Sri Lanka attacks: Could lives have been saved?
One evening last month, as we left a cinema in the suburbs of Washington, I wanted to know the reaction of our local American friends. We had together watched Hotel Mumbai, a film inspired by the staff of one of the hotels targeted by terrorists in a massacre over several days in November 2008.
I wanted to ask what they thought. Instead, I was asking myself the question that has troubled us Indians since those terrible four days — November 26 to 29: Did India handle the attacks well, or at all? Did India respond as a nation that knew how to deal with terrorism, having previously seen attacks on the Akshardham temple and the Parliament? Could the killings have been prevented or minimised? Could the killers have been intercepted, and neutralised, shot, that is, off their dinghy mid-sea?
Questions that Sri Lankans will be asking now.
Through the film, scenes from that horrific night of November 26 (I was in New Delhi then), played in my head. I leaned over to our friend in the next seat, once, to point out Ajmal Kasab, the character as played on screen. But that was also the last time I spoke during the movie.
Watching the ill-equipped Mumbai police take position behind whatever they could find for cover, I was once again filled with dread. They were carrying 303 bolt-action rifles and handguns, while the terrorists were armed with AK-47 assault rifles, pistols, hand grenades, and bags of explosives. They responded bravely, of course, but they were outgunned and outmatched. The whole country breathed easier when they were joined by Marine Commandos and the National Security Guards.
India was unprepared. “What we have found are instances of lack of: intelligent appreciation of threats, handling of intelligence, maintaining high degree of efficiency in instruments specifically set up to deal with terrorist attacks and certainly lack of overt and visible leadership in carrying out operations to face multi-targeted attacks,” said a high-level inquiry committee set up by the Maharashtra government to investigate the response of the security agencies.
“In fact,” it added, reflecting the mood of the nation at the time, “the last factor has led to public anger and resentment, both against the political as well as the administrative establishments.”
Sri Lankans are feeling that anger and resentment now, I think, and may read a similar report soon on why and how they lost more than 350 people, most or some of whom could have been saved. There were very specific intelligence alerts about the possibility of attacks, and the group of men who were planning it. Mumbai police had similar information in 2008 — not as accurate, but close — about Lashkar-e-Taiba’s plans to target Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.
Still, 10 Pakistani terrorists trained and run by their military — belonging to Lashkar-e-Taiba, a proxy group supported and funded by the Pakistani government but proscribed by the United Nations — killed 166 people over four days, targeting six different venues from November 26 to 29.
Seven years before, on September 11, 2001, 19 men flew passenger planes loaded with travellers into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon on the outskirts of Washington killing 2,981 people. “The nation was unprepared,” concluded the 9/11 Report ordered by the US government.
Sri Lanka was unprepared as well, and will want to know why.