More than 24 hours after terrorists unleashed a wave of violence across Mumbai, standoffs continued at the Oberoi hotel and a Jewish center. The loss of life was considerable — more than 150 dead, with the toll almost certain to rise. In the aftermath, there are more questions than answers, particularly questions about the future of terrorism.
The first set of questions involves the reach of American, British, and Indian intelligence. Though it isn’t clear how many attackers were involved, informed observers put the number around 20. Yet none of the intelligence services expected an attack of this magnitude. Nor do these services know much about the organisation assumed to have perpetrated the attacks, the Indian Mujahideen (IM). Past IM operatives who have been captured have been low level, leaving intelligence services with scant information.
A second set of questions involves the goal of the attacks. Terrorists typically seek to strike fear, damage symbolic targets, and hurt the economy of the target country. These attacks on India’s financial hub accomplished all of these goals. But they could have taken even more lives. Why, for example, did the attackers focus almost exclusively on American and British citizens, and Jews? Almost certainly, one consequence will be further damaging relations between India and Pakistan. There is already peripheral evidence of Pakistani involvement. There are reports of involvement by Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, a Pakistan-based terrorist group with a complex set of connections to the ISI (connections that have become weaker under Pervez Musharraf, and now Asif Ali Zardari). Will the ensuing tensions cause Pakistan to mobilise forces to the Indian border? If so, one likely consequence of the Mumbai assault will be Pakistan drawing its military away from Bajaur and Swat, where it has been in heated combat against Islamic militants.
A final critical question: will the world see a move toward an urban warfare model? Certainly urban warfare offers a number of advantages to attackers. A suicide bombing is over as soon as it happens, though occasionally there are follow-on attacks aimed at first responders.
The Mumbai attacks, in contrast, still were not resolved after a full day. It caused a citywide lockdown. They were coordinated among dozens of terrorists and kept secret from multiple intelligence agencies. In contrast, building a bomb — even a sophisticated one — requires only a handful of people.
The Mumbai attacks represented the evolution of a different model of terrorist attack, and by any metric they succeeded wildly. Nobody should count on this being the last time terrorists employ urban warfare.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and the author of My Year Inside Radical Islam.