26/11 revisited

Wpic3.jpgVanity Fair has a worthwhile article about the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai. In general it does a very good job of humanising the attacks, talking with those who lived through them and those who lost family and friends.

What really comes through however is the sense of chaos that appears to have existed within the Indian security establishment as it tried to respond to the situation. Police officers on the scene, motivated although poorly equipped, sat for hours outside the Taj and Oberoi hotels and waited for their chain of command to make decisions while inside the hotels the attackers were killing, taking hostages and preparing defensive positions. It appears that they spent hours waiting for military special forces to arrive:

It would take hours for the commando force to get from New Delhi to Bombay. First they had to wait several precious hours for a plane. What went wrong? The chief minister who could have countermanded the order to wait for the commandos was out of town. The army blamed the navy. The navy blamed the Bombay police…Landing in Bombay at three a.m., the commandos found no helicopters to transport them into town. They had to wait for buses to take them.

Contrast this to the attackers, who were in constant communication with their handlers via satellite phones, receiving tactical updates from what was being reported in the media. At one point they took a hostage, and not believing his story about being a teacher, had their handler look him up online and identify him by describing the picture he found on a website.

Also of interest is the claim that Indian intelligence had warned at least two months before that the two hotels might be targeted by Pakistani militants and a range of security enhancements had been recommended but not implemented.

An interesting example of what happens when a motivated, small, dispersed group with good intelligence, planning and communications comes up against a large, rigid, slow-moving hierarchical force. Further, it shows the potential for a well-motivated group of individuals set on conducting a suicidal rather than a suicide attack (i.e. they expected to die in the course of their actions, but dying was not a prerequisite for the attack to be conducted).

Update: On reflection, I wonder if Mumbai was a bit like 9/11, in that it changed the rules of the game. On 9/11, one of the hijackers’ key advantages was that no-one expected them to fly the aircraft into buildings. All the responses, from the unfortunate souls on the aircraft through to the military expected them to land the aircraft and negotiate. Perhaps one of the reasons the response to Mumbai was so slow and ineffective was that the paradigm they had prepared for was that if armed men stormed a building, they were expected to barricade themselves, take hostages and wait for the negotiations to begin. Police would have expected to secure the perimeter, wait for specialist back-up and then slowly work towards a negotiated settlement or a violent but brief and (relatively) controlled storming of the building. Even the Chechens took and held hostages for a period of time (although things tended not to end well in those instances).

One wonders how police forces in the West would have handled this? How would the Met police in London have coped if 10 heavily armed men had gone on the rampage in Canary Wharf? I struggle to think of any instances where police firearms teams in the UK have had to face well-armed, serious opposition. How many Armed Response Units could they have mustered, deployed and coordinated? I’m sure they would have had to ask for military back-up also – though I guess it would not take eight hours to get from Hereford to London.

Update 2: I asked the above question over at the Small Wars Journal and got a fairly detailed response from a UK police officer:

I suspect that even the Met (MPS) would struggle to respond and rely on containment in the first hour. Containment of the scene would be from a distance, choosing Canary Wharf as your example would help the MPS, rather than say another symbolic target in London, say a major railway station. This first response would absorb all the 24/7 three-man response cars (last figure was eight on duty) and others available e.g. Diplomatic Protection (far larger numbers). Even they would IMHO be quickly be outgunned and run out of ammunition; H&K machine pistols being standard issue. Back-up from better armed and trained full SWAT-like teams would follow, from planned operations and training. Even with those teams deployed it would be containment.

After the MPS come other police SWAT teams, e.g. Ministry of Defence Police (usually on guard duty) and the London-based Special Forces contingent (for VIP protection etc).

See the full answer here.