When Bombay came under siege
Five years after the attacks on its financial capital, India has not ensured its security.

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Taj Mahal Hotel, scene of the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, cordoned off in the days following the attacks December 3, 2008.

Article Highlights

  • David Headley despised the "idea of India" #26/11 #Mumbai

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  • How effectively can an open but inefficient democracy like India guard against Islamist terrorism? #26/11

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  • The best way to deter terrorists is to give their leaders a reason to think twice before attacking you. #26/11

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This week marks the fifth anniversary of Pakistani jihadist group Lashkar-e-Taiba's attack on Mumbai. While the basic facts are well known, a haunting question remains: How could 10 men "who knew only about chickens and goats" hold India's financial capital and the world's fourth largest city to ransom? Award-winning British journalists Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark set out to find the answer in "The Siege."

After arriving in Mumbai by boat from Karachi, the terrorists split up into teams of two to attack several targets, including a popular café, the city's main train station, a Jewish center and the five-star Oberoi-Trident hotel. Over three blood-soaked nights, they killed 166 people and injured more than 300.

But their principal target, and the focus of the book, was always the iconic Taj Mahal hotel—a landmark nearly as famous as the next-door Gateway of India, built to commemorate a 1911 visit by King George V. Ultimately, four of the 10 terrorists would concentrate their firepower on the Taj. By the time the carnage ended on Nov. 29, they had killed 33 people from at least six countries, and gutted much of the interior of the (then) 105-year-old landmark. 

Mr. Levy and Ms. Scott-Clark recreate in vivid detail the genesis of Operation Bombay, cooked up by the LeT to "attack the enemies of Islam—Americans, Israelis and Europeans—as well as India." By the last page, the reader feels the horror of being trapped with terrorists in one of Asia's great hotels.

As the narrative unfolds, the authors introduce us to a cast of more than two dozen characters. The plotters include David Headley (born Daood Gilani), a half-American informer for the Drug Enforcement Agency used by LeT to reconnoiter the Taj.

Schooled in a Pakistani military academy, Headley despised "the idea of India" and was drawn to the notion of "becoming one of Islam's commandos." LeT founder Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, known to the Mumbai terrorists as the amir (spiritual leader), promised the 10-man suicide squad chosen for the mission that upon death their faces would glow like the moon, their bodies would emanate scent, and they would go to paradise.

Those trapped in the hotel included prominent Indian food critic Sabina Saikia, an Indian-American marine Ravi Dharnidharka, vacationing Britons Will Pike and Kelly Doyle, Indian newlyweds Amit and Varsha Thadani and the family of the hotel's general manager Karambir Kang. Rounding out the cast: hotel employees, police and security men, for the most part ill-prepared to deal with the enormity of the situation they suddenly confronted.

"The Siege" reads like a thriller, but it also raises an important question. How effectively can an open, pluralistic, but also inefficient democracy like India guard against Islamist terrorism? The ineptitude of the state's response—in contrast to the heroism of individual policemen and the staff of the Taj—leaps off the page.

For instance, the authorities managed to unofficially assemble a combined task force just 22 minutes after the first shots were fired on the night of Nov. 26. But the commandos who finally cleared the Taj only touched down in Mumbai some seven hours later. And while a senior official was whisked away immediately in a flurry of white Ambassador cars flanked by armed outriders, it took several more hours to transport the men called upon to do the actual fighting by bus through the city.

So could another Mumbai happen today? On the face of it, India is better prepared than it was five years ago. Its intelligence agencies have upped their game, and it's highly unlikely that its commandos would take as long to respond to another attack.

But in a larger sense, India has failed to use the relative lull in violence over the past five years—and the tremendous outpouring of goodwill from across the world—to secure its immediate neighborhood.

In Pakistan, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed continues to preach hatred openly, despite a $10 million U.S. bounty for information leading to his arrest and conviction. (Six Americans were among those killed in Mumbai.) Two successive Pakistani governments have shown no seriousness in bringing the men behind the attacks to justice.

Mr. Levy and Ms. Scott-Clark describe in detail the close links between LeT and the Pakistan army's intelligence wing, Inter-Services Intelligence. A clean-shaven major general from the army addressed the Mumbai attackers during training, and the attack itself was coordinated in real time from a control room in "an upmarket military cantonment in Karachi." Five years on, there's no sign that Pakistan is any closer to severing its links with its favorite jihadists.

Perhaps most damagingly, India didn't use the provocation of the Mumbai attacks to retaliate militarily against Pakistani terrorist training camps. This restraint may have earned New Delhi diplomatic goodwill. But as the experience of Israel and others shows, in the long run the best way to deter terrorists is to give their leaders a reason to think twice before attacking you.

Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com. Follow him on Twitter @dhume.

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