Indian investigators are only beginning to sift through the wreckage of three terrorist bombings in Mumbai today. Suspicions have immediately turned to Pakistan-connected militant groups. Whatever the investigation uncovers—and it's still very early—one thing is clear: Those groups still operate despite international pressure on Pakistan after the Mumbai attacks of nearly three years ago.
Today's coordinated rush-hour explosions, which killed at least 20 and wounded more than 100, were smaller and less sophisticated than the meticulously planned strike on Mumbai in November 2008. During that three-day rampage by the Lashkar-i-Taiba militant group, 10 gunmen targeted Westerners and Jews, killed 166 people and left India and Pakistan at the brink of war. Testimony at a recent court trial in Chicago revealed that officers of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, helped Lashkar fund and plan that maritime assault on Mumbai. Commando-style raids are Lashkar's signature.
In contrast, initial reports indicate that today's attack involved bombs planted in strategic locations, a recurring tactic used by Indian affiliates of Lashkar in recent years. In 2006, bombs planted on suburban Mumbai trains killed more than 200 people. Authorities blamed the Students Islamic Movement of India, which, along with another group, the Indian Mujahadeen, has been trained and directed by Lashkar and elements of Pakistani intelligence, according to Indian and Western counterterror officials.
"These groups still have the capacity to strike not just in Mumbai but around the country," said an Indian counterterror official.
The counterterror official and other experts said that while the investigation has just begun, it is likely that Lashkar, a close ally of Pakistani security forces, played a direct or supporting role in today's attacks.
Pakistan arrested Lashkar's military chief and a few other suspects in the 2008 case, but their trial has stalled. Although the United States and Indian governments have pressed Pakistan to dismantle Lashkar and other militant groups, most of the suspected Mumbai masterminds, including veteran Lashkar chiefs and a major in the ISI, remain at large.
Pakistani officials refuse to pursue those suspects, who have been identified publicly, according to U.S. counterterror officials. The major in the ISI and three Lashkar chiefs have been indicted by U.S. prosecutors for the deaths of six Americans in Mumbai. Western and Indian intelligence officials have warned in recent months that Lashkar remains intent on attacks in India and on Western targets.
"That whole crew from the 2008 Mumbai attacks is still sitting there," said Praveen Swami, a journalist at The Hindu newspaper and a respected national security analyst, in a telephone interview today from Delhi. "They haven't done anything big since then. This could be a testing of the waters. It's worth remembering that there were a number of smaller attacks in the buildup to Mumbai."
Recent smaller bombings have included a blast at a bakery frequented by Westerners, which killed 17 in the city of Pune last year. That attack probably had Lashkar links as well. David Coleman Headley, a confessed Lashkar and ISI operative who pleaded guilty to scouting targets for the 2008 Mumbai attack, also conducted reconnaissance in Pune, according to his testimony during the recent trial in Chicago. Headley did that scouting for Lashkar defectors who had joined al-Qaida, an evolving trend that has affected Indian Islamic militants as well and could be relevant to today's attacks, Swami said.
Headley's revelations led to the unprecedented U.S. indictment of the suspected ISI major, another flashpoint in the escalating conflict between the United States and Pakistan since the slaying of Osama Bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town. During the past week, Pakistani leaders criticized the Obama administration for accusing the ISI of involvement in the murder of a Pakistani journalist and withholding $800 million in military aid.
Today's attacks could also turn out to be part of that shadow-conflict. The ISI uses militant groups as a weapon to strengthen its position in the dangerous triangle of Pakistani relations with the United States and India, according to Western and Indian counterterror officials.
Pakistan has denied any role in terrorism. Pakistani leaders issued public statements today condemning the bombings in Mumbai.