In Just Minutes, Mumbai Was Under Siege
Young Gunmen Exploited Coastline Vulnerabilities to Slip Into City and Methodically Spread Terror

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.

"It seemed like they were in a hurry," he said. "It was as if they wanted to shoot as many people as they could even though this was not their main target. Their motive might have been to divert the police, who have a station across the street, to keep them occupied as they headed to the Taj hotel."

The back entrance to the Taj, where the attackers went next, is about a three-minute walk from the Leopold through a narrow alley bounded by rug shops, street-food vendors and a pharmacy.

Bharat Waghela and his older brother were in their family's pharmacy when they heard shots being fired from the road. Their oldest brother, Subash, came running from across the street to pull down the store's metal shutters when the gunmen appeared in the alley and began firing indiscriminately into some of the shops. Subash was hit in the abdomen and left hand.

"My brother fell down and was lying in a pool of his blood," Bharat Waghela said. "When the two gunmen left toward the Taj, we took him to a clinic and then to a hospital."

Subash died later that day.

Most of the Taj's security guards, some of whom were armed, are concentrated at the hotel's front entrance. The two attackers who passed the Waghela pharmacy joined two gunmen who had come down another alley, according to police. Together they entered the Taj through the back, rushing past the hotel's elegant swimming pool before entering its main lobby.

About two miles from the Leopold Cafe and the Taj is Mumbai's main rail station, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, or CST, where two young men in black T-shirts, backpacks slung across their chests and backs, started firing their assault rifles indiscriminately and lobbing grenades onto the train platforms, killing 48 people and wounding many more.

In the station's main waiting area is the Re-Fresh restaurant. During the attack, its plate-glass windows were riddled with more than a dozen bullet holes, leaving huge, spidery cracks near a pastry case.

"I was sitting in our upstairs cafe when I thought the electricity had cut out," said Irshad Khan, 26, one of the restaurant's managers. "There was a lot of gunfire. I looked outside and saw people running helter-skelter. It was total chaos. At least 12 people died right on the spot."

Sebastian D'Souza, a photographer for the Mumbai Mirror newspaper, took several photos of the attackers as they rampaged through the station.

"There were armed policemen hiding all around the station, but none of them did anything," D'Souza told reporters afterward. "At one point, I ran up to them and told them to use their weapons. I said, 'Shoot them! They're sitting ducks,' but they just didn't shoot back."

According to several eyewitnesses, the assailants were in the station for up to 20 minutes before leaving through a side entrance. Back on a main street, they opened fire on several nearby targets, most of them within view of the side entrance, including the Times of India and the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai buildings.

The two gunmen then commandeered a police vehicle, killing three officers and wounding a fourth. The officers had been responding to a call from Cama Hospital about shots fired, said the lone survivor, police constable Arun Jadhav, who was in the vehicle but played dead.

Cama Hospital, a charity for women that is less than 10 minutes by car from the CST, had been attacked about 10:15 p.m., most likely by a separate group of gunmen. At least three hospital workers and two police officers were killed.

In the police vehicle, the gunmen sped west toward the Metro movie theater, a 70-year-old landmark about half a mile from the rail station.

The art deco theater overlooks a major traffic intersection, where the gunmen opened fire on bystanders, injuring several. From that intersection, it is a fairly straight drive south along Mahatma Gandhi Road, past the Bombay Stock Exchange, to the Taj. But the two gunmen in the vehicle were intercepted at Chowpatty, a beach on Mumbai's far west side.

Police killed one of the gunmen. The other, a 21-year-old Pakistani national named Azam Amir Kasab, was arrested. Mumbai police confirmed that Kasab was one of the shooters at the rail station.

Police said that after hours of interrogation, Kasab admitted that the operation had been launched from the Pakistani port city of Karachi, from where the attackers initially set out by boat. They reportedly hijacked a fishing trawler along the way. Police later found the trawler, along with the captain's body -- his throat cut and his hands bound with rope. The gunmen had killed the trawler's four other crew members and dumped the bodies overboard.

By the time Kasab was arrested, the sieges of the Jewish center and the Oberoi and Taj hotels were well underway. The nightmare would not end until Saturday afternoon, when police said the last of Kasab's nine comrades was killed.

"How could so few young guys take a city down?" asked Rangoli Garg, 18, nursing a leg wound suffered as she fled the Taj amid a hail of bullets. "Somehow these men owned us. They took over our city."

Correspondent Rama Lakshmi in New Delhi and special correspondent Ria Sen in Mumbai contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company