Were foreigners really targeted by terrorists in Mumbai?

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Were foreigners really targeted by terrorists in Mumbai?
By Jeff Stein
December 1, 2008



Multiple news accounts during the 60-hour siege of the coastal city quoted the same few foreign and Indian hotel guests saying terrorists were searching for U.S. and U.K. passport holders.

If so, then why did the shooters fire so indiscriminately on ordinary Indians at the train station, a popular cafe and the hotels?

Less than 30 of the 188 dead were foreigners, including at least six Americans and eight Israelis killed at a Jewish religious center that had been seized by the attackers. Many foreigners, including a large group of Russians, escaped unharmed.

Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria raised a rare note of skepticism about the initial accounts.

"I think one of the misconceptions we're seeing so far is the assumption that these attacks were aimed primarily at foreigners," Zakaria said.

"Look at their targets. The two hotels they attacked--the Taj and the Oberoi--are old, iconic Indian hotels. It used to be true that these places were affordable only by Westerners. But this is no longer true, and it's one of the big changes over the last ten years in India. The five-star hotels today are filled with Indians. Businessmen, wedding receptions, parties...these are real meeting places now, and even those who cannot afford to stay there often pass through the lobby."

Zakaria said the Mumbai outposts of U.S. chains -- the Marriott, Hilton and Four Seasons -- offered better target-rich environments for the terrorists, if it was foreigners they were after.

"The Taj and the Oberoi are owned by Indians. My guess is that there will be a lot of Indians involved, and that this will generate a lot of domestic outrage," he said.

Harry B. "Skip" Brandon, a former deputy head of counterintelligence for the FBI who has frequently visited Mumbai on private business, generally agreed with Zakaria.

"I think he is correct, and besides, the real business center of Mumbai is now out by the airport and this is where the 'Western' hotels he mentions are primarily located. So in this sense, if their targets were Westerners, while many would be, and were, in the Taj and Oberoi, the real target-rich environment would be where Zakaria mentions."

On the other hand, Brandon added by e-mail, "Indian officials particularly love to use the Taj, as it is in many ways a national treasure and 'the place to be.' Maybe it's too fine a distinction to be definitive either way."

Indeed, focusing on foreign casualties obscures the fact that the terrorists seemed indiscriminate in their killing spree, which included slitting the throat of the captain of a fishing boat they hijacked, according to news accounts".

Brandon, partnered with former CIA operations officer Gene M. Smith in a Washington-based business intelligence firm, counseled caution in assessing the identity of the perpetrators and their targets "until this is really unraveled by investigators."

"Of course, they obviously targeted the Jewish Center, and this is different from the sadly routine attacks in India by the Kashmiri separatists, so who knows what this whole thing was?"

For its part, an unnamed operative of Lashkar-i-Toiba, the Pakistan-based Kashmiri separatist group suspected of carrying out the attacks, denied any role in Mumbai.

"Whatever we have attacked, we have targeted military or government installations," the operative was quoted as saying in The Washington Post.

Adding to the unanswered questions, there were unconfirmed reports in the Indian press that terrorists at the Taj and Trident-Oberoi hotels "allowed 17 Russian hostages, including nine defense contractors, to leave after checking their passports, following which they were safely evacuated."

Meanwhile, a member of India's Antiterrorism Squad branch in Mumbai, speaking anonymously, "disputed Indian press assertions that the attackers were Pakistani, saying they were of many nationalities," the New York Times reported.

Another intriguing element, uncovered by The Washington Post's indefatigable New Delhi correspondent, Emily Wax: One of the terrorists who infiltrated Mumbai by sea spoke in "heavily accented Hindi."

And further proof that India is different from the United States: Indian Home Minister Shivraj Patil submitted his resignation over the weekend.

Did any U.S. national security official resign after the 9/11 attacks? I must have missed it.

Patil had become highly unpopular during a long series of [unsolved] terror attacks, the Associated Press reported. "Our Politicians Fiddle as Innocents Die," read a headline Sunday in the Times of India newspaper, part of a growing chorus of criticism.

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