They were more than just suicidal young Muslims on a random shooting spree.
With the battle of Mumbai over and close to 200 people dead, a picture began to emerge of an audacious assault underpinned by extensive preparation and training by a tightly knit, well-financed and meticulous militant outfit.
“This was an extremely well-planned operation: the logistics, the timing,” said Robert Ayers, an international security expert at the Chatham House think-tank in London.
“The operational planning was very, very professional.”
Indian intelligence sources told AFP that eight of the Islamic militants involved in the attack had arrived in Mumbai a month ago. They rented a house and conducted “extensive reconnaissance missions.”
There were also believed to be other infiltrators who stockpiled arms and ammunition, including in one of the two luxury hotels that were attacked.
They were joined on Wednesday evening, when the assault began, by a second group who reached Mumbai from the sea, the sources said.
The sources said the attackers were “all well-built and at the peak of their health, aged between 24 and 30, and were heavily trained in military tactics.”
Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee said that “some elements in Pakistan” were responsible.
The attacks saw the militants strike multiple targets — including a railway station, a hospital, a restaurant popular with expatriates, two hotels and a Jewish centre usually packed with Israelis — in rapid succession.
“The brazenness of this attack has taken everyone by surprise. Nobody believed that gunmen would walk into five-star hotels and begin shooting indiscriminately,” said Amit Chanda of the London-based Risk Advisory Group.
At the train station, one witness recounted how gunmen took turns to shoot and reload, therefore maintaining a constant hail of bullets. Their calm, composed and confident expressions were caught on security cameras.
“The terrorist group has invested a significant amount of time in preparing the plan for this attack,” said Rohan Gunaratna, author of the book ‘Inside Al-Qaeda.’
A number of Indian officials blamed the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba — notorious for an assault on the Indian parliament in 2001 and allegedly once the recipient of support from Pakistan’s powerful spy service, the ISI.
One detained militant has already confessed to being a member of the group and having come from Pakistan, the Press Trust of India news agency reported. Lashkar-e-Taiba, however, has denied involvement.
Pakistani leaders insisted their government had nothing to do with the attacks and appealed to India not to get drawn into a dangerous “blame game.”
Analysts and officials also pointed to the similarities between the Mumbai attacks and the Al-Qaeda network’s modus operandi: suicidal assaults against multiple high-profile sites designed to cause maximum casualties and chaos.
The militants were also extremely disciplined throughout their fight to the death, according to an elite Indian commando involved in the 60-hour-long battle.
“At times we found them matching us in combat and movement; it was their high degree of training that was prolonging the operation each hour,” the unidentified commando told the Hindustan Times newspaper.
“They are either army regulars or have done a long stint of commando training.”
And according to a senior European diplomat based in India, the militant group apparently managed to plan, finance and train for the gruesome operation in total secrecy.
“We all feared there would be some kind of attack against Mumbai. After the bombings in so many other Indian cities this year, I think everyone assumed Mumbai would be hit at some point,” he told AFP on condition he was not identified.
“But as far as I know, no Western intelligence service had any specific, actionable information. It seems these particular guys managed to slip under everyone’s radar.”