Seven years ago, around this time, I was at Times Square in New York, speaking to stunned tourists and natives, as they stared at the giant screens showing the carnage in Mumbai. From a Chabad congregation in Manhattan, to students at Columbia University, that attack played on emotions.
Next month, the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s reconnaissance man, Daood Gilani aka David Coleman Headley, is expected to testify via video link to an Indian court. Among the exhibits produced before a court in Chicago during his trial was the visiting card he dealt out to those he met in Mumbai. The address upon it was innocuous, 350 Fifth Avenue, New York. Except that it happens to be the street location of the Empire State Building. I actually worked out of an office in that very building when the Mumbai massacre was probably being planned. It was chilling to think that Headley might have twisted through the turnstiles I used every day.
But that famous skyscraper wasn’t the only high level he had access to. He was also connected to the elite in the Pakistani establishment.
There’s been scant closure when it comes to 26/11. The principal actors remain active. More significantly, the Mumbai blueprint forms the basis for a similar surge of attacks on soft spots of democracies, be it a mall in Nairobi or a hotel in Bamako. If analysts drew immediate parallels between Mumbai and the nightmare on Friday the 13th in Paris, they were just pointing to the obvious. If the Isis claimed credit for Paris, it should also be partly attributed to the operational example devised by the ISI: Scatter shooting through public spaces, like the Leopold Café to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, then taking hostages at the hotel. The Isis simply aped those specs, with its modifier of punctuating the carnage with suicide bombers.
A year after 26/11, American President Barack Obama hosted then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and their joint statement said, “The two leaders underscored the absolute imperative to bring to justice the perpetrators of this terrorist attack.” Imperative? Meanwhile, Obama’s Administration has simply facilitated the bad actors in gaining more space in the AfPak theatre.
That drama is on repeat in West Asia, where Washington’s neglect of Iraq led to the Isis carving out territory for itself. Hours before the Paris massacre, Obama said the terror regime had been “contained”. As the US fiddled around the edges of the conflict, Isis gained depth and space for strategic planning and strident propaganda. That has directly led to the continent of Europe being in the state of siege mentality not seen since World War II. An emergency remains in place in France, and Brussels, the seat of the European Parliament, remains in lockdown.
There’s reason enough for Obama to stall for time. He’s about to enter the last year of his tenure. He wouldn’t want his legacy, and there are plenty of positives, to be marred by American boots on the ground sinking in the treacherous sands of that region. But by playing safe, he has allowed the Isis offensive and ceded leadership to Russia and France. Ironically, in avoiding the obvious, Obama may have undermined his climate change agenda, as Isis-related issues will likely cloud the COP summit in Paris.
Obama obviously wants to pass the ball to his successor but in that attempt he appears to have taken his eyes off it. And as events get more complicated in the region, at least he got to pardon Turkey a day before Thanksgiving even as it downed a Russian fighter jet. Such is the state of play that World War III trends on Twitter. Unfortunately for India, a similar vacuum in Afghanistan, one that Rawalpindi and its proxies are trying to occupy.
There are several false notes to be compared between the two areas. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi and French President Francois Hollande review the marchpast on Republic Day in January, their minds may also be on that parade of repeated mistakes.
Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs
The views expressed are personal