Mumbai Attacks Suggest Terrorists Are Evolving

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The attacks in Mumbai, India, last week reflect a new pattern. The terrorists used small arms and grenades, and their tactics were reminiscent of traditional guerrilla warfare. The small group of attackers demonstrated discipline and training, and their actions were clearly well-organized and financed. That raises the question: Is the world dealing with a new era of terrorism?


It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. The attacks on Mumbai have strained relations between India and its nuclear-armed neighbor. India says the attackers came from Pakistan. And now India is demanding that Pakistan turn over a list of suspected terrorists. In a moment, we'll find out how the attacks look to Pakistanis. We begin with the attacks themselves. Experts are studying the tactics of a small group of gunmen who held off security forces for days, and they suggest that terrorists are adapting to new conditions. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN: People in India say they regard the events in Mumbai as their 9/11. The attacks on the World Trade Center seven years ago changed the way terrorism was viewed around the world. And Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, says Mumbai may be comparable in that sense.

Professor BRUCE HOFFMAN (Security Studies Program, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University): Terrorists, I think, are always searching for new ways to attract attention and also to heighten fear and anxiety. And what worries me is that with the Mumbai attacks, they found it.

GJELTEN: The 9/11 attacks were brilliant in their simplicity - airplanes flown into buildings. In Mumbai, as Hoffman notes, the terrorists were armed only with automatic weapons and hand grenades, but they had a well-conceived plan and they executed it perfectly.

Professor HOFFMAN: You had actually en masse attacks that were certainly disciplined, that were subject to some commanding control, where the fighters stood their ground to resist security forces.

GJELTEN: Elite Indian counterterrorist groups who confronted the Mumbai attackers found them to be skilled militarily like experienced guerilla warriors. One Indian commando wounded in the fighting told his story through a translator to BBC television.

(Soundbite of BBC television interview)

Unidentified Indian Commando: (Through Translator) The gunmen were well-trained. They kept on changing their positions. They would fire from the first floor, the second, the third. The only thing we could do was listen where the firing was coming from and go towards it.

GJELTEN: The Mumbai attackers took hostages, not to negotiate - their apparent plan all along was to kill them. But by holding hostages, they were able to delay the Indian counterattack and prolong the crisis for maximum impact. Bruce Hoffman says other groups could imitate the Mumbai model. All they'd need are people willing to fight ferociously to the death.

Professor HOFFMAN: If you have the opportunity and the facilities to train them up, you can deploy them and then create an incident that just sits in the news for days on end. It sits in the news even afterwards because of the enormity firstly of the damage, destruction, and certainly deaths caused, but also the immense difficulties that the authorities had in responding to the attacks.

GJELTEN: A terrorist incident that lasts three days creates all the more fear, Hoffman says. Just what the terrorists want. Because the Mumbai attacks represent a new pattern, counterterrorism experts may have to rethink some of their assumptions, just as they did after 9/11. Aviation authorities had been prepared to deal with hijackings, but not when the hijackers were ready to go down with the planes. Police commando units are trained to deal with hostage situations, but not when the hostage takers have no interest in negotiation. And is it still proper to focus narrowly on the al-Qaeda network as the major terrorist threat? Major Reid Sawyer, one of the Army's top terrorism experts, directs the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. And he says the Mumbai attacks will now be studied closely there.

Major REID SAWYER (Executive Director, Combating Terrorism Center, West Point): This is a very important reminder to those of us in the terrorism studies field, and all of us, that terrorism is not solely defined by al-Qaeda and that there's a wide range of threats out there.

GJELTEN: The prime suspect in Mumbai is a radical Islamist group from Pakistan known as Lashkar-e-Toiba, the Army of the Righteous, the LeT to terrorism experts like Reid Sawyer. It's one of many groups, Sawyer says, that have indirect connections with al-Qaeda and share its jihadi philosophy, but must be taken seriously on their own.

Major SAWYER: The LeT is the perfect example of one of these types of organizations with thousands of members from upwards of 17 different nations in a variety of offices and camps across Pakistan. This is not a mom-and-pop type of operation, and there are multiple other organizations out there that we need to be thinking of.

GJELTEN: Until now, many of these other terrorist groups were thought to have mainly local ambitions. Lashkar-e-Toiba, for example, is focused mainly on the disputed Kashmir region. But Bruce Hoffman says the Mumbai terrorists were clearly thinking in much larger terms.

Professor HOFFMAN: If this was just a regional or a local attack, you would have expected attacks specifically on Indian targets alone, not against the Jewish Chabad center, not against American and Western travelers, against Chinese travelers, other nationalities. This was international terrorism.

GJELTEN: If that's true, it means the terrorist threat is evolving in potentially dangerous ways. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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