We tend to describe terrorism as senseless violence, but it seldom is. If we look at the attacks from the attackers' perspective, we can discern a certain strategic logic.
Terrorists from the galaxy of fanaticisms collectively called jihadism seek three goals: They want to attack targets that have symbolic or emotional value. They want to cause economic damage. And they want to run up high body counts. The surviving member of the Mumbai attack team reportedly has told his captors that their orders were to kill the maximum possible number of people.
Why India? The jihadists see India as a Hindu nation, which makes it an enemy of Islam along with the Christians and Jews. Muslim Kashmir, ruled with shaky legitimacy and a sometimes heavy hand by Hindu-majority India, provides a further cause. So does India's increasingly close alliance with the United States. Jihadi terrorist attacks in India also tend to exacerbate antagonism between the nation's Hindu and Muslim communities and can provoke reprisals like the 2002 massacre of more than 1,000 Muslims in Gujarat. That, in turn, facilitates recruiting among Indian Muslims by extremists.
Why Mumbai? As India's Wall Street and Hollywood, it is an obvious target. This was the third devastating terrorist assault on the city. Mumbai is also a tolerant city, where Hindus and Muslims have tended to get along. Now it is rent by fear and suspicion.
The terrorists chose the Taj Mahal and Oberoi hotels for their final stand. They fulfill all three target criteria. The Taj, in particular, is a national landmark, a gathering place for foreigners and locals. Killing foreigners guarantees international attention. The terrorists were hunting for Americans and Britons. The message to the local Indian elite is: "Nowhere is safe."
Moreover, the three days of media-covered mayhem already have resulted in travel to India being canceled or postponed. Tourism is exquisitely sensitive to security concerns, and some reports in Indian media say it is already off by as much as 15 percent. Bookings from the United States had fallen by 40 percent as of last week, the Times of India reported.
Western media focused on the carnage at the hotels. They paid less attention to the killings of ordinary Indians at Mumbai's train station or at the Cama Hospital — a deliberately chilling target choice calculated to inspire fear and rage, and divide India's religious communities.
It is highly unlikely that Pakistan's newly elected leaders ordered the Mumbai attack. But India accuses Pakistan of creating and supporting the extremist organizations as part of its continuing proxy war in Kashmir, of not rooting out rogue elements within its intelligence services, and of not turning over wanted terrorists believed to be living in Pakistan. If the United States can go after al-Qaida and Taliban leaders holed up in Pakistan, cannot India claim the same right?
Pakistanis already perceive India as a major threat to their national security. While I suspect that most Pakistanis were appalled by the terrorist attack, the prospect of a fourth war with India, or of India conducting military attacks on suspected terrorist training bases in Pakistan, will provoke anger and strengthen the hand of those who support a hard line against India. That will ease the pressure on terrorists based in Pakistan.
An immediate outcome may be the redeployment of Pakistani forces from the frontier tribal areas, where they have been pursuing militant jihadists, to take up defensive positions against India. Yet any slackening of Pakistani force in the frontier areas could further complicate things for NATO and American forces fighting Pakistan-based Taliban and al-Qaida insurgents in Afghanistan. All terrorist operations are recruiting posters: Terrorist attacks are intended not only to cause fear and alarm but also to inspire terrorist constituencies and attract recruits. For the planners of the Mumbai attack, it was a strategic masterstroke.
But what motivates the attackers themselves, all but one of whom were killed? The attack provides an opportunity to demonstrate their conviction — their prowess as warriors. As martyrs for jihad, they anticipate a swift passage to paradise.
Their homicidal-suicidal fanaticism, however, runs deeper than their declared beliefs. It reflects a peculiar personality type, if not outright psychopathology.
With today's globalized grievances, one can download reasons for aggression from the Internet. The young men who carried out the attack appear to have been self-radicalized, disposable killing instruments. The planners had only to insert a SIM card to program them into action.
Brian Michael Jenkins, author of the just-released book "Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?" (Prometheus, 2008), is senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corp., a non-profit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.
© 2008 United Press International
This commentary originally appeared on United Press International on December 9, 2008. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.