The siege of Mumbai lasted three days, led to the deaths of 173 people, and put the world on notice that the new generation of radical Islamic terrorists are well trained and well equipped for sustained operations abroad.

The history of international terrorism is replete with devastating attacks that have lasted no more than a few seconds or minutes. But in Mumbai, India in 2008, the story was very different. In Mumbai, a small team of heavily armed, highly trained terrorists had a different agenda than the vast majority of their predecessors. Their goal was to seize and to hold several high profile locations known to house westerners from the United States and Europe, and then dare the Indian authorities to root them out. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

This is the story of Lashkar-e-Taiba and one of the most meticulously planned and executed terrorist attacks since 9/11.

Surveillance & Reconaissance

Nearly a year before the attack, Lashkar supporter Fahim Mohammad Yusef Ansari, operating under an assumed identity, rented an apartment close to the landing site chosen for the operation. From this location Ansari began a detailed reconnaissance of each target area. He developed highly detailed maps of the targets and transportation routes, and delivered them to the operational commanders in Pakistan. It was Ansari’s detailed ground work and reconnaissance that would enable the 10 attackers to operate with military precision.

The operation began on the afternoon of November 23, 2008, when the terrorists set sail from Karachi to Mumbai. Using handheld GPS devices, the terrorists successfully navigated the 582 nautical miles at sea. Along the way they commandeered the Indian fishing trawler MV Kuber, onto which they transferred their automatic weapons, explosives, personal supplies, and a small rubberized watercraft that would be used for the final approach and landing on the shores of Mumbai.

The terrorists reached the Mumbai coast opposite Budhwar Park at approximately 8:30 p.m. local time. Eight of the men went ashore, split into four two-man teams, and headed for their predetermined targets. The remaining two terrorists remained in the rubber watercraft and headed for the Trident Oberoi Hotel located at another point along the coast. Mumbai, a bustling financial capital and the cultural epicenter of India, is about to be thrust into chaos. The city is about to come face to face with Radical Islam and its war on those it calls “non-believers.”

The first team of terrorists immediately set off for Nariman House, just a few hundred meters from where they had landed. The six others hailed taxis for transportation to their intended targets. At Nariman House, a Jewish Community Center, gunfire rips through the night air. The two terrorists murder the Rabbi and his wife and begin taking hostages. They immediately exchange operational intelligence with their handlers in Pakistan.

They are using cell phones and Voice over Internet, commonly known as Voice over IP. To the north, another pair of terrorists reach their assigned target; the Leopold Café. A famous watering hole frequented by westerners, the Leopold Café is buzzing with activity. Diners go about eating, drinking, and socializing unaware that death has just walked in the door. The terrorists talk on their cell phones with their handlers. They are handsome young men, and smiling at each other. Suddenly, one of the men takes something out of his backpack and throws it. The explosion produces a thunderous shockwave and hurls deadly shrapnel in every direction. The café then erupts with gunfire from the terrorists AK-47’s. Eleven people are left dead, and another 28 are seriously injured.

The terrorists calmly keep moving, now making their way to the Taj Mahal Hotel. On the way, they plant a 15 pound improvised explosive device that Indian authorities would discover and disarm. Meanwhile, another IED detonates. It is the one the terrorists planted in the taxi they used to get to the Leopold Café. It kills the three innocent occupants instantly, and wounds 19 bystanders.

Lashkar terrorists Mohammed Ajmal Kasab and Ismail Khan.

Arriving at the historic Victoria Station, a third pair of terrorists, Mohammed Ajmal Kasab and Ismail Khan, plant a powerful improvised explosive device in one of the restrooms. Shortly before 10 p.m., the two terrorists begin letting loose a blistering barrage of automatic weapons fire and lobbing grenades throughout the main hall. They kill men, women, and children indiscriminately. The death toll would reach 52.

At the Five Star Trident Oberoi hotel, the fifth pair of terrorists abandon their rubberized watercraft, plant an improvised explosive device in a flowerbed adjacent to the hotel, and make their way into the lobby. Automatic weapons fire and grenades tear apart the furniture, the walls, and the flesh of those who are standing around the hotel reception area. At the hotel’s two restaurants the terrorists kill more than two dozed and gather hostages, and begin moving them to higher floors. They remain in constant contact with their handlers in Pakistan throughout the ordeal.

The terrorists’ handlers in Pakistan are eager for information and updates from the young attackers. When they feel the men are wavering or becoming distracted by the reality of the situation, they urge them on. Eventually their demands for action would lead to the wholesale slaughter of hostages.

Although local police retreat and are reluctant to engage the heavily armed terrorists, Kasab and Khan are eventually forced out of the station and make their way to the Cama Hospital; firing at innocent bystanders as they move. Once at the hospital, they again throw hand grenades and fire at police officers who follow in pursuit. They begin searching for hostages, but staff members have already secured the patient rooms. Leaving the hospital, the terrorists walk calmly down the street firing their weapons. They eventually hijack a Constable vehicle to continue their attack.

At 1:00 a.m., at Nakabandi Point, Ajmal Kasab and Ismail Khan are finally stopped, at a high cost to police. Khan is killed in the exchange of gunfire, Ajmal Kasab is wounded and apprehended, becoming the only terrorist who would be taken alive.

At the iconic Taj Hotel, a fourth pair of terrorists arrive by taxi and enter through the main entrance. They are carrying automatic weapons, pistols, grenades, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, and enough food to keep their energy up for several days. They immediately begin firing at hotel guests and staff. Shortly after, the two terrorists who had attacked the Leopold Café enter the Taj through the north gate and begin firing near the swimming pool area. Soon the four terrorists link up and begin to move with precision through the hotel, firing at every person they happen upon and lobbing grenades.

Their handlers in Pakistan continue to feed them operational intelligence gleaned from television news reports, and when needed, they urge the young men on with words of encouragement.

Indian military take up positions outside the Taj hotel in Mumbai.

Meanwhile, the Mumbai Police are reeling in a state of shock. They have neither the training nor the equipment to deal with such a high order attack. At the command level, authorities are searching for ways to motivate their men to engage the terrorists. At the local level, police officers seem stunned and either unable or unwilling to take action. Making matters worse, India’s Counter Terrorist Unit is located more than 600 miles away and won’t arrive for several more hours.

It is after midnight in Mumbai when the police surround the Taj Hotel. They are either unwilling or unsure of how they should respond. Then, without warning, a massive explosion rocks the hotel to its foundation. Bright orange flames and a dark plume of smoke can be seen rising into the night sky from the city’s most iconic structure. The terrorists are fire bombing the building and the fire spreads quickly across the top floors of the hotel.

At 5:00 a.m. on the 27th, Indian commandos finally arrive on the scene. The terrorists have taken their hostages and moved to another location deep inside the Taj. The commandos finally begin their assault on a burning Taj Hotel.

Across the peninsula, commandos storm the Trident Oberoi. A fierce gun battle continues throughout the day, punctuated by small explosions. As the evening wears on, fire fills the fourth floor with smoke. By the end of the 27th, the terrorists had killed 35 people at the Trident Oberoi.

Indian commandos assault the terrorist positions in Nariman House.

As dawn breaks over Mumbai on the 28th, explosions are heard coming from Nairman House. At 7:30 a.m. commandos fast rope down onto the roof of Nariman House as snipers take up positions in buildings across the street. The terrorists’ handlers in Pakistan watch the operation unfold on television and begin issuing words of encouragement and directions to the terrorists holed up inside.

At Nariman House six people are murdered before the commandos are able to bring the ordeal to an end.

The coordinated siege of Mumbai that started in the early evening hours of November 26th, would not come to an end until 8 o’clock in the morning of the 29th. During the course of their three day rampage, the terrorists and their handlers in Pakistan exchanged 181 phone calls; more than 16 hours of real time command, control, and communication. The calls were made through accounts established with a Voice over Internet service provider based in New Jersey for less than $500.

There remains a debate on whether there were more terrorists involved on the ground in Mumbai. Many contend that there is no way these 10 young men could have carried out the attacks without direct support on the ground. Although there is no evidence that additional attackers were involved, there is the chance that others may have escaped during the fog of battle. The Indian government has since established several new commando teams, and has based one in Mumbai.

Lessons Learned

  • Terrorist strengths
    • Planning and reconnaissance
    • Electronic communications
    • Media broadcast real-time security forces movements
  • Terrorist weaknesses
    • No protection from chemical weapons (tear gas, smoke)
    • Lacked night vision equipment
  • Recommendations for security forces
    • Hostage rescue / active shooter training
    • Command and control exercises
    • Local hotel security integration with local police
    • Be ready to shutdown mobile communications / internet access during crisis to prevent remote command of terrorist attack
    • Work with media to black out real-time security force movements and plans
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