26/11: The memory of fear
A proper inquiry into the Mumbai terror attacks is badly needed, say Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, authors of The Siege, who were in the city recently and plan to return to India next month
It is five years on from Mumbai 2008 and Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark are getting used to the new rhythm of living in London. Their basement flat is in a pretty corner of Hammersmith right by the River Thames. In April they will be able to stand on the pavement and see the Oxford-Cambridge boats slice through the water. But their lives together have been governed by another boat - a dinghy, actually - which brought 10 heavily armed, young Pakistanis ashore in Mumbai.
The consequences they have put into their fast-paced and fact-filled book, The Siege: Three Days of Terror Inside the Taj. Mumbai seems a million miles away. Adrian and Cathy are the parents of two young children and have to worry about everyday things like school runs. Adding to their charming domesticity is a long-haired black cat which is let into the kitchen by Cathy. It has a mid-morning snack and then finds itself a comfortable berth on a velvet seat.
“He is wild, he’s from France,” says Cathy by way of explanation. A couple of nights previously, Adrian and Cathy had hosted a small launch party in Soho to mark the publication of their book. But now there is the time to have a more in-depth chat although they are preparing for their quick trip to Mumbai (they were in the city earlier this month). They will return to India in the new year for the Jaipur Literary Festival before flying to Calcutta. But London is now home.
“We had been in the sub-continent for more than 18 years, working, living (in Delhi) - the (two) kids have been there - we have just come back to the UK,” says Adrian. “This is our first time living in the UK since 1995 so we are tourists.” If their book reads a little like one of those Insight investigations in The Sunday Times with its studious attention to detail, it may well be because Adrian and Cathy worked for the paper in India from 1996-98. The style leaves its mark. Then they moved on to The Guardian from 2000-2009.
Focus on Taj
The Siege has already been intensively discussed back in India, so is there anything new to ask? Cathy explains why the focus is on the Taj where 33 people were killed. “The reason it was the Taj was because it had the widest range of characters inside it, specially the Taj chefs who tried to evacuate a lot of people,” she says. “At the very moment that gunmen came into the kitchens seven of them were killed.
But others were injured because they ran at the gunmen to try to stop the gunmen getting at the guests. They were completely selfless and died - very tragic.” Adrian comments: “What we wanted to do was a tribute. Those interviews where you know you have touched something, they change you always. They are things you never forget.” Cathy: “The first thing I do when I write a book like this is get pictures of all the characters and put them up on a wall.”
But you do wonder from the Pakistani perspective, what was the point of it all? Ten brainwashed young men with guns were infiltrated into Mumbai, killed 166 innocent people and injured some 600 others but what was the ultimate gain for Pakistan? And who really were the people responsible? The one clear winner, according to Adrian, is the Pakistani militant group, Lashkar-e-Toiba, which trained and sent across the terrorists. He says Lashkar was previously in disarray and in danger of losing half its fighters to the “much more glamorous Al Qaeda movement”. But Mumbai has given it a fresh lease of life.
Its boss behind the scenes is Hafiz Saeed but he is a shrewd operator who covers his tracks so that there is no evidence that can be used to convict him in a court of law. The Americans have placed a $10m bounty on his head but Adrian, who has met the man, says he is not bothered. In any case, his back is covered by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), so he cannot be touched.
So is the ISI involved? The answer is yes and no. Yes, ISI people helped train the terrorists - it certainly helped David Headley on his reconnaissance missions in Mumbai. But no, though individual ISI agents are involved, there is no proof the organization planned the Mumbai attack, the authors argue. At this point, the whole things starts to take on the feel of a John Le Carré novel.
No surgical strike
Adrian says it was “remarkably brave” of India not to hit back after Mumbai. Many in the west had expected “a surgical strike” but it is hard to see how a country which cannot even find a rickety bus to take commandos from Mumbai airport to the Taj Mahal Hotel can suddenly start acting as though it has the equivalent of Britain’s elite SAS. We all know India does not do strikes, surgical or otherwise.
In any case, a military strike, should Mumbai II ever happen, would be just as counterproductive. Adrian takes heart from the transfer of power that has taken place in Pakistan from one civilian government to another. There are people in the political establishment who want to nail down the terrorists but Adrian says they have not exactly been helped by the Indians.
This will be for the authors to explain in greater detail when they get to Mumbai but Adrian claims that the evidence Pakistani prosecutors sought was sent over in Marathi. He also takes a dim view of the timing of Ajmal Kasab’s execution before he could provide damning evidence about his trainers to the Pakistani authorities.
Cathy says “You can pin down specific areas where the ISI helped. They helped David Headley. He had an ISI handler in Lahore, his code name was Major Iqbal - and he trained him and put him in touch with an officer from the Pakistan army who trained him in surveillance tactics. Every time Headley went to Mumbai and took his photos and videos and GPS readings, he handed them back to Major Iqbal in Lahore and also his handlers in Lashkar separately in Muzaffarabad. So that was an ongoing relationship that went all the way through the planning, and then at the training camps there were two or three ISI officers, with noms de guerre, who actually trained the guys who did the attack.”
Adrian: “The difficulty is that Lashkar-e-Toiba is a covert tool of the ISI and Pakistan foreign policy and it was conceived as such in 1990 and funded and trained as such. And when you talk to people in the country (they tell you) Lashkar is untouchable. When you are inside the organization what you see is that it packed full of soldiers and spies but it is not clear if any of them are serving. A lot of them are retired.
The lack of clarity means it is very hard ultimately to deduce whether the state is responsible or individuals. There is no single strand of evidence that has emerged - and there is mountains of evidence that has come to the surface - which identifies that the state is complicit in any way. All the evidence points to individual officers within the ISI and the ISI has a good deal of latitude for long serving individual officers. They operate with a very wide remit, particularly in the Jihad section.”
This is Adrian on Hafiz Saeed: “He is the emir of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the religious and spiritual guide of that organization. There is the fig leaf that the political establishment is kept separate from the armed wing (Lashkar-e-Toiba). The problem for the prosecutors in Pakistan is you can arrest Hafiz Saeed but there is no evidence that can go through the court. Hafiz Saeed operates a very, very disciplined organization: it is not like any other Jihad organisation - it is not like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi or Sipah-e-Sahaba.
They are very, very disciplined. The men are highly organized, internally and externally. So it impossible, given the structure of Lashkar-e-Toiba for Hafiz Saeed not to know what goes on in his outfit. It is is impossible.” Cathy: “The public outcry if anyone arrested Hafiz Saeed would be not worth the trouble because he is so powerful politically. He controls so much of the Punjab through his organization. So they are not prepared to arrest him.”
Adrian: “The military establishment that has chosen him and polished him and refined him over the years cannot afford to betray him. He is a very shrewd, cunning, well-honed political operator and there is not a piece of paper with his name on it. ... The ones in court now are poor relations who know nothing. They are just cannon fodder.”
The authors allege that India has not been helped by the refusal of the United States to share its intelligence on David Headley. Adrian: “The FBI had had 80 hours of video testimony. None of it has been shown to India - it is all under lock and key.” All in all, Mumbai has been good for Lashkar. Adrian: “They were virtually bankrupt, they had no members, the organisation had dwindled into nothing, they had been completely eclipsed by Al Qaeda. After (the attack by government forces on the) Lal Masjid, most of the membership fled, so in that sense Lashkar has revived itself. And it also managed to pull back in quite a lot of people in the Punjab who would have gone elsewhere.”
Bringing it home
The Siege is taking on a life of its own. “We have created with a team of engineers in Plymouth a 3-D visualization of the Taj - and you can actually walk through the Taj and go where you want to go within three or four environments - we are trying to bring it home,” reveals Adrian. “We want to do it as a docu drama.” The last word should go to Cathy: “We can lobby for a proper inquiry which has been promised by the Home Minister - a proper investigation into what went wrong, and which leads to changes.”
Jurisdiction verdict today in Taj case
The High Court in London will give its judgment today in the case of a British man paralysed during the Mumbai terror attacks. Will Pike, 33, from north London, is taking legal action against the Indian Hotels Company Ltd, a part of the Tata Group. The verdict follows the hearing, which took place from Dec 2 to 4, after the owners of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel argued that his legal case against them should not be heard in a UK court. Leigh Day, his London-based lawyers, are bringing "a civil claim for damages against the Indian Hotels Company Ltd. They allege that the owners of the hotel did little to provide security for residents despite several warnings that an attack on the hotel was imminent".
The lawyers say Pike "was paralysed in November 2008 when he fell nearly 50 feet, breaking his back, pelvis and leg and fracturing both his left wrist and right elbow, in a bid to escape the Islamic extremists as they went through the hotel shooting residents and setting fires". In this battle over legal jurisdiction, Leigh Day argue that "the case should be heard in the UK, where Mr Pike lives and where the Indian Hotels Company Ltd has a substantial business presence".