Now that India and the world are over the initial shock of the terrorist attacks last month in Mumbai, efforts to understand what happened and prevent future calamities are being hampered in ways familiar to Israelis like myself, who have lived through far too many such events: pointless efforts to place blame, and a failure to put the attacks in the proper historical context.
First, contrary to much punditry in India and the West, these attacks did not indicate the emergence of a new form of terrorism. Actually, after decades in which terrorism had evolved mostly in the direction of suicide bombings, Mumbai was a painful reminder of the past.
The multiple hostage-takings and shootings, carefully planned and executed, were a throwback to the wave of hijackings and hostage situations that were the trademark of terrorists in the Middle East from the 1960s until the 1980s. The most famous of these events, of course, was the attack on the Israeli delegation at the 1972 Olympic Games.
In Munich, the Black September terrorists succeeded in capturing the attention of TV viewers around the world for a whole day. They knew most TV networks had sent crews to cover the Games and thus would broadcast the hostage situation as it unfolded.
The terrorists in Mumbai were even more successful, in that they created a drama that lasted much longer. They did so by aiming at high-profile targets like the hotels that are hubs for Western tourists and businessmen. They knew that viewers around the world would be glued for days to the constant stream of images on their TV and computer screens.
In addition, that the majority of the Mumbai terrorists landed from the sea was another ugly flashback. For years, terrorists favoured arriving at Israel’s beaches on speed boats to take hostages in residential neighbourhoods.
One of the most notorious perpetrators was Samir Kuntar, who in 1979 led a group of terrorists to the beach of Nahariya and shot a police officer and a civilian, Danny Haran, before smashing the skull of Haran’s 4-year-old daughter, Einat. Mr Kuntar was released this year from Israel in a prisoner exchange, and in Damascus was awarded the Syrian Order of Merit.
Yet, despite the horrific nature of the attacks in the past, from a counterterrorism perspective the events in Mumbai were even more worrisome. Though they did not detonate explosive belts, the attackers were truly suicide terrorists. They did not take their hostages for the purpose of negotiations and it is quite clear that they did not hope to leave the scene alive.
They also created chaos by attacking several locations at once. When the terrorists have the advantage of surprise, it really does not matter how well trained the counterterrorism forces are. It takes a long time to figure out what is going on, to gather tactical intelligence and to launch a counterattack. No one should be aware of these facts more than the Israelis who in the 1970s endured a series of similar albeit less sophisticated attacks.
Hence, I have been very surprised to hear Israeli security experts criticizing the Indian response. These experts probably forgot the devastating civilian death tolls of the attacks in Maalot in 1974 (22 Israeli high school students killed), at the Coastal Road in 1978 (37 murdered, including 13 children) and at Misgav Am in 1980 (two kibbutz members killed, one an infant). These incidents all illustrated the extreme difficulty of rescuing hostages even when the attacked state has highly trained forces and a lot of experience.
Yes, Israel enjoyed a few succe