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GUESTS OF TERROR
- Repaying hospitality with destruction

The siege: The attack on the taj By Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, Penguin, Rs 499

This is a riveting book, a real life thriller by an extraordinary pair of investigative journalists. They tracked firsthand witnesses across continents and interviewed them, sifted meticulously through copious transcripts of taped conversations, consulted other sources as well, before producing an outstanding work of reportage entailing conspiracy, premeditated murder, heroism, and distraught memories of individual and collective loss. The jihadi assault on India’s financial hub, Mumbai, on November 26, 2008, lasted three whole days, with ten primed Pakistani sea-borne assailants holding the city and its traumatized citizens to ransom. Continuous hours of blood and gore and the wanton destruction of property convulsed a nation and sent shock waves to all corners of the civilized world. Mumbai today, London tomorrow: peace and security are receding buzzwords as transnational Islamism mounts its challenge to global order. The terror attack of 26/11 and its historical subtext will surely be perceived by future generations as one of the defining experiences of our century.

The authors’ seamless narrative includes Lashkar-e-Toiba and ISI operational plans hatched in Lahore and Islamabad, instructions from Karachi on routes, targets and assassinations to zombies convinced of their promised cut price ascent to paradise and its myriad pleasures. On a separate set of the revolving stage were local police officers struggling desperately to keep ahead of the game. Meanwhile, Indian intelligence agencies were tapping into the exchanges between Karachi handlers and their grounded Mumbai charges. The drama derives its unity and intensity from the sum of its disparate parts — which reflects well on the literary skill and labour of Levy and Scott-Clark.

The task before them was formidable in its scattered immensity. They, thus, brought to the centre-stage the events at the resplendent Taj and Oberoi hotels, each a favoured watering hole for the great and good of Mumbai and their visiting foreign peers. Global elites wined and dined in sumptuous surroundings, their requirements and preferences overseen by solicitous staff eager to please. The bacchanalia turned to mayhem and horror, the vortex drawing in chefs, cabaret artistes, room attendants, liveried doormen and the like. The Taj and Oberoi surrendered their opulence to the dead and wounded, but uplifting scenes of camaraderie and heroism, of the strong protecting the weak and defenceless and comforting the injured and bereaved were redemptive affirmations of transcendent faith. The authors draw on conversations in police chat rooms, on the interrogation of Ajmal Kasab, the sole terrorist to have kept his tryst with the gallows, his comrades falling in battle: these are the building blocks to the story. Events elsewhere, related cursorily, but with compassion and sensitivity, contribute tellingly to the calibration.

The lynchpin in “Operation Bombay,” the Lashkar-e-Toiba’s collaborative venture with Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence Directorate, was Daood Sayed Gilani aka David Coleman Headley, the name borrowed from his American maternal grandparent. Headley’s father, Sayed Saleem Gilani, is a renowned Pakistani broadcaster of considerable means; his mother, Serrill, was an American heiress. They were divorced after six years of marriage, their only child, Daood, was born significantly with one blue eye and one brown. His first calling was drug smuggling, his second, was as anti-narcotics undercover US agent in Pakistan, monitoring also jihadi activities for the CIA... Headley graduated to his ultimate calling as double agent for the Lashkar-e-Toiba and its ISI clone. Posing as a debonair American businessman, Headley looked the part: over six feet tall, blond, well built, has a pony tail, a casual yet stylish dresser with a 10,000 pound watch perched languidly on his wrist for special effect, he soon became a Taj regular, entertaining liberally on his increasingly frequent journeys to Mumbai, using the hotel as a base for his varied excursions in the teeming metropolis, jotting down the locations and coordinates of vulnerable sites through a Global Positioning Satellite system. He repaid Taj hospitality by plotting its demolition without artificial aids. Although much taken by the social buzz of Mumbai, by its entrepreneurial energy and sophistication, Headley was consumed by a demonic hatred of “Hindu India.” He vented his vitriol on infidels, mostly Americans, Indians and Jews in the cloistered environs of his Lahore and New York dwellings. His four wives, each initially unaware of the other’s existence, were privy to his inner demons. The two foreign spouses, Portia, a Canadian, and Faiza, a French-speaking Moroccan, reported their growing apprehensions of his jihadi pursuits to the relevant American authorities, only to be brusquely rebuffed for their pains. His Pakistani spouse, Shazia, was too busy bearing and rearing their children to do likewise... British and European intelligence services, scenting a jihadi plot to attack India, shared the information with their American peers, who preferred, instead, to place their trust in General Musharraf’s anodyne assurances of good intent.

In an earlier tome entitled, Deception, Levy and Scott-Clark relate similar US support for General Zia over the disquiet of European governments at the purloining of nuclear technologies from a Dutch centrifuge plant in Holland by Pakistani rogue scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. Finally, Headley’s plea bargain earned him the lesser 35-year jail sentence rather than one of life without parole, his secrets America’s as well. Washington’s continuous strategic alignment — drone strikes and all — with the Pakistani military-political nexus is anchored firmly to Islamabad’s prescriptive role in the maintenance of US global supremacy.

“Operation Bombay was an act of war without the formal declaration. Indian black cat commandos, trapped in a bureaucratic labyrinth, arrived hours late to confront the intensifying crisis. Malcolm Muggeridge says it best: ‘It was government pure and undefiled; endlessly minuting and circulating files, which like time itself, had neither beginning nor end, but just were.”’

On Pakistan, we have Pervez Hoodbhoy, one of his country’s foremost physicists as witness: “Pakistan once had a violent, rabidly religious lunatic fringe. This fringe has morphed into a majority. The liberals are now the fringe. We are now a nation of butchers and primitive savages.” Like Broadmoor, in the UK, Pakistan is an institution for the “criminally insane”