David Coleman Headley’s testimony is a chilling reminder of the three days when Mumbai was under siege by ten terrorists who came to the city by sea, took positions at key vantage points and iconic buildings in the financial capital, and killed 166 people.
Headley— a US citizen of Pakistani descent and one of the masterminds of the deadly attacks— had travelled to the city several times before the 2008 terror strike.
His deposition is also a reminder of the role of Pakistan’s deep state, the ISI’s meticulous planning and the intelligence agency’s linkages with terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Importantly, the testimony also calls attention to how vulnerable India continues to be to terror strikes. Headley informed a Mumbai court that he had undertaken as many as seven trips to Mumbai before Ajmal Kasab and nine other terrorists stormed the urban peninsula on November 26, 2008.
This question was asked before and must be asked again: how did Headley come to India undetected, especially since he arrived in Mumbai directly from Pakistan at least six of the seven times? Only once did he land in the city from the UAE.
There are other crucial questions. Headley informed the court that two previous attempts by the terrorists – who finally reached Mumbai by sea – were aborted. The first attempt failed because the boat the attackers were travelling in hit some rocks and sank along with the ammunition on board.
Each of the three times, India’s intelligence agencies remained unaware of the expansive plan crafted by the LeT and their masters in the ISI, just as they remained oblivious to Headley’s detailed filming of several prime targets in Mumbai.
The Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s external intelligence agency, had communication intercepts before the 26/11 attacks that clearly mentioned the iconic Taj Hotel as a possible target. Yet, Kasab and company succeeded in hijacking a boat, killing the sailor and making it to Budhwar Park, right next to Mumbai’s naval establishment, in an inflatable dinghy.
The Intelligence Bureau, the country’s internal intelligence agency, had a set of mobile numbers that by J&K Police had provided the LeT as part of a covert operation. Despite this vital information being shared, the IB was not actively monitoring the numbers that were used by the ten terrorists in Mumbai.
Intelligence lies at the heart of any meaningful counter-terror strategy but in the game of hide and seek between suicide attackers – who have their eyes firmly set on India – and the security establishment, the gunmen usually win.
This happened in Mumbai and was repeated in Punjab’s Pathankot last month, eight years after the 26/11 strike, when armed terrorists crossed the international border and slipped deep into a well-guarded Indian air force base.
That the National Investigation Agency doesn’t know just how many terrorists attacked Pathankot or from where and how they crossed over to India is yet another Headley-like reminder of how exposed India continues to be, from land and sea.