I’ve never traveled to Paris and I don’t think I ever will. I don’t go to places I don’t dream about. But I’ve been to Mumbai twice and I’ll go for a third time. I’m already dreaming about it.
These days, Mumbai and Paris share a common bond in blood and tears.
Seven years ago, on November 26, 2008, a series of coordinated terrorist attacks in Mumbai killed 170 people and wounded 500 over the course of 60 hours.
A similar attack has transformed the City of Light into the City of Darkness.
Cluj-Napoca/ Patmos/ Piatra Fântânele/ Port Blair/ Venice/ Istanbul/ Cincinnati/ Jerusalem/ Havana/ Mumbai.
These are just some of the cities I love, nested in the Weather app on my smartphone. Whenever I long for one of them, my thumb caresses the screen, and I check the local weather.
In 80% of cases, Mumbai reads smoke instead of fog, rain or sunshine. As you walk out of the airport -which, in my opinion, has the most beautiful architecture in the world – this smoke mixes with humidity, exhaust fumes and dust. The combination hits you like a football, kicked from way too close, squarely in the chest.
Scene 1. Leopold Café
Smoke outside, discreet cigar smoke in the Leopold Café as well, maybe one of the most sophisticated places in Mumbai. It bustles with clients and waiters like the bubbles in a tonic drink. It’s not luxury as much as style, with the mahogany tables cramped into relative brotherhood.
You’re lucky if you find one. Clients are mostly tourists housed in the Colaba neighborhood, a place full of Imperial-era buildings, large boulevards, large trees with ample shade and expensive shops; plus a lot of street vendors selling books.
The area’s terminus is Gateway to India, a small port where the world ends and the Arabian Sea begins. Looking out to sea, through the hole in the triumphal arch right on the shore, you can see a magnificent building – the Taj Mahal Hotel.
But the city’s focal point is a bit to the North. It’s the famous Victoria Terminus Train Station (rechristened to the more controversial Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus – CST), where over 3 million people bustle through daily.
With over 20 million people outside, over 30 degrees Celsius in the shade, and because of Mumbai’s famous smoke, Leopold Café becomes an oasis of normality – and a breath of fresh air via the AC.
The air is conditioned and so is the menu, because a frappé costs around thirty 10-rupee teas, which I could drink, as usual, early in the morning in any of my favorite, yet absolutely obscure places in this town.
There I am, surrounded by the sounds of clinking glasses, slowly stirring the whipped cream, ice, and coffee with my straw, between smiling people who share that state of contentment, normality and wellness that is always synonymous with happiness.
My thoughts were probably shared by one John Fresko, a young American with a beautiful girlfriend, Dara Huang, when, on the night of November 26, 2008, they strolled into the Leopold Café for a beer. They’d read only good reviews about this place.
Two young men with backpacks walk in. Barely inside, one of them casually throws something heavy, like a small rock, in the middle of the hall.
It seems like a bad joke, but it’s not: the rock is a grenade.
Immediately after the explosion, two AK-47’s rattle to life simultaneously, transforming the Leopold Café into a cloud of dust, shards of glass and wood, and blood trickling down between chairs.
John and Dara escape, almost by miracle, just because their table is behind one of the two cement columns holding the ceiling in place.
As the stillness of death combines with the cries of the wounded, they crawl outside without looking back and seek refuge a few streets over, inside their hotel’s restaurant – the Taj Mahal, that safe citadel for all respectable tourists in Mumbai.
Obviously, they can’t imagine the theatre of horror that’s about to begin in the very place they consider to be safe.
That’s how the sixty-hour-long nightmare started in Mumbai, the terrorist attack that paralyzed the city and, indirectly, the whole world, in a live transmission for a new kind of war.
172 dead, over 500 wounded.
Scene 2. Victoria Terminus
Reaching the train station from the other side of the street is an adventure.
You have to wait at multiple stop signs that drivers usually ignore, not forgetting they drive on the “wrong” side of the street, as in the UK, and breathe a sigh of relief when you finally make it to the tunnel that leads underground and up to the stairs in front of the station’s entrance.
That’s where a control gate is placed, which beeps stupidly at passers-by, as if saying “hello!” Next to it stands a bored cop with a wooden truncheon in his right hand, and a Russian-made rifle from another era hanging on his left shoulder.
When you do go in, you’re taken in by the size, the beautiful architecture of the ceiling, and the fact that there are two kinds of platforms: one for short train trips and one for longer hauls.
There are other gates, more beeping and, above all, a giant mass of moving people and luggage, and hurried commuters. (I asked my friend Mircea to share the photos from Victoria Terminus taken during our trip in 2014.)
I’m sitting in the central station waiting for a train. Lying on my backpack, I have a different perspective over everything. I observe the details carved in stone of the Baroque columns, fascinated by the expressions of the owls and gargoyles, but I also peer over at the family next to me.
There are seven of them, starting with grandkids all the way up to the grandfather. They throw a blanket on the floor and start to eat, quietly. They’re a beautiful, modest family, and show dignity. They eat like all Indians do, with their right hand, mixing rice on paper plates with a yellow chickpea curry.
They also have hot samosas on a newspaper. To be honest, I’d beg for one – the samosas you can buy on the trains are to die for.
A wave of commuters approaches from the left, and from my right, through a sort of connecting hallway, is a wave of people from a different hall, where you’d find the ticket boots and information panels.
It’s from this second room that, on Thursday, November 26, 2008 at 21:30, security cameras record two men who pull out machine pistols from their bags and start firing into the crowd, as per a standing order: kill as many people in as little time as possible.
A survivor later recounts his surprise at discovering that the blood creeping between floor tiles was so slippery.
In one of the documentaries made after the attack, a 10-year-old boy tells the camera that was when his parents and brothers were murdered. The child naively asks, “What sort of evil could they [his family] have committed to suffer such a fate?“
It was a question without an answer – because answers for it don’t exist. Not unlike others in his position, the victims found themselves in the wrong place at the worst possible time, caught outside of their will in the Russian roulette of radical shifts in destiny, in the most perfidious type of war ever invented by man.
A city with 60,000 taxis
I confess: one of my secret pleasures in Mumbai is riding in cabs, but not any cab; the classic Premier Padmini, painted yellow and black, first produced by Fiat in the 70’s.
They’re classic cars, ever harder to find; some might call them junk, but I find them friendly, and their admirable drivers just as much, proving inexhaustible patience and ability in a state of traffic that is hard to imagine.
The interior of these cabs are always pure spectacle. On the dashboard, little colorful knick knacks and Hindu deities or decals with quotes such as, “Wife is the best friend for life”.
A taxi driver of uncertain age, dressed in a clean, white shirt and with a dashboard dedicated to his favorite goddess, like most of his experienced traffic colleagues, tries to wade through the chaos in order to reach the train station.
He’s the one who brought the men with the rucksacks in front of Leopold. He has no way of knowing that the two men left something underneath the passenger seats, in the back of the car. That something was a bomb, programmed to explode in an hour’s time.
For now, our driver is waiting in line, waiting to pick up his next client, owner of a new destination.
Laxminarain Goel is a lawyer from Hyderabad with business in Mumbai. He decides to take a taxi back to the Kandivali neighborhood where he spent a few days at his sister-in-law’s. He learns that an alleged terrorist attack has cancelled all train rides from the station. He doesn’t have any more information.
He calls his wife and daughter from the backseat of the taxi, to let them know he’s alright. The conversation with his daughter ends abruptly. Four other taxis meet the same fate.
The effect of five car bombs in different parts of the city is devastating through the sheer panic it creates. The news on TV already talks about 50 attackers.
In a flash, the people of Mumbai are faced with a recurring nightmare. Fifteen years ago, in 1993, no less than thirteen cars and scooters exploded at key points around the city; almost 300 people died and over 1,400 were wounded.
A month before, an informer specialized in Dubai in building bombs had described the attack in detail, but the police had thought his story was a “simple bluff“.
Scene 3. A boat approaches the shore
Should I go? Should I not? I’m very close to buying a ferry ticket to visit the islands around the city. I have two problems though: it’s an organized tour (can’t stand them) and it takes 4 hours (too long).
I choose not to go. This is the privilege of disorganized traveling. I gawk at people who feed pigeons in a metal cage. I look in the distance as well. That’s what’s nice about the sea: it teaches you to look in the distance.
I see many fishing vessels, most painted yellow and blue. In 2008, a similar boat was intercepted, somewhere at sea, by a 10-man-strong Pakistani terrorist unit. They murdered the poor fishermen, used their captain to bring them ashore and then slit his throat in the night under the cover of darkness.
At the periphery of the fishing area, full of shacks and other improvised shanties, a man comes out to smoke. He sees a boat pulling in to moor and immediately realizes the men coming ashore aren’t his fishermen.
He shouts at them, asks them what they’re looking for. They don’t reply. They spread out into the city like a plague, in pairs.
They go into five taxis, with different destinations, but with a common purpose: to kill as many people as possible before meeting their own death.
They were promised martyrdom and a rise to the heavens, “with faces aglow like the moon in the sky, emanating divine perfume.“
(Ali Dargah, a mosque built in 1431 on a small island in Worli Gulf, is one of the sacred places for the Muslims in Mumbai. During high tide, the mosque virtually floats in the Arabian Sea. Tens of thousands of believers walk through every Friday. A handful of musicians with Indian instruments continue the pilgrim singer tradition.)
Visually aligned with the bird cages, the majestic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel grabs my attention. Its red towers are like gigantic onions that combine two apparently antagonistic styles – Moorish and Byzantine; as well as a few European influences, all mixed in the minds of two Indian architects.
The building is emblematic of India, financed by an equally emblematic person – Nusserwanji Tata, a successful captain of industry whose heirs transform anything they touch into profit, even today: pharma, car plants, tea, telecommunications, hotel chains; and dozens of other investments. Their latest, to the tune of 2 billion euros, is the Rover/Jaguar factory in Slovakia.
Intruder in Paradise
The magnitude of this hotel, inaugurated in 1903, is hard to process. It was somehow built to reflect the size of this country – with a population of 1.3 billion people today. Around four hundred million live in unimaginable poverty.
The hotel has 560 rooms, 44 apartments, 11 restaurants and 1,600 employees. Completely renovated after the attacks of 2008, it looks like a real 5-star hotel.
On the night of November 26th, besides the usual number people in its restaurants, the hotel was hosting a wedding, three banquets, and a birthday – all bathed in opulence that is simply indescribable. It’s no wonder the Taj Mahal Hotel was chosen as the “epicenter” of the attacks: it’s also the only place they set fire to.
To better understand the atmosphere, I decide to take a stroll through the hotel. I’m broke and sweaty; it’s obvious I don’t look like the big shots staying here, but at least I’m white and determined.
At the entrance, two policemen, with helmets swept back because of the heat, stare me down, then indulgently wave me through the beeping scanners. At the end of a stairwell covered in red carpet, the uniformed doorkeeper smiles professionally, bowing slightly. I smile like an accomplice: I know he knows I’m an outsider.
I pass through the rotating door and find myself in a parallel universe of blinding luxury. Along the vast hallway that houses the reception, you can smell gardenias. My feet sink in soft carpets, crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling and the whole atmosphere seems to be from a world alien to my own.
Thrown into deep armchairs, dressed for reception, men and women that seem to have travelled on the Titanic sip champagne at noon, from bottles stored in tall buckets of ice. It’s embarrassing to stare at them, so I look at floral arrangements. They’re all natural, I soon realize.
A bit apprehensive that I’ll be identified by the people behind the security cameras, unmasked as an intruder and kicked out screaming like in Chaplin movies, I go looking for the men’s room, hoping to give off the impression that I have a purpose in life.
I walk along a shining hallway, with white tiles, right past a leather handbag shop. I peer at a price tag. It’s 5 stars, so 420 dollars. It’s stretching it a bit. That’s how much I pay for food, lodging and transportation for an entire month in India.
At the very end, through an open glass door lies the Swarovski boutique. I gracefully avoid it. To its right, another hallway, then a luxuriant terrace with palm trees. I slip through, between tables, putting on a busy face with the manner of someone who’s looking for his cousin in a bar.
In the middle of the terrace there’s a pool with blue water. A pudgy man with a respectable mid-section swims through it like a hippo. I circle back and start peering along the interior stairwell.
Because describing this monster of a hotel, with its Venetian mirrors and all, would take pages and pages, I cut to my bathroom escapade. There, the walls play classical music, mixing with the white noise of air conditioners.
The bathroom stalls are impeccable. Each has its own ceiling fan. When I leave the stall, the vast mirrored room materializes a young Indian in a suit, wearing an as-seen-on-TV smile.
With stainless steel pliers he offers me a cotton towel from a tray, hot and perfumed. He calls me Sir.
I wipe my face and hands, and try to find an English “Thank you”. I look at myself in the mirror and ask myself, “Really, what am I doing here?“
A city under siege
The hostages taken by the four unknown men at the Taj Mahal Hotel probably asked themselves the same thing. Among them were John and Dara, who didn’t make it out with the 600 evacuees.
Hostages play a sinister cat and mouse game with terrorists, seen live on security cameras by policemen paralyzed by fear.
The police listen in on the conversations between terrorists and their bosses. They wait for SWAT teams from Delhi to unleash Operation Black Tornado.
But that won’t happen for 48 hours. In the meantime, police are poorly armed and taken by surprise by the ferocity of the attack, as they become, one by one, post-mortem heroes.
The attackers are young men of modest means, peasants with a hard life, with goats and fowl, from villages lost in the desert where building bricks are still cooked in ovens. It’s no wonder that, although well trained from home, they are paralyzed by the luxury when they walk into the hotel.
A whole world can see, over the video recordings, them gawking around, walking aimlessly, forgetting for a moment about the morbid point of their enterprise. They look like students taken on a field trip to an imposing castle. At one point, startled, they almost shoot each other.
As if they’ve found the stairway to heaven, they go up and down the steps, walk around aided by their boss, via telephone, spill vials of alcohol over the furniture and carpets and set them on fire.
(The siege, the hostage taking and the crimes committed in cold blood are described in The Siege: Three Days of Terror Inside the Taj.Recordings show them searching for victims, hidden in rooms whose doors they kick in. )
In the meantime, fellow terrorists perform the same acts in different places in Mumbai: Cama Hospital, Oberoi Hotel and Nariman House, the Jewish Religious Center and the residence of a young rabbi who, together with his wife, is just making small talk over dinner with four guests.
Once the negotiation between the hostages and the terrorist mastermind breaks down, one of the coordinators of the attack tells another attacker, “Do what I tell you, quickly: line them up facing the wall and shoot them in the back of the head. Be careful not to let bullets ricochet.“
The nanny escaped from the Nariman House holding a 2-year-old blond boy. The child looks into the TV cameras, wide-eyed. His father, the young rabbi, is dead.
The Actors and the Play
Who orchestrated everything, who was the mastermind? In the case of the Mumbai attacks, the Brain has two hemispheres plus some gray areas that nobody’s been able to crack yet. There are some suspicions, but no evidence.
The hemispheres – those who planned the attack for years – are two men known as the Uncle and the Prince.
Let’s begin with the voice on the audio recordings from the intelligence services. Who does it belong to? Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, AKA: the Uncle, a professional who has organized terrorist acts in Chechnya, Bosnia, Iraq and South-East Asia.
He’s a known Pakistani radical, member of the terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba (the Army of the Righteous). He was responsible, along with many others, of recruiting 500 young men with no future. They were trained in the desert, in places no one’s heard of, like Muridke, Mangla Dam or Mansehra.
The novices went through an intensive 18-month-long training regimen. Militarized and radicalized, these vulnerable men were also systemically brainwashed.
Ten of them were selected ‘through a contest’ to go to Mumbai. They were between 20 and 28 years old. No one knows anything (yet) of the other 490 – nor about the other terrorist cells that still exist in the Pakistani desert.
Although charged, the Uncle was set free in April 2015 on account of his detention not being justified.
Ironically, his release took place just one day after the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, called for a war on terrorism because of the 141 students and teachers that were killed by the Taliban in a Peshawar school. This fact betrays something little known to the public that no one wishes to expose: close cooperation between terrorists, the government and the country’s security forces.
Lakhvi’s voice rings clear on the phone that ordered the massacre in India. His name shows up in the testimony of the only terrorist who survived the attack of
From his command post in Karachi, the Uncle talks not only to the attackers, but also with superiors from the hierarchical military structure.
He has multiple TVs full of breaking news, access to Google Earth, uses a Garmin GPS, follows what people post on social networks and performs real-time searches to acquire the identity of his next victim.
Through clicks of the mouse and with a phone up to his ear, the Uncle holds the power of life and death over people.
Here are some of his words:
“Fahadullah, you are very close to Heaven, brother. This is the day when your memory will live on forever. / With Allah’s help, you have all succeeded in a great mission. / For your mission to be a complete success, you will have to be killed. / Tell the world that they’re only watching a trailer, the real movie is coming soon.”
Today, despite all of this evidence, the Uncle is free. But he probably doesn’t play chess in the park, waiting for his pension.
His partner was arrested at the Chicago airport, just as he was preparing to make a run for Pakistan.
David Headley – an American born in Washington DC, real name Daood Gilani, is the unseen architect of the massacre. He’s the one who, after repeated trips to Mumbai, chose the targets and prepared the terrorists’ logistical training.
Born to a Pakistani fundamentalist and a libertine American, Headley spends his first 17 years in Pakistan before moving to Philadelphia.
A heroin addict, although sophisticated and educated, Headley, AKA: the Prince, appears to be a born and bred American, but he speaks Urdu without an accent. He also has a double personality: American spy and Pakistani terrorist.
Immediately after 9/11 he is approached by US intelligence services to work against radical Islamic terrorists and Al Qaeda. In the meantime, he’s training for the only cause he believes in: he wants to become a holy warrior for the cause of Jihad.
Basically, the Prince is the perfect double agent. Although authorities are informed of his radicalism numerous times, they don’t lift a finger. It is not known why, even to this day.
In exchange for his testimony, he elegantly negotiated his way out of an extradition to India and the death sentence in America. He got off with a 35-year prison sentence.
The Mumbai attack redefined standards in regards to the efficiency of terrorism and the boundaries of “holy war”. It showed what can happen to a whole city, in just a few hours, with just 10 well-armed people who are bound to a common cause.
We think it hard for another 9/11 to happen today, when even a pair of nail clippers, forgotten at the bottom of a bag, ends up confiscated.
And we wake up to the reality of a bomb placed inside a Russian plane exactly like in a Mumbai taxi. The plane explosion is missing one key detail, though: no one really saw it, it was too discrete.
What do all these attacks have in common?
They hold a number of things in common, but I only chose three, which seem emblematic to me: the place, the choreography and the media attention.
- The Location. As I was saying, for various reasons, it’s harder to empathize with a downed plane, disintegrated into thin air, than with a grenade tossed inside a busy restaurant.
The place of a terrorist attack really matters. The city isn’t chosen randomly either. The symbols sought after are also important, and the so-called masterminds behind the attacks know these things all too well.
Terrorism has a market of its own, it needs marketing. Today, there is a constant need for jihadi calling cards, a portfolio of violent actions meant to place a certain organization on the map.
And organizations do crave attention, validation, the need for recognition, regardless of their name: Sinai Province, ISIS, Tamil Tigers, Boko Haram or Lashkar-e-Taiba. Validation is sought in key places on the planet, not just anywhere, so at least people who live in some backwater village can still rest easy.
- Choreography. Not surprising, in the phone conversation from the Taj Mahal Hotel, the Uncle insists, “It’s important to start the fire right now.” Nothing has a bigger and more devastating visual impact than a serious fire, which burns in the right place.
The panic element is very important in the dynamic of the entire play. Explosions work well, but it’s important they cause visible damage.
Suicide attacks bring a whole grotesque and heroic level to the situation. Grenades, large and noisy weapons help in this macabre drama, as does killing without discernment, where it’s imperative that women and children are included.
All of these are meant to bring out element no. 3:
- Media Attention. I imagine, just as there is a trigger for an AK-47, there is one for Breaking News. The brains behind terrorist attacks adore it, because there is no richer source of TV news than live deaths.
After every attack, there is the waiting period for whoever claims it and their demands. There exists, in other words, a co-dependence between “holy war” and mass-media.
Just as 9/11 (NY), 11/26 (Mumbai) and 11/13 (Paris) were televised, intensely scrutinized by media, followed by countless analyses, interviews, documentaries and follows on social networks. The cynicism brought about by media coverage has us place human life in hierarchical order; between us and them, between there and here.
Without even realizing, without acknowledging it, we put a higher price on the lives of Western Christians, Jews, or Americans, than on others.
We develop thought patterns that ought to concern us, for example: the systematic murder of 147 Christian students in Kenya, just like the massacre of 2,000 children, women and elders in Baga (Nigeria) took place in Africa, a continent where we are used to hearing this type of news. Anyway, they have the bad habit of killing each other in jungles, where there are no surveillance cameras, as with the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda.
For instance, take the recent suicide attacks in Beirut. The press dedicated a little more time to them than to the weekend weather. It happened “there“. Just as the 145 students and teachers killed by the Taliban in Peshawar somehow belong only “there“.
An Unwinnable War
In 2001, immediately after 9/11, Bush declared a “war on terror“. Since then, the war declarations have become so commonplace that almost nobody cares about them, much less those involved.
Here are two quotes taken at random while this article was being written: “Terrorism will not destroy the Republic, because the Republic will destroy terrorism“, from Hollande. Or: “We will find them anywhere on the planet and punish them“, by Putin.
These declarations anesthetize public consciousness and do wonders for political image but don’t really solve anything.
We’re talking about a new kind of guerrilla religious war that is unpredictable, diabolically creative, with completely unconventional means, radically different from the classic version (full of machismo, with two armies descending from two hills, to clash into the valley below and cut into each other with halberds while crying “Hurrah!“).
We’re talking about people who are willing to blow themselves up just to kill a Special Forces K-9 unit. No one can win a war against people who walk the supermarket aisles with shopping bags in their hands and a suicide belt under their clothes, looking to become martyrs in the name of concepts that are too complex for them to understand: God, Truth, Justice, Honor or Heaven.
For now, the Western allies still treat them with the arrogance of the civilizing hero. They hit them from above, like killing barbarians, with drones manned by anonymous pilots who are sipping mojitos while swiping on a tablet.
What’s the ‘next level’ of this game when the day comes that the barbarians have their own tablets, drones and Google Glasses?
Mumbai, November 29, 2008. In his hotel room, John Fesko bursts into tears next to Dara. After three nightmarish days, he remembers that it is Thanksgiving Day back home.
It’s the day when families meet around a table, the day when, no matter how far away they find themselves, children and nephews come back home, to their parents and grandparents, to celebrate together; contentment, normality and wellness – all those things that are synonymous with happiness.