The South Asia Channel

The Mumbai Model and the Threat of Urban Terrorism

A recent wave of complex attacks in Kabul, Paktia, Logar, and Nangarhar has stirred strategic debate about the future of the war in Afghanistan. But they also pose tactical and operational questions closer to home. Security officials and police throughout the West have long worried about complex attacks like the assault that kicked off the ...


A recent wave of complex attacks in Kabul, Paktia, Logar, and Nangarhar has stirred strategic debate about the future of the war in Afghanistan. But they also pose tactical and operational questions closer to home. Security officials and police throughout the West have long worried about complex attacks like the assault that kicked off the Taliban’s latest offensive. The mostly professional response by Afghan security forces and NATO troops demonstrates the limits of complex attacks, but the intelligence failures that allowed them to occur illustrate the general principle that sound tactics are only one part of the greater operational picture.

Since the 2008 Serena Hotel attack, Kabul has been plagued by repeated complex urban assaults. Deadly gun and bomb attacks in Pakistan and India have also become an unfortunate fact of life in the last decade. Counterterrorism planners, however, focus most on the 2008 Mumbai attack. Mumbai has powerfully shaped police and intelligence services’ perception of future terrorist threats. In part, police have married specific training to combat complex attacks to existing prevention and response measures for “active shooters” in crowded areas. Police envision Mumbai while in practice trying to stop killers like the Virginia Tech shooter.

There is little novelty to the Mumbai attacks or armed assaults writ large. Terrorists have always sought to effect attention-grabbing assaults in public places. Adam Dolnik’s work on modern hostage operations and armed assault marks the sicarii and hashashin sects of antiquity as the earliest terrorists employing assault techniques for strategic purposes. The Cold War saw numerous armed attacks, including deadly attacks by the Japanese Red Army and Palestinian groups throughout the 70s and 80s. The rise of religious terrorists also fueled strikes on targets ranging from Egypt’s Luxor resort to the Oasis residential complex in Saudi Arabia. Mumbai is not the only target terrorists have hit in India; the Red Fort and even Parliament has been attacked.

Unlike the Tet Offensive, an abject failure of its own professed strategic ends with a high (unintentional) symbolic power, the explicit goal of the complex attack is televised gore for strategic effect. Attackers-prepared by fanatical beliefs–fight to the death as suicide commandos, although not all necessarily seek death as the terminus of the operation. In turn, the operational design of complex attacks synergizes disparate killing technologies and finds tactical harmony in off-the-shelf command and control systems. Just like military special operations, attackers aim to gain and maintain relative superiority early on. Body counts and media attention are the primary metrics of tactical success, and hostage-taking and barricading elongates the duration of the raid. Complex attacks, however, require a degree of preparation, training, and coordination that cannot simply be downloaded from a jihadist chat room. Logistics, discipline, and operational deception differentiate group threats from individual attackers like the Fort Hood killer.

Mumbai exemplifies these deadly operational trends. The terrorists used cell phones, blackberries, and satellite phones to coordinate their operations in real-time in cooperation with an offsite handler. They continued killing until Indian forces wiped them out to a man, inflicting a toll of 165 dead and 304 wounded. With an open-ended goal of killing and gaining attention, their operations could be tactically fluid. An attacker can change a scenario from an “active shooter” operation that triggers an immediate police response to more drawn out barricaded hostage siege, or detonate explosives to generate more casualties. Both happened during the course of the Mumbai assault. The attackers also effectively disguised their preparations and tactical ingress from Indian intelligence until it was too late.

Complex attacks pose significant difficulties for law enforcement command and control. As John P. Sullivan has observed, police are optimized to respond in a piecemeal manner to calls for service. Police also concentrate in space, whereas distributed attackers like the Mumbai teams concentrate in time over large urban expanses. A distributed assault strains police resources and fragments the response, putting in question the ability of police command and control to keep pace with rapid events.

Since 2008, police and counterterrorism elements have developed new operational methods and intelligence collection methodologies. Mumbai-style attacks targeting Europe have been foiled. In the United States, police in major metropolitan areas are broadly familiar with the complex attack template due to their extensive experience with active shooter response. This training has been mainly tactical, as elite units are unlikely to be the first responders. Regular police must be prepared to deny attackers relative superiority. It remains to be seen, however, whether the command and control problems involved in suppressing an attack that might unfold over a large metropolitan region have been resolved.

The Kabul strikes, despite breathless media coverage, did not constitute a Mumbai or a Tet 2012. The attack, mounted by the Haqqani Network, featured 40 attackers in Kabul and smaller attacks in Paktia, Logar, and Nagarhar. Afghan security forces, with air support, intelligence, and logistics support from NATO, handily suppressed the assault. Though Afghan and NATO tactics during past armed assaults have sometimes been haphazard, the Haqqani Network’s operatives did not inflict anything close to the damage the Mumbai attackers wrought nor survive for as significant a duration. Insurgent adaptation is often hailed, the Afghans and NATO have also roughly adapted through years of hard fighting. But a focus on tactical professionalism hides more disturbing operational failures.

First, as Thomas Ruttig noted, the scale and distribution of the attack across multiple provinces with heavy NATO presences is without precedent in the current conflict. The Afghan and NATO failure to observe the sophisticated reconnaissance, planning, and logistics phases of the operation is also a serious intelligence failure. The attackers adapted to sophisticated intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and NATO tactics, but the Afghan government did nothing to enhance security at the unoccupied buildings Kabul attackers often use as fortified high ground. NATO and the Afghans were still taken by surprise despite having forewarning of a general offensive, and the attack once again demonstrated the ability of a handful of armed men to briefly hold an entire city hostage and dominate the news cycle.

So will we see a complex attack in a major Western city? The jury is still out.  There’s a world of difference between operating in a South Asian warzone like Afghanistan or a troubled state with a history of terrorism like Pakistan and causing havoc in a Western city. Kenneth Boulding’s “loss of strength gradient” applies to non-state actors too, as actors based halfway around the world face substantial challenges in projecting force into heavily fortified and intelligence-protected cities in the Western heartland. Could local networks gain a foothold? Complex attacks depend heavily on training and logistics networks that present plenty of rich intelligence targets, and if “jihobbyists” training in backwoods forests get snapped up by the FBI, the prospects for more serious operations appear dim. The failure to realize Mumbai-style attacks in Europe, an operational environment with greater potential for extremist penetration than the United States, also suggests some cause for skepticism.

However, one lesson from the sophisticated assault on Mumbai is the increasing leveling power of technology in empowering destructive small groups. In London and other cities wracked by political turmoil over continuing economic issues, mostly unarmed rioters augmented with peer-to-peer technologies created urban paralysis.  The emerging informatization of public infrastructure in the West paradoxically enhances the vulnerability of Western cities to new forms of disruption. Even if a denuded al-Qaeda and affiliates lack power projection abilities today, it would be unwise to foreclose the possibility of future urban assaults and disruption by it or other potential adversaries.

Debates about the future aside, the cities of South Asia will continue to burn as urban assaults continue unabated.  The terrorist attacks in Kabul, Mumbai, and Pakistan constitute gruesome evidence of the important role of sound command and control and intelligence in dealing with the urban adversary’s potential for operational disruption in crowded cities.

Adam Elkus is a PhD student at American University in the School of International Service and an editor at the Red Team Journal. He is also an Associate at the Small Wars Journal’s El Centro profile, and blogs at Rethinking Security.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola