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Charge of the NSG
A balanced and incisive account of 26/11 terror attacks, Black Tornado brings to focus the ill-preparedness and confusion that prevailed among the authorities

By Ghazala Wahab

BLACK TORNADO - 26/11: The Three Sieges of Mumbai A very unexpected (certainly unintentional, on the part of the author) sentiment gripped me as I relived the horror all Indians collectively went through for nearly three days starting 26 November 2008 while reading Sandeep Unnithan’s book Black Tornado. The sentiment was awe.

Not for the brave (but under-provided) men of the National Security Guards (NSG) whom the author pays a fulsome tribute through this book. Not for the much-hailed spirit of Mumbai which refuses to say die. But for the 10 enemy combatants who sailed and walked into Indian territory undetected, killed people randomly at several locations and held their own for over three days. If at any stage their faith shook, their morale quivered or their courage wavered, they did not let it come in the way of completing the task they were given. And except for two who lost direction, made mistakes with one getting himself arrested, the other eight were steadfast in their resolve. Such was their fearlessness, the level of their training and motivation that they held not just Mumbai (a place they had never been to before) but the entire India to ransom.

I wrestled for a while with this insidious sentiment, debating the appropriateness of what amounts to glorifying those who brutally massacred innocent people; but the truth is when the Indian military is also coming around to talk of and prepare for irregular war, then calling these 10 men mere terrorists is indulging in convenient semantics. They were highly trained combatants, who did not lose their nerves till the end. Raising questions about their cause is again foolish, because aren’t soldiers trained never to ask questions, only to follow orders? Didn’t Alfred Tennyson write in his legendary ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’: ‘Theirs not to make reply/ Theirs not to reason why/ Theirs but to do and die’.

According to Unnithan’s research, an amphibious terrorist attack like Mumbai’s had two (both partial failures) precedents. The first one was in 1975 when eight Palestinian terrorists landed on a Tel Aviv beach. The terrorists lost their moorings upon landing and the operation failed. The second attack was also carried out by a Palestinian group in 1977. This time 11 terrorists from the Fatah group of Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) landed on the Mediterranean coast of Israel and once again lost their way to the hotel they were supposed to go to and take hostages. In the random fire-fight on the street, some 50km short of Tel Aviv, 37 Israelis were killed before the terrorists were shot down by the police.

Apparently, the ISI had planned a similar attack on Mumbai by gun and grenade-wielding local Muslim youth in 1993 as Phase II of the bomb blasts following the communal carnage (in the aftermath of the Babri demolition) a few months ago. The weapons for the attack had landed in Mumbai along with the RDX which was used in the blasts. But the local boys who were to carry out these attacks developed cold feet. They abandoned the weapons and the plan.

This aborted attempt and the earlier Palestinian ones held both lessons and inspiration for the Lashkar-e-Taiyyaba (LeT) which planned and successfully executed the November 26 attacks, with support from the ISI. Instead of relying on the locals, LeT decided to employ its own people and to overcome the limitation of unfamiliar territory, it carried out detailed reconnaissance of the targets over nearly a year, as the subsequent interrogation of David Headley revealed. Unnithan builds this background with chilling details and as said before, it brings out the meticulousness and the professionalism of planning, preparation and execution.

What is the point in writing paeans to the Mumbai terrorists and invoking Tennyson, one may well ask. The point is very simple: Unnithan’s book is yet another grim reminder about how far we have come commemorating anniversaries and how little we have learnt. And most importantly, what a formidable enemy we are pitted against.

As late as 5 December 2014, when Pakistani irregulars breached multiple security cordons, including the much vaulted Anti Infiltration Obstacle System (AIOS) to attack Indian Army’s artillery camp in Uri, all senior army officers authorised to speak with the media, which in this case were the northern army commander and the Srinagar-based 15 Corps commander, repeated the oft-repeated line: ‘there is a clear Pakistani hand behind this attack.’ Thereafter, they proceeded to give evidence to the media about the Pakistani hand: food packets, ammunition etc, which all bore Pakistani imprint.

We did the same six years ago after the 26/11 attacks. And we have been doing this quite diligently after each attack. Another thing that we have been doing equally efficiently is creating obstacles after obstacles for the infiltrators/ terrorists/ irregulars to cross before attacking us. So, we are doing our best to delay him from attacking us; in the bargain we have forgotten how to deter him. This siege mentality (laying siege to our own self) has become so pervasive that the navy chief at his annual press conference on 3 December 2014 rued the fact that one cannot build a fence on the sea!

For sparking this line of thinking alone, Black Tornado is an important piece of contemporary history writing. Unnithan is a polite writer. So, while his book is peppered with off-hand comments about the general lack of preparedness and the blunting of the edge that the NSG was supposed to have, he refrains from any harsh indictments, either of the Mumbai police, the marine commandoes (MARCOS) or the NSG.

The let-downs on India’s part were rampant confusion, poor equipment and lack of communication. For the first few hours of the attack, despite indiscriminate firing, the administration, including the police thought it was a gang-war. Subsequently, even when the realisation dawned, nobody knew what ought to be done. The police withdrew from the scene; the army unit of 2 Grenadier, including the ghatak platoon, present in south Mumbai thought that they would be called, and kept waiting in readiness; the MARCOS who were summoned were told to rescue the hostages and not engage the terrorists, because there was no intelligence about their numbers or exact location. The refrain of the state administration was: NSG has to be called, no matter how long it took. So, effectively, everyone waited for the NSG to come while the rampage continued. And NSG took time; a lot of time to reach.

While lack of communication and intelligence was the running theme during the entire operation, at Nariman House, these twin lacunae led to tragic consequences. NSG’s mandate was to rescue the hostages, just as other teams were doing at the Taj Mahal and Trident hotels. The NSG laboured over the operation, spending time over its planning and execution to ensure that they rescued as many hostages as possible. Before mounting the operation at Nariman House, they evacuated the residents from the neighbouring buildings even as another team painstakingly staked out the terrorists. Realising that there was no way to storm the building without the terrorists retaliating, they planned an insertion by the helicopter onto the roof of the building. This not only took time, but life too. NSG lost another of its men here, Havildar Gajendra Singh, Major Unnikrishnan having lost his life during the Taj Mahal operation. All this while nobody had bothered to inform the NSG that there were no hostages left to be rescued at Nariman House, despite the intercepts of the telephone conversation between the holed-up terrorists and their handlers in Pakistan!

Probably for the ease of writing (and reading as well), Unnithan has divided the narration into three clean segments: the three operations. While reading about one operation in a chronological manner saves the readers the hassle of going back and forth from the scene of action, it creates the confusion about the timelines. Also, it lends insularity to all the three operations, as if each were completely independent of the other.

Having said that, in Black Tornado, Unnithan’s heart is with the NSG whom he writes about with fondness and a twinge of sadness. He builds up back stories of some of the commandos who played a stellar role in breaching the three sieges of Mumbai to further humanise them, and coaxing empathy out of the readers. Having spoken to a number of survivors who lived through that carnage, Unnithan also brings out their stories with a mix of anticipation and raciness. The mindless blood-letting is disturbing, the fear of the huddled hostages palpable, but the running thought throughout the book is how unprepared we were, despite repeated intelligence inputs over a period of two years.

This was compounded by the thoughtless bravado of some among our uniformed class. At one point during the NSG operation at Taj Palace hotel, GOC-in-C, army’s southern command, Lt Gen. Noble Thamburaj (who had absolutely nothing to do with the operation, given that it was being run by the NSG) arrived at the hotel lobby with his wife and personal staff. He asked to be briefed by the NSG, officer in charge of the operation at the hotel. He left the hotel giving a bombastic piece of instruction: Finish it quickly. Outside the hotel, he walked into the parked media and issued a statement claiming that the operation would be over soon.

Like a truthful reporter, Unnithan dutifully records all these incidents without editorialising, leaving the readers to judge. But one wishes that in his epilogue at least he should have been a bit more hard-hitting. He rues the shortfall of equipment and inadequacies of equipment, but ignores the complete absence of policy-making, which is the key to India’s vulnerability to repeated terrorist violence. But perhaps, he just wanted to keep his focus on the courage of the NSG. Sadly, in India we continue to rely solely on the courage of young men and officers, in the absence of policies, training and end-state.

26/11: The Three Sieges of Mumbai
Sandeep Unnithan
Harper Collins, Pg 216, Rs 299


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