Mumbai attacks: Al-Qaeda methods & ideology

Posted at 11/29/08 9:16 PM

Indian and American intelligence sources tell ABS-CBN that there is increasing evidence that the attacks in Mumbai were carried out by a Pakistani militant group linked to Al-Qaeda. The primary suspects, they say, are Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. Lashkar-e-Toiba has denied it’s behind the attacks.

Indian intelligence sources say that one of the gunmen now in custody told Indian authorities that he – along with seven others – pretended to be students, rented an apartment in Mumbai and meticulously staked out the targets. Allegedly, they carried Malaysian identity cards. A Pakistani national, he told authorities he was trained by Lashkar-e-Toiba – taught to hijack a sea vessel and carry out urban warfare. These are tactics used by Al-Qaeda in past terror attacks, honed and passed along in its training camps; Lashkar-e-Toiba has long been linked to Al-Qaeda.

The ties are clear if we take the facts in Mumbai and compare them with the history of Al-Qaeda and its affiliate groups.

Link 1: Some of the Mumbai terrorists (on Indian television) demanded that Muslims in Indian prisons be released. This is not the first time this demand has been made. In 1999, during the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane, Muslim militants asked the Indian government to release mujahideens in Indian prisons. They hijacked the plane and flew it to Afghanistan, holding the passengers hostage until their demands were met. I covered that story then, and it wasn’t until years later that we discovered it was an Al-Qaeda operation.

Link 2: One of the men released by Indian authorities in 1999 was Omar Saeed Shaekh, who was later arrested for the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Omar Sheikh also worked very closely with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 attacks (and who had an apartment in the Philippines in 1994). Omar Sheikh confessed to authorities that he was involved in a series of attacks on India, including the Indian Parliament attack in December 2001.

Link 3: I also reported that story on the Indian Parliament, and it has interesting echoes today after heavily armed men with grenades attacked soft targets in Mumbai.

The Parliament attack in New Delhi was the first time well-trained, heavily armed men stormed an urban target in India. A gun battle broke out on Parliament grounds, and authorities narrowly prevented the terrorists from entering the building where hundreds of ministers and parliamentarians were attending a session. That attack – although unsuccessful narrowly brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war.

Later, Indian authorities claimed the attack was jointly carried out by operatives of Lashkar-e-Toiba and another al-Qaeda linked group, Jaish-e-Mohammed.

Link 4: In 1999, the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, Maulana Masood Azhar, was in an Indian prison. He also walked free – along with Omar Sheikh – in exchange for the lives of the passengers on that Indian Airlines flight. From Afghanistan he went back to Pakistan, where he continued to spread Al-Qaeda’s radical ideology. Jaish-e-Mohammed has close links to Al-Qaeda and bin Laden through a religious school in Karachi.

Link 5: Frontal assaults carried out by armed men firing semi-automatic weapons and lobbing grenades is a favored tactic of groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. They were called “fidayeen” (literally death-defying) squads. Most of the attacks, carried out by Pakistani nationals, took place in Indian-administered Kashmir from 1999 to 2003. The attacks died down in 2004 as India-Pakistan relations improved, but the deployment of this tactic now in Mumbai betrays the roots of the terrorists.

Link 6: The Indian Airlines hijacking and the Parliament attack were carried out by Al-Qaeda and homegrown groups it trained. We know this from the testimony of an Indian suicide pilot recruited by Al-Qaeda, Mohammed Afroz. He told authorities about the attack on India’s Parliament before it happened. He also said that one of the hijackers of the Indian Airlines plane in 1999 did pilot training with him in the United States.

Afroz trained in Australia, Britain and the US. He told authorities that London was a simultaneous target of Al-Qaeda in the September 11 attacks. According to him, Al-Qaeda had infiltrated a suicide team into Britain to attack the Houses of Parliament. The cell planned to hijack a domestic flight in London scheduled to leave at 2:30 pm on September 11, but it was delayed to 5 pm. By that time, the 9/11 attacks had already happened and all planes were grounded.

Link 7: The terrorists in Mumbai targeted US, British and Israeli nationals – long-time targets of Al-Qaeda and associate groups. No Indian nor Pakistani home-grown groups have targeted these foreign nationals.

Link 8: The attack on the Chabad House in Mumbai is an evolution of an earlier plot by an Al-Qaeda affiliate group in Southeast Asia, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). Hambali, a Malaysian who worked very closely with Al-Qaeda, and other JI operatives were working on a plot to attack the Chabad House in Bangkok, Thailand, according to interrogation reports.

Finally, let’s look at the group that did claim responsibility: unknown before the Mumbai attacks, Dekkan Mujahideen sent an e-mail claim to Indian news groups saying it carried out the attacks. One of the news groups traced the email to a Russian IP address (at the very least, showing a global connection).

Terrorist groups in South Asia change their names often. Once a terrorist group is identified, often it just changes its name. For example, one of the first groups discovered with an Al-Qaeda link was Harkat-ul-Unsar (it also has links to the Philippines). The group changed its name to Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, and when they were declared terrorists, they changed their name again …. to Jaish-e-Mohammed.

The Mumbai attacks are well-planned and coordinated using tactics and methods that reflect a very familiar virulent ideology. It shows the evolution of terrorist groups – how homegrown and foreign tactics are merging and creating new threats. The roots leading to Al-Qaeda are clear. We just have to follow the links.

Maria A. Ressa is the author of Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of Al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia.
She is senior vice president for news and current affairs of ABS-CBN and managing director of ANC (ABS-CBN News Channel). She was CNN’s correspondent for nearly two decades.