Assassinating the Truth in Mumbai

December 1, 2008

Part 2

The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, ablaze (Reuters)

The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, ablaze (Reuters)

In the aftermath of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks it is becoming clear that there are serious questions to be asked about what actually happened. The world’s media is also being fed a narrative that closely links the attacks, which have by now claimed over 200 civilian lives, with militants in the Punjab region of Pakistan, and they are largely failing to question its origins.

There are serious problems with that narrative.

Additionally, there are signs that India’s most vigorous investigator of terrorism was assassinated during the attacks, and may not have been killed by terrorists as had been previously suggested.

A powerful narrative is developing that is setting the stage for a diplomatic and, potentially, military confrontation between South Asia’s nuclear powers. As such, it is of extreme importance that information about the attacks is as comprehensive as possible. Yet key pieces of information are either been distorted or ignored, and a tale of Pakistani complicity is being hatched that threatens to whip up anti-muslim hatred in India and intense confrontation along the Indo-Pakistani border.

This is playing directly into the hands of the BJP and its affiliated Hindutva groups who seek to divide Indian Hindus and muslims, and are seeking to incite “revenge” attacks against jihadists. With elections fast approaching, the main Indian opposition party is looking to make big gains at the expense of Congress, and these spectacular attacks are the perfect ammunition to achieve this.

The pivot around which the developing narrative revolves is a young man named Azam Amir Kasab, only 21 years old and reportedly from the Punjab region of Pakistan. Kasab, who is being held by the Anti Terrorist Section of Maharashtra’s police, was captured after attacking the CST train station (where over 50 people died) and then the car of ATS chief Hemant Karkare. He was not a participant in the hotel attacks or the attack on the Leopold Bar, as far as we know, and these attacks were carried out by separate teams.

According to the Guardian’s Haroon Siddique, Kasab is alleged to have been trained in Kashmir by the Pakistan-based group Lashkar-e-toiba. Information leaked by the ATS has it that the plan had intended to kill 5,000 people and to inflict “India’s 9/11” upon the nation while militants should “target whites, preferably Americans and British.” They were trained in marine techniques and, although Kassam strangely never made it that far, “planned to blow up the Taj Mahal Palace hotel after first executing British and American tourists and then taking hostages.”

It is not clear why Kasab decided to attack the train station before the hotel, or why he then chose to attack the police van in which Karkare was traveling.

Nevertheless, the leaked information continues, stating that Kasab and his colleagues, “left an isolated beach in Karachi for Mumbai on November 21 and were each given eight hand grenades, an AK-47 rifle, an automatic pistol and ammunition.” They then fanned out across the city, with instructions to “kill until the last breath.”

Two things immediately stand out for me from this tale. Firstly, Kasab is supposedly a footsoldier of Lashkar-e-toiba, yet Lashkar immediately disavowed a role in the Mumbai attacks.  As the Telegraph newspaper reported on 27 November, “although the organisation strongly denied any involvement…the Hindu newspaper claimed three of the militants had confessed they are members of Lashkar-e-Taiba group” and media outlets around the world have mimicked this assertion ever since.

It is highly unlikely that Lashkar would take such pains to deny its involvement in such an attack, which does not mean that elements associated with it were not involved, just that the organization itself did not call for it.

What is also striking to me in this account is how poorly the terrorists followed their plan. Instead of 5,000 dead, a still horrific 200 people have died, but the scale of the tragedy could have been far greater. There was no successful explosion at the Taj Mahal hotel, which will survive intact. Kasab, as has been mentioned, did not even near his target and chose to improvise, for whatever reasons.

Then there are the instructions to kill British and American targets. 200 people have died, yet only one casualty was British, a “yachting tycoon” called Andreas Liveras, and he was actually a Cypriot emigre. As Liveras survived the initial attack on the Taj Mahal, and was able to recount his ordeal to the Times, it is possible that he was killed in crossfire between police commandos and terrorists. It is striking that there are no other confirmed cases of British people being singled out and shot because of their nationality.

Yet this key component of the narrative has been repeated constantly by the media. For example, the Guardian’s Gethin Chamberlain wrote that “It was in the Taj that a sinister new element to the attack emerged. Survivors said the gunmen were particularly interested in British and American guests, singling them out as targets and ignoring other nationalities.” Yet this did not happen, it would seem, or at least those singled out weren’t killed.

At the Cafe Leopold, many papers reported the account of sportswriter Alex Chamberlain. The Independent’s Andrew Buncombe quoted him as saying that “They told everybody to stop and put their hands up and asked if there were any British or Americans” but it seems that the terrorists soon lost interest. No British casualties have been reported from the Leopold.

This is a fascinating example of how propaganda operates. Virtually no-one has questioned the assertion that the attackers sought to kill British targets. Yet their behavior strongly suggests that this was not the case. Or, failing that, it suggests that the attackers were hopelessly inept or lacked the courage or will to actually carry out their orders. This jibes with the notion that they were highly trained killing machines on a mission to kill 5,000 people and as many foreigners as possible.

The vast majority of those who died were Indians, and the violence seems to have been more or less random. Moreover, we cannot yet know how many people died as a result of efforts to storm the hotels, and those efforts were reportedly extremely heavy-handed.

As an unnamed British official told the Telegraph newspaper, “[Indian commandos] arrived and went in guns blazing…It was blind. They didn’t have maps of the hotels, yet there terrorists had done enough reconnaissance to use the service facilities to manoeuvre.”

The ramifications of accepting this narrative at face value are profound. Within India, it means that the BJP gains a massive propaganda victory and will benefit in the elections. Communal tensions will rise, human rights abuses will grow and the position of muslims in general will deteriorate. Internationally, India may be locked more tightly into the the “war on terror,” tensions will rise with Pakistan, and support for the myth of an international jihadist threat will grow.

So we should be extremely sceptical of the information coming out of the Maharashtra ATS regarding Kasab. This is doubly the case given the context. The ATS has just lost its commanding officer, Hemant Karkare. The man who allegedly killed Karkare was none other than… Azam Amir Kasab.

Kasab is now reportedly refusing food, or being refused food. Bucking the trend of news reporting on the matter, the Economic Times reports that “Since Kasab’s arrest, the police have been trying hard to get more information from him about his group, but he seems to be a tough nut to crack.” As one officer told the paper, “Neither is he eating anything nor has he agreed to reveal anything about his links.” But someone has managed to make him squeel… Or perhaps they have simply put the words into his mouth that they want the people to hear?

The ATS in Mumbai is not the ATS headed by Karkare, which was dilligently investigating all forms of terrorism, including those instances perpetrated by groups on the Hindu-right or, potentially, those linked to American evangelical christianity.

It is an organization that has been beheaded of its leadership and has been subject to threats from all corners.

Directly before the attacks, the ATS leadership had been in India’s capital, New Delhi to talk with the government’s National Security Adviser about its investigations into Hindutva terrorism. Accounts of the meeting suggest strongly that Karkare and his assistants were slapped down by the government for doing their jobs.

As the Times of India reported on 26 November, the government feared the exposure of covert operations in Jammu and Kashmir, via the testimony of Lieutenant Colonel Purohit, one of those accused of carrying out bomb blasts in the town of Malegaon. The Times suggested that disclosure of such information could mean that the Indian government would “internationally face a major embarassment.”

Moreover, the same article reported that “What is also worrying the Centre is the disclosure made under narco-analysis by both Purohit and another accused Chaturvedi that non-Wahabi Muslims had taken part in the conspirary to plant bombs in Malegaon.”

In other words, the ATS was warned that pursuing their enquiries too far may expose the complicity of intelligence services, Hindutva extremists and the intriguingly phrased “non-Wahabi muslims.” The involvement of foreign intelligence agencies, and the role of operatives like the American evangelical Kenneth Haywood, may also be exposed.

The ATS in Mumbai had clearly overstepped its boundaries.

Karkare pressed on with his investigations, however, bringing five army officers into their crosshairs, all of whom were suspected of involvement with the Abhinav Bharat, the Hindu extremist group linked to the Malegaon blasts. Those officers, according to the Times of India, were “like Purohit, from military intelligence” and they shared a desire to respond violently to what they saw as dire threats to the Hindu “rashtra.”

Immediately prior to the 26/11 attacks, it was reported that Hemant Karkare’s ATS would “look more closely at the “political views” of some of [Lt Col Purohit’s] colleagues in the Army.” What would have come of such enquiries, we may never know. We may not learn any more about who really carried out the Samghauta Express bombing of a train travelling across the Indo-Pakistani border. Other dubious attacks may remain unsolved.

Hemant Karkare himself was reportedly feeling the strain that comes with truth-seeking. According to Karkare’s friend Julio Ribeiro, an ex Police chief of Mumbai, the head of the ATS called him the night before he died. “He came to me because he was looking for someone to hold his hand” Ribeiro told the Economic Times. Karkare was “bothered about the BJP, which had a well-oiled propaganda machinery and was running a concerted campaign against him.” Perhaps he had linked the recent threat against his life to India’s main opposition party.

He may also have been fearful of the consequences of pushing the Malegaon investigation forward. As Ribeiro reported, “Karkare had told him he had managed to get hold of a CD with additional information on the Malegaon case and he planned to confront those already under the scanner with these facts.”

There was no escape for Karkare who, according to friends, “had urged state Home Minister R.R. Patil to transfer him from the ATS.” Patil, presumably, refused.

But was Hemant Karkare killed for prying too deeply into covert affairs and, in the process, actually doing his job? Quite possibly. As soon as his death was announced, figures within the government of Maharashtra attributed his death to courage in the face of terror. The same R.R. Patil told reporters that Karkare “was heading home Wednesday when he learned gunmen were attacking the Oberoi hotel.” After hearing of attacks at the station, he “jumped in a jeep and rushed to take on the terrorists” before the same terrorists “shot him three times in the chest near Cama hospital.”

The initial story, as reported by the Times‘ Rhys Blakeley, was that Karkare, “was shot three times in the chest as he led his men at the Taj Mahal Palace.” Karkare was portrayed as “[leading] his troops from the front” as he sought to storm the hotel and liberate the hostages. The Press Trust of India, from which papers around the nation take a lead, reported that “Karkare…suffered three bullet injuries in his chest as he was leading the offensive against the terrorists in one of the places the ultras had holed out early this morning.”

Yet since the initial reports surfaced, this version of events has been questioned. It seems that Kakare was shot while traveling by police jeep from the station to the Cama hospital. He was not foolishly marching into the hotel at all and he was not leading an offensive against one of the terrorist’s targets. He was ambushed, possibly assasinated, allegedly by the same Azam Amir Kasab that is linking the 26/11 atrocities directly to the Punjab.

The best source for information appears to be the testimony of one of the officers who was traveling in the jeep with Karkare but survived. As Arun Jadhav recounts:

When we were informed that Sadanand Date has been injured at the firing in Cama Hospital Karkare, Kamte, Salaskar and four constables left from CST to the spot. Five minutes later, two persons carrying AK-47 rifles emerged from behind a tree and started firing at our vehicle…The two terrorists then came up to our vehicle and pulled out Karkare, Kamte and Salaskar’s bodies out and threw them on the road. Thinking that we (Constables) are also dead, the terrorists then got into the car and started driving towards Metro junction…

This is extraordinary. Somehow, Kasab is supposed to have known where to intercept Karkare’s vehicle, hidden behind a tree and then opened fire. Another version of Jadhav’s testimony has it that “The militants waited in the shadows for the police van to pass, and when it slowed down in the narrow road, they sprayed it with gunfire…The gunmen opened the doors and dumped five slumped officers’ bodies into the streets, then piled into the van…” which is entirely consistent. According to this account, the police jeep was led to the ambush site by a car that “was seen speeding away from the [railway] terminal.”

As the AP’s Rajanish Kakade comments, “While they were searching for the gunmen, the gunmen found them.”

This looks like an assasination operation carried out with ruthless efficiency. It is an operation that the supposed attackers had no reason to carry out – it being well outside of their supposed remit and requiring extensive planning. Yet it is an operation that elements within the Indian army, Maharashtra state, BJP, intelligence services, far right groups, foreign intelligence agencies and “non-Wahabi muslims” had every incentive to execute.

We need to treat every claim made by a government regarding the 26/11 Mumbai attacks with immense caution. A poisonous, and unsubstantiated narrative is developing that justifies a multitude of evils. At the same time, investigations of terrorism are being compromised that would expand our understanding of what international terrorism actually entails.

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