NEW DELHI – The author of an acclaimed new book on the 2008 Mumbai attacks warns India has failed to learn the lessons of the deadly assault by Pakistani militants — even five years after they traumatised the city.
Adrian Levy, whose book “The Siege” highlights striking failures in Indian authorities’ response to the attacks, said he feared security had barely improved since the three-day onslaught that left 166 people dead.
“Because there’s been no postmortem of any caliber, there are no lessons learnt,” said Levy, who spent four years researching and writing the book with fellow British journalist Cathy Scott-Clark.
“The feeling you get from the police, the intelligence agencies, is that they would struggle again. Not from lack of ability but poor resources, lack of political will,” he said.
“The Siege” gives a blow-by-blow account of the attack on Mumbai’s luxury Taj Mahal Palace hotel, one of several high-profile targets that were overrun on Nov. 26, 2008. Despite their lack of preparedness, the book says Indian authorities received 26 prior U.S. intelligence alerts that such an attack could occur, with all but one of the targets identified.
Levy described as “dismal” the 64-page report by the Pradhan Commission, a two-man probe set up to examine the attacks, which was precluded from cross-examining intelligence services, politicians or the National Security Guard (NSG). He contrasts this report with the thorough reviews of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and the July 2005 bombings in London that led to “systemic changes” in Britain’s security operations.
“India too often just walks on, it doesn’t reflect,” said Levy.
The young gunmen who conducted the attacks, from the Islamist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, came to the shore of south Mumbai after hijacking an Indian trawler out at sea. In touch with a control room back in Pakistan, they launched their assault on the Taj and Oberoi Trident hotels, a popular cafe, a busy train station and a Jewish center, with the dramatic scenes unfolding on televisions around the world.
The poor equipment and World War II-era weapons used by Mumbai’s police were widely criticized after the attacks, but Levy said the force remained “underfunded, underarmed.” He details how members of the NSG special force were 12 hours late on the scene from New Delhi, owing to “political infighting and incompetence in the Home Ministry.”
“The frustration that built up was one of the things that allowed us a wide range of access to people desperate to tell their story,” Levy added.
He and Scott-Clark conducted hundreds of interviews in India, Pakistan and eight other countries, piecing together a chronology with the help of text messages, CCTV footage, police and court documents, and recordings from wiretaps on the gunmen’s phones.
In Pakistan, they visited the villages and training camps of the men from Lashkar-e-Taiba, an outfit that has been closely linked to Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
“The Siege” relates how men from the ISI, such as a “Major Iqbal,” helped the attackers and boasted of a superagent working in New Delhi and known as “Honey Bee,” who allegedly provided key information. The ISI has officially denied any involvement in the attacks.
Also explored in-depth is the role of David Headley, an American who spent two years scouting Mumbai for the attackers, and was sentenced by a U.S. judge in January to 35 years in jail. The book says there is “overwhelming evidence” that Headley, whose father was Pakistani, was working not only for Lashkar-e-Taiba but also the U.S. intelligence community, which hoped he could lead them to Osama bin Laden.
“In time, Headley would have had access to the inner circles of al-Qaida. So that was a very enticing proposition for the U.S.,” Levy said.
Many of the U.S. intelligence warnings of an attack on Mumbai appear to have been based on Headley’s information, although their source was not revealed.
Levy believes India was “right to feel irate” about Washington’s “failure to come clean about Headley or their own self-interest.”
The only gunman to survive the siege, Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, 25, was tried in Mumbai and hanged late last year for “waging war” against India, murder and acts of terrorism.
Pakistan charged seven men in 2009 for involvement in the attacks, but has said it needs to gather more evidence before proceeding further. A top state prosecutor in the case was shot dead in May. The man accused by India and the United States of masterminding the attacks, Hafiz Saeed, remains a free man in Pakistan.
Along with the “villains” of the story, “The Siege” also tells of the heroic acts by those caught up in the horror. They included lowly paid Taj staff who formed a human shield to evacuate guests, and a U.S. Marine who ushered more than 200 people to safety — down 21 flights of stairs and under live fire.
“There were incredible stories from very ordinary people who behaved extraordinarily,” said Levy.