More than just Terrorists The Mumbai Attackers were Commandos Skilled in Urban and Marine

Despite being badly bruised and battered in the NWFP and FATA, the Pakistan army and its dirty tricks department the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate are continuing to pursue their ruthless agenda to sponsor brutal terrorist operations against soft targets in India. 

The modus operandi of the terrorists who were responsible for the dastardly attacks at the Oberoi and Taj Mahal Palace hotels, Nariman House and Leopold Café in Colaba, as well as attacks launched against innocent civilians at the CST terminus and two Mumbai hospitals, clearly reveals that they had been trained in army and navy establishments by the Special Services Group (SSG), Pakistan’s Special Forces.

The terrorist operation had the hallmark of a skilfully planned and methodically executed commando strike. All the targets had been carefully reconnoitred and dry runs and rehearsals had been carried out. The terrorists had acquired advanced map reading and sophisticated navigation skills including the use of GPS receivers. They had made and committed to memory detailed sketches of floor plans and entry and exit routes. They had been taught to communicate with each other through hand signs and to make only very short, coded transmissions on their phones or walky-talkies. 

Their approach from Karachi to Mumbai by the sea route involved superior maritime skills and had an element of surprise built into it. On reaching closer to Mumbai, they discarded their mother boat so as to avoid accusations of Pakistani culpability and commandeered two fishing trawlers after killing the crew. For the final landing they switched to rubber dinghies so that they could close in with their intended “beach heads” with stealth. 

The terrorists chose to land at relatively less frequented sites to remain undetected for as long as possible. They had made elaborate arrangements to acquire new identities and alibis that would not arouse suspicion. They handled adversity with a cool and calm demeanour. When questioned by a staff member of the Taj hotel, they casually replied that they were students. After landing and changing into battle gear, they dispersed to attack different targets and while a few were killed, others managed to re-group and converge on the main targets.

All the terrorists had been given rigorous physical training as they were in excellent physical shape. Mental conditioning ensured that they could withstand the rigours and pressures of being surrounded and being under withering fire for almost three nights rather well. They were resolute in action and aggressive in their orientation. Throughout the operation they exhibited remarkable clarity of thought and action. They showed no remorse or human feelings and ruthlessly executed men and women, the old and the infirm to achieve their nefarious designs.

Above all else, the training imparted to the terrorists by SSG personnel was reflected in the standard of “fire discipline” that they exhibited. Though they had strapped on large quantities of ammunition to their bodies, it would have been utterly inadequate to last three nights of firing had they not been trained to fire extremely selectively and in short bursts of three to four rounds as an AK-47 assault rifle can empty a 30-round magazine in under a minute when fired in the automatic mode. Each short burst was fired for effect, as was every single hand grenade. Considering the number of persons killed by them and those wounded, the terrorist commandos were quite obviously skilled marksmen who could fire from the hip with accuracy.

The minor tactics adopted by the terrorists were measured and succeeded for quite some time in creating the false impression that they were present in each location in large numbers. They went up and down the hotel buildings and fired and threw grenades from different floors, making the NSG and MARCOS commandos cautious and slowing down their operations. They never exposed themselves to Indian snipers who had been deployed all around the buildings under siege. 

Finally, the Pakistani commandos put up stiff resistance against well-trained NSG and MARCOS personnel who were fresh and had the advantage of time on their side. The terrorists killed a gallant Major and one NCO of the Indian army and injured others. With the limited weaponry at their disposal, they caused massive collateral damage and left behind scenes of ghastly death and destruction – unbelievable carnage indeed. 

The Indian army has faced well-trained Pakistan-sponsored terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir for almost two decades now but these men were much different. There can be no doubt whatsoever that these LeT or perhaps al Qaeda backed terrorists had been trained to the level of Special Forces commandos by the Pakistan military establishment and the ISI for this spectacular high risk mission. Whether or no the Pakistan government was also involved in planning and executing this gruesome tragedy in Mumbai, only time will tell.

(Gurmeet Kanwal is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi.)