Cellphone Calls Offer Clues to Motives of Mumbai Attackers

Officials say a gunman in the Mumbai attacks called a TV station while holding hostages at a Jewish outreach center. Commandos dropped over the building's roof in a rescue operation.
Officials say a gunman in the Mumbai attacks called a TV station while holding hostages at a Jewish outreach center. Commandos dropped over the building's roof in a rescue operation. (By Siddhartha Babaji -- Associated Press)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 16, 2008

NEW DELHI, Dec. 15 -- During the three-day siege of Mumbai, an Indian television news anchor took a call from one of the suspected attackers, a young man who identified himself as Imran Babar.

"You're surrounded. You're definitely going to die. Why don't you surrender?" the anchor at India TV implored him.

The voice on the other end of the line, sounding robotic, rattled off a list of grievances: the 2002 riots in Gujarat state during which more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed; the 1992 demolition of the centuries-old Babri mosque by Hindu mobs; and India's control over part of the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.

The caller was holed up in an ultra-orthodox Jewish outreach center where the assailants had taken hostages, according to cellphone records obtained by Indian investigators. "Are you aware how many people have been killed in Kashmir? Are you aware how your army has killed Muslims?" the caller demanded. "We die every day," he told the news anchor. "It's better to win one day as a lion than die this way."

The caller offered the first inkling of why 10 gunmen came ashore in Mumbai last month to carry out a rampage in which 171 people were killed and more than 230 were injured. Although investigators say they have established the identity of the attackers, they are still piecing together the assailants' motives.

Indian officials suspect that the group allegedly behind the attack, Pakistan-based Lashkar-i-Taiba, draws support from security and intelligence forces within that country and is fueled by a growing list of grievances that stretch from the 17th century to the subcontinent's partition in 1947, which created the independent nations of India and Pakistan. The grievances also include India's increasingly warm ties with the United States and Israel, counterterrorism experts say. Mumbai police have said that interrogations of the lone gunman captured during the attacks, Ajmal Amir Kasab, have revealed links between the gunmen and Lashkar operational commanders based in Pakistan.

"Lashkar has a very specific pan-Islamic vision: the recovery of all Muslim lands once ruled by Muslims, including India, Central Asia and Spain. And they've gone after those countries that they believe were usurped from traditional Muslim rulers," said Ashley J. Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has been tracking Lashkar since 2001. "The goal is very apocalyptic and simple: attack these enemies and the symbols of those enemies," he said.

"You have a cocktail of radicalization and a pervasive sense of deprivation and injustice," said John Wilson, a senior fellow and terrorism expert at New Delhi's Observer Research Foundation.

Experts pointed out that the attackers targeted the more visible symbols of India's prosperity -- two of Mumbai's most prestigious hotels -- along with the city's only orthodox Jewish outreach center, a busy but relatively obscure building nestled in a crowded alleyway.

"The targets of the killers in Mumbai -- Americans, Brits, Israelis and Indians -- fit exactly into the profile of those that al Qaeda and its partners vilify and plot against," wrote Bruce Riedel, a former South Asia analyst for the CIA and the National Security Council, in a recent article posted on the Brookings Institution Web site.

Another caller reportedly phoned India TV several hours before Imran from inside the Oberoi Trident hotel. He called himself Shadullah and used the cellphone of a Swedish tourist in Room No. 1856, Indian investigators said. "We demand the release of all mujaheddin put in jails. Then will we release these people. Otherwise, we will destroy this place. . . . You must have seen what's happening here," the caller said.

The television station asked, "Do you have the single demand that all mujaheddin arrested be released . . . or do you have any other demand?"

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