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Terror in Mumbai: two faces of globalisation

By Sadanand Dhume - posted Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Even for India, which typically loses many more lives to terrorism in a year than most countries do in a decade, the November 26-28 attacks on Mumbai marked a watershed.

For the first time, foreigners - Americans, Japanese, Israelis and Germans, among others - were among the nearly 200 dead and 295 wounded. The scale of the attacks, carried out in 10 places by 10 heavily armed jihadists, made the 2001 terrorist assault on India’s parliament appear almost trivial by comparison. In its audacity and ruthlessness, as well as in the wall-to-wall international coverage it attracted, the assault on Mumbai brought to mind 9-11 in New York and Washington, the bloody Chechen takeover of a school in Beslan in 2004 and the 2005 London suicide bombings.

In many ways, the victims of the carnage in Mumbai represent the integration of markets, peoples and ideas captured by that catchall word - globalisation. Both the hotels attacked, the Taj and the Oberoi, are mainstays of high-end business travel. If a global icon - say Bono or Bill Gates or Bill Clinton - has spent a night in India’s financial capital, odds are that he stayed in one or the other.


The nearby Nariman House, home to the local branch of the Chabad-Lubavitch orthodox Jewish movement, served as an informal way station for young Israelis, familiar figures on the tourist trails of Asia.

Leopold Cafe, where jihadists lobbed a hand grenade and sprayed diners with automatic weapon fire, has long been a backpacker favourite.

All in all, the odds of the victims having multiple entry stamps in their passports, friends from more than one country on Facebook and a credit card welcome across borders in their wallets were incomparably higher than in any previous terrorist attack in India.

If the city of Mumbai symbolises the hopeful face of globalisation in South Asia - standing for pluralism, enterprise and openness to ideas and investment - then the Pakistan-trained jihadists responsible for the carnage represent its darker twin. Carved out of British India in 1947 as a homeland for South Asian Muslims, Pakistan has long been a magnet for pan-Islamic radicals from around the world, among them Abdullah Azzam (1941-89), the ideological father of the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad, al-Qaida’s Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, and their comrade in arms Mullah Omar of the Taliban.

A plethora of local groups, among them Lashkar-e-Taiba, suspected to be behind the Mumbai attacks, one of whose alleged operatives, Ajmal Amir Kasab, was captured by Indian authorities, and Jaish-e-Mohammed, though organisationally distinct from al-Qaida, share the same toxic ideology. The L-e-T was among the jihadist groups that banded together in 1998 under the umbrella of bin Laden’s Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders.

Along with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan is the world’s pre-eminent exporter of radical Sunni fervour. The country’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), part of the army, in a sense pioneered the yoking together of modern-weapons training with pan-Islamic religious brainwashing, albeit initially with help from the Central Intelligence Agency.


Many Pakistanis are moderate; nonetheless sympathy for radical Islam runs deep. A 2007 poll showed bin Laden with an approval rating of 46 per cent, higher than that of many of Pakistani politicians. The radical Islamic outlook - obsessed with the glories of Islamic civilisation, hostile toward non-Muslims and non-conformist women, and convinced that Jews and Americans are perpetually plotting against their faith - is shared by many who may formally disapprove of al-Qaida’s tactics.

Until the most recent incidents in Mumbai, the consensus view in both New Delhi and Washington was that India - with its robust democracy, large middle class and world-beating companies - could sprint toward development despite its dysfunctional neighbour. But the capacity of a handful of terrorists to paralyse life in Mumbai and inflict several billion dollars worth of damage raise profound questions about the basic premise underlying India’s reach for great power status. It should give pause to even the hardiest optimist.

Put simply, the world can no longer be certain that a failing Pakistan won’t take India down with it or, at the very least, hobble its efforts to catch up with East Asia.

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Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online - - (c) 2008 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.

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About the Author

Sadanand Dhume is the author of My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with an Indonesian Islamist, a book about the rise of radicalism in the world’s most populous Muslim country. Click here to read an excerpt. Click here to view his website.

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