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How voices caused greater damage than bullets during 26/11

Sandeep Unnithan
Sandeep UnnithanJul 19, 2015 | 21:12

How voices caused greater damage than bullets during 26/11

If you can tear your eyes away from the haunting visuals of a burning Taj hotel or the terrified hotel guests looking skyward at the smoking Oberoi, the November 26, 2008 terrorist attack is all about voices. The scream of a startled diner at the Taj looking into the face of death: a 21-year old AK-47-wielding terrorist in a five-star hotel. The agonising wail of a woman commuter of a long distance train at a platform of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) as she slowly bleeds to death, hit by lead sprayed by a terrorist jogging past the concourse. The howl of a Colaba resident whose legs are peppered with steel pellets from a grenade tossed from a Jewish guest house.

There are the other voices that emerge, spectre-like, from the mobile phones of these terrorists — the voices of the masterminds. This is not surprising. The Mumbai attack was a commando-type raid carried out by a terrorist group with umbilical ties to the Pakistani deep state. What would a military-style attack be without command and control? The orders were barked out by officer-handlers ensconced in a control room in Karachi’s Malir cantonment to their foot soldiers in Mumbai nearly 1,000km away. This persistent command and control, possibly the first for any terrorist attack in history, is one of the reasons that made the Mumbai attack so unique.

Terrorist commanders like Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi and Zarar Shah knew their recruits, high on fanatical bravado and training, had the energy bursts of sprinters. The masterminds wanted them to have the endurance of marathon runners. From their control room, the handlers urged them on, like frenzied sports coaches, to inflict maximum damage on the city. Nine of the ten terrorists were first-timers. The handlers made up for this inexperience with a barrage of astonishingly lucid tactical instructions. They urged them to start fires in the Taj to blot out CCTV cameras, then, capture Indian parliamentarians who had rashly revealed their location on Indian primetime television. They urged them to execute hostages without mercy, berated the terrorists when they sounded distracted by the opulence of the Taj, read out instructions on how to conduct hostage negotiations and finally, prayed for the speedy ascent of the attackers into the afterworld as they died one by one.

Care had been taken to ensure the handlers remained "ghosts". The barrage of voice over internet protocol (VOIP) calls were bounced off servers based half-way across the world. The terrorists used Indian SIM cards procured by the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). It was to be a plausibly deniable operation, ostensibly carried out by the Indian youth. But like so many other clues, the role of a foreign hand was revealed on the first night of the mayhem when joint commissioner of police Deven Bharti answered a ringing cellphone left behind by a fleeing terrorist at the Taj. The voices of instruction that continued as the terrorists prolonged their multiple sieges were recorded by Indian intelligence agencies. It helped investigators link the terrorists with the handlers and frame charges for the criminal prosecution that would follow. The voices also helped them ascertain, for instance, that at least one of the handlers was Indian because of the unique words like "prashasan" (administration) which he used.

Abu Jundal who hailed from Maharashtra was deported from Saudi Arabia in 2012. The Indian government has, since 2010, insisted on obtaining the voice samples of the LeT handlers. These samples when electronically matched with intercepts of the recordings submitted in a CD to Pakistani authorities, could provide irrevocable proof of the LeT’s hand in the attacks.

In 2011, Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), India’s equivalent of the CBI, petitioned the Pakistan high court to obtain voice samples of seven LeT accused, including Lakhvi, still in Rawalpindi’s Adiala jail. After four years, the FIA’s special prosecutor Mohammed Azhar Chaudhry said in a Pakistani newspaper interview published on July 18 that the voice samples of the masterminds cannot be used as evidence. This was because, he said, there was no way by which the accused could be made to give their voice samples, and because "the recordings made by the Indian intelligence agencies could not be verified". This astonishing U-turn by the FIA came just a week after the July 10 joint statement read out by the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan in Ufa, Russia. Both India and Pakistan promised to address ways to expedite the 26/11 case including the issue of voice samples. That was until the Pakistani deep state hit the mute button on its civilian establishment.

Last updated: December 10, 2015 | 20:25
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