NEW DELHI: The 2008 Mumbai terror attacks could happen at least partly because the spy agencies of the United States, Britain and India did not link up despite the leads they had gathered individually with pointers to the coming nightmare, an investigative report said on Monday.
The detailed report by the New York Times, ProPublica and the PBS series Frontline titled ‘In 2008 Mumbai Killings, Piles of Spy Data, but an Uncompleted Puzzle’ said “that hidden history of the Mumbai attacks reveals the vulnerability as well as the strengths of computer surveillance and intercepts as a counter-terrorism weapon”.
Press Trust of India carried excerpts of the report and it says: “What happened next may rank among the most devastating near-misses in the history of spycraft. The intelligence agencies of the three nations did not pull together all the strands gathered by their high-tech surveillance and other tools, which might have allowed them to disrupt a terror strike so scarring that it is often called India’s 9/11.”
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Citing classified documents apparently leaked by Edward Snowden, the former US National Security Agency contractor, the report said that although electronic eavesdropping often yields valuable data, even “tantalising” clues can be missed if the technology is not closely monitored, the intelligence gleaned from it is not linked with other information, or analysis does not sift incriminating activity from the ocean of digital data.
In one of the most glaring intelligence failures, the report said Indian and British intelligence agencies monitored online activities “of a key 26/11 planner Zarrar Shah, the technology chief of Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terror group”, but “couldn’t connect the dots” before the attacks that killed 166 people, including six Americans.
In the fall of 2008, Shah “roamed from outposts in the northern mountains of Pakistan to safe houses near the Arabian Sea, plotting mayhem in Mumbai, India’s commercial gem”.
He was, however, unaware that by September, the British were spying on many of his online activities, tracking his Internet searches and messages, the report said.
“They were not the only spies watching. Shah drew similar scrutiny from an Indian intelligence agency,” it said, citing a former official briefed on the operation.
While the US was unaware of the two agencies’ efforts, it had picked up signs of a plot through other electronic and human sources, and warned Indian security officials several times in the months before the attack, the report said.
The report quoted former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon as saying that “no one put together the whole picture,” referring to the intelligence gathered by the US, Indian and British agencies months before the attacks.
“Not the Americans, not the Brits, not the Indians...only once the shooting started did everyone share” what they had, largely in meetings between British and Indian officials, and then “the picture instantly came into focus”, said Mr Menon, who was the foreign secretary at the time of the attacks.
The British had access to a trove of data from Shah’s communications, but contend that the information was not specific enough to detect the threat.
The Indians did not home in on the plot even with the alerts from the United States, the report said.
Among the most significant clues “slipped” by the Americans was related to Pakistani-American David Headley, who had scouted targets in Mumbai for the attacks and exchanged incriminating emails with plotters that went unnoticed until shortly before his arrest in Chicago in late 2009.
US counter-terrorism agencies also did not pursue reports from his unhappy wife, who told American officials long before the killings began that he was a Pakistani terrorist conducting mysterious missions in Mumbai, the report said.
“We didn’t see it coming,” a former top US intelligence official has been quoted as saying. “We were focused on many other things — Al Qaeda, Taliban, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, the Iranians. It’s not that things were missed — they were never put together.”
In early 2008, Indian and Western counter-terrorism agencies began to pick up chatter about a potential attack on Mumbai. Indian agencies and police gathered periodic leads from their own sources about a LeT threat to the city, the report says.
In late September and again in October, LeT botched attempts to send the attackers to Mumbai by sea. During that period, at least two of the CIA warnings were delivered, the report quoted American and Indian officials as saying.
An alert in mid-September mentioned the Taj hotel among a half-dozen potential targets, causing the facility to temporarily beef up security, the report said.
Another on November 18 reported the location of a Pakistani vessel linked to a LeT threat against the southern coastal area of Mumbai, where the attack would occur.
By November 24, Shah had moved to the Karachi suburbs, where he set up an electronic “control room” with the help of an alleged Indian militant named Abu Jundal, according to his later confession to the Indian authorities. It was from this room that Mir, Shah and others would issue minute-by-minute instructions to the assault team once the attacks began.
The report said that after the assault on prime Mumbai targets began by the 10 LeT terrorists, the three countries quickly disclosed their intelligence to one another, including monitoring a LeT control room in Pakistan where the terror chiefs directed their men, hunkered down in the Taj and Oberoi hotels and the Jewish hostel, according to current and former American, British and Indian officials.
That cooperation among the spy agencies helped analysts retrospectively piece together “a complete operations plan for the attacks”, the report quoted a top-secret NSA document as saying.
Published in Dawn December 23th , 2014