Mumbai terrorist attacks

News from Mumbai is ugly, with reports of numerous casualties from multiple coordinated attacks using automatic weapons and grenades. I visited Mumbai in January this year and recognize many of the places where the attacks have apparently taken place.

The strategy behind the attacks isn't clear yet. The attackers seem to have targeted transport hubs — CST, the airport — and large hotels — the Taj, the Oberoi — among other places. Leopold's in Colaba — a restaurant popular with Western tourists, but also locals — has also reportedly been attacked. The choice of Leopold's is reminiscent of attacks targeting Westerners in places such as Bali, but the attack in CST will almost certainly have killed more locals than foreigners. It would seem that this attack isn't aimed exclusively at either Indians or foreigners, but at both together.

The real danger is that this will trigger another round of inter-ethnic violence in Mumbai. Mumbai is a stronghold of the anti-Muslim Maharashtrian nationalist party, the Shiv Sena. It also has a large Muslim population. Relations between the Hindu and Muslim communities are often tense, and any violence is likely to lead to reprisals.

On my way home from Mumbai, I read Suketu Mehta's “Maximum City”, a large part of which deals with the 1992-1993 Bombay Riots and features interviews with killers and politicians from both factions. Many of the gunmen that Mehta interviewed were members of criminal gangs whose leaders often live in hiding abroad. Organized crime, international terrorism, and local inter-ethnic tension are all mixed up in one lethal cocktail. One of the lessons that I took away from Mehta's book is that it wouldn't take very much to set off another round of killings. The danger is very great that this attack will be the spark that sets the whole city on fire. That may be precisely the intention.