Sunday, Nov 27, 2022

'I Still Don't Think That People Have A Full Understanding Of What Happened On 26/11’

Excerpts from a conversation with author Adrian Levy, about his 2013 book narrating the 26/11 Mumbai attacks and the truth of it all.

'I Still Don't Think That People Have A Full Understanding Of What Happened On 26/11’
Journalist-author Adrian Levy
'I Still Don't Think That People Have A Full Understanding Of What Happened On 26/11’

Twelve years on, the tragedy that besieged the city of Mumbai for 68 hours, and longer after that, continues to grip a nation -- a moment piercing through time. In 2013, British journalist and author Adrian Levy attempted to explore this moment with fellow journalist Cathy Scott-Clark in their book The Siege: The Attack on The Taj.

It was an extensive investigation that hinged on first-hand reportage, personal testimonies, official records, and multiple accounts to weave together the events that led to the 26/11 attacks and its aftermath. The duo has built an oeuvre that deconstructs complex histories and puts them together as a fact-based narrative. Their previous works include reportage in and around Pakistan, Kashmir, and Russia -- with books including The Meadow: Kashmir 1995 – Where the Terror Began and The Exile: The Stunning Inside Story of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda In Flight.

The Siege

Adrian Levy, who has been associated with The Guardian and other British print media outlets, has reported on events in Burma, Russia, Cambodia, and Pakistan amongst other places. He is also an acclaimed filmmaker, with his sharply-directed documentaries for various channels including the BBC and The History Channel.

Outlook’s Saumya Kalia talks to Adrian Levy about the makings of The Siege, the importance of coming back to stories, and the resonance it still carries today.

Q) The Siege came out seven years ago. How do you think the book has aged? Is it still relevant in a new decade under a different leadership?

Well, the book isn’t a crystal ball gazing exercise. So in that sense, it's not about policy. Although it reflects on what may have gone wrong and what went right. It has no sell-by date. It is an attempt to gather for the first time witness statements, metadata, facts and figures, an accurate chronology and place people in a setting. It is, after all, a political and human tragedy. In that sense, it will be around for as long as people want to read it. There are certain things that have not turned out well. In the sense that deep understanding and deep secrets take the longest to come out, and it is always the first draft of history that is the least reliable. That goes for the new stories written immediately afterwards. The more we stick with the contacts and characters and participants who helped us with the book, the more revelations appear. 

If we were writing The Siege now, the book would be in some ways different. Because we have a much deeper understanding of the political forces on both sides...of the intelligence prior to the attacks and the pushes and pulls around the world, which led to 26/11 and what was known by all sides. To me, this will always be a big an ever-expanding project, because we haven't yet reached the point where we actually know everything that happened.

Q) After 9/11 and 7/7, extensive inquiries into intelligence failures were undertaken by governments in America and Britain. In India, has the Pradhan Committee report led to any accountability? 

No, because the specifications for what’s required wasn’t fit for purpose. And that also is because of many different reasons -- political reasons -- no one really wanted to get to the very, very bottom. Because certain institutions are insecure or may not be strong enough, they didn't want the full weight of criticism. What you saw after 7/7, were thousands of pages of evidence which were in the public domain. And I think 7/7 in particular, was extraordinarily critical of the government, of the intelligence service, of the police, of all security services by domestic and foreign. In an attempt to make them better, to make processes better, and in an attempt to also balance our personal liberties with an understanding of what happened and why we didn't know stuff. 

And Pradhan was the opposite of that. Maybe it's because of institutionalised security, maybe it's because of the fear of breaking morale, which I understand. But the decisions that were taken, we can't necessarily have confidence in that report. While a robust discussion perhaps happened inside institutions. There have certainly been changes, a lot of changes in India. Until we were to understand exactly what happened, it would be very hard to know what has changed and what reforms would be adequate. And I still don't think that people have a full understanding of what happened on 26/11.

Taj Hotel on 26/11

Smoke engulfs the Taj hotel on 26/11, 2008

Q) You said in an interview that the attempt of the book was to tell people the story of 26/11. Can you rewind and take us through what was the story that finally emerged?

Well, there are many different kinds of stories. The first to know is, of course, that this is a raid that emanated in Pakistan and that ended up in India. Those facts don't change. And it's the most important headline: a group of insurgents prepared, funded, planned an extremely high-level operation, which would be a seaborne operation that ends up in Mumbai, and causes devastation. Politically, humanly, morally, commercially, and doing something to the confidence of the city and the confidence of India. So that's the head-on, that story doesn't change. 

But the most important aspects of the story that do change are what the raid was for, what it hoped to achieve, who was behind it, and what was known. And those questions one has to continually ask oneself and reach out to get answers to the truth. Every available primary and secondary source in order to get through to the roots of 26/11, things become very interesting there.  You study the history of Pakistan's implosion after 9/11, and how Pakistan was basically under siege, as elements of its security forces turned on themselves. You get a perfect storm of jihad outfits like Lashkar-eTaiba, JeM etc, along with disaffected members of the intelligence service in the military, forming an amalgam with Al Qaeda. And those groups, their sole goal is to break down states. 

Trident Hotel

Trident Hotel was one of the targets on 26/11. PTI Photo/Mitesh Bhuvad


Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj terminus on the eve of 26/11 anniversary. PTI Photo/Shashank Parade

Q) Why and how?

We understand much more because we have their cable traffic, we have intelligence, our primary interviews with nearly all the groups, and we understand that that goal within Pakistan was to smash the American pact, to destroy Musharraf, to destroy the nascent democracy in Pakistan and replace that with a caliphate. All of this informs and becomes the backdrop to what happens in 26/11. 

It's really important to understand what they want to achieve. The first thing they wanted was to trigger a war between India and Pakistan, to create an event that would be beyond the pale, that no one could support. They would benefit by creating a power vacuum inside that state of chaos and lawlessness, effectively a failed state. There are more chances of erecting a caliphate which of course would be anti-democratic, a sectarian caliphate. And that undoubtedly was their goal.

Mery petition

The mercy petition filed by 26/11 Mumbai attacks' hanged convict Ajmal Kasab before the President. PTI Photo

But then on the other side, there are other problems with this, which is that what we've learned post 9/11 is that every country fights obviously for its narrow self-interest. And the knowledge that has now trickled out is that a huge amount about the planning of 26/11 was known by many countries. Many different countries shared elements of that intelligence, but maybe not enough was shared through common forums for everyone to understand the full picture. So Britain had a very particular insight as to what's going on in the planning stage, America had a very particular and accurate insight too. And these insights were passed to Indian intelligence. And yet the whole picture was not knitted together. And the second factor which sits alongside that is the job of security services and the intelligence is to answer, to think the unthinkable -- that is their job.

And yet the unthinkable was not thought. So a combination of prior intelligence, the geopolitical situation, the mapping of those Islamist forces in Pakistan, all of these things were known. And many more particular things were known as well, right from 2001. Everyone had been watching Lashkar-e-Taiba, from Kashmir, Muzaffarabad, down to Karachi, for example. Why would they do that? 

But for some reason, the whole picture wasn't knitted together. And the question that we need to ask is, why? And look at how those questions have been asked within the services and outside. The Pradhan inquiry report was only 68 pages, which is really, really quite remarkable considering it was a watershed moment for India and the world.

Zakiur Rehman

26/11 plotter Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi after his court appearance in Islamabad on January 1, 2015. File Photo

Q) Would you say this was an avoidable tragedy? 

Well, that’s a very hard thing to say, especially in a situation like this. Could India have prevented an attack like this? I don't think we should answer that question. What I think we should answer is what was known, what was the picture that was emerging, what role did intelligence and assets play to make that picture complex and detailed. And we know much more about that now. We know what was the idea with some certainty now. A more controversial question to ask is what everyone’s goals were at the time. The goals of the military, of security service in India. And was any decision making politicised? Was it strategic in a way that the public might not know? If we knew how much people knew, why wasn’t there a better picture that emerged? 

CST firing

Bloodbath: Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus after the 26/11 attack

Q) Do you think being an outsider confers an advantage to your body of work? 

It's good to be an outsider, full stop. You remain somebody who is your own person. You remain someone who asks questions. I've said this before, you have to be an insider-outsider, you have to be an outsiderly-insider. In that, you have to build contacts over many years -- two, three decades. And you have to take people with you; some will still be your friends and your contacts and some will hate you. And you have to maintain that level. 

So there are many complex things in that -- not being seduced by contacts, continually asking questions, even when it gets boring and annoying. Until you get a clearer picture of what's going on to create your own hierarchies of information,  your own chronologies, mapping as much material as you can and revisiting episodes and knowing when you're wrong. I mean, the joy of online books, as well as having digital versions of your books, is that you can revise manuscripts which were written at the time. When we were writing The Exile, so much came to light after the book came out in primary sources and secondary sources, with people and officials, that we revised large sections of the book. The new version that was sent out this year, in May/June, is radically different from the first version. And that's part of it: how you can make stuff better, how you can learn or how you can tease out more information. And where we make mistakes, we've also visited those mistakes, and information comes right back to people who weren't beyond our reach. And we have to include that in and explain why that was missing. So it's more of a dialogue, the book becomes more of a dialogue these days. And requires a lot more vigour to get things right. We'll put different versions in and be clear that these are versions of history rather than complete stories.

Does it help being foreign or an outsider? Well, you know, it's just a different tension. In some ways, it could take much longer to get into a story because people are concerned by your prejudices as an outsider. But then in other ways, you may act as a confessor to people who believe that by telling you something informally, it makes you an ally as an outsider. So I think it rubs both ways.

Q) What made you zoom in on 26/11?

For a big event like this, 26/11, we visit as often as we can not only to remember the tragedy and the human cost, which remains extraordinarily real and painful for most of the people involved, and for the city itself. But also because the answers weren't readily available. So coming back to it again, in an unsensational way, teases out very controversial threads. There’s so much to learn. 

There are also outstanding policy issues which sound boring but still, they never get addressed. The chartering of intelligence agencies, giving them adequate oversight, making sure they're part of the democratic process rather than outside, making sure that you can't politicise intelligence and track the input in the right direction, making sure the agencies work for a secular state rather than a sectarian state. Those are the issues that 26/11 addresses and essentially every country is looking at answering if there is enough oversight. I think 26/11 will always be one of the most momentous events for so many reasons. It still stands out as what was coming -- the idea of remotely controlling a group through phones and cable TV is remarkably simple. In the same way that 9/11 is remarkably simple. It doesn't take a huge bout of insanity, a small fire was enough to guide it.

Police officers in Mumbai

Security personnel scramble outside the Taj Hotel. Dinesh Parab/Outlook 

Q) You've said how even after 26/11, people didn't take it seriously. Why? 

There are loads of different elements to that. There’s a tendency to move on. It's a big mistake to move on if you don't understand where you've been. The people who came through it directly, the survivors, the families of the dead, the staff at the Taj, members of the public who waited, members of the security services and special forces. There's no help offered to anyone in that sense. It's down to them to find the means and create the groups to give themselves strength.  Of course, that probably is true of every tragedy. I've noticed that there's outreach between a lot of these tragedies, so for example, people who survived 7/7 reached out to people in 26/11, likewise people who survived 9/11 have been in contact with people that come through all of these tragedies. 

It's a difficult one to think about, isn't it? Was there enough attention paid to people who went through it? Probably not. But that's also true of other countries too. It's really important to know that this isn't a video game -- it's not shoot him up, it's not Hotel Mumbai -- it's a city. And it's a complex organism and so many people were hurt, emotionally, physically and were scarred, really by it. People did extraordinary things to recover -- I always like to say that it is a city that saved itself.

Cafe Leopold

Leopold Cafe, which was targeted by the attackers, was back in business within a week. Apoorva Salkade/Outlook India

Q) Do you think the book did anything to help closure or give answers to people?

Well, I certainly hope so. The attempt was to create a record of what happened, and modify that as we know more. Also to make sure that was a memorial, and to commemorate it. In an attempt to say this event matters, that it would continue to resound and let people read it and get to know more about the people who were involved in 26/11, who came through in 26/11. See it from the eyes of the people -- whether be it from the Kasabs of this world or a banker who was trapped in the Taj Hotel. I would hope that it continues to have resonance and we can add to it. The most important thing is to continually come back and add to it and give people more knowledge and get more out for ourselves. 

We ourselves don’t ascribe any great value to any of the work that we do; we try to as best as we can, and then make it back to that. What we don’t do is, we don’t just give up. We’re on this stuff for years and years -- sometimes it can take 10 or 15 years to get close to people. When we were looking at the kidnappings in Kashmir [for their book The Meadow], it was 15 years before we actually thought, well, we might write that. And I think not being in a rush and trying to wiggle your way in and having the ability then to modify that in the future when you no more and correct your mistakes, where you were wrong, that also helps. 

But people still would like to correct versions of themselves or correct events as more things come back to them. In situations that are so emotionally fraught, it's very difficult to create an entirely accurate page, so what you have to do is drag out a consensus. You have to put together so many versions of a single story and then see from that. And I think we have tried to do that.

Q) The book is dotted with personal perspectives and testimonies. How did you choose what to keep, what to disregard?

Well, the suggestion is to go for what serves the story. That’s the most important thing. When we talk about the real story, I’m talking about real events -- what serves the telling of these real events, what will help people get through them. This is such a difficult question and everyone has got different answers as to how they build these accounts. But nothing is wasted. We may write 160,000-190,000 words, may end up cutting 100,000 words, but all of those words are saved in folders. And then there'll be a time to repurpose those situations, those interviews, those characters. For us, because it's all part of overlapping work, nothing's wasted. Something will be needed for a situation or contact, involving a certain picnic we had for instance in Kashmir that will come out and go into another project, a new documentary. So when we'll start making and when we're filming and we could have that segment fitted if we're doing something on 26/11, we can use that. So everything is part of a toolbox. You'll come back to it, you'll reuse it, you'll reutilize, there's never waste on purpose.

It's all knowledge, about gaining more skills by looking at people who are better than yourself, and repurposing the material for new projects. The business of storytelling is so 360 degrees -- there's the world of podcasting, feature documentaries, episodic documentary, streaming platforms. The book is just one facet of a universe where you want to revisit a region and come back to situations and I think that's the way that we see it.

CST casualty

A Policeman in civvies exhorting people to stay low falls after a stray bullet hits him at CST. He died later. File Photo

Q) What issues from India, and South Asia in general, pull you?

There’s a sort of weird process.  There are different pushes and pulls. Documentary has one series of triggers, the characters have to tell a story. Books have another, each medium has different triggers to what makes a story work. But the region is full of extraordinary people, and the people make extraordinary stories. And the politics is also fascinating. The history -- recent and ancient -- it's diverse, you're never short of input and output. It's just extraordinarily amazing, there's so much life to think about. 

And there are different triggers. What is it that makes something worth investing so many years on? It's difficult to know. I had no intention -- we had no intention -- of writing a book about using the lens of the kidnapping, the abduction in Kashmir [for The Meadow]. And when it happened, even though we were there, we just looked at it and didn't understand what was going on. We just kept learning more and more, more. 

There has to be an opportunity -- there has to be a coming together with the right people in the right place. A meeting, a dinner, you'll meet someone who will tell you something fascinating and you think, okay, let's begin this again. Let's go back into the drawer, full of 100,000 extra words and see what we can put out and see what there is to know. 

More than that, it’s about being curious -- in the process of self-education, wanting to know more, learn more, get better. Look at what everyone else is doing, read everything people are doing, watch their films. There’s Once Upon a time in Iraq, which is on BBC and PBS Frontline, a lot of people would think why would you tell the story of the Iraq invasion again in 2003 when we're in 2020.  But it was just reconstructed. It was such a brilliant sea of archive, these theatrical interviews. It makes you realise that the choices and the decisions you make in the retelling are key to our understanding of events that we thought we knew. Don't let 2003 pass and it's the same with 26/11 --  don't let the moment pass.

Q) The Indian media was at the receiving end of criticism for broadcasting rescue operations live. What are your views on that? 

Media during 26/11

Cameramen and NSG men jostle for space in a building opposite Nariman House where the terrorists were holed up. Dinesh Parab/Outlook India

But that doesn't happen anymore, does it? I think everyone's wiser after the fact. If there was another crisis, all of the instruments are in place to shut down those networks. I think there'll be different pressures that have emerged -- there are different elements of technology they used against us. It's not about intelligence agencies and the media and there's no catchall solution to these things. 

If you look at Europe, Europe is affected deeply by similar attackers, from the left and the right. It's from religiously-motivated or politically-motivated attackers. And they’ve become active online, particularly with the lockdown.  India will be confronted by new and devastating attacks too that it would need to understand.

The Pulwama attack is a really interesting case. The more you come back to Pulwama, the more you'll see the pushes and pulls, which are not that dissimilar from 26/11. An inherent, intense push India into a war with Pakistan. That would benefit groups that were on the verge of being crushed out of existence. And that leads to another thing, which is after Pulwama if you come back to today's situation, you see where those groups have ended up. They're all in Afghanistan -- in training, in waiting. They've moved out of their traditional areas into another state, which they believe is heading towards a failed state. Certainly one word for this is lawlessness after having planned attacks in India and elsewhere. Everything's worth coming back to.

Q) Is jamming media broadcasts during security and defence operations something you endorse?

Media outside Taj Hotel

Media camp outside the The Taj Mahal hotel. Dinesh Parab/Outlook 

think everything has its own sensitivity. I'm not a war reporter so I don't have to deal with the issue of an embed. I don't have to deal with the issue of reporting in a live situation. I'm somebody who likes to wait and then come with Cathy to a situation and get inside that situation. And then be as close to it as possible when the different pushes and pulls are clear, the intentions other than the live event. 

Obviously, a live event curtails what one can say. Freedom of the media to do that and to be a sharp tool rather than an owned tool. And to be unscented, free-ranging, intelligent, bright, and to continually ask uncomfortable questions is vital rather than being servile. We're in such complex, difficult areas. There are so many points and questions that all of this raises. A lot of this has come about because of populism around the world. Populist leaders who disliked the press, America has led the way in that. And the Trump administration has led the way in destroying truth. And so it's really important for all of us to look at this and not just feel fatigued and depressed, but find ways around that. The truth matters. And it can take a long time to get to the truth. 

The truth can be really complex, and it may not just be a concern about being absolutely right. It may be just what 20 people will agree on, let's hear those views, let's assemble them. Let's not rush. The National Security implication issue, that's to do with a live operation. There are many concerns, obviously, which we can't make judgement calls on. But afterwards, let's ask those questions, let's get to the truth, let's stop the politicisation of news where we can't get to the truth, we just get two versions, which are spun by sources that are never named. It's a curse all around the world -- America is really suffering with that now, with the attempt to either throw the election. I don't think in my lifetime I've ever seen anything like that.

Q) Post-26/11, there were a lot of disjointed accounts, conspiracies, inaccuracies. Given the prolific amount of fake news today, how do you separate the wheat from the chaff? 

It’s really hard, there are lots of fakes and deep fakes. There were fakes and lies from both sides in Pakistan and India [during 26/11]. I mean, people I really respected, extremely well-educated, well-travelled people increasingly tried to tell me that the entire 26/11 was a false flag operation by the Indian intelligence and Kasab was actually Indian. And there was this really great story doing the rounds amongst extremely intelligent, clever, very senior ministry officers in Pakistan saying that Kasab was actually from AP.

The reason they believe it is because there are so many puzzles that are never properly solved, so many incidents and massacres and firings and bombs which have clouded the origin. Whether that be from the assassination of Zia onward, what brought down the plane, the case of exploding mangoes. There so many unexplained events that take place that one could believe anything. Getting to the truth does matter. It’s really important to know that not everything is a morass of lies and fiction. There are some more basic truths in here. We have to stop the alarmist, the lying, the attempt to denigrate. And events that need some credible responses. There are credible responses -- they're things that we can say about the 26/11 that we know. You could know everyone involved in the operation, who was running it, who their parents were, who their uncles were. 

And this is also something we'll talk more about next year. How much of that is known by people in India and what they chose to believe and chose not to believe. The truth does matter. 

Q) What’s the next book going to be about?

In the future, I hope to tease some of the issues out myself in a book that’s coming out next year in India. It will be sort of an oral history of RAW and ISI, and the clashes between them and the evolution. Not the entire history because that would take probably hundreds of volumes and no one would ever read it, but the key events of these war and terror years, this epoch coming through the last 20 years. What fashioned those events, and what was some of the thinking behind it, exploring people who don't normally talk.

Q) You’ve talked about Mumbai and its resilience...


Dinesh Parab/Outlook 

You know, it's important to emphasise that so many positive things that came out of 26/11, which I still feel every time I go to Mumbai. It's the city that managed to save itself through unlikely and surprising ways as always. It might be that there are far deeper human resources in there. Mumbai is resilient, creative, diverse, natural, and a group of people who came together over three days did extraordinary things. It's important to reflect on all of that -- the human-engineered cruelty of those Islamist groups that manipulate and create terror, all aspects of it. And so it's not all gloomy things, apart from the fact that we're in lockdown and facing a pandemic. 

Q) You said you wanted to make a lesson out of Mumbai, and also present this book as a tribute to the city. Has that lesson been learnt?

I don't know, really, but I hope so. It is a city I love, and I just keep trying to come back with different work involving different people in the city, which is all so positive and full of life. Some things have definitely improved -- like the sharing of complex intelligence between multiple agencies. I think more of that sharing is taking place in a multiple-agency approach. There are lots of lessons probably to be learned. And you should ask members of security services and the police, about what they want to see in terms of funding and professionalization, the support for law and the judicial system, these are so important. 

At the end of the day, I wouldn't ever describe it as adding value. I would never say “Oh, I’ve done this for this reason” to create a tribute. To memorialise it was our motivation for going about the project. But that doesn't mean that I believe that’s what people needed; it’s for people to take what they want from it and for us to improve, and we’ll always come back to it.

Also Read | Mumbai Terror Attacks: What Happened On 26/11?


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