By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
NEW DELHI, Dec. 2 -- The heavily armed attackers who set out for Mumbai by sea last week navigated with Global Positioning System equipment, according to Indian investigators and police. They carried BlackBerrys, CDs holding high-resolution satellite images like those used for Google Earth maps, and multiple cellphones with switchable SIM cards that would be hard to track. They spoke by satellite telephone. And as television channels broadcast live coverage of the young men carrying out the terrorist attack, TV sets were turned on in the hotel rooms occupied by the gunmen, eyewitnesses recalled.
This is terrorism in the digital age. Emerging details about the 60-hour siege of Mumbai suggest the attackers had made sophisticated use of high technology in planning and carrying out the assault that killed at least 174 people and wounded more than 300. The flood of information about the attacks -- on TV, cellphones, the Internet -- seized the attention of a terrified city, but it also was exploited by the assailants to direct their fire and cover their origins.
"Both sides used technology. The terrorists would not have been able to carry out these attacks had it not been for technology. They were not sailors, but they were able to use sophisticated GPS navigation tools and detailed maps to sail from Karachi [in Pakistan] to Mumbai," said G. Parthasarathy, an internal security expert at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. "Our new reality of modern life is that the public also sent text messages to relatives trapped in hotels and used the Internet to try and fight back."
During the attacks, an organization calling itself Deccan Mujaheddin asserted responsibility in an
e-mail to news outlets that was traced to a computer server in Moscow, said Praveen Swami, a terrorism expert and media commentator. The message, it was later discovered, originated in Lahore, Pakistan. Investigators have said the
e-mail was produced using Urdu-language voice-recognition software to "anonymatize" regional spellings and accents so police would be unable to identify their ethnic or geographic origins.
When the gunmen communicated with their leaders, they used satellite telephones and called voice-over-Internet-protocol phone numbers, making them harder to trace, Swami said. Then, once on the scene, they snatched cellphones from hostages and used those to stay in contact with one another.
At every point, Swami said, the gunmen used technology to gain a tactical advantage.
"This was technologically a pretty sophisticated group. They navigated their way to Mumbai using a state-of-the-art GPS system. Most of their rehearsals to familiarize themselves with Mumbai were done on high-resolution satellite maps, so they would have a good feel for the city's streets and buildings where they were going," Swami said, adding that the CDs containing maps and videos were found in some of the hotel rooms the gunmen had occupied during the siege.
The lone captured gunman, Azam Amir Kasab, told police that he was shown video footage of the targets and the satellite images before the attacks, said Deven Bharti, a deputy commissioner in the crime branch of the Mumbai police.
Mumbai police chief Hassan Gafoor, offering the first official details of how the siege was conducted, said at a news conference Tuesday: "Technology is advancing every day. We try to keep pace with it."
But several Indian analysts pointed out that the country's police are still equipped with World War II-era rifles, lagging behind the technology curve when it comes to cyber-criminals and Internet-savvy gunmen. And although there are closed-circuit TVs in the luxury hotels, some office buildings, banks, airports and rail stations, they are not nearly as pervasive as in the United States. There has been criticism that, like metal detectors, many closed-circuit cameras don't work or go unmonitored.
Security experts also say the attacks represented an alarm bell for India's intelligence agencies, which in the past have complained that Google Earth images contained too much detail about military sites and other defense installations.
"Where in the rule book does it say that terrorists are not allowed to use technology that is readily available to almost anyone?" said Ajay Sahni, executive director of New Delhi's Institute for Conflict Management. "The only people out of the loop seem to be the Indian security forces. They are a generation behind in understanding the technology that the terrorists used."
The security forces on the ground, including the country's elite special forces unit popularly known as the Black Cats, had little access to night-vision goggles or thermal-imaging capability to help pinpoint where people were located in the two hotels under siege, he said. The elite 7,400-member National Security Guard -- whose commandos arrived in Mumbai at least eight hours after the attackers struck to dislodge them from the hotels -- does not have its own aircraft, Sahni said.
"When they finally got there, they had no floor layouts of the hotel, let alone high-tech devices," he added.
Investigators and eyewitnesses have reported that the assailants had TVs on, tuned to live broadcasts of the assault, as the commandos prepared to storm the hotels.
When TV stations showed every twist and turn of the masked Black Cat commandos sliding down ropes from helicopters to rooftops near a Jewish center called the Chabad House, the Mumbai government shut down news channels, taking live coverage off the air for 45 minutes, fearing that the attackers were monitoring the screens, ruining the commandos' crucial element of surprise.
Several TV stations, including the national news station Times Now, told their anchors to stop reporting on the positions of commandos. "The fact is, there was a live encounter going on," said Arnab Goswami, chief editor of Times Now. "If there was even a slight possibility that these terrorists could use television to get play-by-play news of the enemy, then we have to stand down. There should not be a scoop mentality when the nation is on the edge."
When the coverage was cut, residents panicked. Goswami said he received a thousand text messages within that period to get the news back on the air, forcing him to decide whether providing information to the public would jeopardize the lives of the security forces.
"I was immediately on the phone speaking to a lot of senior politicians in Delhi. The public needed it put back on. But we also had to be restrained," Goswami said, adding that his station refused to show photographs of bodies being brought out at captured sites, which could have boosted the morale of the attackers. He will participate in a summit of television stations Thursday to study their role in the crisis.
The Mumbai attacks also lit up the blogosphere, and Web sites such as YouTube and Twitter kept the data going without interruptions or blackouts. Some of the young backpackers living near the Chabad House, also known as Nariman House, said they used Twitter to send minute-by-minute updates of what was happening to relatives and friends. Across the globe, in Brooklyn, N.Y., some Hasidic Jews used Twitter to track the fate of a rabbi held hostage in the building.
For residents of Mumbai, TV coverage was riveting. Madhuri Raghuveer said her family could not get enough of it. "We practically felt like TV was our air. We couldn't breathe without it," she said. "But it also terrified us." They watched the siege as a family. Raghuveer's son, 6, and daughter, 9, were told to stay inside, where they tended to gravitate toward the images constantly flickering on the screen.
On Sunday, Raghuveer took them to see the Oberoi Trident hotel, site of one of the attacks, to show them the siege was over. Outside the hotel, the windows of a Jimmy Choo shoe store were pierced with bullet holes. But work crews had begun to tape up the cracked glass. "I wanted to show them that now everything is safe," she said, pulling her pigtailed daughter to her side. "They have been sleeping in our bed since this happened. They say, 'Mama, I can't go to the bathroom without you. I am afraid.' "
Days later, with Indian news stations repeatedly replaying scenes from the attacks, her husband, who goes by the initials H.R., cut off the cable. He said it just got to be too much.
Correspondent Rama Lakshmi in Mumbai contributed to this report.