Neither has the Mumbai transit system previously been immune to this type of violence. On December 6, 2002, 25 people were killed when a bomb went off in the McDonald’s in the Mumbai central rail station. On March 12, 2003, terror groups Jaish e Mohammed and the Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) bombed a commuter train in Mumbai, killing ten and injuring seventy. In August of 2003, 52 people were killed and 150 injured in a car bombing of the Gateway to India monument. But none compare to the March 12, 1993, multiple attacks, in which 13 bombs claimed 257 lives and injured 1,400 others. That being said, yesterday’s attack was significant, both in the number of people killed, and the tactical acumen it exhibited. It is difficult to pull off seven separate explosions across a city within eleven minutes.
But al Qaeda has this type of dramatic, multiple blast attack down to a science. Given that the incident fit al Qaeda’s m.o., and also that in his April message Osama bin Laden condemned India for being part of the antiterror alliance, it is hard not to conclude that they were involved. One already named suspect is underworld figure Dawood Ibrahim, who was implicated in the 1993 multiple bombings and has long-standing al Qaeda ties. He is currently reportedly holed up in the same mountainous region of Pakistan that OBL is hiding.
Ibrahim also has ties to the Kashmir separatist terror group Lashkar e Taiyiba, which quickly denied any involvement. Their spokesman Dr. Abdullah Ghaznavi stated that “These are inhuman and barbaric acts. Islam does not permit killing of an innocent person.” Finally a terrorist who talks sense. He added that the bombers were “enemies of humanity,” another point we can all agree on.
But don’t let Dr. Ghaznavi convince you that Lashkar is a leading humanitarian organization. Recent counterterror investigations of the group in and around Mumbai clearly showed something was up. In January of this year several politicians and religious figures with links to Lashkar were arrested in Mumbai. In the course of that investigation, authorities discovered a terror cell that was importing explosives for some kind of attack. In February another Lashkar cell was broken up just south of Mumbai. Allegedly they were awaiting delivery of explosives. In March a bomb was discovered and defused at a Mumbai train station. In May, a Lashkar cell in Delhi was uncovered, with plans to among other things bomb some of the Bollywood film industry sites in Mumbai. They figured this would generate publicity. Can you imagine a similar plot to blow up Hollywood? Wait, don’t answer that.
Another interesting link to Lashkar might come in the person of Mohammed Afroze, nicknamed “The Pilot,” a group member in good standing who was jailed in India after admitting he was involved in an al Qaeda plot to fly aircraft into the Indian Parliament and British House of Commons on September 11, 2001. (A little-known part of the overall plot — imagine if he had succeeded.) He had been sentenced to seven years in jail but recently was freed on $2200 bail on a technicality. If he was involved in these bombings it might have been an attempt to redeem himself for not carrying out the original attacks.
The recent switch from aircraft to rail targets make sense. It’s not that terrorists don’t want to seize more aircraft and use them as guided missiles, surely they do. But airliners have been significantly hardened in the last five years and operations against them are difficult. Since terrorists are opportunists, they have moved to trains, a much more difficult target to secure, especially commuter trains. While they are harder to protect, it is not impossible; if it can be done with commuter planes, it can also be done with trains. That is, technically. But it will never happen because the cost would be very high. The city of Mumbai alone has six million rail passengers a day, which is more than three times the total daily number of airline passengers in the entire United States. And the inconvenience caused by placing security checkpoints at every commuter rail station, not to mention subway, would force people to ask themselves just how safe they need to be. Sometimes the risk is worth it.
But even though railroads are vulnerable tactically, do they make good strategic targets? Definitely not. Madrid probably spoiled the bad guys. If they believe, as many do, that they were able to bring about a change in the Spanish government through a well-timed coordinated attack on the transportation system, maybe they reason the same types of attacks elsewhere might yield good results too. But Madrid was an anomaly, the result of special, unrepeatable circumstances. We saw a much different impact in London — a renewed sense of national unity, and a definite hardening of opinion against the terrorists. The Indian public too is showing great resilience in the face of this adversity. And while a city mourns its fallen, and hundreds of families try to cope with their grief, today in Mumbai the trains are back up and running, and life goes on.
— James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a trustee for the Leaders for Liberty Foundation, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point. Robbins is also an NRO contributor.