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The Next Mumbai

By David Ignatius
Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Like the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in America, the Mumbai terrorist assault last week began with a hijacking. Islamic militants seized a private fishing boat at sea rather than commercial jetliners, according to U.S. counterterrorism officials. But the attackers displayed the same deadly ability to coordinate a complex operation against multiple targets as did their predecessors on Sept. 11.

The terrorists were from a Pakistani group called Lashkar-i-Taiba, which has loose links with al-Qaeda, U.S officials believe. The attackers began by boarding the boat in the Arabian Sea and killing the captain. They then piloted the boat toward the Mumbai harbor. As they neared the coast on Wednesday, Nov. 26, they launched several rubber lifeboats for the final amphibious assault.

The attack was meticulously planned: The raiders dispersed to several targets across the crowded city that had been studied by advance reconnaissance teams. They maintained communications silence on the way in, U.S. officials believe. And most important, they carried with them enough guns, ammunition and supplies for a long battle inside India's largest city.

Then the mayhem began: The terrorists stormed their targets -- three luxury hotels, a Jewish cultural center, a railway station -- turning the nearby streets into a free-fire zone. It took about 10 hours for Indian anti-terrorism commandos to arrive at the besieged hotels, and it was almost three days before all the attackers had been captured or killed.

The Mumbai attacks were a ghastly reminder of the threat still posed by al-Qaeda and related terrorist groups. The militants have the training, the logistical support and, most of all, the determination to pull off spectacular attacks. They read their enemies' tactical vulnerabilities well -- understanding in this case that urban police forces have trouble combating moving bands of shooters. And they appeared to have had a cleverly divisive strategic goal -- of reanimating tension between India and Pakistan just as the two were beginning to make common cause against terrorism.

For Americans watching the carnage, the obvious question was: Could it happen here? U.S. officials say the answer, unfortunately, is yes. And then comes a second question: If America is hit with another Sept. 11-style terrorist assault, how should the country react?

The Department of Homeland Security has been worried for more than a year about the danger of seaborne attacks. With an estimated 17 million small vessels plying the thousands of miles of U.S. coastline, the vulnerability is obvious. The DHS announced a "small-vessel security strategy" in April to focus on ports and coastal waterways, and it has held four regional small-vessel "security summits" this year, in Buzzards Bay, Mass., Long Beach, Calif., Orlando and Cleveland. A fifth such gathering is planned for Houston next month.

Technology is improving for detecting radiological devices that might arrive at seaports. But defenses are thin against bioterrorism and are almost nonexistent against seaborne attackers of the sort who terrorized Mumbai.

What would happen if roving gunmen infiltrated U.S. cities and started shooting? Most U.S. police departments aren't well prepared to deal with such "active shooters," as they're called. Police are trained to cordon off an area that's under attack and then call in a paramilitary SWAT team to root out the gunmen. But what if the attackers keep moving and shooting? The response can be haphazard, as was clear in such disparate incidents as the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks in the Washington area and last year's massacre at Virginia Tech.

"Mumbai is a worst-case 'active shooter' problem," says a former CIA officer who helped organize a DHS pilot program on the subject last summer for police chiefs. "It had multiple shooters, multiple locations, mobile threats, willingness to fight the first responders and follow-on SWAT/commando units, well-equipped and well-trained operatives, and a willingness to die. Police department commanders in America should be scratching their heads and praying."

Forewarned is forearmed, and the Mumbai attacks are a powerful demonstration of the danger for cities around the world. The reason to discuss such threats isn't to feed anti-terrorism hysteria. There was far too much of that fear-mongering and spasmodic reaction after Sept. 11, which had the effect of destabilizing the United States almost as much as it did its enemies. The challenge is to understand the adversary so that if an attack comes, the authorities will respond with cool heads and steady aim.

The writer is co-host of PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

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