Initial reports from the terrorist attacks in India's financial capital suggested that American and British hotel guests were targeted. But the duration of the attacks - over three days - and the choice of iconic landmarks in Mumbai reveal a broader agenda: India's economic progress and standing in the international community. The alarming scale and sophistication of the Mumbai attacks should have the global anti-terrorist network working overtime to help the Indian government identify the origin and motive of the perpetrators.
As of yesterday, at least 160 people had been killed, including four Americans and 11 terrorists, and 350 people were injured, the majority of them Indians. India has been beset by terrorism; most recently, 11 bombs devastated the city of Assam on Oct. 30. The attacks are usually directed at citizens and have involved religious extremists. But the Mumbai siege was different in scope and complexity.
The terrorists came by sea and land, some dressed in jeans and T-shirts and many equipped with assault weapons and explosives. Their targets, from the historic Taj Mahal Palace and Tower to Mumbai's sprawling Victorian Gothic Revival rail station, symbolize the city's cultural heritage and commercial success and are frequented by Indians and Westerners. The Taj is a 5-star hotel known for its iconic architecture and celebrity clientele, but it was built a century ago by an Indian businessman who, according to legend, had been refused entry at a Europeans-only hotel. It has served the city's elite as well as foreign visitors. An Orthodox Jewish cultural center also was singled out and hostages there killed.
The targets may have been predictable, but what's the larger message intended here?
Mumbai, a bustling international city, is no stranger to terrorism, and the response of Indian commandos to the terrorist gunmen showed authorities' familiarity with extremists and their ability to mount a counter-attack. The group claiming credit for the bombings and gun battles is not well known. Now it's left to investigators to unravel the plot behind the attacks. Were its participants homegrown or foreigners? Were the plotters motivated by religion or nationalism? Did they have help from afar or India's neighboring nemesis, Pakistan?
Answers to those questions and others should help India and its allies assess the significance of the Mumbai attacks and their impact on the global campaign against terrorism. The turmoil in U.S. and international financial markets has preoccupied President-elect Barack Obama, but the travesty in Mumbai should spur the soon-to-be chief executive to disclose his strategy and key appointees to protect Americans from attacks at home and abroad.