India is observing the fifth anniversary of 2008 Mumbai attacks, in which over 160 people were killed by a group of armed men in almost three days of mayhem.
Now a recent book, The Siege: The Attack on the Taj, authored by British investigative journalists Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, offers an insight into what led to the Mumbai attacks, lapses on the Indian side, the role of the CIA’s proxy elements and the Pakistan-based armed group Lashkar-e-Toiba’s (LeT).
Both authors specialise in investigative journalism and have previously written a controversial book, The Meadow: Kashmir 1995, a meticulous account of a ruthless kidnapping that paved the way for the 9/11 attacks on the US.
In an interview with Al Jazeera’s Baba Umar, Adrian Levy talks about the Mumbai attacks, the Pakistani plot to it, the US role and the credibility of Indian intelligence agencies.
Al Jazeera: First The Meadow, now The Siege. These non-fiction thrillers have come back to back in a span of just a few years. Can you tell us about the research process involved in your latest book?
Adrian Levy: “It’s a laborious process of hanging facts and characters on a giant exoskeleton. We’re both on our hands and knees piecing things together when we see each other. The truth, or versions of it, is compelling and addictive. These kinds of stories require you to reach out and not to censor yourself. South Asia is mostly the common denominator and that’s where we have spent so many years.”
Al Jazeera: Can you take us to Pakistan where the attack was planned? Your argument is the attacks were ‘deliberate’ and supported by Pakistan’s ISI. Who in ISI planned it? And did the government in Pakistan have any clue about it?
Levy: “We spent a good deal of time in Pakistan and there is no evidence that the government there was culpable. In anyway, they were caught out as was everyone else. Lashkar’s complex relationship with its mentors in the ISI is more fraught. The outfit is packed with soldiers and spies, but how many are serving and who is influential.
Although created as a creature of covert foreign policy, Lashkar was disintegrating after the Lal Masjid raid in 2007, when Pakistani forces stormed a mosque in Islamabad, to end a siege there. A significant section was against the old council, and anti-Pak security establishment. A small section remained loyal. Mumbai was mooted as a band-aid, it seems. It appealed to the old guard as India remained the target, and to the new guard as the West too could be targeted. Jews. Americans. Europeans.
“But even though individuals in the ISI seem to have attached themselves to the Mumbai plot, it is less easy to say that the institution was involved.”
Al Jazeera: You claim India had prior information about the attacks. Who in India knew about it?
Levy: “There was a clear trail of warnings. We found 26 in all. They were very detailed. RAW [Research and Analysis Wing, the key external intelligence agency] and the Intelligence Bureau knew Mumbai was being targeted and that Lashkar was the author. They knew which targets were being cased too. And that a seal landing was likely. But then the US knew a good deal about 9/11 and could not prevent it, and several of the 7/7 bombers were on the British watch list but evaded capture.”
Al Jazeera: The intelligence source inside Lashkar-e-Toiba had given the tip-off. What was the level of this source? Does it mean Lashkar is no longer impenetrable?
Levy: “Lashkar has always been a leaky ship. David Headley penetrated LeT and did it for the US, his supposed clients. He also seems to have done it for himself, as he found within himself a hatred of the West as he embraced Islam.
“Headley’s information was stripped of identifications and dispatched to India. Would these gobbets have been taken more seriously if India had known the source?”
Al Jazeera: The book also speaks of the presence of a Lashkar super-agent ‘Honey Bee’ in India? Is ‘Honey Bee’ an agent within India’s RAW, IB or what?
Levy: “The ISI claimed to have a super-agent. Was it classic counter espionage? A red herring to make Mumbai appear to come from within and not without? Certainly some training materials found in Karachi seem to have stemmed from India which gave Lashkar an insight into Indian counter hostage strategy. The NSG (Indian National Security Guards) said the same when they confronted the LeT squad in the tower.”
Al Jazeera: Has India tried hard to expose this mole?
Levy: “We don’t know. India was warned by a Gulf intelligence agency.”
Al Jazeera: Hafiz Saeed of Jama’at-ud-Dawa in Pakistan has always denied having any role in the attacks. India blames him directly and wants Pakistan to act? The Pakistani courts have not found anything incriminating against him? Where does he fit in all this?
Levy: “Hafiz Saeed is the emir of the spiritual wing in the same way Sinn Fein is the fig leaf for the IRA. He undoubtedly knew, but being the consummate political animal that he is, he was careful to conceal his presence and there is no hard evidence linking him apart from hearsay. However, LeT is a disciplined outfit and it is inconceivable that Hafiz Saeed did not know. But this is not enough to convict him in court.”
Al Jazeera: The Mumbai attack was meticulously planned; the masterminds mixed technology with terror, reconnaissance was done and what not. What do we know about the nine other attackers who came with Ajmal Kasab?
Levy: “Nine of the 10 were similar; peasant boys from dysfunctional families in Eastern and Southern Punjab [in Pakistan]. Some grew up on the Indian border. Others in its shadow. Most of those who made the final team were brought up in areas where Jihad as an aspiration provides the only hope of lifting the populace out of misery.”
Al Jazeera: Lashkar-e-Toiba fighters have mostly fought in Kashmir. They took the fight to Mumbai in 2008. Are you among those who believe Kashmir and Mumbai is linked?
Levy: “Lashkar had split after 9/11 and a splinter was going global, having moved to the UK to secure new funding and cadre. It was doing the same across Europe and had even targeted an Australian nuclear site. This was known and the information passed to the White house in 2007. The Bush Administration rejected the dossier as Lashkar was seen as the creature of the Pakistani military, and to attack it would distance the US from its ally, the Pakistani military. Nothing was done.
“The Kashmir campaign represented the interests of only one faction within Lashkar. And so the linkage between Kashmir and Mumbai is that the Mumbai operation was conceived to enable Lashkar to continue and the ISI to wield it as part of its Kashmir policy.”
Follow Baba Umar on Twitter: @Babaumarr