Like most people, I was shocked and saddened to hear of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India last week. Close to 200 people dead so far, with untold numbers more injured. It is a tragedy of terrible scope.
Speaking as someone who works with violent crime survivors, I can attest that there is a hidden cost that very few of us will ever see. Thousands upon thousands of people were involved with the victims, from family members and close friends to coworkers and casual acquaintances. Most of those people will find their lives have been changed, and rarely for the better.
Although hardly an expert on terrorism, I have been paying attention to the issue over the years. I thought I’d share a few thoughts.
The first thing that struck me, as the reports of the carnage trickled in, was that this smelled like a Hail Mary play.
The flashiest and most capable international terrorist groups, such as al Qaeda, have taken it on the chin for the past few years. Our invasion of Iraq five years ago, as well as our efforts to build and nurture a liberal democracy built along Western lines, created an irresistible target for the jihadists. They have been spending their resources at a dizzying pace in an effort to sabotage the process of nation building. Although still dangerous, they are now but a shadow of what they once were.
But other terror groups have also been aggressively pursued by Western security and intelligence services. al Qaeda might have borne the brunt, but they are all in the same boat.
Terrorist groups rely on donations and other support from people who share their prejudices and goals, just like any other NGO. Besides ferreting out the foot soldiers and leaders that plan the terrorist attacks, law enforcement agencies across the planet have also moved to clamp down on the money those terrorists need to fund their ghastly work. This has hurt them where they live because private donors who perceive an NGO as being ineffective will look for a more capable group when the collection plate comes around. There is less money being donated, and the terrorists are seeing even less of that because it is harder to hide the fact that it is being used to fund terrorism.
So it appears to me that this is a big push, a final effort to garner support from like-minded radical Islamists before the last of the hidden money and arms is seized.
I doubt that this attack is the work of a single group, although I have no real evidence for this opinion. It just seems logical to me that an organization big enough to put something like this together on their own would have been under greater scrutiny by the security forces in India. But an ad hoc collection of smaller groups might have been able to slip under the radar, pooling their resources for one big event. Considering that India has been having trouble with terrorist attacks for decades, and that their intelligence services enjoy a reputation of competency, it seems incredible that a large international terrorist group on the scale of al Qaeda could pull something like this off. We will have to wait and see if this is the case.
I would wager that we will see a small spike in terrorist activity in 2009, as the news of this attack energizes and inspires supporters of terrorism to dig deep and show their love. But I suspect that it will be temporary, and quickly squashed. It wouldn’t surprise me if the overall global death toll from Islamic terrorist acts continues to fall for the next year, and we see less dead bodies in 2009 than we did in 2008.
Now I would like to discuss something that is closer to my own area of expertise.
There is a now famous eyewitness account of the attacks which states that several armed police officers failed to draw their weapons and fight. Instead they took cover and cowered with the civilians they were charged to protect, even refusing outright to take action when their own deaths were but moments away. (Hat tip to Steven.)
This seems absolutely incredible to Americans, but it is understandable when one considers the efforts that have been made over the past 50 years to bring realistic training to US law enforcement agencies. There has been a fair amount of speculation across the blogosphere as to why most of the police officers on the scene acted the way they did, but I bet it would be obvious to anyone who spent even one day observing classes at a police academy in India that their training falls far short of preparing the average street cop for real combat.
And let us not forget that training takes both money and time. Ammunition expenditures and replacing broken or worn out equipment is not cheap, and entire countries have been known to skimp on the ammo their military needs to train so they can defend the homeland. Some beat cop who is just supposed to direct traffic, write tickets, and arrest those who are drunk-and-disorderly is much farther far down on the list of priorities.
I’m willing to bet that there is going to be a major overhaul of the training programs for most of the India law enforcement agencies in 2009, at least for the agencies in the big cities. In light of the terrorist attacks, this has been long in coming.
Could a similar attack, where a score or more of armed terrorists attack a crowded financial and recreation area, take place here in the United States? Sure, it could happen. But I bet that the terrorists won’t be able to achieve such stunning success if they tried that here.
Besides the fact that US police are almost certainly better able to correctly respond to such an attack in order to minimize the death toll, there should be some help from private citizens if the terrorists are not smart enough to carefully choose the city where they commit murder. Although there are some areas of the country where people are not allowed to go armed, those areas are shrinking. I just wish they would disappear altogether.
A private citizen armed with a hidden handgun won’t be enough to stop a large scale terrorist attack, but they could do their bit to whittle them down some.
“I couldn’t stop the whole bunch myself, but I could cause them problems, maybe take one or two out of the equation. And, being from OK, I’d have the knowledge that there’s a fair chance someone else with a gun would be handy to help out. Kind of makes the job of the bad guys more difficult.”
So we know that there probably won’t be a terrorist attack of this type in Oklahoma because a stunning success is unlikely. I bet the terrorists know this, too.