Why Mumbai?

Now that the terrorist attack on Mumbai (Bombay), India, has officially been declared over, questions will now be raised about why it occurred where it did, and what the episode means for the continuing campaign against international terrorism. Particularly to answer the latter question, the place to start is, Why Mumbai?

Although officials from the terrorism community either do not know for certain or are not sharing what they do know publicly, it appears that the terrorist group responsible for this large, well coordinated, even “sophisticated” act of barbarism probably came from Pakistan. The leading candidates seem to be Kashmir-based, an indication that the somewhat dormant competition for the control of Jammu and Kashmir has not disappeared. The New York Times lists a number of candidate organizations of Muslims opposed to the continuing status of Kashmir as an Indian state as the possible perpetrators; all the candidate organizations are essentially unknown in the West, and even in the terrorism community. What they suggest is that the status of Kashmir is still on the table, and if that is the motivation, the spectacular nature of the attacks is slightly reminiscent of the airline hijackings of the early 1970s that made the world aware of the plight of the Palestinians. In those instances, the targets prominently included Europeans and Americans, who were apparently the targets in the major hotels in Mumbai that were attacked.

If Kashmir (or even possibly the Federally Administered Tribal Areas–FATA) were the source of the attacks, what does that tell us. One thing is that Indian-Pakistani relations, which have warmed in recent years, are a target–militants see Pakistan’s sidling up to India as selling out their militant causes. Targeting westerners suggests that the militants view Americans and Brits in particular as underlying causes of their misery. Attacking Mumbai, one of the leading beacons of India’s entrance into the world economy, suggests some symbolism in terms of rejecting westernization and secularization–recurrent themes in religious terrorism–as well.

If there is a silverĀ lining in all this, it is that Al Qaeda has not been centrally implicated in the violence. It has been suggested that some of the terrorists may have been trained in Afghanistan by Al Qaeda in the 1990s, but the distinctive fingerprints of an Al Qaeda operation seem to be missing. Moreover, the fact that the terrorists chose to attack Americans in Mumbai rather than closer to home suggests that while they may be sophisticated at their deadly craft, they have limited reach beyond their apparent Pakistani sanctuaries.

If there is truly bad news associated with the attack, it may be what it says about Pakistan. Pakistan, rather than Afghanistan, may now be the terrorist capital of the world, and there is little indication the Pakistani government has any capability to deal with the problem and that any attempt to pressure them into an effective response might only display their fragility and make a bad situation of governmental instability worse. Does one need to be reminded that an unstable Pakistan with nuclear weapons is a very scary prospect? Moreover, it is not clear what anyone, particularly the United States, can do to change the situation. An Afghanistan-like response is simply not feasible–Pakistan is too big and too nuclear-armed to send in the cavalry.

Why Mumbai? may prove to be like the Churchillian analogy between Russia and the onion. The more layers that are peeled away, the more are revealed. The answer may lie across the border in Pakistan, and that is a very real problem for the United States and the rest of the world.

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