Thursday, November 26, 2009

Mumbai, One Year Ago

On this day, the anniversary of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai (Bombay), India, I watched the excellent HBO documentary Terror in Mumbai.  The film pieces together the complete chronology of the 60-hour attack and includes much footage of the terrorists in action as captured by CCTV cameras.  Even more amazingly, the documentary presents much of the dialogue of the terrorists as they were carrying out their murders.

How?  As it turns out, months before the attack, Indian intelligence had planted SIM cards in Pakistan with known terrorist group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, who would be revealed as the masterminds of the attack.  When the attacks began, security officials realized that three of the attackers were using tagged SIM cards, and authorities were able to monitor their conversations in real-time!

Throughout, the terrorists were in contact with their Lashkar handlers, and Terror in Mumbai reveals the chilling details of these conversations.  The terrorists--all young, naive kids--are heartlessly urged to kill as many people as possible, informed that their mission must end in their own deaths (or they won't go to heaven), and fed assurances that God will reward them for their actions.

For me, there was an additional personal reaction to watching the attacks replayed.  My parents, sister, and I were in Mumbai, where my dad's family lives, only a few months before the attacks.  We stayed in the famous Taj Mahal Hotel, perhaps the city's most iconic landmark.  Watching footage of the attackers shoot up the lobby, throw grenades in the tower, and kick down doors to shoot terrified guests is still as surreal now as it was when I was glued to CNN last year watching it all unfold.

Terror in Mumbai, brief though it is (only about an hour long), is a revealing look at many things: the ambitious jihadi aspirations of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, their manipulation of impressionable youth into an ideology of hate and violence, the incompetence of the Mumbai police when the attacks started, the heartbreaking human toll of the attacks (including many Muslim victims), and a damning indication of how groups initally set-up by Pakistani intelligence (ISI) to serve as proxies against India in Kashmir have spiraled out of their handlers' control.

Given how simple it was for this type of terrorist act to be carried out (no hijacking of airliners, just gun-wielding young kids in t-shirts and jeans) it's scary to think how easily such a scenario could be replicated--in India, the U.S., or anywhere in the world.  Fareed Zakaria, who narrated Terror in Mumbai, importantly points out that combating this enemy is about more than just foreign policy or military action.  We also have to fight the conditions of hopelessness that allow our enemies to attract followers to nihilist acts.

The presence of a non-fundamentalist education to teach young people, and a society that provides gainful employment (and thus a viable future instead of a sense of failure) are as instrumental as anything else in the war on terrorism.

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