many opportunities to stop the terrorists in their tracks. With Mumbai, there were clear and accurate warnings passed onto Indian intelligence, starting in August 2006 and running up until a few days before 26/11. Almost every element of what would eventually unfold on the night was predicted: a seaborne operation, coordinated by multiple teams of fidayeen gunmen trained and deployed by Lashkar-e-Toiba, the targets named time and again: CST, the Taj, the Oberoi, plus others that were not in the end attacked such as Mumbai police HQ. When DCP Vishwas Nangre Patil took up post in June 2008 (as deputy commissioner of police, zone one) he saw references to many of these warnings and took immediate action, requesting clarification from the agencies and back up from his force. When none came he went to the Taj directly and sought several meetings with the head of security and general manager, suggesting more than 20 measures following a nine hours audit. Eventually (after the Marriott in Islamabad was attacked on Sept 20, 2008) the Taj agreed to enhanced security. However much of this was then withdrawn again a few days before the attacks, with tragic consequences.

The police could not get heard by the state or the centre. Resources were scarce and there was no attempt to upgrade them. The NSG too had been asking for more than two years for critical upgrades to equipment and mobilisation – all of which had stalled.

Following on from that, something that’s not answered in the book is why the central authorities or The Taj didn’t in fact heed the warnings from the CIA (26 of them in total) about the impending attacks. Were you able to piece together why this might have been the case?
Stove piping, lack of resources and lethargy on the part of security agencies – with RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) and IB (Intelligence Bureau) still resentful and suspicious of each other. Also a certain lackadaisical attitude to warnings regarding the planned actions of Pakistani Islamist groups such as Lashkar that spent its entire time plotting against India, so why take these warnings any more seriously than any other? At the Taj, a general concern at senior management level was that they did not want to turn the hotel into a fortress and that when enhanced security was introduced guests complained and the extra police/security officers demanded food and other facilities that the hotel was unable to provide.

The first time these warnings were taken seriously was in June/July 2008. Perhaps, if the US had shared the source of its intelligence, revealing that they had someone inside the Mumbai plot and Lashkar, then RAW would have moved more urgently. Senior officers would say this to the US in 2009, but the US refused to be blamed, accusing the intel community in India of incompetence.

You write a lot about David Headley and Ajmal Kasab’s respective backgrounds and what in fact might have spurred them to do what they did. While Kasab mostly comes across as a victim of circumstance, it’s Headley who is impossible to figure out. In the end, it wasn’t clear who or how many he was serving (other than himself), or even what his motivation was…
Nearly all the foot soldiers in Lashkar are un-ideological, not especially religious or conservative. Lashkar rebuilds them through religious indoctrination and military training – but the goal of these camps is to remove self will and infantilise the recruits so they respond to orders, unquestioningly, like children being coached by parents.

Headley is more complex and knowing. A hybrid, convincing in Pakistan and in the Upper West Side of New York, where he ran his video store, he was also, according to his own mother, an adventuress from Maryland, someone whose selfishness was derived from his lack of sense of self. He was sent to Pakistan to be with his father who placed him in a military school and yet he pined for his mother, feeling rejected by her, and soon joining her in the US.

His modus operandi was to save him self by sacrificing others. When he began buying drugs in Pakistan in the early 1980s, he did so by manipulating his best friend Rana, a schoolmate who was then a medic in the Pakistan army. Headley (then called Daood Saleem Gilani) abused Rana’s military credentials and truck, to get into the tribal territories on drug buying missions, stashing his illicit cache in the military vehicle without Rana knowning.

When he was busted in 1984, he gave up the syndicate around him. He did the same in 1988 and 1994, in New York. Each time he made a deal with the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) and finally with the US intelligence community. In 1998 when he was arrested for importing heroin, US embassies in Africa had been devastated by Al Qaeda announcing its arrival on the global terrorist stage. Headley/Gilani offered to penetrate Islamist movements in Pakistan – an irresistible offer back then.

He would not get into Lashkar until 2006, and then slowly edged also towards Al Qaeda, and in particular Ilyas Kashmiri’s 313 Brigade in Waziristan. This was known by the US that was monitoring his email and phones. They knew then that a US passport holder, was closer than anyone else to Osama bin Laden at a time when capturing him was a prime objective.

But Headley was never anyone’s client. He betrayed Lashkar. He befuddled US intelligence. He betrayed his three wives. He betrayed Rana, his best friend. Lashkar even suspected this and reported that he was a spy to their ISI link. ISI too backed away from him, refusing to meet face to face.

What were some of the most trying moments you faced in gathering information from the many eye witnesses you interviewed? Who were the toughest people to interview?
Several things were hard. One was fatigue. So many people in authority felt as if the story was “done” even though it had never been assayed in the detail we wanted to do it. The “authorities”, broadly, also were resistant to allowing a critical version of the truth to come out – referring everyone to Ram Pradhan, whose commission was widely regarded as a whitewash. Survivors are still very bruised as there has been no closure for many, because there has been no profound analysis of 26/11 – like the 9/11 Commission or the 7/7 inquiry in London. Others feel angry at the way in which India moved forwards without looking backwards.

Five years on, given what we know about Headley and Kasab and the other gunmen, what do you make of India’s strategies to tackle terrorism? Just three years later, Mumbai was attacked again, which has led many to question what in fact the government learned at all from 26/11.
It is hard to say what has been learned. Pradhan suggests nothing has been learned as the inquiry was toothless, unable to reference the intelligence community, the NSG, or the politicians – only the police and that marginally. Even the meagre recommendations in Pradhan have not been implemented five years on. The one thing we can count on is the indomitable nature of the Taj staff and Mumbaikars, who, when the time came, saved the day and hundreds of guests – when the authorities all around them failed. We can be sure that if another attack happens people will step up to the challenge. It’s a remarkable feature of Mumbai life and of the corporate culture of the Taj. We finished working on the book filled with a deep passion for the city. And that is undiminished.