Mumbai was on high alert Friday as police set up checkpoints and carried out extensive searches for four men they believe entered the
financial hub to carry out a terror attack.
The sprawling metropolis was the site of a massive attack in late 2008 that saw the city under siege for three days, when well-coordinated terrorists fanned out to hospitals, luxury hotels and a Jewish center, killing 166 people.
“Mumbai” has become a watchword for this style of suicide attack, which underscored the vulnerabilities of sprawling cities in the face of well-trained and highly motivated terrorists in touch with distant handlers via real-time communication.
Since then, police in Mumbai and across the world take even minor threats seriously.
Indian authorities said they received credible information that at least four men belonging to the banned Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba were planning an attack during the holiday season. India blames the organization — as well as its neighbor, Pakistan, for harboring this group — for the 2008 attack.
“Concern remains that there will be similar incidents,” said Vikram Sood, a terror analyst formerly with the Research Analysis Wing, which serves as India’s CIA. “There are fears that LET is roaming around.”
Police set up checkpoints along the city’s major roads, added patrols at high-visibility public places and released computer photographs of the four suspects.
Streets were also closed near the Taj Mahal hotel, the iconic, sprawling complex that saw the greatest loss of life, and Mumbai’s landmark Gateway of India arch, both dating to British Empire days.
“The city’s on edge,” said C. Raja Mohan, a security analyst and columnist with the Indian Express. “And the year-end is always sensitive ... amid fears attackers will use the holiday to gain more attention.”
Hilloo Mehta, a textile importer who lives across from the Taj and watched the disaster unfold in 2008, said such threats are increasingly a fact of life.
“We live in such uncertain times,” she said. “It’s very worrisome. That said, in India, people also take life as it comes. There’s not much you can do about it.”
In addition to its position as a financial hub, the city also encompasses India’s social and economic extremes: It is home to the country’s larger-than-life Bollywood film industry, the world’s most expensive private residence at $1 billion, and Asia’s biggest slums.
The top elected official in the state of Maharashtra, which Mumbai is part of, told reporters that authorities received information on the threat from central intelligence agencies. “The state police and intelligence agencies are alert, and all security arrangements are in place ahead of the festive season,” Prithviraj Chavan told local reporters.
Also cited as a possible target was Ahmedabad, India’s seventh-largest city, a commercial hub and among the fastest-growing in the country. Other areas, including the resort area of Goa, took it upon themselves to raise their threat awareness as well.
In Mumbai, the National Security Guard, Coast Guard, navy and a rapid reserve unit known as Force One were all put on alert. Authorities scrutinized guests in hotels and boarding houses, and officials asked the public, local community watch groups and hoteliers to report anything unusual.
The response follows sharp criticism in 2008 that government security agencies were sluggish in their response and encountered lengthy delays — at one point security teams had to travel by bus because no alternate transport could be found — in getting SWAT-style units in place. There were also difficulties keeping police plans a secret and maintaining a proper security perimeter.
“Many reforms have been done,” analyst Mohan said. “They now have a multi-agency center and a quicker response, with India determined to prevent another attack from happening.”
Although many intelligence warnings may turn out to be false, no nation can afford to ignore them because of the huge risk of something happening. “It’s a problem worldwide,” Mohan said.