The inside story about 26/11

Updated: Nov 21, 2014, 10:22 IST | Fiona Fernandez |

A new title, 'Black Tornado', offers previously unshared details on the 26/11 terror attacks on Mumbai, and how, for the first time, all three armed forces systematically planned and thwarted the siege on the city in 2008

Q. Why a book on the 26/11 attacks now, after six years?
A. The September 11, 2001 attacks on the US resulted in the comprehensive 9/11 Commission Report, which clinically analysed the outrage and generated a slew of recommendations. Closer home, the Kargil War of 1999 led to the outstanding Kargil Review Committee report of 2000. The 26/11 attacks on Mumbai were among the most sensational terrorist attacks on Indian soil. It was, in a sense, the globalisation of terrorism in India, combining all its aspects — suicide attackers armed with guns and grenades, seaborne infiltration, car bombs and hostage situations.

Taaj Hotel

Recent revelations by LeT scout David Headley point to active collaboration of state actors inside Pakistan. Yet, there was no commission of inquiry ordered by the central government. (The Pradhan committee had a limited mandate where it had to look into the Mumbai Police’s response to the incident).

There was nothing which established how critical decisions were taken in those 60 hours or how the system failed to predict such an attack despite there being intelligence, and failing to mitigate it when the tools were available. Such questions linger. This book is an attempt to understand the sequence of events leading to the deployment of the NSG (National Security Guard) and what lessons security forces can learn to be better prepared for such strikes.

Q. How different will this book be from plenty of literature that has been published and released (including movies too) about the 26/11 attacks?
A. The 26/11 attacks were the first time when all three armed forces were called in to fight terror. This book is the first semi-official account of how they responded and looks at the military aspect of the attacks. Through interviews with the principal players in the armed forces, I have established the precise sequence of events of that night. These officials have never been spoken to before, and what they told me was startling.

Sandeep Unnithan
Sandeep Unnithan

I have established how, for instance, the Marine Commandos came to be deployed at the Taj; and how their arrival led to the fortuitous rescue of over 100 civilians who had been trapped in The Chambers. A decorated, battle-hardened army unit, recently de-inducted from Jammu and Kashmir, just two kilometres near the attacks, was not pressed into the rescue.

The difficulties faced by the NSG in operating inside hotels that were packed with civilians; the photos in the book (most previously unpublished), back up this narrative.

Q. How did you approach the witnesses, especially since they would be recalling painful moments from a traumatic time?
A. Getting witnesses to relive their experiences was among the toughest parts. Several survivors and witnesses refused to be interviewed. At least one of them said he wanted to forget the incident and I can see why. I had to be patient and persuasive without sounding insensitive. In the end, I’m deeply grateful to all those who spoke up.

Q. Speaking of research, which part of it was the toughest to source?
Crucial documents that sequentially outlined how the NSG moved and what they did; the drills they followed and the lessons they learnt from the operation.

Q. At the end of your final draft, did you feel your book did justice to what Mumbai endured and withstood?
A. Yes. In a very tiny sense, I felt this would not let us forget what the city went through six years ago.

Book Launch:
On: Today, 6.30 pm onwards
At: ICIA House, next to MC Ghia Hall, Kala Ghoda.

Chapter: Task Force Nariman House

At 7.05 a.m., a grey IAF Mi-17 helicopter appeared, kicking up the clothes lines. It was an extremely short flight – the chopper had taken off from the Kunjali naval air station less than 500 metres away. A frisson of excitement coursed through Colaba market. The cloud of fear that had hung over the area for two days vanished. It was replaced by hype and insatiable curiosity. Sen could see TV cameras and journalists perched precariously on rooftops. There were hundreds of local residents too.

Black Tornado, Sandeep Unnithan, HarperCollins India, Rs 299.

They lounged on water tanks and beneath cellphone towers. A curious resident even produced a pair of binoculars. Some relayed the news to friends on their cellphones, real time. They had ringside seats to the world’s ultimate reality show.

‘It’s like they’re watching a cricket match.’ Sen shook his head in annoyance. A bullet from the terrorists could hit the people watching the spectacle. But a ring of snipers had kept the heads of the terrorists down. The NSG snipers checked their ammunition, cocked their rifles and peered down their Hensoldt-scopes, crosshairs firmly on the barred windows of the building. They waited for Sen’s command to blast away at the windows.

From the roof of Batra House, the commandos saw the helicopter take off, clatter out into the sea over the harbour and then swing around back towards them. The clamshell cargo doors that opened out at the aircraft’s rear had been detached even before it arrived in Mumbai the previous day. The NSG commandos now stood inside queued up on the sides. The pilot pointed its nose into the sea wind, lifted the collective, the lever that controlled the rotor speed, about two-thirds of the way up, pushed the right rudder pedal to nearly three- fourths of its full travel and tilted the cyclic (joystick) slightly to the right. The twelve-ton machine hovered over the building. The roar of the rotors had now turned into a distinctive chik-chik-chik sound.

An air force crewman threw out a single rope that had been tethered to a boom above the cargo rope. The commandos reached out with both hands for the rope and effortlessly slid down onto Nariman House. The drop zone was the terrace of the building, an area less than 150 square feet. It looked easy, but the operation was fraught with risk. A lattice of thin wires criss-crossed the buildings around Nariman House. These wires could snag the weighted rope. The Mi-17 was not the ideal platform for lowering commandos into built-up areas. Its rotors generated a tremendous prop wash which scattered debris, posing a threat to the aircraft itself. In less than a minute, twenty Black Cats had slithered down a weighted thirty-metre-long rope. Their boots thudded on the white- and-blue tiled roof, their MP5s at the ready.

They weren’t the only ones watching. Back in the control room in Karachi, the LeT’s handlers saw the helicopter atop Nariman House.

Handler: Heli aa gaya oopar?
Babar Imran: Humare oopar heli aa gaya hai.
Handler: Fire, fire, fire ...
Babar Imran: Fire shuru ho gaya hai, fire shuru ho gaya

hai ... barabar se fire shuru ho gaya hai. Umar! Cover

lo, cover lo.
Babar Imran: Humare kamre mein fire shuru ho gaya hai,

humare kamre mein fire shuru ho gaya hai ...

The live telecast of the operation put both the chopper and the commandos at risk. It revealed the number of troopers and the weapons they carried. A trained military hand knows what to see. The handlers in Pakistan dutifully relayed what they saw to the Nariman House attackers. They instructed the duo to assume ‘cross positions’ within the 300-square-foot living room. The terrorists knew what this meant. They moved sofas and refrigerators to form barricades at two ends of the room. They sat behind this. Only their rifle barrels poked out of these makeshift bunkers covering the door from both sides. The only entrance to the fourth floor was a deadly field of fire.

Major Manish led his commandos down to the building. They carefully descended in a single file down a fifteen-foot-long narrow metal ladder that led to the floor below. A commando reached for the single room on the terrace of the building. He tossed a flash bang grenade inside. It exploded with an orange crack. The commandos entered cautiously. The room was empty. Manish quickly took position. He shouted and tried to confirm the presence of civilians on the sixth floor. There was silence.

Swinging their MP5s in front, they walked down the door that led into the building. The green granite– coated staircase was narrow. Barely wide enough to allow two people to walk abreast. The commandos padded down noiselessly in a single file, two feet apart, slightly crouched. The black file entered the fifth floor. The door was slightly ajar. They tossed in another flash bang grenade and swiftly entered, their weapons covering all the corners. There was no one inside. The room was clear. It was a guest room.

Manish took out a white handkerchief and waved it in the window. A TV channel picked it up. ‘Terrorists in Nariman House are surrendering,’ one of the channels reported. Sen’s phone rang. It was Major General Gupta. ‘Who is surrendering,’ he wanted to know. An exasperated Sen told him it was a prearranged signal. Snipers were poised on their perches around the building with their fingers on the trigger. Sen did not want them shooting their comrades.

The commandos descended to the fourth floor of the building. The wooden elevator door had been destroyed in the stairwell blast and hung limply over the shaft. The door to the flat was shut. There was silence. The commandos stood on one side and gently turned the steel-knobbed door lock. It was locked. Manish decided to blast it open. He called for the breacher, V. Satish, a sapper, who laid the explosive charges.

Captain Mohit stood with his squad mates, Havildar Hira Lal, Havildar Anthony Samy, Naib Subedar Rasool Mohammad and Havildar Ram Niwas, on the landing just above the flat as Satish walked down and placed a pole charge on the door. This was a five-foot-long bamboo stick packed with plastic explosives, ideal for smashing wooden doors. As the commandos moved back, Satish expertly drew an electrical wire attached to the pole and drew it up the flight of stairs. The commandos tensed themselves along the corridor, weapons at ready. Satish hooked the wire to a simple 12-volt battery that he pulled out of his pocket. In a micro-second, an electric current surged through the wire and into the detonator. A vertical section of the plywood door blew into the flat with a crackle.

Even before the smoke had settled, the commandos moved in. Gajender Singh Bisht charged down the stairs through the splintered door. An AK-47 opened up from inside. Crack! Crack! Crack! Bisht collapsed on the floor just outside the door. It was Abu Umar behind a small refrigerator that had been laid down across the floor, his body expertly wedged between the kitchen door and the living room. Only his AK-47 peeped over the top of the fridge. A grenade exploded in the confines of the stairwell. The noise was deafening. Manish immediately withdrew up the stairs. Hira Lal took cover inside a small bathroom outside the flat.

Sen, on the roof of Batra House, heard the staccato exchange of gunfire with concern. There was the sharp crackle of the AK-47 and the tat-tat-tat-tat sound of MP5s. His men had made contact. A few minutes later, Sen’s walkie-talkie crackled. It was Major Manish. ‘We’ve been hit. We’ve been hit. Commando down.’

In the melee of smoke, dust and gunfire, it wasn’t clear who was hit, Gajender or Hira Lal. Mohit ran down the stairs to check. The commando was lying face down. A pool of blood spread around him on the green granite floor. Mohit saw the black running shoes. His heart sank. ‘Gajender ...’ Havildar Gajender’s black dungaree-clad body lay motionless in what the NSG called the ‘funnel of death’, an area covered by the adversary’s guns.

Just over an hour into the operation, and they had suffered a serious setback. Casualties were unacceptable in a seek-and-destroy mission. No one knew this better than Lt Col Sen. He slung his MP5 over his shoulder and scrambled down the stairs of Batra House. He saw a group of policemen sitting aimlessly at the foot of the building and lost his cool. ‘What are you doing here?’ he yelled at them. ‘What if the terrorists get away?’ The policemen sprang to their feet even as the officer dashed towards Merchant House like a man possessed.

Meanwhile, on the fourth floor of Nariman House, Major Manish, Captain Mohit and Ram Niwas fired at the unseen terrorists inside. Their low-velocity MP5 bullets could not penetrate the improvised pillboxes that the terrorists had set up. They also had to extricate Hira Lal – who stood in the terrorists’ line of fire – from the small bathroom. Taking advantage of a lull in firing, Hira Lal sprinted up the stairs. A second grenade sailed out of the room and exploded near Mohit. ‘Sahab! Grenade ...’ Ram Niwas grabbed the officer by the collar and propelled him upstairs. The grenade exploded with an ear-splitting blast. It peppered their bodies with steel ball bearings. Slivers of pain shot up Mohit’s leg. He limped up the stairs and towards the terrace.

Manish detailed Rasool Mohammad and Ram Niwas to cover the stairs and keep the militants pinned down. The rest of the team was reorganized. Mohit was left on the terrace under the care of Havildar Rajendra. The squads were redistributed between the terrace and fifth floor. The priority was to retrieve Gajender’s body and the four grenades, an MP5 with five magazines and a pistol that he carried. Manish did not want the terrorists to replenish their arsenal.

As he clambered up the rooftop of Merchant House, the usually unflappable Sen shouted over his walkie- talkie. ‘Save Gajender.’ His concerns were different. He had seen the TV cameras that encircled Nariman House. What if the terrorists captured his commando alive? What if they strung his body outside Nariman House for the TV cameras? The thoughts raced through Sen’s mind. ‘All units, fire karo,’ he shouted into his walkie-talkie. NSG men fired at Nariman House from three directions using AK-47s, MP5s and sniper rifles. ‘They must not get him,’ Sen shouted to his men.

The Merchant House terrace was crowned by a three- foot thick concrete crenellation with a false rose window in the centre. Sen and his support weapon squad now took shelter behind this. He took a Franchi Spas gun from the engineers. This Italian-made weapon resembles an assault rifle. It is a twelve-gauge semi-automatic shotgun that fired breaching rounds that can be placed just six inches away from door hinges and locks to blast them away. The gun also had tear gas rounds. Sen loaded six of them into the box magazine. He then aimed at the gap in the windows and fired one after the other. But the shells were ineffective. He needed something bigger. He pulled out the walkie-talkie clipped onto his left epaulette loop and hailed the operations centre. ‘Bhandari, send me tear gas ... to the rooftop of Merchant House. Over.’

The fusillade of bullets from the commandos had hit at least one of the terrorists. Now, he contacted his handler in Karachi, one last time.

Babar Imran: I’ve been shot, pray for me ...
Handler: Kahaan laga hai, kahaan laga hai? Kahaan laga

Babar Imran: One in my arm, one in my leg ...
Handler: God protect you. Did you manage to kill them? Babar Imran: We killed the commando who was entering ...

pray that God accepts my martyrdom ...
Handler: Al Hamdullah ... Al Hamdullah ... may God

keep you with him.

In a few minutes, an elderly, bespectacled police constable appeared on the roof of Merchant House, carrying an ancient tear gas gun, which resembled a sawn-off folding shotgun, and a square box that carried a dozen rounds. He explained the use of the tear gas gun. It was like a shotgun. Sen cracked the breech open and loaded the first round and aimed towards Nariman House. It didn’t fire. Sen broke open the breech. The gun had no firing pin. The constable mumbled an apology and disappeared.

Then, an object flew onto the terrace of Merchant House between the commandos. It hit the cement floor with a dull thunk. ‘O teri ...’ the men swore, split and threw themselves to their sides, heads down. It sounded like a grenade. After five seconds, Sen looked up at

the ‘grenade’. It was a small packet of biscuits, tossed helpfully by one of the people on the buildings nearby. Sen was livid. ‘Don’t ever throw anything at us ...’ he admonished them.

Meanwhile, the elderly police constable reappeared. He wore a grin of satisfaction. He had a working tear gas gun. Sen loaded up and began firing tear gas shells into Nariman House. There was a half-hour lull. A thick gas cloud filled the room. Sen stood on the ledge, peering in, trying to get a closer look. Suddenly, Imran Babar rushed to the window, his face covered with a water-soaked pillow case. Babar wielded an AK-47. Sen could see the whites of his eyes. He stood at least five feet away from the window, and blasted single shots with his rifle at his tormentor. Blue sparks ricocheted off the grille. Sen took cover, then got up to fire another tear gas round. The shell knocked the grille down. ‘Laddoo lao,’ he shouted to his men. They returned with a box of Indian Army–issue HE 36 hand grenades. The HE 36 was a World War II vintage hand grenade, notoriously unreliable. Sen pulled the pin out of a grenade. He tossed it in like he would chuck a cricket ball. The grenade exploded inside with a piercing roar. In a little over thirty minutes, the officer threw in over a dozen hand grenades into the room – a series of deafening explosions rent the room. One of the grenades fell into the gap between the buildings. Fortunately, it did not explode.

This explosive distraction was what the commandos at the other end were waiting for. Havildar Ram Niwas threw a fire hook on Gajender’s body. The commandos then gently pulled their comrade up the stairs. They felt his pulse. He was dead. His rifle plate had stopped a bullet, but he had been hit in the neck and left flank.

The troopers solemnly carried their fallen comrade’s blood-soaked body to the terrace. He was placed inside the solitary room on the rooftop. They took a bed sheet from the room and covered his body. Gajender’s MP5, with its NSG inventory number ‘279’ hand-painted in white near the selector switch, was placed near his body.

The fourth floor had by now filled with tear gas smoke. The commandos could not see. Their eyes were red and watering, they coughed, their mouths ran dry and they felt nauseated. The men coughed and wheezed as they withdrew to the terrace.

Sahab,’ Hira Lal coughed and pointed at Mohit’s leg, ‘khoon nikal raha hai.’ Mohit rolled up the leg of his trouser. Grenade shrapnel had dug holes in his calf. Blood flowed down his leg. There was no field dressing kit in sight, so Mohit asked the engineers to throw him some black duct tape. He wrapped it around his leg.

A funereal gloom hung over the Black Cats who sat on the roof of Nariman House. Most had rolled their balaclavas over their heads like black funeral bands. These were men who had passed some of the toughest physical courses in the country. But that didn’t inure them to the pain of losing a comrade. Gajender’s body was mute testimony that perhaps they had failed him. The worst might yet be to come.

Mohit’s cellphone rang. He pulled it out of the pocket of his dungaree. It was Keshar, his fiancee. He took the call. ‘Mohit ...’ she said hesitantly, ‘Sandeep is dead.’ The news hit him like a bolt of lightning. He was shocked and speechless. He quietly asked Manish to accompany him to the fifth floor. The men could not be told of this – it was bad for morale. As he broke the news of Major Unnikrishnan’s death, tears streamed down Mohit’s cheeks: ‘Sir, inko nahin chhodoonga. I’m going to get them.’ Manish held his shoulders, looked at him straight in the eye and shook him. ‘Mohit, tu ulta kaam nahin karega ...’

Mohit was an engineer officer or ‘sapper’ on deputation. Commissioned into the Madras Engineer Group, he prided himself on having entered the NSG on a general duties vacancy after competing with infantry officers. Now, he would use his skills as a sapper. He switched his radio set off and thought fast. They needed a new entry into the flat. In his brief NSG stint, Mohit had made over 200 shaped charges. Varying quantities of plastic explosives designed to cut through airplane doors, concrete and machinery.

Manish asked if they could blow up the floor of the fifth floor, landing, quite literally, on top of the terrorists.

Mohit disagreed. Nariman House was a reinforced cement concrete (RCC) structure, he explained. If one slab collapsed, it might threaten the next one too. Then, Mohit looked at the walls. ‘But the walls are made of bricks ...’ The brick wall wasn’t more than nine inches thick. A plan had begun taking shape. It was 4.30 p.m.

His cellphone rang again. It was Sen. ‘Chhote, tera radio kyon off hai?’ Sen asked, his voice calm, his tone avuncular.

‘Sir,’ Mohit began, ‘Gajender is dead, and there’s a lot of pressure on us.’

‘Don’t worry,’ Sen counselled him. ‘Gajender did what he had to do, now you do your duty.’ Sen’s voice masked his apprehensions. If the terrorists held off until sunset, Sen knew the siege would continue until next morning.

But now, Mohit had a plan. Sen listened and approved. At H-hour, the exact time at which Mohit would enter the fourth floor, Captain Kush Kashyap would lead the remaining commandos up Nariman House.

H-hour was fixed at 5 p.m. It took Mohit half an hour to shape a 2-kg slab of PEK. The plastic explosive was black and easily moulded, like a child’s clay dough. He packed the clay into the hollow of a wooden ‘door frame’ that the NSG carried with them, and wrapped the gunny sacking around to hold the explosive in place. Mohit then plunged a pencil-sized detonator into it and drew the electrical wire from it. That done, he wiped his greasy hands on his dungarees and surveyed his handiwork. ‘We’re ready to rock,’ he told Manish.

Sen, meanwhile, had decided to blow down the windows. If the house was dark, the commandos would have trouble adjusting when they broke inside. He climbed a two-storey tenement that overlooked Nariman House just 100 metres away. Two soldiers from the military unit in Colaba were posted there. One of them had his hands poised over an AGS-17 automatic grenade launcher (AGL). The AGL was kept on a metal table borrowed from a tenant of the building, its stubby barrel a little behind a two-foot-wide window cut in the concrete. A green drum magazine held twenty- nine grenades.

The troopers had placed sandbags around the AGL’s metal legs to stabilize it. Sen directed the fire. He knew the soldiers had never fired a shot in the middle of a city; for that matter, neither had he. The grenadier curled his hands over the twin motorcycle-like handgrips, thumbs on the twin triggers at the back of the weapon. He peeped through the iron sights set slightly off to the left of the barrel and aimed the weapon at the orange curtains. The AGL jerked and reared on its forelegs like a horse before it belched out six rounds. A few shells crashed into the concrete just below the fourth-floor window and exploded, others hit the grilles. The curtains were destroyed, the window frame burst and hung limply over the building. Sunlight streamed into the shattered building. Snipers now had a clear field of fire.

As the grenade shells thudded into the building, Mohit stood up and asked for a volunteer. The explosive would breach the wall, creating a gap for just two people to enter. Any more and the men risked taking casualties. ‘Who will go with me?’ he looked around the troopers. A hand shot up. It was Lance Naik V. Satish, one of the two sapper commandos in the group. ‘Sahab, take an infantryman or a para-SF guy along,’ one of the NSG commandos suggested. Satish seethed at the suggestion, but didn’t react. He was determined to go. However, the Spas shotgun he had was useless in a firefight. He needed a weapon. Troopers are usually reluctant to part with their personal weapons. Satish knew what he had to do. He calmly walked over to Gajender’s body, bent down to pick up his MP5, inserted a clip into it and cocked the weapon. ‘Let’s go sir.’ The two men headed back into the building, carrying the shaped charge.

At 5 p.m., a thunderous explosion shook Nariman House. The door frame charge punched a three-foot- wide hole into the wall of the fourth floor. The pressure wave from the back blast simultaneously slammed an identical hole in the outer wall of the building, throwing debris on the red-tiled roof of the three-storeyed Abdulbhai Karimji building next to it. Thick white smoke and reddish-brown brick dust covered the stairwell.

Satish leapt into the breach. Mohit followed. Manish covered the door. Imran Babar was sitting against the wall. He had been stunned by the force of the blast. His face was covered by red and grey brick and plaster dust. But he had levelled his AK-47 at the yawning gap. He saw Satish’s black-dungareed figure leap into the hazy room. Babar stood up from behind the sofa, ghost-like. Satish was barely five feet away from him. Babar fired. And missed. Satish turned around in a split second and fired a series of single shots. He did not miss. Babar collapsed and fell backwards. The AK-47 dropped from his lifeless hands.

The inert body of Abu Umar lay across the room, his right leg folded under his body. He had fallen backwards, violently twisted, his torso severely burnt. Both terrorists sported the red ‘kalava’ threads Headley had bought for them.

The commandos quickly entered the room. They kicked the AK-47s away from the bodies of the two lifeless terrorists and headed inside. It was a slaughter house.

They saw the bodies of the two hostages on a bed inside the fourth floor. Rivka Holtzberg and Norma Shvarzblat-Rabinovich lay where they had been executed, bound and blindfolded with strips of cloth. Their faces and bodies were mutilated. The bodies of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, Yocheved Orpaz and Bentzion Chroman were

on the second floor. In the small library lay the body of Rabbi Leibisch Teitelbaum, bloated and face down in a pile of black ooze. He had been shot in front of the bookshelves filled with leather-bound Jewish texts.

When the restive crowds outside heard the explosion, there was a mad stampede towards Nariman House. The crowds surged forward and swamped the police units and later the army units who had cordoned off the house. The match had ended. The fans were swamping the cricket ground.

A policeman ran frantically to Lt Col Sen. ‘Sir, please fire.’ Sen didn’t understand.

The police officer was desperate. ‘Please help us. Please fire, or there will be a stampede.’

Sen cocked his head sideways and spoke into his walkie-talkie. ‘Throw a stun grenade.’ An officer complied. A muffled blast was heard through the house. The crowds stood back, a trifle confused. Perhaps, the operations were still on. They held back.

Sen allowed himself a smile. His probationers had passed their test. 

Extracted with permission from HarperCollins India

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