India’s Resilience Post-26/11: Unveiling Flaws, Evolution, and a Vision for a Secure Future

The 26/11 attacks exposed glaring failures in India’s security, marked by intelligence lapses, a mole within, and delayed crisis response. The media’s reckless reporting, coupled with a lack of guidelines, became a convenient scapegoat for a government unwilling to acknowledge its colossal security lapse. Despite post-attack initiatives, institutional shortcomings persist, leaving the nation vulnerable to evolving threats. 26/11 stands as a stark testament to unaddressed security vulnerabilities, demanding urgent and comprehensive reforms.

The indelible scars of the November 26, 2008, Mumbai attacks continue to linger in the collective memory, an enduring testament to the heinous act of terrorism that unfolded over three harrowing days. The events of that fateful period, where defenceless civilians were systematically targeted and ruthlessly gunned down, unfolded under the stark gaze of national television.

This tragic incident stands as a pivotal moment in shaping India’s unwavering stance against terrorism, serving to fortify the nation’s resolve against all forms of militant activities. The aftermath of 26/11 has cast a shadow over any prospects of constructive dialogue with Islamabad, as the authorities in Pakistan have been perceived to display a sluggish approach in delivering justice to the 157 lives lost and the 600 individuals left grievously injured during those dreadful days.

While the official narrative from Pakistan contends that the perpetrators were ‘non-state actors,’ the overwhelming body of evidence pointing to the meticulous planning behind the 26/11 attacks raises serious questions about the plausibility of such claims. The acknowledgment that the attack was orchestrated by a Pakistan-based terrorist group is not only accepted by Indian authorities but also acknowledged to a certain extent within the official discourse in Pakistan.

The intricacies surrounding the planning and execution of the 26/11 attacks lead to a challenging scepticism regarding the absence of any official sanction. The wealth of evidence underscores the need for a nuanced and comprehensive examination of the circumstances surrounding the tragedy, as the international community grapples with the enduring implications of an event that forever altered the trajectory of counter-terrorism efforts in the region.

15 years removed from the tragic events of 26/11, India finds itself at a critical juncture, having absorbed valuable lessons from that dark chapter in its history. However, despite strides in understanding and addressing security concerns, an air of uncertainty clouds the nation’s preparedness to confront future threats.

In retrospect, the events leading up to the 26/11 attacks in 2008 reveal a series of critical lapses that contributed to the tragic outcome. A comprehensive analysis sheds light on the key shortcomings:

  • Intelligence Failures:
  • Headley’s Reconnaissance: A report by The Wire states that American-born Pakistani terrorist David Richard Headley conducted multiple visits to India in the two years preceding the attacks, meticulously identifying potential targets. Despite having three wives, two of whom had communicated his terror associations to US authorities, intelligence agencies failed to intercept and act upon this information.
  • CIA Alerts: The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) provided India with a series of alerts over the possibility of a major terrorist attack on Mumbai. These warnings, totaling 26, specifically indicated a potential sea route assault targeting five-star hotels. However, Indian intelligence agencies, including the Research and Analysis Wing and Intelligence Bureau, were unable to prevent the impending strikes.
  • Mole Presence:
  • Headley’s revelations point to the existence of a mole known as ‘Honey Bee’ working for Major Iqbal of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). This mysterious figure reportedly assisted the terror group in identifying Badhwar Park, a South Mumbai fishing colony, as a suitable landing site for the attackers. Despite this disclosure, the identity of ‘Honey Bee’ remains elusive.
  • Undetected Failed Attempts:
  • Headley’s testimony unveiled two failed attempts to attack Mumbai before 26/11 by the same group of terrorists. The first endeavour on September 8 resulted in the sinking of the boat due to hitting rocks, causing the loss of weapons and explosives. Another unsuccessful attempt was made in October. Both incidents went undetected by Indian security agencies.
  • Slow Response to Fishermen’s Alerts:
  • Local fishermen and shopkeepers in Colaba, where the terrorists docked on November 26, 2008, exhibited suspicion toward the strangers. Despite reporting their concerns to the police, they were met with indifference. Earlier warnings, such as a fisherman’s letter about the potential transport of explosives by sea, were similarly disregarded by law enforcement.
  • Misidentification of the Incident:
  • Despite multiple public places being targeted, significant casualties, and extensive media coverage of the attacks, there was a notable delay in officially designating the events as a terror strike. Initially, authorities misconstrued the situation as an underworld gang war, hampering the swift deployment of appropriate counter-terrorism measures.
  • Delayed Request for NSG Assistance:
  • It wasn’t until past midnight, three hours after the commencement of the attacks, that the then Maharashtra chief minister formally urged the Centre to deploy the National Security Guard (NSG). This delay in recognizing the gravity of the situation contributed to a critical loss of time in launching a robust response.
  • Logistical Challenges in Deploying NSG:
  • Mumbai lacked a nearby NSG centre, necessitating the transportation of commandos from Manesar in Haryana. The logistical hurdles further escalated as NSG Chief J.K. Dutt encountered difficulties in securing a transport aircraft promptly. The aircraft, located in Chandigarh, resulted in additional delays. The intervention of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) provided an Ilyushin 76 from Palam airstrip, but its limited capacity mandated three trips to transport the entire team. The subsequent challenges of refuelling and crew coordination added crucial hours to the deployment process.
  • Marine Commando Delay:
  • In response to the terrorists at the Taj Mahal hotel, marine commandos were summoned. However, they too faced significant delays, arriving three hours after the initiation of the attack. This tardiness, coupled with the insufficient deployment of local police, impeded efforts to contain the heavily armed assailants within a confined area.
  • Impact on Rescue Operations:
  • The continuous live coverage by TV news channels inadvertently compromised the effectiveness of rescue operations. The real-time broadcasting of security tactics and positions allowed the perpetrators to gain crucial insights into the unfolding situation. This compromised the element of surprise and hindered the ability of law enforcement to strategize effectively.
  • Communication with Perpetrators:
  • Pakistani handlers of the terrorists reportedly utilised the live media coverage to communicate critical information to the attackers. This included details about the presence of dignitaries in targeted hotels and advance warnings about impending security operations. The perpetrators, being kept abreast of these developments, could adjust their tactics and locations accordingly.
  • Exploitation of Information:
  • The live media coverage unintentionally served as a conduit for intelligence to reach the attackers in real-time. This exploitation allowed them to make informed decisions based on the evolving security dynamics, potentially prolonging the duration of the attacks and amplifying the challenges faced by the responding forces.
  • Media coverage during the 26/11 attacks lacked established protocols, allowing unrestricted live broadcasts. It was only on November 28 that a directive to show “deferred” footage was implemented, acknowledging the potential drawbacks of real-time coverage on ongoing security operations. The delayed intervention highlighted the need for proactive planning to strike a balance between the public’s right to information and national security imperatives during crisis situations.
  • Terrorists’ Detailed Knowledge:
  • The terrorists possessed intricate details about the layouts and maps of the targeted buildings, thanks to reconnaissance conducted by David Headley. This knowledge gave the attackers a strategic advantage over NSG commandos who lacked this critical information upon their arrival in Mumbai on November 27.
  • NSG Handicap in Operations:
  • NSG commandos faced a major handicap at locations like the Taj, Oberoi, and Nariman House due to their lack of detailed building information. The terrorists, well-versed with the structures from their reconnaissance, could exploit this asymmetry to navigate and engage with the commandos more effectively.
  • Delay in Passing Intercepted Conversations:
  • The Mumbai police’s Anti-Terror Squad recorded conversations between the terrorists and their handlers. However, there was a delay in passing on this critical intelligence to the NSG. This information gap hindered the NSG’s ability to fully comprehend the evolving situation and adapt their strategies accordingly.
  • Failure to Convey Terrorists’ Plans:
  • Specific plans, such as the terrorists’ intent to execute hostages at Nariman House, were not promptly conveyed to the NSG commandos. This lack of timely information further impeded the NSG’s ability to formulate an effective response and mitigate the threats posed by the attackers.

Steps that followed

In the aftermath of the harrowing 26/11 attacks, the Indian government took decisive steps to fortify the nation’s resilience against terrorism. Among the key initiatives was the establishment of the National Investigation Agency (NIA), a specialised entity dedicated to probing terrorism-related issues. This marked a strategic move to enhance investigative capabilities and ensure a focused approach to counter-terrorism efforts.

Simultaneously, the government addressed the imperative for a rapid and effective response to potential threats by establishing four National Security Guard (NSG) hubs. This expansion aimed at augmenting the nation’s preparedness to swiftly counter and mitigate emerging terrorist challenges. Additionally, amendments to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act equipped authorities with enhanced powers for the arrest and interrogation of terrorism suspects, strengthening legal frameworks to combat such threats.

Recognizing the critical importance of intelligence coordination, the activation of the Multi Agency Centre (MAC) and its state-level subsidiaries became paramount. These initiatives were designed to facilitate seamless collaboration and information sharing among various agencies involved in counter-terrorism efforts.

However, challenges emerged in the establishment of the National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC) and the implementation of the nationwide information-sharing system, NATGRID. Opposition from certain states hindered the formation of the NCTC, reflecting concerns about the allocation of investigation and arrest powers. The NATGRID, envisioned as a comprehensive information-sharing mechanism, faced hurdles in its execution.

Addressing vulnerabilities in coastal areas, the government made a substantial decision to place the Indian Coast Guard under the jurisdiction of the Indian Navy. This move positioned the Navy as the overarching authority for maritime security, overseeing coordination with state government agencies and marine police. It was complemented by the installation of radars, automatic identification systems, and a command, control, and coordination centre in New Delhi to actively monitor and manage maritime operations.

Flaws stand still in the system

While efforts have been made to enhance maritime security post-26/11, the system is far from foolproof, revealing several significant gaps. Many coastal police stations remain non-functional, hampering the overall effectiveness of the coastal security infrastructure. The inadequacies extend beyond mere physical infrastructure, including jetties, police stations, and vessels; there is a fundamental challenge in instilling a maritime culture among personnel accustomed to a predominantly land-oriented policing system.

The parallels between the 2008 Mumbai attacks and the incursion on North Sentinel Island in November 2018 underscore persistent challenges in India’s maritime security. In the latter incident, a fishing vessel breached surveillance in the Andaman Sea, allowing a US tourist to land on the strictly off-limits North Sentinel Island. This breach, similar to the Mumbai attacks, highlighted deficiencies in the local police’s capacity and intelligence inputs, particularly concerning coastal police stations (CSP).

India’s extensive coastline of 7,510 km is guarded by three principal agencies for maritime security: the Indian Navy, the Indian Coast Guard (ICG), and local state/Union Territory police. Recognizing the need for bolstered resources post-26/11, policies were initiated to enhance the capabilities of the ICG and state police. While the Indian Navy holds overall responsibility for national maritime security, the ICG serves as the nodal authority for coastal security in territorial waters, collaborating with state coastal police.

Over the last decade, the ICG, as the country’s fourth armed force, has significantly increased its surveillance capabilities and detection rates. In 2008, it had 65 vessels and 45 aircraft, with plans for expansion. Notably, by 2023, marking 15 years since 26/11, the ICG is projected to possess 190 vessels and 100 aircraft. This substantial augmentation in resources promises heightened surveillance and a greater capability for boarding and inspection, signifying tangible progress in addressing maritime security challenges since the tragic events of 26/11.

That said, A critical security lapse lies in the realm of ports, particularly the smaller ones and harbours across the country, which often lack adequate security measures. Even in larger ports, the inspection of containers passing through remains a concern, as it necessitates specialised equipment that is not universally employed.

Need for AIS Transponders

Another glaring gap in maritime security is the absence of Automatic Identification Systems for the majority of fishing vessels in Indian waters. While the scheme is being introduced for vessels 20 metres in length, the predominant fishing fleet comprises vessels smaller than this threshold, leaving a substantial portion without this vital tracking system. These gaps underscore the ongoing challenges in ensuring comprehensive maritime security, requiring not only physical infrastructure but also a paradigm shift in the mindset of law enforcement personnel and targeted measures to address specific vulnerabilities in port and fishing vessel security.

In response to the security vulnerabilities exposed by the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks in 2008, the central government implemented a series of measures aimed at enhancing maritime security. Among these directives was the installation of state-of-the-art Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponders on all fishing vessels exceeding 20 metres in length. This move sought to address the specific security concerns highlighted by the Mumbai attacks, during which Pakistani terrorists infiltrated the city via a hijacked Indian boat.

To streamline and consolidate the registration process, the shipping ministry issued notifications for the unified registration of fishing vessels and boats of fishermen under a single legislation, the Merchant Shipping Act. This marked a departure from the previous practice of separate registration under the MS Act and the State Marine Fisheries Regulation Act, contingent on the size and use of the vessels.

The AIS transponders, designed to automatically broadcast vital data such as position, speed, and navigational status via VHF transmitters to a central control room, were mandated for use on the designated fishing vessels. Unlike the situation during the 26/11 attacks when these transponders were primarily employed by larger ships, the new directive extended their usage to enhance identification and location capabilities for fishing vessels as well. These signals are received by AIS transponders on other ships or land-based systems like the Vessel Identification System (VIS), enabling real-time monitoring and display of vessel positions on a screen, akin to radar displays used for larger ships.

In the aftermath of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, there was a recognition of the need for enhanced monitoring systems to bolster security along the nation’s coastline. An ambitious project was conceived to deploy satellite-based Vehicle Monitoring Systems (VMS) specifically designed for small fishing vessels, those measuring less than 20 metres. While pilot studies were conducted successfully in Mumbai, utilising small patrol boats and fishing vessels fitted with tracking systems, the full-scale implementation of the project is still pending.

These tests were conducted in collaboration with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) using one of their communication satellites. The advanced features of the transponders included capabilities such as weather alerts. Despite the successful trials, the comprehensive deployment of the VMS for small fishing vessels is yet to be finalised.

Internationally, fishing boats are required to have VMS to address Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing by identifying the position, volume, and location of catches. In a proactive move, the Indian government initiated a pilot project in 2017 called the “Boat Tracking System.” This system employs GPS technology to track fishing boats at sea, enhancing safety and ensuring that fishing activities remain within Indian waters.

The geotagging of selected boats and boat landing areas allows for the identification of vessels entering the sea and their respective departure points. This serves a dual purpose of aiding fishermen in maintaining their activities within Indian waters and addressing incidents of Indian fishermen being captured by neighbouring forces when inadvertently venturing into international waters. The continued development and implementation of these monitoring systems reflect ongoing efforts to fortify maritime security and safeguard the interests of Indian fishermen.

The challenge posed by the sheer number of fishing vessels in India, estimated at 2.5 lakh according to Inspector General VSR Murthy in 2015, emphasises the need for an effective tracking system. As the commander of the Indian Coast Guard’s northeast region, covering West Bengal and Odisha, Murthy highlighted the impracticality of physically inspecting every boat to discern whether it is friendly or hostile.

In response to this challenge, there’s a recognized necessity for a comprehensive system to monitor the movements of these numerous boats. The proposal involves the installation of straightforward transponders on each fishing vessel. This approach aims to address the potential threat posed by smaller boats lacking navigational systems, as opposed to larger ships equipped with such systems. Implementing a tracking system for these fishing vessels is seen as a practical solution to enhance maritime security and enable more efficient monitoring of their activities, aligning with the imperative to bolster the nation’s coastal security infrastructure.

Coordination issues

The Pathankot attack underscored a critical lesson that had not been adequately addressed since the Mumbai incidents in November 2008: the persistent problem of coordination in counter-terrorist operations. The chaotic nature of the response during those critical days in 2008 revealed a lack of clear leadership and effective coordination among key actors involved in the counter-terrorism efforts, including the Mumbai Police, Marine Commandos, and the National Security Guard (NSG). Various entities asserted their role in coordinating the response at different times, leading to confusion and inefficiencies. The absence of a centralised and well-coordinated command structure highlighted the urgent need for improvements in the coordination mechanisms within India’s counter-terrorism apparatus. This lesson from the past remained unheeded, manifesting in the challenges faced during the Pathankot attack and emphasising the ongoing imperative for enhanced coordination in counter-terrorism operations.

The Pathankot attack revealed a shift in the modus operandi (MO) employed by Pakistan-based terrorist groups, indicating a strategic evolution beyond the indiscriminate attacks on civilians seen in incidents like 26/11. In the aftermath of the international outcry and mounting evidence implicating Pakistan’s official involvement in the Mumbai attacks, terrorist groups in Pakistan, supported by elements within the military establishment, adopted a new strategy towards India.

Post-26/11, there was a discernible focus on military and police targets along the National Highway between Jammu and Kathua. From September 2013 to July 2015, five similar attacks occurred with a consistent pattern: a small militant group dressed in army fatigues would cross the international border parallel to the National Highway, hijack a vehicle, and target military or police installations. The attacks were often strategically timed to disrupt crucial meetings between Indian and Pakistani leaders.

The Pathankot attack in particular occurred shortly after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unexpected visit to Lahore to extend birthday wishes to his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif. This shift in the terrorist MO underscores a calculated move towards targeted strikes on military and police entities, signifying a departure from the previous emphasis on civilian targets. The context of these attacks, occurring amid diplomatic efforts and gestures between India and Pakistan, adds a layer of complexity to the evolving dynamics between the two nations.

When the Media followed no protocols!

In the protracted aftermath of 26/11, a lingering wait endures for the Indian government as it seeks justice from Pakistan for the orchestrators of the grievous attack. Meanwhile, bereaved families of the victims, scattered across various global cities, strive to rebuild shattered lives. In this evolving landscape, social media, once a fledgling ally to traditional press in 2008, has emerged as an unparalleled force, surpassing all expectations in information dissemination and global opinion shaping.

The emergence of the hashtag #Mumbai on Twitter marked a transformative trend, facilitating families and journalists in accessing a meticulous, blow-by-blow narrative of the events transpiring on the streets, within the train station, and inside the besieged buildings and hotels. As the epicentre of global attention, twenty-four-hour news television cameras meticulously documented each location, emphasising the magnitude of the unfolding tragedy. Crucially, intercepted phone calls between terrorists and their handlers revealed a chilling reality: the attackers were avidly monitoring the news. This real-time information exchange not only informed the assailants of developments gleaned from media reports but also served as a macabre reminder to persist, as they believed the ‘glory’ of martyrdom awaited them.

In the crucible of crises worldwide, journalists grapple with a demanding audience amid challenging reporting landscapes. The complexity intensifies during terror strikes and unfolding hostage crises, where the news media plays a pivotal role. Striking a delicate balance between preserving national interests and addressing public concerns becomes an intricate dance, especially for non-state-owned media outlets navigating varied streams of information. The absence of crisis protocols for news coverage further complicates this challenge.

Off the record, Indian officials candidly acknowledge that, in general, media outlets, including privately-owned networks and newspapers, tend to comply with systems implemented by governments and law enforcement during crises. International parallels abound, as seen in the aftermath of 9/11 or the 7/7 London bombings, where the media adhered to guidelines governing access and visual display to avoid exacerbating tensions. Crisis situations typically trigger immediate responses, including the establishment of perimeters by first responders, the convening of crisis groups for family communication, and the creation of control rooms where officials deliver systematic and periodic briefings to the media—a crucial player in any national emergency.

However, the siege of Mumbai unfolded without adherence to these standard crisis communication protocols. Journalists, seeking proximity to the sites, reported operational details without the benefit of appropriate information channels. Some found themselves alongside National Security Guards chief J.K. Dutt, reporting in unprecedented environments. The absence of systematic briefings and coordination left the media exposed to operational aspects, prompting accusations of poor judgement in releasing sensitive information. In the subsequent blame-shifting by the government, citing phone intercepts between terrorists and their handlers, mainstream media, particularly live 24-hour news television, became the scapegoat. While hindsight may deem certain journalistic decisions questionable, the truth remains that if 26/11 was India’s 9/11, the immediate response was far from optimal.

In the wake of the 26/11 attacks, a crisis management group comprising high-level intelligence officers, defence personnel, and bureaucrats convened to grapple with the unfolding situation. However, the chaotic nature of the meeting hindered quick and critical decision-making, reflecting a lapse in crisis response. As special commandos of the National Security Guard landed in Mumbai the following day, top media owners were summoned to South Block. The government, concerned about perceived threats revealed in phone intercepts, admonished television news networks, asserting that wall-to-wall coverage was against national interest. In the immediate aftermath, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued notices to Hindi news channels Aaj Tak and India TV, as stated by reports in the open sources. Yet, officials struggled to pinpoint specific violations of Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for media in crisis situations, underscoring the absence of clear guidelines.

Post-26/11, the government and the media industry recognized the need for new frameworks in crisis communication. The absence of a simple protocol became evident during the review of failures and the addressing of new challenges. Governments often resort to blackout measures and information filtering in crisis or war-like situations, as witnessed during the Kargil War, where joint daily briefings by the army, air force, and Ministry of External Affairs provided credible information. Recognizing the dual role of the media as a tool for citizens and the state, as well as for propagandists, the News Broadcasters Association, under a committee headed by Justice J.S. Verma formulated new guidelines for TV news channels’ coverage of emergency situations, encompassing armed conflict, internal disturbance, communal violence, public disorder, and crime. This initiative aimed to safeguard against manipulation and enhance responsible reporting during crises.

The Bottom Line

The 26/11 attacks on Mumbai stand as a watershed moment in India’s history, leaving an indelible mark on the nation’s consciousness. The harrowing events of those three days exposed critical flaws in the country’s security apparatus, intelligence gathering, and crisis response mechanisms. From slip-ups in intelligence inputs to the delayed identification of the attacks as an act of terrorism, the shortcomings were glaring. The presence of an undetected mole, fishermen’s reports ignored, and the delayed arrival of specialised forces further compounded the tragedy.

The media’s role during the crisis became a subject of scrutiny, revealing lapses in communication protocols and the absence of guidelines for responsible reporting in such situations. The aftermath saw the government and the media industry recognizing the need for new frameworks to navigate crises effectively. Initiatives like the News Broadcasters Association’s guidelines aimed to balance the imperative of providing timely information with the responsibility to safeguard national interests.

Over the years, India implemented measures such as the creation of the National Investigation Agency, the establishment of National Security Guard hubs, and amendments to anti-terrorism laws. However, challenges persist, as seen in the evolving tactics of terrorist groups and vulnerabilities in social fabric exacerbated by divisive narratives.

Looking ahead, the lessons from 26/11 underscore the imperative of constant vigilance, institutional coordination, and adaptability in the face of emerging threats. The nation must continue refining its security architecture, intelligence capabilities, and crisis response mechanisms to ensure the safety and resilience of its citizens in an ever-evolving security landscape. The memory of 26/11 serves as a stark reminder of the need for unwavering commitment to national security and resilience in the face of adversity.