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ASIA: Mumbai attack shows new sophisticated face of terror

By Penny MacRae
28 Nov 2008 1:32 PM

NEW DELHI, Nov 28 AFP - The brazen attacks in Mumbai signal a sea change in the Islamic militant violence that has beset India, showing sophisticated planning and an "anti-Western agenda", analysts say.

Militants stormed a series of high-profile targets late Wednesday in India's financial capital, including the iconic Taj Mahal Palace hotel, a landmark restaurant, the main train station and a charitable hospital for women and children.

They killed more than 125 people and seized scores of hostages, targeting specifically Britons and Americans.

"The sheer scale and planning involved is markedly different from previous attacks - it's a watershed attack," said Singapore-based security analyst Rohan Gunaratna, author of the book Inside Al-Qaeda.

Previous assaults in India have involved planting bombs in public places such as busy markets or on trains as in 2006 when Islamist militants staged serial attacks on Mumbai's congested rail network, killing 186 people.

The attacks targeted civilians "with the intention to foment unrest between Hindu and Muslim communities," said Jane's Country Risk analyst Urmila Venugopalan.

India, an officially secular country of more than 1.1 billion people, is majority Hindu and has a population of 113 million Muslims.

But "the apparent focus on killing or capturing foreign businesspeople, specifically US and UK nationals, has never occurred (in India) before, suggesting a wider global anti-Western agenda," said Venugopalan.

The militants, whom Indian authorities said numbered about 25 and were armed with assault rifles and grenades, specifically sought out US and British citizens as hostages, according to witnesses.

The Israeli embassy in New Delhi also said 10 to 20 Israelis, possibly more, were among the hostages. They included a rabbi who was taken hostage when the militants seized a Jewish cultural centre in Mumbai.

A previously unknown group calling itself the Deccan Mujahedeen claimed responsibility for the attacks, triggering speculation they might be linked to the Indian Mujahedeen, which had sent emails claiming responsibility for four attacks it said it staged between November 2007 and September 2008.

But a senior Indian military official said late Thursday the young militants who strode into hotels with their faces bare came from Pakistan.

India frequently accuses Pakistan of sheltering guerrilla groups which have launched attacks against Indian targets despite Islamabad's strong denials.

Analysts said the tactics used in Mumbai appeared to be inspired by those of al-Qaeda or groups linked to al-Qaeda, such as the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba.

Lashkar, which was blamed for the 2001 attack on India's parliament that brought the nuclear-armed neighbours close to war, is fighting Indian rule in revolt-hit Indian Kashmir.

"Al-Qaeda has become a shorthand word to claim the cause of radical Islam - it's more of a brand than an integrated corporation," said Robert Ayers, a security expert at British international affairs think-tank Chatham House.

"It's going to take a while to determine who are responsible. But it has all the characteristics of an al-Qaeda attack - multiple strikes across multiple areas," Ayers said.

"The thing that makes it unique is the taking of hostages. But that has increased the publicity, they get international media exposure, taking hostages involves other nation states," he added.

"This was an extremely well-planned operation, the logistics, the timing. The operational planning was very, very professional," he said.

Businessman Ratan Tata, whose tea-to-steel Tata Group owns the Taj hotel, said the gunmen "seemed to know their way around" the building.

Amit Chanda, head of the Indian Subcontinent practice of Risk Advisory, also said it appeared the attacks were carried out with an anti-Western aim with the militants' "deliberate selection" of foreign hostages.

"This (attack) is a statement about India's relationship with the UK, the US and Israel," Chanda said. Israel is India's second-largest arms supplier.

"There has been a trend for countries that have suffered a major attack to describe it as their own 9/11, for example, the Spanish after the 2004 Madrid train bombings or the Pakistanis after the Marriott bombing in Islamabad," Chanda said.

"I think this attack - because of its audacity and brazenness - will be remembered as India's 9/11," he said.