Mumbai: A Message for America

Americans have been assured that the horror and terror that exploded across television screens from Mumbai in late November will not affect our own sense of security. Such assurances are as disingenuous as they are comforting.  The murders carried out against Western tourists in India's most technologically sophisticated city have far-reaching implications for Americans, not just for those of  us traveling abroad, but for all of us getting up everyday and going about life's routines.

Those who have prescribed this analgesic of comfort have focused on where this event took place.  Far and away more important are the terrorists' strategies and tactics.

The attacks were carried out almost simultaneously on multiple targets. Airing during the Thanksgiving holiday, the attacks were designed to draw major media attention in America.  The targeting and execution showed sophistication, extensive planning, and precision training. The terrorists had a low probability of evading authorities and a high probability of getting killed.

In terms of strategy and tactics the parallels to 09/11 and Al Qaeda are patently obvious. Consequently, it was not surprising that the group involved, Lashkar-e-Taiba, is affiliated with and cross trains with Al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda is not a monolith with a central nucleus of command and control. It is an amorphous structure that operates independently, but follows similar methods, focuses on similar targets and learns, even indirectly, from one another's operations.  In this sense, Al Qaeda parallels the European nihilistic groups of the 1970s and 80s:  groups that shared similar ideologies, often avoided direct cooperation, and possessed a proclivity for dramatic events that had no relationship to bringing about political change.

In Washington, analysts in the law enforcement and intelligence communities will be putting together "after incident reports" on Mumbai. So too will terrorists in Islamabad, Kabul and Gaza.

What few politicians will say publicly is that the terrorists will see these incidents as data points, probes, and simulations for the inevitable next events. And as we are being reassured that the events in Mumbai will have no implications for our future, terrorists are already planning our future against the lessons of Mumbai. 

When those events take place, the first line of defense will not be Special Forces sliding down a helicopter-drawn rope, but ordinary police, who are largely untrained and ill-equipped to deal with well trained and heavily armed terrorists. Reports from Mumbai indicate that the police at the train station were so overwhelmed that they did not return fire against the terrorists. 

The targets will be indistinguishable from those that have already blasted across our television screens: train stations, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, and schools, places where large numbers of unprotected people gather like sheep for the awaiting slaughter. 

These are targets that lacerate public sensitivities, create drama written in blood, and compel the attention of the camera's lens.  Terrorists know that the blood bath in Mumbai will not change India's policies in Kashmir; bombings in Jerusalem will not push Israelis into the sea; and the destruction of two skyscrapers only expanded America's role in the Middle East.  So, what do the terrorists want?  In a word, "Attention." 

Attention is not just directed at the source of grievances, but is also directed at the communal group whose support is vital to terrorist operations. The greater the horror, the greater the attention; the greater the attention, the greater the substitution of symbolic political strength for real political weakness!  It is this idea that makes America and Americans anywhere targets of choice.

If you think about what ten terrorists in Mumbai were able to accomplish with automatic weapons, grenades, and bombs against the Indian special forces and military, you realize that a similar attack against modestly-armed American police with a few special weapons teams would create even greater havoc. Certainly, the military would be mobilized in response, but all of that takes time, especially in our multi-layered federal system with its historic emphasis on local control. In the initial hours of an attack, the terrorists would vastly out-gun the police.  The police would hardly be able to contain the situation let alone bring it to denouement. 

As we debate whether Iraq or Afghanistan is the more important theater in the war on terror, we need to consider that the war's first-line defenders are not manning the streets of Baghdad and Kabul, but the streets of American cities. Without a rapid response team at the local level capable of going toe to toe with hard core terrorists, the tragedy of Mumbai will play itself out in similar or worse proportions in the streets of American cities.  Meeting the challenge of the terror war means reconsidering who really stands on the front lines of this war and how to prepare them for the inevitable test that awaits them.

Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science, University of Cincinnati, and a former counter-terrorist consultant to the US Department of Justice.
Americans have been assured that the horror and terror that exploded across television screens from Mumbai in late November will not affect our own sense of security. Such assurances are as disingenuous as they are comforting.  The murders carried out against Western tourists in India's most technologically sophisticated city have far-reaching implications for Americans, not just for those of  us traveling abroad, but for all of us getting up everyday and going about life's routines.

Those who have prescribed this analgesic of comfort have focused on where this event took place.  Far and away more important are the terrorists' strategies and tactics.

The attacks were carried out almost simultaneously on multiple targets. Airing during the Thanksgiving holiday, the attacks were designed to draw major media attention in America.  The targeting and execution showed sophistication, extensive planning, and precision training. The terrorists had a low probability of evading authorities and a high probability of getting killed.

In terms of strategy and tactics the parallels to 09/11 and Al Qaeda are patently obvious. Consequently, it was not surprising that the group involved, Lashkar-e-Taiba, is affiliated with and cross trains with Al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda is not a monolith with a central nucleus of command and control. It is an amorphous structure that operates independently, but follows similar methods, focuses on similar targets and learns, even indirectly, from one another's operations.  In this sense, Al Qaeda parallels the European nihilistic groups of the 1970s and 80s:  groups that shared similar ideologies, often avoided direct cooperation, and possessed a proclivity for dramatic events that had no relationship to bringing about political change.

In Washington, analysts in the law enforcement and intelligence communities will be putting together "after incident reports" on Mumbai. So too will terrorists in Islamabad, Kabul and Gaza.

What few politicians will say publicly is that the terrorists will see these incidents as data points, probes, and simulations for the inevitable next events. And as we are being reassured that the events in Mumbai will have no implications for our future, terrorists are already planning our future against the lessons of Mumbai. 

When those events take place, the first line of defense will not be Special Forces sliding down a helicopter-drawn rope, but ordinary police, who are largely untrained and ill-equipped to deal with well trained and heavily armed terrorists. Reports from Mumbai indicate that the police at the train station were so overwhelmed that they did not return fire against the terrorists. 

The targets will be indistinguishable from those that have already blasted across our television screens: train stations, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, and schools, places where large numbers of unprotected people gather like sheep for the awaiting slaughter. 

These are targets that lacerate public sensitivities, create drama written in blood, and compel the attention of the camera's lens.  Terrorists know that the blood bath in Mumbai will not change India's policies in Kashmir; bombings in Jerusalem will not push Israelis into the sea; and the destruction of two skyscrapers only expanded America's role in the Middle East.  So, what do the terrorists want?  In a word, "Attention." 

Attention is not just directed at the source of grievances, but is also directed at the communal group whose support is vital to terrorist operations. The greater the horror, the greater the attention; the greater the attention, the greater the substitution of symbolic political strength for real political weakness!  It is this idea that makes America and Americans anywhere targets of choice.

If you think about what ten terrorists in Mumbai were able to accomplish with automatic weapons, grenades, and bombs against the Indian special forces and military, you realize that a similar attack against modestly-armed American police with a few special weapons teams would create even greater havoc. Certainly, the military would be mobilized in response, but all of that takes time, especially in our multi-layered federal system with its historic emphasis on local control. In the initial hours of an attack, the terrorists would vastly out-gun the police.  The police would hardly be able to contain the situation let alone bring it to denouement. 

As we debate whether Iraq or Afghanistan is the more important theater in the war on terror, we need to consider that the war's first-line defenders are not manning the streets of Baghdad and Kabul, but the streets of American cities. Without a rapid response team at the local level capable of going toe to toe with hard core terrorists, the tragedy of Mumbai will play itself out in similar or worse proportions in the streets of American cities.  Meeting the challenge of the terror war means reconsidering who really stands on the front lines of this war and how to prepare them for the inevitable test that awaits them.

Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science, University of Cincinnati, and a former counter-terrorist consultant to the US Department of Justice.