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India: 26/11 Mumbai Terrorist Attack – Not A Single Person Either Charged Or Convicted Till Date

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On this 26th November, we are commemorating the 13th anniversary of the Mumbai Terrorist attack leaving more than a hundred families in grief. It was the evening of 26 November 2008 when India’s teeming financial and entertainment capital was in the throes of one of the most shocking terror attacks the world had ever seen.

Ten heavily-armed militants, all Pakistani nationals, had arrived by sea, split into groups, hijacked vehicles, and attacked targets, including the main railway station, two luxury hotels, a Jewish cultural center, and a hospital. The 60-hour siege of the city had left more than a hundred dead and soured ties between India and Pakistan.

The ten Kalashnikov-wielding terrorists attacked Mumbai simultaneously at five different locations, shooting dead 140 Indians and 25 foreign tourists. American and British passport-holders were executed in two luxury hotel complexes.  At a Jewish cultural center, Israeli nationals were tortured before being killed. A fourth location, a café frequented by Western backpackers, was enfiladed with automatic fire.

Following the Mumbai attack, suspicion swiftly focused on Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a vast jihadist group based in Pakistan. Although banned by the Pakistani government since 2002, LeT held conspicuous fund-raising rallies and operated urban recruitment centers without any official interference. It had pioneered the concept of suicidal mass-casualty assaults in South Asia, reportedly upon the advice of a former Pakistani Army SWAT operator.  But, unlike previous LeT assaults on India, those of 26 November 2008 (or ’26/11′) were different in two respects.

First, the 26/11 attack targeted Western nationals, as well as Indian civilians. This ensured there would be much greater global interest in ascertaining the perpetrators’ true identities than with previous attacks that ‘only’ targeted Indian citizens.

Second, during previous raids, LeT gunmen had stormed a single location and fought to the death. However, unfamiliar with the topography, one of the attackers were unable to barricade himself in time. Local policemen swarmed him while he was on the move, losing one of their colleagues in the process.  The arrest of this gunman, whose name was Ajmal Kasab, was a game-changer. For the first time, India captured a participant in a suicidal attack with high interrogation value.

Ajmal Kasab
Ajmal Kasab

Kasab was immediately questioned by Prashant Marde, an officer of the Mumbai police. The gunman confirmed that there were nine other shooters in the city, and stated that all were Pakistani nationals. Aware of the international ramifications of these revelations, the Indian government permitted the American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to interrogate Kasab directly. A team of FBI officials flew in from New York to learn what they could about the attack. Kasab independently confirmed to the FBI what he had told the Indian police: he was a Pakistani citizen and a member of LeT, and the attack was being directed in real-time from the Pakistani port city of Karachi via mobile and internet telephony. This digital trail connecting the gunmen in Mumbai with controllers in Karachi proved crucial.

There is a similarity between the 1988 Hyderabad massacre in Pakistan, and the attack which took place in Mumbai two decades later. In both cases, roving teams of shooters mowed down civilians in public spaces. In both cases, the perpetrators escaped conviction. The suspected mastermind of the Hyderabad massacre, a Sindhi politician named Qadir Magsi, was acquitted in 2017. The main suspect in the Mumbai case, LeT military chief Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi, was bailed in 2014 after a court case in which prosecutors and at least one judge received death threats.

A Pakistani-American jihadist called David Headley (original name: Daood Gilani) was arrested in October 2009 for planning a Mumbai-style terrorist attack in Denmark. While in US custody, he claimed that he had been an informant of the American Drug Enforcement Agency, tasked to infiltrate the criminal underworld in Pakistan. His travels to the latter country had brought him to the attention of the ISI, which had referred him to Lashkar-e-Taiba. Thereafter, Headley appears to have been tasked as a reconnaissance agent for LeT. He undertook several trips to Mumbai over the course of three years, beginning in 2006 and continuing until after the 26/11 attack. It was due to his reconnaissance videos and photographs that LeT was able to plan and rehearse for a precision strike.

The American government convicted Headley on US soil but refused to extradite him to India. Some officials in New Delhi suspect that Washington has sought to protect its fragile relationship with the ISI, which would be damaged if Headley revealed further details of ISI involvement in 26/11.

David Headley
David Headley

Eventually, the US did allow Indian investigators to interrogate Headley, who claimed that:

The ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) had no ambiguity in understanding the necessity to strike India. It essentially would serve three purposes. They are (a) controlling further split in the Kashmir-based outfits (b) providing them a sense of achievement and (c) shifting and minimizing the theatre of violence from the domestic soil of Pakistan to India.

Lastly, in May 2012, authorities in Saudi Arabia extradited a man to India who provided even more details of the Mumbai attack. This was Zabiuddin Ansari, an Indian jihadist who had fled to Pakistan in 2006. Although not trusted by LeT with operational details of the Mumbai plan, he was sufficiently close to Sajid Majeed to be given an important task: teaching the ten gunmen common Hindi phrases. The idea was that they would telephone Indian television news channels during the attack and make political statements. Usage of Mumbai-specific slang would, LeT hoped, confuse listeners as to their real nationality and make them appear home-grown.  Ansari also claimed that the weapons and ammunition used in Mumbai had been provided by the ISI. Indeed, he went on to state that ISI officials had been present in the LeT control room in Karachi during the attack.  One ISI officer identified by Ansari in this regard was Major Sameer Ali, whom Headley had also named as the ISI official who first referred him to LeT.

Recently, the Biden administration has urged a federal court in Los Angeles to extradite Pakistani-origin Canadian businessman Tahawwur Rana to India where he is sought for his involvement in the 2008 Mumbai terror attack. Rana, 59, has been declared a fugitive by India, where he is facing multiple criminal charges for his involvement in the 2008 Mumbai terror attack in which 166 people, including six Americans, were killed. He was rearrested on June 10, 2020, in Los Angeles on an extradition request by India.

13 years after the terror attack, we learned that the case stands shifted from Lahore Terror Court to Islamabad Terror Court. India has recently rejected Pakistan’s latest list of terrorists involved in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks noting that Pakistan glaringly omitted the mastermind and key conspirators including Hafiz Muhammad Saeed and Zakir-ur-Rehman Lakhvi.

Lakhvi was sentenced by a Pakistan court in January 2021 for five years in prison on terror financing charges. However, he was only convicted on the charges of collecting and dispersing money for terrorist groups. While in reality he was one of the major culprits as he had spoken to the attackers during their journey and may have been in touch during the attacks.

Out of 27 witnesses initially named, now, after 13 years 4-5 have died of natural causes and the rest are retired and old.

Witnesses are unwilling to travel to Pakistan owing to security concerns

  • Option 1: Video conference of witnesses or
  • Option 2: Joint Judicial Commission from Pakistan to visit India

Pakistan has not agreed on either of the above.

As of date, not a single person has been either charge-sheeted or convicted for the 26/11 attacks.

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