“Your enemy is not necessarily my enemy”

The West Tells India

by S. Hewage

(December 07, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) During the attack on Mumbai by Muslim insurgents, the Indian government and the official media spoke-persons repeatedly insisted that the insurgents were looking for Westerners in the two major hotels under attack. Although there were hundreds of Western and North American tourists in those two hotels, only a handful of Westerners were either killed or injured, not to mention that the three days of assault by the India special forces commandos caused much of the mayhem. Of 190 some deaths, it is believed that 12 were foreigners, while the rest were Indians.

All civilian lives lost in this attack were tragic deaths, which should not have happened at all. Given the fact that the large number of deaths was among the local Indian citizens, and that the insurgents were related to an Islamic guerilla group fighting for the independence of Kashmir, is it not possible that these foreigners were just in the wrong place at the wrong time? As such, is it plausible that the attackers were not specifically targeting any foreign citizens as suggested by the Indian authorities and the Indian media?

There are number of questions that have not been answered by those who suggest that the gunmen were specifically looking for Western citizens.

1. If the gunmen were targeting foreigners, why did they attack the Mumbai railway station where almost all of the victims were Indians and the largest number of people died?

2. Is there any significant difference between this particular attack on Mumbai and any of the previous attacks carried out by the Muslim or any other insurgent groups across India?

3. Is it possible that India is using the death of few Westerners caught in the crossfire to create a broad military front against Pakistan, the archrival of India?

These questions need to be addressed in order to bring peace to the region, in general, and to India, in particular. The first target of the attackers were the Mumbai police in charge of the anti-terrorism operation, which was followed by the attack on various other soft targets such as the Mumbai major railway station, hotels, cafes, theaters and hospitals. The Mumbai police suffered the heaviest casualties. During the attack, the rebels targeted the chief of the Mumbai anti-terrorism unit and several other senior police officials. Altogether, at least 14 police officers were killed during about 12 hours of fighting. This is the first indication that the gunmen were not specifically targeting foreigners, but rather the Indian security establishment, which they had already warned a few weeks earlier about harassing Muslims in India.

Further, after the gunmen attacked and killed the senior police officer, it was reported that they hijacked a police van and drove it around the city firing automatic weapons at random targets, suggesting that they did not target any specific Western interests, either economic or political. There are many Western economic and political installations in Mumbai such as banks, brokerage houses, restaurants, and even diplomatic missions, which the rebels did not attack. All the targets in general were Indian, except the Jewish center. This is the only non-Indian civilian center, which the gunmen had specifically targeted, and this choice can easily be explained according to the general animosity that exists between Jews and Muslims stemming from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle –East.

Is there a difference between this attack and the previous ones?

Equally important is the similarity between this particular attack and numerous previous attacks across India. Over the past few years, Indian cities, railways, police stations, and even the Indian parliament have been targeted by Islamic militants for numerous attacks. In all these incidents, the attackers came either directly from the Indian-occupied Kashmir or from India proper sympathetic to the plight of the people of Kashmir. Certainly, this is not the first daring attack by an Islamic militant group in India in recent memory.

A group called the Deccan Mujahideen, or Indian Mujahideen clamed responsibility for the Mumbai attack, and they had reportedly informed a local news station in an e-mail that they were linked to an Islamic militant group fighting Indian troops in Kashmir. This particular Indian Mujahideen group has claimed responsibility for a number of recent attacks on both civilian and military targets in India. The group had reportedly carried out attacks on July 25 and 26, 2008 in Ahmedabad and Bangalore. In these attacks, more than 30 Indians were killed and 120 people were injured. Again, a few months later, on September 13, Indian Mujahideen attacked in New Delhi killing 18 people and wounding more 90 others. This same group claimed responsibility for the bombing of Jaipur last May that resulted in 60 deaths, and injured more than 200 people. Numerous attacks were carried out by this militant group across India during the last two years. What is important note is, in all these attacks, the Indian Mujahideen claimed to have links to Kashmiri fighters, the Lashkar-e-Taiba. The attack on the Indian Parliament by the Jaish-e-Mohammed in 2001 was very similar to the Mumbai attack of 2008, and the attackers were reportedly connected to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the main militant group fighting for Kashmir independence.

It is clear that the Mumbai attack—by tactics, targets, and claims—seems to fit well with the series of previous attacks in India carried out by Islamic militants, who are directly linked to the Kashmir conflict. In every attack, they seem to have taken Indian targets, both civilian and military. There were no specific Western targets in any of these attacks except in situations where Westerners were caught in the crossfire. However, in the Mumbai attack, the gunmen clearly targeted the Jewish center; and that the Jewish center was chosen, undoubtedly, because of the specific antipathy towards Jews that exist across the Muslim world. In fact, the Jewish center became an easy target in the midst of other Indian civilian installations, such as the railway station, hotels, and restaurants, none of which were protected from an attack by a militant group operating inside or outside India.

Given the fact that the gunmen chose five-star hotels in the India’s commercial capital, it is surprising that there were only a few casualties among Western tourists. It should be noted that although many of the hostages were Westerners, no hostages were executed by the gunmen. It is possible that the gunmen may have actually avoided harming Westerners, and that many of the Western casualties may have occurred during the final assault by the Indian troops. It was reported that Indian commandos could not figure out from which direction the attackers were firing from, and where the attackers were hiding. After three days of siege at the two major hotels, the pressure from the Indian authorities to end the crisis may have forced the commandos to finish off the fighting resulting in many civilian casualties.

What is so unique about this attack is the sophistication of the planning, and its execution by the rebels. The attackers must have planned it many months ahead, and might have conducted reconnaissance prior to the attack. The attackers were all in their twenties clad in jeans and jackets. They entered India without the slightest knowledge by Indian navy, coast guard, Mumbai maritime police, or custom units. This suggests not only monumental failure on the part of the Indian security authorities, but also a possibility of internal support within India itself. Recent reports have indicated that at least two local agents in India allegedly helped the attackers.

All this evidence—the pattern of similarity of the attack, the large number of deaths among Indian nationals, and the relatively few casualties among foreigners despite the fact that the epicenter of the whole incident were two major tourist hotels, and the death of top level Indian police officials—indicate that the gunmen were not particularly targeting Westerners as purported by some Indian officials and newsmen.

A lukewarm response from the West

Given this background about the nature of the attacks in Mumbai, is it not possible to suggest that some Indian bureaucrats with an ulterior motive of creating a broader military front against Pakistan may have been behind the reports that the gunmen were specifically targeting Westerners? It is a fact that these two nuclear powers are archrivals, and they have fought three major wars since independence in 1947. Kashmir, the predominantly Muslim Himalayan territory is divided between India and Pakistan controlled territories. Although both nations have shown some inclination to demilitarize the respective borders in recent months, India is keen on gaining the upper hand militarily over beleaguered Pakistan, which has become sandwiched between Western forces fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and its own Islamic militancy.

Indian military strategists seem to believe that a militarily weak Pakistan is preferable for India’s long-term strategic interests in the south Asian region, where India is generally viewed with suspicion by all its neighbors. Against this background of India’s geo-political objectives, the Western powers have taken a more cautious approach to the claim that the gunmen were looking for Western targets in Mumbai. Western officials, after some initial outrage, downplayed the suggestion and asked India to continue its dialogue with Pakistan. It was particularly important that all Western leaders who spoke to Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh also spoke with Pakistani leadership to avoid any perceived tilt toward India. The general position of the West is clearly that the militancy in both countries must be controlled. Perhaps this should be regarded as a suggestion to the Indian government that it should take appropriate action to control Tamil Nadu extremists openly supporting the LTTE terrorists fighting in neighboring Sri Lanka.

At a time when the United States and its allies are preoccupied with two major wars against Islamic militants in two countries—Iraq and Afghanistan—they can ill afford to lose the support of Pakistan—the most important ally in the fight against Al Qaeda. Although India may have thought that “my enemy is also your enemy” when it suggested that the Mumbai attackers were looking for Westerners and that India and the West should initiate a military thrust against Pakistan, India may certainly have been disappointed by the lukewarm response it received from the West. The West seems to have taken the more astute view that “your enemy is not necessarily my enemy.”
- Sri Lanka Guardian