A day after the terror attacks in Mumbai that killed over 100 people, one question remained as impenetrable as the smoke that still billowed from two of the city’s landmark hotels: who carried out the attacks?
The Indian authorities say they captured some of the attackers, so some answers may emerge soon. But for now, their identities remain a mystery. Surviving witnesses recalled the gunmen as masked young men in unremarkable T-shirts and jeans, some heavily armed, wearing backpacks filled with weapons. The only claim of responsibility came from a group that may not even exist.
The assaults represented a marked departure in scope and ambition from other recent terrorist attacks in India, which have singled out local people rather than foreigners and hit single rather than multiple targets.
The Mumbai assault, by contrast, was seemed directed at foreigners, involved hostage taking and was aimed at multiple and highly symbolic targets.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India said the attacks probably had “external linkages,” reflecting calculations among Indian officials that the level of planning, preparation and coordination could not have been achieved without help from experienced terrorists. But some security experts insisted the style of the attacks and the targets in Mumbai suggested the militants were likely to be Indian Muslims, with a domestic agenda.
The e-mail message taking responsibility that was sent to Indian media outlets on Wednesday night said the attackers were from a group called Deccan Mujahedeen. Deccan is a neighborhood of the Indian city of Hyderabad. The word also describes the middle and south of India, which is dominated by the Deccan Plateau. Mujahedeen is the commonly used Arabic word for holy fighters.
But security experts drew a blank on any such organization. Sajjan Gohel, a security expert in London, called it a “front name” and said the group was “nonexistent.”
An Indian security official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be identified said the name suggested ties to a group called Indian Mujahedeen, which has been implicated in a string of bombing attacks in India killing about 200 people this year alone.
On Sept. 15, an e-mail message published in Indian newspapers and said to have been sent by representatives of Indian Mujahedeen threatened potential “deadly attacks” in Mumbai. The message warned counterterrorism officials in the city that “you are already on our hit-list and this time very, very seriously.”
Several high-ranking law enforcement officials, including the chief of the antiterrorism squad and a commissioner of police, were, indeed, reported killed in the attacks in Mumbai.
With relations long strained between India and Pakistan, particularly over the disputed territory of Kashmir, suspicions turned toward Al Qauda, or Pakistani militant backing. The Indian security official said the attackers likely had ties to Lashkar-e-Taiba, a guerrilla group run by Pakistani intelligence in the conflict with India in the disputed territory of Kashmir. On Thursday, the group denied involved in the Mumbai attacks. India also blamed Lashkar-e-Taiba for a suicide assault on its Parliament by gunmen in December 2001 that led to a perilous military standoff with Pakistan.
The Indian official also suggested the foot-soldiers in the attack might have emerged from an outlawed militant group of Islamic students. Photographs from security cameras showed some youthful attackers carrying assault rifles and smiling as they began the operation.
Christine Fair, senior political scientist and a South Asia expert at the RAND Corporation, was careful to say that the identity of the terrorists could not yet be known. But she pointed to India’s domestic problems, and long tensions between Hindus, who make up about 80 percent of India’s population of 1.13 billion, and Muslims, who make up 13.4 percent.
“There are a lot of very, very angry Muslims in India,” Ms. Fair said. “The economic disparities are startling and India has been very slow to publicly embrace its rising Muslim problem. You cannot put lipstick on this pig. This is a major domestic political challenge for India.
“The public political face of India says, ‘Our Muslims have not been radicalized,’ she said. “But the Indian intelligence apparatus knows that’s not true. India’s Muslim communities are being sucked into the global landscape of Islamist jihad.”
“Indians will have a strong incentive to link this to Al Qaeda,” she said. “But this is a domestic issue. This is not India’s 9/11.”