Total Recall: Ten Things That Went Wrong During the 26/11 Attacks

Intelligence inputs were not acted upon, terrorists' unsuccessful attempts to enter Mumbai were not detected and there was a delay in sending in NSG commandoes.

Note: This article was originally published on November 26, 2018 and was republished on November 26, 2021.

Looking back at the 26/11 Mumbai attacks with the benefit of hindsight, the missed opportunities to both prevent the attacks and minimise their impact are clear. The Wire brings you a list of things that went wrong, or could have been done differently.

1. Slip up on intelligence inputs

In the two years preceding the attacks, American-born Pakistani terrorist David Richard Headley visited India five times to identify the targets. He had three wives, two of whom had told US authorities of his terror associations. In 2005, an American woman married to him told federal investigators in the US that she believed he was a member of the Lashkar-e-Tayyabba. Two years later, his Moroccan wife warned American authorities in Pakistan that he was plotting an attack.

The Central Intelligence Agency tipped India off about the possibility of a major terrorist attack on Mumbai. There were some 26 alerts in all. The inputs revealed that an attack may take place through the sea route, and five-star hotels in Mumbai may be targeted. The Research and Analysis Wing and Intelligence Bureau were unable to prevent the strikes.

2. Presence of mole went undetected

The Siege, a book by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, claims that Headley revealed that his handler, Major Iqbal of the Inter-Services Intelligence, once boasted about having a “super agent” known as ‘Honey Bee’ in New Delhi.

This mole reportedly helped the terror group identify a South Mumbai fishing colony, Badhwar Park, as a suitable landing site for the terrorists. ‘Honey Bee’ has still not been identified.

Read: What the Maharashtra Government Promised to Do Based on 26/11 Inquiry

3. Two failed attempts to enter Mumbai went undetected

While testifying before a Mumbai court over video in 2016, Headley said that there were two failed attempts to attack the city before 26/11 by the same 10 terrorists. The first attempt was made on September 8, but the boat hit rocks in the ocean and sank. The weapons and explosives were lost, but those on board survived. Another attempt was made in October, but failed.

4. Fishermen reported presence, police was slow to respond

Some fishermen and shopkeepers who were suspicious of the strangers who docked at Colaba on November 26, 2008 questioned them, but were told, “mind your own business”. They reported the presence of these men to the police, but there was no immediate action. Even earlier, a fisherman had written to the police about the possibility of terrorists bringing explosives from the sea but was ignored.

Also read: On the Anniversary of 26/11, India Needs to See Beyond the US Model of Counter-Terrorism

5. Terrorists were better equipped

While the attackers passed by a police station, they did not face any resistance as the police realised that they were outgunned. The police switched off the lights and closed the gates.

Armed with Arges hand grenades, automatic assault rifles and improvised explosive devices, the well-trained terrorists had an upper hand over the local police, who were taken by surprise.

Also read: Full Text: What the High Level Inquiry Committee on the 26/11 Attacks Had to Say

6. Delay in deeming it a terror strike

Despite a number of public places being targeted, many being killed and the media telecasting the attacks, the police agencies and administration took a long time to identify what was happening as a terror attack. Initially, they thought it to be an underworld gang war.

A review of the happenings revealed that it was past midnight – and three hours after the terror strikes began – that the then Maharashtra chief minister urged the Centre to send in the National Security Guard (NSG) team.

7. NSG, marine commandoes took very long to arrive

Though Mumbai had witnessed several terrorist acts before, there was no NSG centre close by. Commandoes had to be flown in from Manesar in Haryana. When NSG chief J.K. Dutt asked for a plane, he was told that the transport aircraft was in Chandigarh. Finally, R&AW intervened and provide an Ilyushin 76 parked at Palam airstrip to rush the commando unit to Mumbai.

However, this was a smaller aircraft and could only transport 120 troops. This meant that transporting the full team required three trips. Refuelling the aircraft and finding crew members also took away precious time, and the aircraft took off a good two hours after the request was made. The aircraft then took nearly three hours to reach Mumbai.

In order to counter the four terrorists in the Taj Mahal hotel, marine commandoes were summoned. But they too reached three hours after the attack began. As the local police was also not rushed in large numbers, they failed to contain the heavily armed attackers to a limited area.

8. Pakistani handlers benefited from media coverage

With TV news channels providing live coverage of the attacks, rescue operations were hampered. Pakistani handlers of the terrorists reportedly told them about the presence of dignitaries in the hotels as well as the impending security operations.

Also read: Photo Essay: Maximum Terror, and How a Fallible City Stood Strong

It was on November 28 that the media was directed to only show “deferred” footage. Before there, no protocol had been put in place on how the emergency situation should be covered.

9. Terrorists knew much more about the buildings under attack than the NSG

When the NSG reached Mumbai on November 27 morning, it did not have access to detailed layouts or maps of the buildings under attack. On the other hand, due to the recon done by Headley, the terrorists had this information. At the Taj, Oberoi and Nariman House, the NSG commandos fought with a major handicap.

10. NSG not given intercepted conversations

Though the Anti-Terror Squad of the Mumbai police recorded conversations between the terrorists and their handlers, these were not passed on quickly to the NSG. In addition, the terrorists’ plan to execute the hostages at Nariman House was not conveyed to the commandoes.