I sure didn’t expect to be spending Thanksgiving morning sucking down instant coffee and flicking channels between CNN and the BBC. But the attacks in Mumbai are so big and, like they keep saying, “brazen,” that I stayed up late and got up early.
By now we all know the basics: Islamist terrorists swarmed over the rich/tourist parts of Mumbai yesterday, took over two luxury hotels and opened fire in the main train station. They’ve also seized several other buildings, though I still haven’t gotten an accurate count; some reporters were saying there were 17 different attacks in all, others 10.
What’s clear is that this was a labor-intensive enterprise. Terrorism is usually a matter of spending as few of your people as you can, but somebody connected with Al Qaeda or its Pakistani fan club decided to spend a lot of lives here. That’s what’s interesting, looking at these attacks cold-bloodedly.
Suppose you’re an Al Qaeda honcho deciding how to get maximum bang for your resources. Until now the solution has been bombs, most of the time. Because bombs can be planted by a few men, and if they set the timers right and keep a low profile, there’s a good chance those men will get away to plant more bombs another day. And since good men are hard to find, especially good men willing to risk having their fingernails pulled out in a police basement, that’s the way most terrorist movements decide to go.
Not this time. If these guys sent men to ten different locations in Mumbai, they spent a lot of lives. They’d have to assume that none of these men will come back alive. About half will die, and the rest will get some serious interrogation, then be shot “trying to escape” or be thrown into a deep, dark cell if they’re very lucky.
Suppose they sent ten men to each location. You need numbers for this sort of frontal assault in a heavily policed city, so that seems like a good number. Even if the real number turns out to be lower, say seven men to each location, that’s 70 supporters’ lives spent in one raid. Not the sort of thing that makes your Human Resources manager happy.
But it comes down to what you might as well call market forces, and in those terms it makes perfect sense. Supply and demand. Supply: it looks like the gunmen came from Pakistan by ship. Supplies of dumb triggerhappy young Pakistanis in a hurry to find martyrdom are basically infinite. Thanks to the CIA, ISI and Saudi funding, there are now more than 4000 madrassas, martyrdom academies, in Pakistan. They’re like the only rec centers da yout’ have there, and they work overtime convincing Pakistan’s young, restless and stupid that volunteering for a suicide mission is like winning a free cruise. Which, if these guys really did come by sea, it was.
Now quality, that’s a different issue. How much is the life of one of these cannon-fodder kids worth, to the movement? That depends on a lot of factors. If you’re that Al Qaeda HR manager and you had to construct your dream recruit, he’d speak unaccented American or British English; he’d be white, or East Asian looking; he’d be comfortable in urban/yuppie life anywhere in the West; he’d have a cool head, know how to smile like a car salesman all the time and talk sports; and underneath he’d have total Terminator dedication to the cause and be immune to the attractions of the evil world you’d be sending him to infiltrate.
But when you look at the recruits the madrassas in Pakistan have been turning out, you see how far short of those goals these rookies are. Most of them are slum kids or village kids who like the free food and the idea of shooting people, the two things any teenage boy is naturally drawn to. They’re willing to pull a trigger and they’re dumb enough to volunteer; that’s about all you can say for them. All kids are game, but that doesn’t mean they got game. These guys don’t know how to blend in the airport world, the business world; they don’t speak English at all, or if they do it’s the sort of mangled Rawalpindi English that sets red lights blinking at every border checkpoint in the world. They look Pakistani, and not that pale, tall kind you get with elite Pakistanis like that cricket guy. They’ve still got plow dirt under their fingernails.
In other words, these are your human resources and they’re, let’s say, of limited value. They’ll never be James al-Bond moles infiltrating Wall Street and the FBI. They’re dumb as mud bricks. But they’re also brave and willing to kill. How do you use assets like that? Not in the classic Al Qaeda way, sending them in one or two at a time to liaise with local Islamists and prepare for the traditional strike where five bombs go off at once. They don’t have the finesse. They’d be spotted as soon as they showed.
But there are a lot of them. You couldn’t get them into Manhattan, or London, but there is a soft target much closer to Pakistan where lots of American and British people hang out. Better yet, it’s the financial heart of India, Pakistan’s hated enemy, which gets the ISI on your side because nothing infuriates the Pakistani intelligence elite more than watching India get rich and popular while Pakistan sinks into miserable chaos.
Now when I say this gets the ISI on the attackers’ side, I’m not saying that every single ISI honcho in Pakistan knew and rubberstamped this plan on official ISI letterhead. Nothing is that simple in Pakistan. Everything is murky in Pakistan, even the air is pure murk. It’s more like some ISI honcho knows about the plan, gives it the unofficial nod of approval and passes it to some poor loser who’s expendable, who can be hanged or handed over to the Western “allies” when it’s all over as the traitor who collaborated with these evil militants.
This cutout lowlevel official sees to it that the ship leaving Karachi full of young, dumb, bloodthirsty madrass products doesn’t get stopped by customs. It steams down the west coast of India right up to the peninsula where all the high-value targets in Mumbai are concentrated. And if you look at a map of Mumbai (for the next few days you’ll have no problem finding maps of Mumbai), you see how easy it would be to land small boats from a ship off the peninsula by night.
The reason this was such a good plan is that it maximized the Islamists’ local assets. These guys aren’t smooth enough to get through normal hotel security to plant a bomb, but they didn’t have to be. They just stormed in through the front door, firing at full automatic.
That’s why this talk about whether security at the hotels was adequate is ridiculous. Hotel security is aimed at stopping sneak attacks, bomb-planters. To stop the sort of heavily-armed suicide squads that hit these hotels, you’d need a full platoon of infantry.
So what you see here is something economists would understand as well or better than traditional military analysts. I hate to sound cold-blooded, putting it this way, but what happened is that Pakistan’s islamists had a surplus of raw labor, and thought of a way to get it to a place where it maximized its global value in terms of pure blood and destruction.
Gary Brecher is the author of the War Nerd. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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