Could Mumbai Happen Here?

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the brutal terrorist attacks in India. Gerald Posner watches a mock assault on Miami—and reveals shocking security gaps.

Peter Keep / Reuters

A year ago tomorrow, millions of people worldwide began watching a terror attack play out live for three days in Mumbai. Ten gunmen staving off the police, special forces, and army troops captured world attention while slaughtering 173 people and wounding more than 300.

As the Mumbai victims are remembered this week, federal terrorism intelligence experts have quietly embarked on a campaign to help some major metropolitan police forces in the U.S. learn the lessons of Mumbai. Two weeks ago, I was the first journalist allowed to sit in on a two-hour briefing conducted by John Miller, the assistant deputy director of intelligence analysis for the Office of Director of National Intelligence, to 200 top Miami police officers, SWAT team leaders, and leaders from the fire department. The briefing, conducted at the Miami Police Department’s headquarters, was a sobering PowerPoint presentation. Miami was the third city, after Los Angeles and Boston, to get Miller’s briefing.

In the exercise set up for Miami, a Mumbai-type attack meant the first shooting was along the business district in Coconut Grove. Less than 30 minutes later, a car bomb went off in crowded Little Havana.

“Mumbai signaled a turn in terror operations,” says Miller, the former co-anchor of ABC’s 20/20, best known for his 1998 cave interview of Osama bin Laden, who has worked with the government on the terror front since 2001. “With al Qaeda being hit hard, less centralized and having more trouble raising money, Mumbai is the format for the future: low tech, low cost and high yield. It was a strategic and technical success that got them the biggest bang for the buck, creating a lot of fear while getting great media attention.”

Miller learned the details of how and why Mumbai was so successful from the interrogations of the one surviving terrorists, Ajmal Muhammad. From Muhammad, Western intelligence analysts learned how easy it was to carry out such a brutally efficient attack. The 10 gunmen—all between the ages of 20 and 28—were armed with attack rifles, hand grenades, and thousands of rounds of ammunition, several explosive devices, handheld GPS devices to find their targets, and the same Nokia cellular phones.

“What is interesting about Mumbai,” Miami Police Chief John Timoney tells The Daily Beast, “is that it’s not the biggest or the worst attack. So it’s not the first that comes to mind as a major problem for preparation.”

“It’s not until I explain what happened in Mumbai,” adds Miller, “and then run an exercise on targets in their own city, that local police see how quickly this type of attack would stretch their resources very quickly to the breaking point.”

Tunku Varadarajan: Reliving India’s 9/11In Mumbai, the terrorists split into five groups of two each. They began their assault at a popular tourist café, and in rapid sequence carried out attacks on a Jewish center, a major train station, and two leading hotels. The terrorists carried small explosive devices the size of a shoebox, and left those in the taxis they took to their targets. When they exploded, they added to the general confusion.

Miller played video clips of the utter disorder that marked the first hours. “Put yourself in their shoes,” he said, talking about the local police. “You get a call about an active shooter situation, victims down. You have no idea if the shooters are still there or not. Fifteen minutes later, you get called about another active shooter scenario in another part of the city. You have no idea if they are connected or separate. Within an hour, you have several more shooter situations, and then several taxis explode. You don’t know if those are suicide bombers and if more are set to go off. There is normal confusion around any unfolding situation, and the first information, as you know, is always wrong.”

What the Miami SWAT team captain realized instantly by watching the Mumbai tapes: With multiple shooter scenarios in the heart of the city, police can’t control the perimeter. So many emergency calls came in to Mumbai police that they initially thought there were dozens of shooters. Reporters were close to the scenes of the attacks. Over the siege’s 72 hours, television showed where police placed snipers and even the landing of special forces on the roof of the Jewish Center. “A terrorist command post off-site in Pakistan was feeding information to the active shooter teams in real-time,” says Miller. “Not just TV, but also what they got from the Internet and Twitter. It was all turned around instantly and back to the gunmen.”

Mumbai was the first time Western intelligence had ever encountered a terrorist command and control off-site. “But we’ll definitely see it again,” Miller told the Miami police.

“Can you imagine it,” asked Miller of the police. He played some of the intercepted conversations between the terrorists and the command and control operatives in Pakistan. The Mumbai shooters were often directed toward specific locations in the buildings in order to shoot at incoming police. The conversations also prove conclusively that one of the terrorists' major goals—grabbing hostages—was not for negotiation, but strictly to use them as human shields to keep the police from storming their locations for as long as possible.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

When it became clear to the shooters that they were nearly out of ammunition, or about to be stormed in any case, the Pakistani handlers ordered them to kill all non-Muslim hostages, before killing themselves. The rabbi and his wife at the Jewish Center were tortured and chopped up.

“One of the key things to learn from Mumbai,” Miller told the police, “is that all your negotiating skills are useless. They don’t want anything you can give them. They intend to kill their hostages. It’s a different mind-set. Hostages are only bulletproof vests for them.”

“So essentially,” asked one division commander, “are you telling us Mumbai was just one big active-shooter scenario divided into four or five parts? If that’s the case, any group can do that.”

“That’s the point,” said Miller. “You’re all prepared for the one major attack, a bombing, an airplane, anything catastrophic. And then you have your action plans for dealing with the victims and keeping order. But this is different. Teenagers at home could set this up.”

In the exercise set up for Miami, a Mumbai-type attack meant the first shooting was along the business district in Coconut Grove. Less than 30 minutes later, a car bomb went off in crowded Little Havana. That split the emergency and first-response units for the relatively small 1,200-person police force (New York has 36,000 cops and Chicago some 14,000). Within an hour of the Coconut Grove attack, shooters opened fire at one of the main metro stations in downtown Miami. That exhausted the SWAT team who was now spread out in full force at two locations. When the terror exercise went to the next level, another car bomb, and gunmen attacks in quick sequence at a soft target, a large Jewish retirement home, and then two prominent hotels located within a mile of each other, the Miami police force had reached its breaking point.

“We would have to borrow resources from neighboring communities,” said one captain, “from Miami Beach, Coral Gables, and Hialeah.”

“How long would it take to get those resources,” asked Miller.

“An hour.”

“That’s an hour you might not have. When you have shooters opening up a new site every 20 minutes, things get hot very fast.”

When asked if Miller thought the threat level was still high, he told the group that the danger was still very real. “The tempo of activity hasn't slowed since 9/11, but what has sped up is our ability to spot them early and take them out and make something not happen.”

He reminded them of just what had transpired over this summer. In September, the FBI nabbed Najibullah Zazi and charged him with wanting to plant a bomb in New York, likely on 9/11. That same month, Michael Finton, also known as Talib Islam, was arrested for trying to blow up the federal courthouse in Springfield, Illinois. Hosam Smadi was indicted for wanting to plant a 550-pound bomb in an SUV parked at Dallas’ Fountain Towers. A few months earlier, in June, Carlos Bledsoe, a.k.a. Adulkahim Muhammad, shot up a naval recruiting center in Little Rock, Arkansas, before state troopers eventually nabbed him with automatic weapons and 1,400 rounds of ammo. James Cromite, a.k.a. Abdul Rehman, a career criminal who just wanted to kill Jews and shoot down military planes, was arrested in May.

“And when any of these guys figure out it is too hard to make a truck bomb, they can easily default to becoming an active shooter,” said Miller. He probably didn’t need to, but he told his police audience that America was the only country in the world that allowed foreigners who are legally visiting to buy a gun.

“So the long rifles are easy to get,” he said. “The communications package could be replicated easily. And for what they spent, and the attention they got, it was unparalleled. To stay up on our game, we have to rethink the way we react. Mumbai adds to the threat we face.”

Gerald Posner is The Daily Beast's chief investigative reporter. He's the award-winning author of 10 investigative nonfiction bestsellers, ranging from political assassinations, to Nazi war criminals, to 9/11, to terrorism. His latest book, Miami Babylon: Crime, Wealth and Power—A Dispatch from the Beach, was published in October. He lives in Miami Beach with his wife, the author Trisha Posner.