Mumbai Style Attack in the US: A Skeptical Analysis

The Mumbai massacre may not be a “new” terror tactic. The mass firearms attack riveted the world in 1972 when the Japanese Red Army gunned down 27 people at Lod Airport. Since then the annals of terrorism have included innumerable other examples, most notably al-Gamaa Islamiya’s 1997 Luxor Massacre in which 59 tourists were murdered.

Still, the Mumbai attack stands out in its scale and has led many analysts to wonder if the mass firearms and bomb attack will be tactics of choice for the next 9/11. A useful way to examine this proposition is to invert the question, and ask, “Why hasn’t this already happened in the United States?”

Mass Shooting in the US

Considering the relative ease of acquisition of firearms in the United States and the general freedom of action (we have no internal checkpoints) it would appear that the Mumbai type attack is easy to carry out. Terrorists creative enough to seize airplanes and to use as guided missiles should not have readily grasped a concept that has long been a Hollywood staple. What’s more, the United States has a lengthy history of domestic mass shooting events – although none close to the level of the Mumbai attacks.

But a casual glance at the mass shooting attacks in the United States reveals a potential barrier to a Mumbai-style operation. Disturbed individuals carried many of these mass shootings out. Some had deep psychological problems (such as the VA Tech shooter) while others were at the least very impulsive (such as the July 4, 2002 LA airport shooter). Individuals operating in this manner may cause substantial mayhem on their own – but their ability to engage in long-term planning within a team is likely to be limited and that will also mitigate the amount of damage they can do.

(The closest the United States may have come was the DC area sniper, who did use careful tactics. But that attack went on so long in part because the sniper remained at the fringes of a metro area, rather then trying to penetrate a central and highly symbolic target.)

Physical barriers to committing mass firearms attacks in the US are limited, but it appears that there are other barriers.

Strategic Thinking & the Kashmiri Network

Successful terrorists select their tactics based on the cold, hard logic of their capabilities and what is effective in terms of achieving their goals. The Kashmiri Islamists had links to organizations that employed suicide bombers and drank from the same ideological well – but they did not employ this tactic. This was, in part, a function of geography. After being indoctrinated and equipped a suicide bomber has limited range. The farther they travel, the more likely they will be to abandon the mission. Thus suicide bombers were extremely effective in places like Iraq, Israel, and Sri Lanka where the networks could insert the bomber relatively close to targets.

Kashmir is much less densely populated and has very difficult terrain. Terrorists infiltrating Kashmir have to travel long distances and are likely to encounter Indian security forces before arriving at a population center. The Kashmiri terrorists adopted fidayeen tactics of infiltrating small teams of gunmen who could both massacre civilians and effectively engage Indian security forces.

Teams are essential. The Kashmiri terrorists receive extensive training (about 40 or 50 days.) This training not only schools them in tactics, but also indoctrinates them further into the cause and prepares them to take human lives. The training also fosters the small group dynamics (excellently detailed in Marc Sageman’s Understanding Terror Networks) in which the individual group members systematically reinforce one another and keep the group committed to the mission. Without these dynamics, the small teams hiking through the Himalayas into Kashmir might quickly lose their motivation. The attack on Mumbai was an increase in the range and scale of these types of operations – a difference of degree, not kind.

Back to America

To carry out a similar attack in the U.S. would require either training the attackers here, or inserting them from elsewhere. Both are possible, but neither is easy.

In Kashmir there is a network of training camps, a pre-set structure. Here, a group of radicals would have to self-train. Possible: of course, but not easy. Without a formal structure, could a dozen Americans (many with jobs and families) put themselves through this rigorous program and stick to it over months – without anyone noticing?

In fact there have been several self-starting cells, and they seem to get rounded up fairly early.

The other option is to smuggle the operatives in. But this is also difficult. While America’s borders and coastlines are poorly protected (and penetrated by smugglers almost constantly) this doesn’t mean that terrorists will necessarily have an easy time of it. Sailing direct from Karachi to a U.S. coast in a vessel small enough not to be noticed would be an impressive act of seamanship. More likely the terrorists would move more closely to the United States (for example to Latin America) and then infiltrate. But would they have the local contacts to acquire guns and transport without being noticed?

Most Latin American intelligence agencies are extremely concerned about being the base for an attack on the United States and would be on the lookout for such an infiltration. And the more operatives that are involved in the attack, the greater likelihood one will be detected.

Anything is possible and none of this is to argue that the United States should be sanguine about a Mumbai style attack. Border and coastal security ought to be strengthened for many reasons. Law enforcement should train for the “moving shooter” scenario. Intelligence connections with neighboring countries should be further strengthened, and most importantly the United States must develop effective strategies to keep young people from being recruited into terrorist organizations. But to develop effective and appropriate counter-measures, terror threats should be assessed soberly – as dispassionately as the terrorists themselves develop their tactics.

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29 Responses

  1. One obvious factor is the disinclination of the American Muslim community to engage in violence and anti-American extremism. Had this community been receptive to the siren song of violent extremism, the past eight years would have looked very different. This community is in fact an undervalued asset in the struggle against Muslim radicals.

  2. Most police departments train to the “Active Shooter” scenario versus the SWAT structure used so ineffectively in Columbine. In fact, because police were trained in active shooter response, the death toll at VA Tech was much lower than it could have been because the police almost immediately began to engage the shooter, not wait until SWAT arrived.

  3. I wonder if the level of concealed weapons carried by legally armed citizens might not also have an impact on the planning of a mumbai style attack

  4. You neglected to mention the many holders of a concealed gun permit, or the excellently trained and equipped SWAT teams quickly able to respond, thus mitigating the scope of such an attack. Any such attack will of course create panic and confusion at the onset. In Mumbai, with no quick or adequate response, this continued. In the US, you would find a very quick and forceful response.

  5. We need to instill in our citizens a Flight 93 ‘always resist, never comply’ mentality–which doesn’t necessarily mean instructing unarmed people to foolishly rush the terrorists in a Mumbai-like scenario; but rather, encouraging people to do all they can to hamper the attackers, not waiting like compliant sheep for the authorities to arrive, reminding them that these blood-soaked, death cult fantatics don’t want hostages for old school reasons of barter, PR, and money for the cause: they want victims, they want body count. These maniacs want your life? Make them work for it.

  6. While I appreciate that it would be difficult to do such a long term attack here. The fact is that there are already various camps on the continent where this type of terrorist training is suspected, Islamberg, NY for one and there are others. That these places have not been dismantled is what worries me.

  7. OH, why worry? The American people thought they’d be safe with the left’s messiah. So let the chips fall where they may. Personally, I’ll never vote for someone who promises to cut and run. It only begs terrorists to attack. This was left out of the article. Everyone with a brain knows that Obama has no fight in him. You can always take chances when you’re up against a chump like that.

  8. 10 terrorists took over Bombay, a virtually unarmed city. The police at the radio station cowered and did nothing. They had ancient rifles and poor training. I was reminded of the virtual cowardice of the Columbine SWAT team. The heroes seem to have been the staff at the hotels. Perhaps they should fire the police and hire some of the hotel staff. Bombay, a major financial center, should hire Blackwater to protect and train their people.

    The owner of the Taj hotel said that he had great security at the front of the hotel. What about at the back?

  9. I would also note that in NY at least, the NYPD keeps a large number of dispersed, heavily armed emergency response teams. I don’t know if they are all fully trained in SWAT tactics, but they are well armed and armored and tend to be near high value target. A single team might not be enough to fully thwart an attack on its own, but they could disrupt and attrit the attackers, buying time for other forces to respond. The NYPD has a deliberately disbursed and redundant anti-terrorist capability, so it cannot be decapitated as was the case in Bombay.

  10. You forgot one important fact in your analysis:

    The police are armed in the US and many private citizens may be as well.

    No gunning down Indian cops armed only with bamboo rods.

  11. This is an ill-informed post.

    First, you neglected the “America has armed and trained police” aspect sure to mitigate the destruction of any similar massed small-arms based attack.

    Second, as noted here in the comments, our *populace* is better armed than the Indian police. While a civilian with a pistol is unlikely to down a trained terrorist, *how trained* are the terrorists comes into consideration.

    The Mumbai attackers do not appear to have been master insurgents– skilled, with good planning, and dedication (possibly drug-fueled, if reports are to be believed). Their success stems in large part from the complete inability of the Indian security forces to do jack to stop them.

    Finally– as far as training is concerned, what training are we talking about? This isn’t learning how to fly commercial airliners– *paintball* could be enough training for this kind of attack. In large swaths of the country, all you need is a farm big enough to have a rifle range and you can familiarize yourself with weapons. Even better, if you want to improve your accuracy is just split up and do marksmanship training individually– a few thousand commercial gun ranges in America would be more than happy to accept an interested gunman’s money.

    There’s nothing preventing terrorists from training for and executing a similar, or in fact, *more effective* version of this attack here in America. Except, of course, all the reasons why such an attack would never be easily replicated here (again, we are an armed nation).

    Other than all that, your post was completely spot-on.

  12. Well said! There is little new about the tactics in Mumbai. It only appears new since the ineptness of the responding forces magnified the effects of the attack.
    Armed terrorists assaulting any number of targets has occurred many times in the past few years. In Saudi Arabia the attacks on the compounds in Riyadh included a frontal assault combined with explosives, the attack on the US Consulate in Jeddah was an armed attack and of course there are the examples you provide which pre-date 9/11.
    I submit to you that these terrorists took advantage of a largely unprepared country to execute this particular type of attack hence its success.

    Bruce Alexander
    Executive Protection News

  13. Thank you all for the terrific and thoughtful comments. A response deserves a full post in its own right – which I will do later today.

    Thanks again,
    Aaron Mannes

  14. In several reports about the attacks, as well as some comments here, I’ve seen references to the “WW II era” or “ancient” rifles that the Indian police/security officers were equipped with. This is a good example of someone not knowing what they are talking about. In India, this would make those rifles (and I saw one in photos of police during the attack) the famed Enfield rifle – one of the finest weapons ever devised.
    They would be rechambered in .308 Winchester (7.62 NATO) or maybe even original .303 British (just as good). Any adequately trained person should be able to hit any person they can SEE with that rifle – and we’re talking 200+ yards here. Heck, my dad has an old Enfield I shoot at 200 yards several times a year, and unless there’s a typhoon or something I’ll hit the five inch steel target ten out of ten times almost every time. Loud noises don’t kill people (spray and pray). Accurate fire does.
    There wasn’t an equipment issue. There was a training issue! A man with an Enfield is infinitely better armed than virtually any street cop in the US (sidearm and maybe a shotgun in the cruiser), and for a counter-terrorist role, far better armed than the terrorists were with the comparably inaccurate and less powerful AK47. (lots of loud noises and few hits)

  15. “That these places have not been dismantled is what worries me.”

    A few years back, our landlord had rented out the neighboring apartment on what is called a “Section 8” deal. The state of California subsidized the rent. While I think it may be a nobel ideal, in this case, the tenent proceeded to turn it into a crack house (or crack apartment)

    The police busted the tenent, and did so in a very quiet way. They kept her business running for 3 days. Someone would come to the door, try to buy some drugs, and the undercover cops would invite them in, then read them their rights, and hold them in the back bedroom. When business was slow, they would bundle them out the door and away to jail.

    So maybe there is a reason why such camps are still open. Some may have legitimate business with certain sections of American society. Some may simply be waiting to “train” jihadis so they can take them down before they have any chance of hurting anyone else

  16. there is another point to ponder

    there are some of us out here that take to heart to protect the motherland

    experienced combat retirees that are legally armed and make sure we are a extra eyes and ears for fed and local agencies

    a mumbai attack here may be possible but they better plan on the 72 virgins

    3x tour nam vet
    swift boats

  17. I completely agree with some others who have suggested that concealed carry could play a strong role in deterring them from attempting such attacks, at least at crowded areas. In India they were virtually assured that the only resistance they would meet would be from armed and uniformed security, that isn’t the case in the US where 1/100 people have concealed carry permits. They wouldn’t be able to move as freely or shoot as indiscriminately.

    Of course, there are some vulnerable areas, notably College Campuses which prohibit concealed carry (for whatever reason) and have, in many cases, minimal security.

    Now I’m not saying that the average concealed carry permit holder is ready to go toe to toe with well trained insurgents, but all it takes is a couple rounds from a 1911 to put someone down, and it isn’t that hard for me to wait for you to turn your back and put half a clip into you, as you run around spraying fire.

    The other issues is that the American response, whether with SWAT or special forces is liable to be far more effective then the Indian response. There won’t be a 50+ hour shooting spree in the US. Our police force is better armed, trained, and organized, especially to react to such an attack.

  18. Don’t forget us concealed weapons permit “crazies.”

    There is something to be said for having an armed populous.

  19. Jawbreakeralph1

    In the event of such actions on U.S. soil, the planning, operational format, logisitical, training facitities, or arms procurement, it would not be hard to think of a senerio in which a like minded group could go un-detected. It is more likely that they would over-step their confidence and give up at least one individual to the end result of the operational tempo. That is to say that the probability of one member rating out the rest is extremely high and therefore would cause a disruption in their tempo and planning stages. This in my experience, has always afforded the correct agencies to become activated and a response level desiginated. I believe this type of incident is highly likely because of the populations inability to reconize the threat before it becomes operational. Most of our citizens are not trained to reconize the small characteristic signs of a individual or small groups mental changes that are required of individuals to convert to this type of mentality and actions. There is the question that has, in my belief, plagued the intel system since 911, what if the natives are given false info regarding an attack upon its citizens. How will they react, and to whom will they vent their anger. This is a concern that has not been fully vented in my opinion and should be one of the many informational dialogues between the authorities and the population.

  20. While Mumbai style attacks in the US will not be easy, as the nation spirals into economic peril two frightening vectors must be recognized and redressed. First, desperate people do desperate things. The wildly expanding divides between thehaves and thehavenots in America creates and nurtures the environment wherein people who are desperate and see no hope for remedy, and also see the superrich, the predator class get superricher, and more immune and protected by the day – are ripe for violent reactions to the despair and desperation. The justifications (right or wrong) would not be religious or political, – but economic.

    Secondly, as many states fast approach bankruptsy and face dire fiscal threats that will force reductions in funding for police and intelligence, or homeland security and first responder operations and training – weakness in the seems of the nations ability to secure soft targets can and will likely be exploited by enemies of America and desperate people foriegn and domestic.


  21. I agree with most commenters that the Mumbai formula would not work nearly so well in the U.S. Working in dispersed pairs, the attackers could cause great disruption and casualties, but the problem they would pose to responders is not too different than the active shooter scenario that most city, county and state SWAT teams prepare for. And, as pointed out, armed citizens will certainly constitute a deterrent to planners contemplating attacks by dispersed individuals or small teams, and might well disrupt such an action if it were executed.

    A related threat that we should take more seriously is one modeled on the Beslan massacre in Russia (South Ossetia)in 2004. A cohesive and well-trained platoon-sized element of fighters, operating together to seize and hold a high-value, symbolic, but undefended target could have enormous impact — and would be beyond the capability of all but the largest and most proficient SWAT teams to defeat. I won’t belabor the point because I made this argument in some detail, in an article titled “Paramilitary Terrorism — A Neglected Threat” in Homeland Security Affairs IV:2 June 2008:

    We can take some comfort in the apparent difficulty our enemies have encountered, and which the original analysis here addresses, of infiltrating, equipping, training, rehearsing, and staging for such an attack. But that will be cold comfort on the day of execution, if we haven’t prepared a response capability equal to the task.

  22. Excellent points Anonymous 8:14pm. One huge difference between America and India would be the response. Mumbai style attackers in America would be quickly countered and mowed down, – but though they could inflict casualties, it would end much more swiftly.


  23. Based upon all the other previous comments, I will add my two cents. If they decide to target a high value area like NY or LA, they will run into heavier and better trained Local police…and even Federal Agents. Remember that the main Federal LEO building for the NY metro area is in NYC. However, the general population does not conceal carry. The anti-gun, leftist politicians in those major metropolitan areas have made sure of that.

    If they decided to go after more suburban or rural area, the local police will be overwhelmed. The flip side is that the general civilian population is probably better armed (both quality and quantity) The terrorists will run into an angry civilian mob (a la Beslan school attack) that will chase them down like rabid dogs…and probably finish them off in the same manner.

    Dave Bean

  24. The main article is interesting in a theoretical sense; and on the surface poses valid questions as to why there has not been a Bombay style attack in the US.

    However I find the logic flawed. As in many of the responses which mistake conjecture for fact.

    For instance, the disinclination (or not) of American Muslims to “violence” is irrelevant to this analysis. A red herring.

    And the article writer could have written a similar piece on September 10, 2001, wondering out loud as to why the US had been spared a further attempt to cause massive death since the relative failure of the 1993 WTC van bombing.

    I can think of one scenario right now were four Islamic terrorists on a suicide mission, could kill vast numbers of Americans in a few minutes.

    Apart from the fanatical desire, all they would need are the most basic tools available to any US born citizen, with no criminal record and a drivers license.

    They wouldn’t have to train in the US, like their British Pakistani cousins they can easily disappear for a year or two oversees for automatic weapons and van bomb training.

    Anyone who thinks this isn’t being plotted already, is fooling themselves.

  25. The American Muslim community is not yet an asset because the American Muslim community is small. However, it is growing, and the recent convictions show that their radicalism is growing and that they are taking the initiative to train themselves. All have either legally or illegal obtained firearms. What is more worring is that Muslim compounds like Islamburg are serving as centers for both the indoctrination necessary for Bombay like actions, but also the training for such actions.

    Previously, paintballers and other training methods, like just shooting in in abandoned quarries, such as were exposed in Oregon, were relatively easy to uncover, but places like Islamburg are isolated from law enforcement and non-Muslims are prohibited from entering. Federal law enforcement, like the FBI, ATFE, and DEA have been given orders to ignore these compounds and instead concentrate on white nationalist groups. Under Obama, it is even less likely that any intelligence operations or enforcement activity will take place against any Muslim front group.

    The nature of the American Muslim community is also changing. Most were Palestinians who were fairly secular, but having a radical leftist leadership, but most of the Palistinians were merchants or in the sciences and technology, mostly because it was easier for the edicated elite to emigrate to the U.S. However, Muslim immigration to the U.S. soon changed, becoming mostly relatives of Muslims already here and not restricted by education or wealth, or refugees claiming oppression in monarchial societies who executed political opponents. Most were radical Muslims, with the ideolgical basis of jihadism already part of their ideology and social structure in the U.S. These new Muslim immigrants brought the open practices of radical Islam; the segregation of women, the headscarf and other forms of dressing, the building of Wahabbi sponsored mosques, the imporation of radical imams from Saudi and Indian maddrassas, and the indoctrination of the young.

    The new radical Muslims usually come from Somalia, Yemen, Islamicized Palistine, and Iraq. All are beneficiaries of the asylum and refugee programs that are rife with fraud and our immigration laws that are biased in favor of family members and no effort is made to prohibity the entry of persons who are opposed to constitutional government and certain basic freedoms that America stands for.

    Their ideology is reinforced by their segregation from general society and the imporation of radical preachers under the R-1 visa program, that is used to staff their mosques.

    Radicalization of the mosques continue, with Saudi money given exclusively to radical mosques and moderates driven out through intimindation. These radicals have allied themselves with the inner city Democratic Party machines, academia, and the Obama movement.

    While the first generation of Muslim immigrants were not radical; were are in for a rude awakening and the lucky breaks we got with the Lakawana Six and the New Jersey sell starter cells will probably not be repeated and mostly for two reasons above: more closed Muslim compounds and an Obama Administration that does not consider the support network for radical Islam to be a problem. The future DHS Secretary is well known to be opposed to the whole idea of arresting illegal aliens, much less the legal ones who want to destroy American. The self-hating Americans like Obama and Governor Napolitano just don’t see a problem with radical Islam, as radical Islam is part of the Democrat machine.

  26. And, as to the point of an organized active shooter situation perpetrated by Muslims you overestimate the trainign needed for such an attack.

    First, we don’t really know much about what happened in Bombay. The press is full of contradictory information.

    We were told that the whole thing was directed by blackberry, satalite phone and cell phone. We were told that the terrorists brought their weapons with them, but what I read about the terrorists they were issued five magazines, 200 additional rounds, and a few handgrenades.

    Well, I can tell you that as someone who has done urban combat training, you go though that amount of ammunition in about an hour. The terrorists held out for days, even considering the incompetance of the Indian security forces, it just tells us we know nothing about what really happened there.

    What we can compare this to is the North Hollywood shootout several years ago where two bank robbers with legally obtained semi-automatic rifles converted to full automatic, and with thousands of rounds of ammunition and easily obtained 75 round drum magazines, held off the LAPD for hours, only being killed when they separated and ran out of ammunition.

    This only tells us that a better motivated and supplied cell of Muslim fantics could cause great harm in the U.S.

    However, because of the vunerability of the still small Muslim community, I don’t think the radicals will allow anything to happen at this point because they know the reaction to any new mass terror event will result in severe unofficial and official sanctions. Any major event under Obama will destroy his administration, cause the white vote to return to the Republicans and result in more restrictive laws.

    I believe that the Muslim community will continue its radicalization, but will seek to avoid any terrorist event. However, Pakistani radicals from overseas, probably with UK passports, are the wildcard, as they are completely opposed to the West and have the numbers to impose their will locally in the UK, and therefore think they can establish a Muslim state. We only just missed their version of 9/11 with the liquid explosive plot. They are a wildcard and will serve as examples to domestic cells that that are self-starters and no directly commanded by the radical Muslims working with the Democrat Party machine.

    However, if we look at the Somali community, which is completely radicalized, they are sending their young back to Somalia to wage Jihad. How long before they start waging Jihad in Minneapolis?

  27. Federale – Thanks for your comments. I’m glad to have such serious readers.

    First, the technical skills needed to commit a mass firearms attack aren’t too demanding. But, I’d still argue that a substantial amount of indoctrination is needed to do it. Most of the mass killings carried out here in the US have been by people who appear to have been nuts. (The LA situation was a bank robbery gone bad – a different animal I think.)

    Crazy people make bad terrorists and sane people need to be indoctrinated. Conducting the required level of training/indoctrination without being noticed is not easy.

    You make a lot of other points. Whatever one thinks of the new administration, I don’t think they want to see major terror attacks on their watch. There are a lot of different tools to keep tabs on communities of concern.

    While the US Muslim community is less radical than those in Europe, there are signs of creeping radicalization and we need to develop effective counter-strategies.

    No question, that Pakistanis in Britain are a cause of concern. The Brits monitor that community closely, but it is a population of about 400,000 – there aren’t enough spies to keep tabs on all of them. Still, the need to get to Pakistan for training and then get here. There are several points in that chain in which they can be intercepted.

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