The terrorist siege in Mumbai ended just hours ago, but experts are already offering their critique of how Indian officials handled the situation.
And the reviews are anything but kind. The New York Daily News was one of the first out of the box, quoting unnamed American experts who described Indian commandos as "clownish," suggesting that poor tactics and equipment problems led to a "Munich moment."
This wasn't the SAS digging knuckleheads out of some embassy," the chagrined official said.
Hesitating may have cost lives at places like the Mumbai Jewish community center, experts said.
"It's just like Columbine," insisted former FBI Hostage Rescue Team leader Danny Coulson, referring to the 1999 Colorado high school massacre. "If they're slaughtering people, you've got to go in."
Grenades were still blowing out windows at the Taj on live TV 48 hours after the horror began.
Indian authorities "were caught completely unaware," said Vince Cannistraro, a retired CIA counterterror chief.
Supposedly elite commandos appeared to be lacking standard tools: tear gas and masks, laser-sighted guns and stun grenades.
Questions about the response underscored by another, disturbing realization: the carnage in Mumbai was perpetrated by only 10 terrorists. At one location (the Taj Mahal Hotel), a single, surviving gunman kept counter-terrorism teams at bay for more than 24 hours before he was finally eliminated. Various reports suggest that terrorists had detailed knowledge of their targets, while police and military elements had trouble getting floor plans for the buildings they had to storm.
Still, any analysis of the Indian response should be tempered by this rather obvious fact: the ultimate "failures" in Mumbai represented the final mistakes in a long string of blunders that began months, even years, before the terrorist attacks.
The list begins with India's immigration and domestic security policies. Like most democracies, Delhi allows freedom of movement within its borders, even among foreign visitors. Nothing wrong with that, but it does mandate some vigilance in keeping track of who's in your country, and their potential ties to hostile regimes. Preliminary information suggests that at least one terrorist was a Pakistani national, and his team was "in constant contact" with a foreign country (you can guess which one) throughout the operation.
But planning for the terror strike began far in advance. Without going too far out on a limb, we'll predict that the investigation will reveal extensive preparations and planning, conducted with outside assistance. That type of activity (typically) produces a spike in chatter between various conspirators, and is often detected by signals intelligence elements. It will be interesting to learn what India's SIGINT element knew in the weeks leading up to the attack, and what information--if any--was conveyed to counter-terrorism officials.
At this point, it appears that such data was closely held--if it existed. There's no evidence that anyone in the Indian security apparatus tried to disrupt the plot, which moved steadily toward execution. The line of lapsed defenses includes Delhi's Navy and coastal security forces. By some accounts, the terrorists were delivered to the waters off Mumbai by a trawler, which was ignored as it approached the city.
As the attack unfolded, security and counter-terrorism forces were already behind the power curve. Responding to multiple attacks--unfolding at the same time--Indian forces were initially overwhelmed, and their tactical and equipment issues compounded the problem. Making matters worse, two of their most experienced counter-terror officers died early in the siege, in gun battles with the bad guys. Leading from the front isn't always the best idea.
Meanwhile, the terrorists were communicating with each other via text messaging, cell phone conversations and satellite phones. Television and radio coverage from the Indian media (and the western press) provided invaluable information on the government's response, allowing gunmen to adjust their tactical plans. It would not be surprising to learn that the remaining hostages in the Jewish Center died as commandos fast-roped onto the roof of the building--an event carried live on Indian TV, in broad daylight.
The details of these mistakes will become increasingly clear in the coming weeks, as the Delhi government conducts various inquiries into the terrorist attack and its aftermath. But the tragedy already offers a cautionary tale for the U.S. and other potential terror targets. While it is easy to criticize the Indian response, their failures bear an eerie resemblance to our own mistakes into the run-up to 9-11.
But we're beyond that, right? After all, the U.S. has spent billions on homeland security over the past eight years, closing the gaps that existed before that fateful day in 2001.
True, security has improved. But our borders are still porous, immigration remains a mess and there are serious issues in the sharing of intelligence information with local law enforcement. In other words, we remain vulnerable to the same, root problems that allowed a handful of terrorists to wreak havoc in Mumbai, and paralyze that city for almost three days.