Mumbai Terrorist Attacks Show Rise of Strategic Terrorist Culture

For Release

January 16, 2009

The Mumbai terrorist attacks in India suggest the possibility of an escalating terrorist campaign in South Asia and the rise of a strategic terrorist culture, according to a study issued today by the RAND Corporation.

The RAND study identifies the operational and tactical features of the attack, evaluates the response of Indian security forces, and analyzes the implications for India, Pakistan and the United States.

“India will continue to face a serious jihadist threat from Pakistan-based terrorist groups, and neither Indian nor U.S. policy is likely to reduce that threat in the near future,” said Angel Rabasa, lead author of the study and a senior political scientist with RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “Other extremist groups in Pakistan likely will find inspiration in the Mumbai attacks, and we can expect more attacks with high body counts and symbolic targets.”

Mumbai is India's commercial and entertainment center, and the attacks on landmark properties amplified the psychological impact, according to the report. The selection of multiple targets — Americans, Britons and Jews, as well as Indians — suggests that the terrorists intended the attack to serve multiple objectives that extended beyond the terrorists' previous focus on Kashmir and India.

“The defining characteristic of the Mumbai attack, and what makes it so alarming, is not just the ruthless killing, but the meticulous planning and preparation that went into the operation,” said Brian Michael Jenkins, a leading terrorism expert and senior advisor at RAND.

“The goal was not only to slaughter as many people as possible, but to target specific groups of people and facilities with political, cultural and emotional value. This indicates a level of strategic thought — a strategic culture — that poses a difficult challenge: not whether we can outgun the terrorists, but can we outthink them?”

Other authors of the study are former U.S. Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill, now a senior fellow at RAND; Peter Chalk, Kim Cragin, C. Christine Fair, Seth Jones, Nathaniel Shestak, all of RAND, and Ashley Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The Mumbai attacks are significant in their audacity and ambition, as well as the complexity of the operation and the diversity of targets, according to researchers. Evidence suggests that planning for the attacks began as far back as mid-2007. The terrorists were heavily armed, and had detailed maps and information about each of the targets they hit. The multiple targets were carefully chosen for their religious, political and cultural values in order to make a statement.

One of the main lessons of Mumbai is that it exposed numerous weaknesses in India's counter-terrorism and threat mitigation structure, according to the report. Indian intelligence officials had received prior warnings from their own staff, as well as U.S. sources, that a major attack was probable, but did not take any specific action.

The report analyzes key weaknesses in the country's general counter-terrorism and threat-mitigation structure, including gaps in coastal surveillance, inadequate “target hardening,” incomplete execution of response protocols, response timing problems, inadequate counter-terrorism training and equipment for the local police, limitations of municipal fire and emergency services, flawed hostage-rescue plans, and poor strategic communications and information management.

The Mumbai terrorist attack has significant and potentially far-reaching implications for India, Pakistan, and the international community, according to researchers. The terrorists have been linked to Lashkar-e-Taiba, a banned Islamist terrorist group based in Pakistan with connections to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.

India is likely to hold the state of Pakistan responsible for the attacks and may look for a way to punish Pakistan to deter future attacks. Both countries have nuclear weapons, making any military action a dangerous course, but if India does not respond, that would signal a lack of Indian resolve or capability, according to the report.

Without an appropriate response, Pakistan, or at least those elements of its military and intelligence leadership that are supportive of the activities of groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, are likely to conclude that these operations, in some measure, yield benefits that exceed the cost. For these and a myriad other reasons, researchers say, India is likely to remain a target of Pakistan-based and indigenous Islamist terrorism for the foreseeable future.

But the focus on Pakistan should not obscure the fact that the terrorists likely had help from inside India. Local radicalization is a major goal of the terrorists, and will be a major political and social challenge for India.

The repercussions for Pakistan will depend largely on what India and the international community do. Thus far, Indian and American officials recognize that Pakistan's civilian government does not control the policies that its military and intelligence agency hold toward militant groups operating in and from Pakistan.

According to the RAND researchers, the best outcome would be for Pakistan's civilian government to slowly and incrementally exert civilian control over its military and intelligence agencies. But this will be difficult as many in those agencies view the Taliban and other extremists as their natural allies, and the United States and India as threats to Pakistan's security.

The Mumbai attack underscores the imperative of addressing the transnational sources of Islamist terrorism in India. How to do this is an extraordinarily difficult question that will require the reassessment of basic assumptions in policy toward Pakistan by members of the international community.

The study, “The Lessons of Mumbai” can be found at

This research was supported by RAND, using discretionary funds made possible by the generosity of donors, the fees earned on client-funded research, and independent research and development funds (IR&D) funds provided by the U.S. Department of Defense. The study was prepared by the RAND National Security Research Division, which conducts research and analysis for all national security sponsors other than the U.S. Air Force and the Army. NSRD also conducts research for the U.S. Intelligence community and the ministries of defense of U.S. allies and partners.

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