Sebastian Rotella Discusses the ‘Man Behind Mumbai’
Earlier this week, senior reporters Sebastian Rotella and Dafna Linzer talked about Rotella’s two-part Mumbai attack investigation. Rotella and Linzer have decades of experience reporting on terrorism and foreign policy issues, and they shared their thoughts about the story.
Explaining how Lashkar-i-Taiba recruited men for the Mumbai attack, Rotella tells Linzer, "They direct these 10 young men from the countryside, to Mumbai where they have never been before, every step of the way. Down to details like: how much ammunition to use, what settings to put their guns on, who to kill, who not to kill, what to say to the authorities when they are trying to negotiate things."
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Mike Webb: Hi. I'm Mike Webb and you're listening to the ProPublica Podcast. This past weekend, ProPublica and the Washington Post teamed up to publish the story behind the story of the 2008 Mumbai Terror Attack. It's an in-depth account of the key figures involved, the terror group Lashkar-i-Taiba, their possible connections to Pakistan's Inner Services Intelligence Directorate. And ultimately, what the Obama Administration is doing to stop Lashkar.
For this podcast, we had two of our national security experts talk about the piece: Senior reporters Sebastian Rotella and Dafna Linzer.
Rotella, who wrote the piece, has covered international terrorism issues for years as a foreign correspondent with for L.A. Times and then with ProPublica. And Linzer was a national security reporter for the Washington Post before she joined ProPublica in 2008.
The following is from their discussion, taped on Monday, Nov. 15. Here's Linzer.
Dafna Linzer: Sebastian, one of the things that really interested me in this piece was the professionalism of Lashkar i Taiba. How did they become so organized and effective? Take me through some of their growth
Sebastian Rotella: Well, they grow out of the late 1980s when a lot of jihad groups are formed fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan and based in Pakistan. But in the case of Lashkar, one of the reasons they have become so professional and paramilitary is because, from the beginning they were used as a proxy army by the Pakistani armed forces and intelligence against India in the battle for Kashmir. And throughout the '90s and into the early 2000s, they are pretty openly funded, trained, equipped and directed by the Pakistani security forces. So you have testimony in multiple cases, from the late '90s and early 2000’s, of Pakistani military instructors and intelligence people screening, training, talent spotting in these complex of camps that this group ran.
So even though the group is outlawed in Pakistan in early 2002, there is pretty strong evidence that the relationship continues. And as is seen, for example, in the Mumbai plot, that there is a role of Pakistani people and still of Pakistani intelligence and funding and directing the reconnaissance in Mumbai before the attacks.
Linzer: And yet here they are, so many years later after the 2002 decision by Pakistan. And suddenly, they are looking for American targets as part of their war here. How has the Obama administration handled this? I mean, they come into office and they are going after al Qaeda, they are going after the Taliban. I mean, they are focused sort of on the post-September 11 terrorism front, and this organization is looking for American targets. What happens?
Sebastian: Once the Obama administration comes into office, Mumbai has happened, so that was the big wake up. So the Obama administration basically comes into power as the counter terrorism agencies are scrambling to catch up to this threat. One of the things that I learned in my reporting was that the investigators on the ground who respond to Mumbai and are doing the investigation, the American investigators who are working with the Pakistanis and the Indians, discovered that there is just a fundamental lack of the kind of intelligence and background information that there was on other groups. You know -- photos, debriefings, organizational charts, and an in-depth analysis.
But the Obama administration, I think, steps into a whole new world. Because Lashkar has attacked Mumbai and they have gone out of their way in Mumbai to single out targets and people in a way to make sure that they kill Americans that they kill Britons and they kill Jews. So they have to include Lashkar in their game plan against Islamic terrorism.
Linzer: Do you get a sense, just sticking a little bit for a minute with the policy of the Obama administration that they want to do that. I mean can you imagine a scenario in which they are going to widen the parameters of the authorization to use military force for example to include Lashkar?
Sebastian: That's a very difficult area because Lashkar is a particularly difficult group to confront in Pakistan, because it has had these ties to the security forces and then because it has a political clout. I mean, Lashkar has a great political popularity, particularly in Punjab, because it runs charities and hospitals and madrasas, and because of its fight against India. So that's delicate. But certainly, the Obama administration has been compelled by law. Six Americans were killed in Mumbai and the investigation showed a lot of scouting and a lot of work done by Lashkar to go after western targets. So they have been compelled to after the group, both specifically in the aftermath of Mumbai, and also just realizing how much of a role it was playing as a threat, and how it had widened its war to really go after the west directly.
Linzer: Yeah. You and I have both covered terrorism for a long time. And when I read through your pieces and I was reminded of some of that, as you say some of that sort of broad work of an organization like Lashkar where there are charitable services, social services and then militant aims. You really get this sort of hide and seek nature of an organization like this. And you really bring that into focus when you really kind of target the man behind the operation, Sajid Mir. How did he come to gain so much power within the organization? And again, kind of take me through that whole hide and seek process that he has got going?
Sebastian: Well, I found the focus on him was partly because he just appeared in cases in fleeting glimpses since 2001, where you could sort of, by tracing his rise in the organization; you could trace the evolution of the organization. And because he ran the international wing or played an important role in the international wing, I should say, and he was in charge of recruiting westerners and doing operations overseas. What you realize in looking at him was that Lashkar, while everyone sort of saw it as this group focused on India and Kashmir, was even early in the decade doing a lot in the west and doing a lot of recruitment and talent spotting and financing. And even a plot, the plot of Australia in 2003 is something that he runs.
So the focus on him was because in late 2001, there is a lot of people coming into the camps, Americans, Frenchmen, Britons, Australians, people who he helped screen, train and then sort of cultivate as the ones he thinks have the most promises, operatives, including David Coleman Headley who goes on to do Mumbai.
And then in 2005, 2006, after he has done some of these operations or overseen them in the west and attempted this bombing plot in Australia, he shifts into a unit in Lashkar that focused on attacks on India. And then he brings those talents and those contacts and that experience from the international operations to bear an attack in India that will combine the targeting of India with targeting westerners and western and Jewish targets for the first time, explicitly. This all comes together in Mumbai.
And what's interesting about him too is, he is not the type of guy or this number two in that organization. He is kind of at a third level, but he is one of these characters that you and I have written about, the sort of front line operational people doing attacks on the west. And what again is amazing about his trajectory is this is someone who the British learned about, the Americans learned about, the French pursue an investigation where they actually put out an arrest warrant for him two years before Mumbai and then convict him in absentia. Yet, no one lays a glove on him.
And then he plays allegedly this front line role in planning and then directing Mumbai over the phone, and then pursues a plot in Denmark. Yet again, as far as we know, no one has been able to go after him, been able to catch him, and been able to find him, which is very disconcerting.
Linzer: It is an extraordinary tale. And we were discussing the sense of him creating his own myth, and basically directing attacks from a remote location. One of the quotes in this story that really stands out is when he himself says, "For your mission to end successfully, you must be killed. God is waiting for you in heaven. Fight bravely and put your phone in your pocket, but leave it on. We like to know what's going on." So is he able to inspire other people to their deaths while he hid out in the shadows?
Sebastian: Yeah, I think that's one of the things that is very interesting about this attack is, some of the techniques of both ideological training and then tactical innovations that go into it. He plays a central role in it because he is sort of the project manager. He is in charge of the scouting. He oversees the selection of targets; he oversees the training and selection of the gunmen. And then, of course, he has a particular skill, working as a handler. And so, he actually does this phone handling with guys he knows very well, in places he knows very well, these targets that the group knows inside out. But he and the other masterminds, and there are other masterminds, about half a dozen of them that are working with him.
One of the things that they come up with in Mumbai is, their gunmen are well trained, but they are not highly skilled. They are basically people, who as one Indian intelligence official said, "Had sworn to kill and keep killing until they died." But they weren't high powered commandos.
So what Lashkar does to compensate for that is develop this system where they know the targets well and they direct these 10 young men from the countryside in Mumbai where they have never been before every step of the way. Down to details like: how much ammunition to use, what settings to put their guns on, who to kill, who not to kill, what to say to the authorities when they are trying to negotiate things.
So that's one of the sort of, I guess, a high-tech attack in the sense that they are using sophisticated phone communications. They are watching the attack on television. At some point, they are Googling the names of hostages to find out if they are important, but it is also a very simple idea which is sort of remote control from a command post in Pakistan of talking with these attackers through every step of the action.
Linzer: Absolutely. And again, another thing that really resonates with me is. And the timing is extraordinary, as you say, talking about the end of 2001 2002. Again, all eyes are on Afghanistan, on Pakistan, on al Qaeda, on Taliban, on derivatives, on the run up to the Iraq war, and they are operating so successfully and so surprisingly are able to pull off an event such as Mumbai. You mentioned how he sort of slipped through the fingers of French authorities. How did they get wind of him in the first place?
Sebastian: Well, it is an interesting case where a Frenchman who trains at the same time as this class of late 2001 I mentioned, a mix of Americans, Australians, Britons and this Frenchman, Willie Brigitte. The French are looking for him because he is involved with a group of North Africans in Europe who were involved in a number of plots, both in Europe and tangentially in the assassination of Commander Masood, an anti Taliban warlord in Afghanistan, which was carried out by two North Africans based in Europe. So they are looking for Brigitte who had trained with Lashkar and who Mir had cultivated as an operative and at a certain point, Lashkar sends him in 2003 in Australia, connects him with an Australian operative. And he goes to work on a plot to do a bombing that is foiled and he is brought back to France and interrogated.
And the French realize that there are these connections that this Frenchman has been training with these Americans who had been arrested in Virginia, with a British guy very involved in financing and in weapons procurement, and with the Australian operatives.
And the French have very robust terror laws, as you know. And they start pursuing the case across borders, so they work with cooperating witnesses in the U.S. They get information from the Australians, from the British. And they realize that at the center of all these cases is this handler based in Pakistan who the French are convinced, by the way, was at that time at least in Pakistani intelligence or in the military, Sajid Mir.
And they built a very interesting case that lays out a lot of what was going on, again, that they prosecute him and convict him in 2007 showing that he is this figure who from Pakistan is remote controlling operations on four continents.
Linzer: And you write about French terror officials meeting with the top advisor to former President Bush when he was in office?
Sebastian: Yes, this French judge, Jean-Louis Bruguiere who is one of the top French anti terror magistrates and one of the best known terrorist hunters in Europe. A few months after that conviction of, Sajid Mir meets at the White House with a high-ranking official and says, "This case and others have reinforced my concerns about Lashkar and what's going on in Pakistan, and our investigation and other cases suggest to us that the regime is playing a double game, that some of these groups that are seen as being just focused on India and Kashmir are really much more involved in the global Jihad and close to al Qaeda and pursuing al Qaeda's goals, and has been accepted." What he says about that meeting is that basically he got what was the party line at the time, which is look that there are good guys and bad guys, and Musharraf is a good guy and they assure us that this kind of stuff is under control. My sense of that meeting is that they listen to him because they thought he knew what he was talking about and listened politely. But the policy at that point and the focus was not on Lashkar as a threat to the west. And there was a rude surprise a year later.
Linzer: This story that you have weaved together, it unfolds on several continents and explodes in between two key American allies at the moment, Pakistan and India. Why are we doing this? Why does ProPublica write about this? Why does this matter to us?
Sebastian: Well, it matters on a series of levels. I mean, ProPublica is about looking at questions of abusive power and of accountability. I think this whole question of this terrorist group and its connections to the Pakistani state is a question of accountability and abuse of power. And the question of these figures getting away with murder, whether they are terrorists or intelligence officials or former military officials is, I think, the kind of issue that ProPublica looks at. And there is an accountability issue on the American side. I mean, as you know, a lot of my reporting on this focused on this question of David Coleman Headley, who is Mir's key operative and plays a fundamental role, an American who plays a fundamental role in the scouting and the reconnaissance for Mumbai.
And one of the things that my reporting focused on is what was known about him. There were at least six warnings about him that were received over a period of seven years as he goes into Lashkar and does reconnaissance for Mumbai, and on a bunch of other targets around the world. So what did American agencies know about him? He had been an informant, so that creates another mystery.
So I thought, for a lot of reasons, it may not seem like a straightforward traditional ProPublica story. I think it really goes to the essence of what we do and the in-depth work we look at on issues that are direly important out there, in terms of justice and accountability.
Linzer: I am so delighted that we got to talk about this, because I think it really matters. And I know people who read the pieces are eager to learn more. Thanks again.
Sebastian: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.
Mike Webb: That was Sebastian Rotella and Dafna Linzer. You can read the complete investigation at ProPublica.org/Mumbai.
Before we go, I want to start a new closing segment for the podcast. Our regular readers might be aware of the "Officials Say the Darndest Things" Tumblr that we post to when we find an interesting quote from a public official.
So each week, I'm going to leave you with our favorite one for the week. And this week's Officials Say quote is, "In hindsight, maybe I should have done that, but I wasn't sure if I was allowed to do that. The police are trained to deal with these sorts of issues."
Go to OfficialsSay.Tumblr.com to put it all in context, and to find out who said it.
As always, thanks for listening. This podcast was produced by Quadia Muhammad. For ProPublica: I'm Mike Webb. We'll see you next week.
Transcription by CastingWords