Reliving Mumbai's 9/11

A chilling HBO documentary revisits the three days of trauma Mumbai endured last year—the bloodshed that left 170 dead, the quiet voices of the seemingly unstoppable terrorists. Tunku Varadarajan looks back on the attacks.

Arko Datta / Reuters

As two heavily armed terrorists barged through the front doors of the five-star Oberoi Trident hotel in the Indian city of Mumbai, their cell phone rang. “Are you there?” a voice asked. On learning that the men were, indeed, at the appointed place, the same voice said, in a tone so soothing it could have been that of a doctor coddling a terminal patient: “You’re very close to heaven, brother.”

A year ago, 10 young jihadist men—brainwashed to the core of what passed for their souls—set out from training camps in neighboring Pakistan in search of a murderous place in heaven, the path to which ran through Mumbai. Members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, or the Righteous Army, their goal—messianic and mesmerizing—was to sow as much havoc in a city of 15 million as it was possible for 10 men to do. This was Mumbai’s own 9/11; and yet, unlike the assault on New York City and Washington, in which the killers perished in the first minutes of their meticulous dastardliness, Mumbai’s trauma lasted three whole days, with the terrorists at large, seemingly unstoppable, shooting people at close quarters, breaking down doors, slitting throats, hurling grenades, taking and killing hostages…and making phone calls.

We hear the phone ring as we watch, and it is as if it is ringing in our own living room. “When this is over,” Brother Wasi says, “there will be much more fear in the world.”

Terror in Mumbai, which airs Thursday at 8 p.m. Eastern on HBO, stands out most chillingly for one reason: It offers viewers almost 20 minutes of recordings of phone conversations between the terrorists in Mumbai and their controller in Pakistan, a man called “Brother Wasi.” These were recordings made in real time (is there any other sort of time, one wonders, when terrorists seize a city?) by Indian intelligence, and they reveal not the banality of evil but its quiet, unhurried self-satisfaction.

We hear the phone ring as we watch, and it is as if it is ringing in our own living room. “When this is over,” Brother Wasi says, “there will be much more fear in the world.” Another ring, another conversation, this time between Wasi and the bastards who have taken hold of the Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai’s—nay, Asia’s—finest hostelry. “Pile up the carpets and mattresses from the room you’ve opened,” Brother Wasi instructs. “Douse them with alcohol and set them alight. Get a couple of floors burning.”

Each time Wasi calls his terrorists in Mumbai, however heated the moment, there is a punctilious, chilling adherence to Muslim norms of intercourse. The phone rings; the gunman answers: “Assalam-o-alaikum.” And Wasi says, cool as an Islamist cucumber: “Walaikumsalam.” Everyday Muslim courtesies must be followed, even as infidels are cut down.

This is not a documentary for the young to watch, or even for those adults who crumble easily. How to process the telephone conversation between Wasi and the gunman holed up in Mumbai’s Chabad House, where a few American Jews are held hostage? Wasi says: “As I told you, every person you kill where you are”—referring to the Jewish building—“is worth 50 of the ones killed elsewhere.” Later, as Indian army commandos close in on the building, Wasi, watching the scene on TV in Pakistan, fears that the last surviving gunman there will be taken alive. So he orders him to shoot the last two Jewish hostages forthwith: “Yes, sit them up and shoot them in the back of the head.” The gunman, now weak with hunger and thirst, obliges. We hear a shot. Wasi does, too—he is on the line. What about the second shot, he asks. “I got them both,” he is told, by the gunman.

The terrorists killed 170 people; nine of the 10 terrorists were killed, and one—Ajmal Amir Kasab—was captured alive. Imagine the consternation when he turned out to be a brainwashed tool, a Pakistani peasant with no clear thoughts of his own, a man who was taught that, on being martyred, his body would emanate a sweet scent and his face would begin to glow. After Kasab’s colleagues were killed, the Mumbai police took him to the morgue to see their bodies. “We broke him psychologically,” a senior policeman says. In the morgue, Kasab saw no glowing faces, and detected no sweet scent; all he saw were the mangled, hideous, unheavenly corpses of his fellow terrorists. He knew, then, that “he had been taken for a ride.” In such primitive belief rests the fate of the innocent.

The documentary, which runs for little over an hour, is narrated by Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria. For the most part, his is an unobtrusive presence, and he wisely leaves the film and phone recordings to tell their own tale. At the end, however, he treats viewers to a poli-sci bromide that we could really have done without. “We need,” he says, “to get the military and the foreign policy right.” But we also need, he preaches, to change “the sense of hopelessness” and the “simple despair of young men” in societies like Pakistan’s.

Zakaria concludes: “We need to help the young men you’ve just watched embrace life rather than death.” At the end of a documentary that lays bare the nihilism and pitilessness of Islamist terrorists as they laid waste to Zakaria’s own city, why on earth would he say a thing so pious, and so ineffably glib?

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. (Follow him on Twitter here.)