Lessons from Mumbai in Kabul Hotel Attack

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On its surface, it reads like a replay of Mumbai 2008: a nighttime raid by a bevy of heavily-armed fighters who target a luxury hotel frequented by foreigners and the local elite. That’s what happened at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul early Wednesday morning, leaving at least seven people dead, among them the six suicide bombers.

Is it possible that the world will see another Mumbai outside India, in some other country’s financial or political capital? Security experts have been preparing for that hypothetical scenario ever since the siege of Mumbai. Last October, for example, the New York Police Department conducted a drill simulating a Mumbai-style attack on New York City.

But unlike the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, which paralyzed the city for nearly three days, the Kabul stand-off was over in about four hours. Why the difference? The intervention of NATO helicopters certainly helped, but more important was the immediate response of the Afghan police and security forces.

“Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi … said two were killed by hotel guards at the beginning of the attack and four others either blew themselves up or were killed in the airstrike or by Afghan security forces.”

In Mumbai, poorly armed railway police struggled to stop the two gunmen who attacked the city’s bustling main railway station on the night of Nov. 26, 2008, where most of the casualties occurred; the pair were stopped only hours later at a police barricade. The other gunmen roamed freely through the city unchallenged, and it was only the next morning that troops of commandos arrived in Mumbai. They eventually did kill the militants while blasting their way out of the Taj and Oberoi hotels and Nariman House — but that process took almost three full days.

(PHOTOS: See pictures of NATO’s counterstrike on Taliban at the Intercontinental Hotel.)

A recent article by Omair Ahmed, writing for the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, makes the same point. (It’s a German organization, but I’ve included an excerpt from the report in English below). Ahmed writes about Ilyas Kashmiri, an al Qaeda operative who was killed by a drone strike on June 3. Kashmiri was the key point of contact between jihadi groups in South Asia and David Headley, who did reconnaissance work for the Mumbai attacks.

“More importantly the key to the Bombay attacks were the security lapses. India missed the attackers on the sea, where it’s Navy might have spotted them, on its coastal waters, where the Coast Guard might have been expected to, or on land, where the police should have been aware. The attacks happened in an overpopulated, difficult to manage city with scarce security infrastructure and human resources. It is impossible to imagine that such an attack could take place in Srinagar, J&K, where the security presence is extremely high, and hard to imagine the same in most developed countries, where the police to civilian ratio is on the average four times higher than in India, and where the infrastructure of surveillance and detection is far better. The idea that any group could mastermind such an attack over wireless units from across the border does not even arise.”

India has certainly improved its intelligence gathering and communication, both internally and with other countries. But intelligence can only go so far in preventing lone-wolf attacks by people who might slip past agents tracking known jihadi networks. When they make a move, it’s up to local police and other emergency personnel to serve as the front-line defense. Here, India lags far behind the U.S. and Europe in improving the capacity of its first responders. The South Asia Terrorism Portal points out that it still doesn’t have nearly enough police to serve its huge population, despite ambitious new spending plans: “As of January 1, 2009, there were 530, 580 vacancies in the State Police Forces. 116,903 personnel were recruited after this, till November 30, 2010.” Numbers alone aren’t the answer, of course, but when the police:population ratio is as low as it is in India, half the level recommended by the UN for peactime operations, it becomes extremely difficult to improve police officers’ training or prevent corruption. That’s one lesson of Mumbai that India has yet to learn.