Gunmen Methodically Spread Terror in Mumbai in Matter of Minutes

Authorities finished removing bodies from the bullet- and grenade-scarred Taj Mahal hotel Monday, the final site of the Mumbai siege to be cleared, as schools and businesses reopened and commuters returned to work. Video by AP
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 1, 2008

MUMBAI, Nov. 30 -- It was just after dinner, about 9 p.m., when the fishermen noticed four strangers come ashore on an inflatable raft. Moments later, another four pulled up to the boat launch in a speedboat. Only two got out of the boat. They were young, muscular men, with backpacks and bulky duffel bags slung across their shoulders.

At least one of the fishermen was instantly suspicious and asked the strangers what they were doing. "One of them turned around and said in heavily accented Hindi: 'Don't hassle me. I'm in a terrible mood.' We got nervous and just left them alone," said a 25-year-old fisherman who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

The strangers flagged down two taxis and sped off toward the Oberoi Trident hotel in Nariman Point. It would be among the first stops in a trail of death and destruction spanning 10 sites and three days that left 174 people dead and 239 wounded.

The mayhem struck at the very heart of Mumbai, a roiling soup of mansions, high-rises, faded Victorian government buildings and vast, heaving shantytowns. It is a sprawling metropolis of more than 14 million, home to the country's stock market and the Bollywood film industry, as well as a destination for vast numbers of migrant workers searching for better lives.

Retracing the steps of the Mumbai attackers offers clues as to how a posse of just 10 gunmen brought India's largest city to its knees in a matter of minutes Wednesday night and kept it terrorized until the last shot was fired Saturday afternoon.

It started at the fishing colony near Badhwar Park -- about a mile from the beachside Oberoi Trident -- where about 10,000 people in ramshackle huts eke out a living in a murky inlet of the Arabian Sea.

"It's a slum area. We didn't think to protect it," said L. Sankla, one of the police officers who, since the attacks, has been assigned to watch over the boat launch. A second team of gunmen is thought to have come ashore Wednesday night at another landing site, near the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel.

The lax security along Mumbai's coastline gave the heavily armed assailants the perfect opportunity to quietly slip into the heart of the city, security experts said.

"It could have been done only through the sea route," said an Indian intelligence officer familiar with terrorist groups in Pakistan and bombing investigations in India. "For an attack this big, if they had chosen the land route, they would have had to involve a large number of Indian people for logistics. And when you use too many Indians, the chance of exposure is more. This is a precision operation, known only to a small number of people -- the planners, the operators and the executors."

After landing, the gunmen fanned out across the city, most likely in groups of two or three. Within half an hour, they had hit about five sites: the city's main rail station, a Jewish center at the Nariman House, the Leopold Cafe, and the Oberoi and Taj hotels.

About 9:35 p.m., they shot their way past the security guards in front of the Oberoi. Once inside, they started firing into the air, eyewitnesses said.

Around the same time, two gunmen farther south opened fire outside the Leopold Cafe, a hangout popular with backpackers and other tourists. The attackers fired from the sidewalk for more than a minute, killing seven people, including three foreigners, said Farhang Jehani, an eyewitness and the owner of the 137-year-old cafe.

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