Lessons from Mumbai: Assessing Armed Assault Threats to the United States

Report Homeland Security

Lessons from Mumbai: Assessing Armed Assault Threats to the United States

December 10, 2008 18 min read Download Report
James Carafano
Senior Counselor to the President and E.W. Richardson Fellow
James Jay Carafano is a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges.

For three bloody days in November 2008, Indian police and military forces battled heavily armed and well-organized groups of terrorists who fanned out across the city of Mumbai. Armed terrorist assaults against populated areas will be neither an unprece­dented nor a remote threat in the future, and Mumbai offers lessons for the United States in how to respond to such threats.

Effective counterterrorism, intelligence, and infor­mation-sharing programs are the best way to prevent organized conspiracies from undertaking armed assaults, using vehicle-borne explosives, or employing other common terrorist tactics. The best way to mini­mize the likelihood that such attacks will be successful is to develop an integrated approach: a homeland security enterprise that promotes joint action linking law enforcement, emergency responders, and federal capabilities (such as the U.S. military) in a common effort to save lives and property.

Unthinkable But Possible

While November's armed assaults in Mumbai were horrific, they are not unprecedented. Russia, for in­stance, has experienced a string of similar incidents undertaken by Chechen separatists.

  • In 1995, 1,000 hospital patients were held captive at Budyonnovsk, near the border with Chechnya. Russian troops stormed the hospital twice, and more than 100 civilians died during the effort to retake the hospital grounds.
  • In October 2002, 50 heavily armed Chechen rebels seized a Moscow theater, holding hun­dreds hostage. They booby-trapped entrances with mines, strapped explosives to some of the hostages, and rigged a large bomb in the center of the theater. Russian Special Forces pumped the theater full of gas, and more than 100 hos­tages died from the effects of that gas.
  • On September 1, 2004, a well-armed group of Chechen rebels stormed a school at Beslan in the North Caucasus. Armed with automatic weap­ons and explosives, they took more than 1,000 hostages. After a bloody stand-off, 334 hostages were killed.

Even the United States has not been immune to the danger of planned armed assaults. In August 2005, a Pakistani national was arrested in a terror­ism investigation of a possible plot to attack the Israeli consulate, California National Guard facil­ities, and other targets in Southern California. In 2007, the FBI arrested six men from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, for planning an armed assault on Fort Dix.

Threat and Response

Armed assault is a category of threat that includes a range of weapons and tactics traditionally associ­ated with terrorist activities, from car bombs to kid­napping, sabotage, and assassination, to weapons rarely employed in the United States such as surface-to-air man-portable missiles, rocket-propelled gre­nade (RPG) launchers, and suicide bombers.

Traditionally, bombs--particularly surface-deliv­ered bombs--have been the weapon most often employed in terrorist attacks. Bombs can deliver significant destruction at modest cost, require little technical skill, can be assembled with commercially available materials, and leave a minimal operational signature that might compromise security and sur­prise. Indeed, numerous illicit Web sites include instructions on everything from assembling impro­vised explosives to large-truck bombs.[1]

The United States has been far from immune to the threat of bombing since long before 9/11. Bombs have long been a favored tactic for criminals and domestic terrorists. The Department of the Treasury recorded 2,757 bombing incidents in the U.S., resulting in over $50 million in damage, in 1996 alone.[2]

With each major bombing attempt, new security measures are adopted, making public infrastruc­ture, high-profile objectives, and government facili­ties less accessible targets. Nonetheless, many assets remain vulnerable to terrorist strikes. Even as addi­tional defensive measures are employed, rather than discarding a highly desirable and proven form of attack, enemies may adjust their courses of action by refining previously used tactics; seeking new cre­ative means for delivering weapons, such as various forms of suicide attack (even hiding explosives internally in human bodies); attempting to generate explosions by sabotaging hazardous material; searching out critical weaknesses in security sys­tems; or shifting to unprotected targets with high potential for economic disruption or psychological effect such as entertainment venues, cultural icons (museums, monuments, historic sites), office build­ings, universities, or shopping malls.

One terrorist conspiracy attempted just such an innovation. In 2007, authorities arrested four men for plotting a significant explosion at John F. Kennedy airport in New York City by igniting the pipelines carrying jet fuel to the airport.

Terrorists might well seek alternative forms of attack to demonstrate their ability to strike America. Acts of sabotage, kidnapping, raids, and assassina­tion may increase in frequency. They also might attempt to introduce weaponry not normally used in the United States, employing tactics and devices used frequently elsewhere including rocket-pro­pelled grenades; shoulder-fired surface-to-air mis­siles; suicide bombers; small, ground-launched rockets; or improvised mortars fired by timers.

Again, some have already tried. In 2003, the U.S. government successfully intercepted an attempted arms sale of a shoulder-fired Igla SA-18 missile capable of downing commercial aircraft three miles in range and two miles in altitude.[3] The novelty of such attacks in the United States would probably deliver added psychological damage out of propor­tion to the physical destruction inflicted.

There are some legal and international restric­tions that may make it harder to obtain certain weapons suitable for armed assault. In December 2000, 33 nations signed the Wassenaar Arrange­ment to stem the proliferation of man-portable air-defense systems.[4] Various statutes and federal and state regulations also affect the import of weapons and the sale of explosives.[5] But the opportunities to sidestep these barriers, particularly for obtaining small arms and limited amounts of explosives, are numerous. In addition, weapons and explosives can be fashioned from many common materials, and individual armed assaults are not beyond the ability of almost any terrorist group.

While the United States is highly vulnerable to individual attacks, staging an integrated campaign of frequent, major strikes faces serious obstacles. The more ambitious and well-organized a campaign is, the more difficult it will be to support. The more operational activities required to prepare and mount an operation, the more vulnerability there will be to sacrificing security and surprise. U.S. law enforcement has gained much experience address­ing large-scale conspiracies from years of battling organized crime. Similar tactics can work in com­bating transnational terrorist conspiracies.[6]

Armed terrorist assaults might be useful in any number of scenarios. They could be part of an anti-access campaign, sabotaging key facilities in the United States to prevent the deployment of U.S. forces.[7] They might be used as a threat to deter or coerce the United States. Alerting authorities to potential attacks, however, could sacrifice the ele­ment of surprise and allow time for countermeasures to be taken. On the other hand, since it is relatively easy to create a credible armed assault threat, decep­tion and hoaxes could be effective instruments for a cost-imposing strategy designed to force the United States to adopt excessive responses, such as expen­sive new security measures.

Armed assaults could also be an integral part of a protracted war strategy designed to weaken the country over time. For example, terrorist groups might launch a series of strikes, hoping for an aggressive response by law enforcement authori­ties that might be seen by the American popula­tion as threatening civil rights. This in turn could generate a backlash against the government and create social unrest.[8]

The challenge for any terrorist employing armed assaults in the United States is that the attacks are unlikely to prove decisive by themselves. Individual attacks are among the least likely ways to "bring America down." A protracted campaign, on the other hand, could represent a significant danger, particularly if it capitalizes on other serious eco­nomic or social problems. Transnational terrorist organizations are shifting away from calibrated, lim­ited acts of terrorism, designed to shape public opinion or provoke a specific response from the tar­geted state, to the unconstrained use of violence intended to inflict maximum carnage and funda­mentally change society. Attacks cease to be a psy­chological weapon to influence behavior and become a means to another end: physical destruc­tion. A distinctive feature of these strikes is that their purpose is justified and articulated in extrem­ist messianic, apocalyptic, or millenarian terms.

There is little question that this trend is real. By some counts, the number of groups claiming to base their actions on religious or ideological extremism grew from two in 1980 to 11 in 1992 to 26 in 1995. In 1995, worldwide, a religiously motivated group perpetrated every terrorist act resulting in eight or more fatalities. There was also a sharp increase in attacks, beginning in 1999. Destruction and casual­ties from attacks by non-state enemies, even before 9/11, had risen steadily.

By most measures, the lethality inflicted per attack has increased over the past decade.[9] Accord­ing to the Human Security Project, the rate and number of transnational terrorist attacks, as well as the appeal of radical extremist agendas, have been declining in recent years, but the number of casual­ties per attack is on the rise.[10]

The trend toward higher levels of violence is most significant because the increasing lethality of terrorist strikes has been achieved not with weapons of mass destruction, but with the instruments of armed assault. For enemies looking for an easy way to inflict fear and casualties, armed assault is among the best options.

A revival of state-sponsored terrorism could pro­vide new sources of sanctuary and support as well. One possibility is that a state may opt to conduct covert armed assaults against the American home­land in support of a regional competition with the United States.

Iran offers a case in point. Iran routinely employs terrorism as a means to advance its regional security interests and reaffirm its commitment to the found­ing principles of the Iranian revolution. Its support for terrorism has waxed and waned over the course of the past three decades. There is no evidence that the country has sponsored or is contemplating attacks on the U.S. homeland, but it still views ter­rorism as a legitimate weapon and has sponsored acts to advance its own interests at the risk of regional stability. If Iran perceived supporting attacks against the United States as being in its inter­est and calculated that it could avoid attribution or otherwise protect itself from U.S. retaliation, it might well represent a serious threat to the homeland.[11]

Preventing Battlefield America

The best way to deal with the threat of armed assaults on the United States is to prevent attacks from being planned in the first place. Since 9/11, effective counterterrorism, intelligence, and infor­mation-sharing operations have proven to be the best means to keep the nation safe from terrorist attacks of all kinds.[12]

Criticisms of post-9/11 efforts to protect the United States from attack range from claims that America is more vulnerable than ever to the conten­tion that the transnational terrorist danger is vastly overhyped.[13] A review of publicly available informa­tion about at least 19 terrorist conspiracies thwarted by U.S. law enforcement suggests that the truth lies somewhere between these two arguments.[14]

The list of publicly known arrests of alleged ter­rorists demonstrates conclusively that the lack of another major terrorist attack is not a sign that orga­nizations have relinquished their essential goals. A number of plots conducted by individuals have been prevented as a result of the increase in effective counterterrorism investigations by the United States in cooperation with friendly and allied govern­ments. Continuing these operations, which include sound, effective, and lawful intelligence, surveil­lance, and investigations, is one of the best weapons in America's arsenal for the long war.

Clearly, some of the most controversial measures since 9/11 have proven to be the most effective. These measures have neither undermined the health of American civil society nor undermined constitutional liberties as many critics contended they would. In particular, Congress and the Admin­istration should continue to:

  • Rely on the investigative authorities estab­lished in the USA Patriot Act. In the wake of the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York on September 11, 2001, Congress passed the USA Patriot Act.[15] Among other things, the act pro­vided additional authorities for the sharing of information between law enforcement and intel­ligence agencies and granted additional powers to fight terrorism, primarily law enforcement tools that had already been used to fight other serious crimes. Congress stipulated that these powers would expire unless reauthorized by law. In 2006, Congress extended the investigative authorities in the Patriot Act. These powers have been used to conduct counterterrorism investiga­tions. Congress and the Administration should not change or undermine these authorities.
  • Exploit the authority to monitor terrorist communications worldwide as provided under the FISA Amendments Act of 2008.[16] The capacity to monitor terrorist communications is essential for building an intelligence picture of the threat and focusing investigations.
  • Develop the Information Sharing Environ­ment (ISE) under the office of the Director of National Intelligence. Established by the Intel­ligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, the ISE exists to create a "trusted partner­ship among all levels of government in the United States, the private sector, and our foreign partners, in order to detect, prevent, disrupt, preempt, and mitigate the effects of terrorism against the territory, people, and interests of the United States by the effective and efficient shar­ing of terrorism and homeland security infor­mation."[17] The ISE is essential in promoting effective integration and cooperation among fed­eral, state, and local anti-terrorism efforts.

Fighting Back

It is unrealistic to believe that all homeland secu­rity measures will thwart every attack, every time. In particular, armed assaults and vehicle-borne explosive attacks are tactics that are within reach of any modestly funded and committed terrorist group. But if the U.S. government takes the offen­sive, it can take the initiative away from the terror­ists, lessen their chances of success, and mitigate the damage they cause. Washington should therefore:

  • Retain an integrated approach to homeland security. When an explosion happens, the gov­ernment cannot delay its response until it knows whether it is a terrorist attack or an industrial accident. The nation needs to respond with alac­rity, and that means taking an integrated "all-haz­ards" approach from the local level to the national level. Therefore, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) must remain an integral part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Removing FEMA from DHS would re-create gaps and vulnerabilities that were eliminated when the Homeland Security Act of 2002 created DHS.[18]
  • Stop wasting money. The lion's share of finan­cial and material support should be targeted toward state and local public-preparedness programs in those areas of the country that are at greatest risk--where terrorist attacks and catastrophic natural disasters are most likely to occur.Legislated mandatory distribution of resources based on fixed percentages to states and major urban areas must finally be elimi­nated. Congress should consider a forced fed­eral funding model similar to the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process where agencies work with an independent nonparti­san commission that develops a proposal. Con­gress and the President have the power only to accept or reject the whole proposal with­out amendment.

    States should take the lead in codifying the Tar­geted Capabilities List (TCL) established by DHS to identify the highest-priority needs for disaster response. They should require biennial risk and capabilities assessments to identify capability gaps and ensure that grant fund appli­cations do not request any capability not listed in the TCL or exceed the capabilities that are deemed essential. Because every state or locality faces unique challenges, it is critical to develop a tier structure that helps states and localities to identify the appropriate level of security they need so that jurisdictions neither overinvest nor underinvest in capabilities.

    All communities must be assisted in developing a base level of preparedness. All communities face the threat of pandemic diseases and recur­ring natural disasters. The federal government should highlight best practices and develop and promote baseline community preparedness standards. A good example is the Council for Excellence in Government's "Readiness Quo­tient" index.[19]

  • Revise National Disaster Scenarios to include armed assaults. The Department of Homeland Security uses 15 disaster planning scenarios that include both natural disasters and terrorist attacks to identify common capabilities needed by responders and to serve as a focus for plan­ning and training exercises at the federal, state, and local levels. These scenarios should be revised to include armed assault responses.[20]

The Best Response

In the future, terrorists may use armed assaults or any number of other tactics to murder innocents and disrupt the peace and prosperity of America. The best response to these potential dangers is persistent vigilance through counterterrorismpro­grams as well as continuing to build a national homeland security system that can deal equally well with both natural and manmade disasters.

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Assistant Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies and Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Davis Institute, at The Heritage Foundation.

[1]See, for example, Gabriel Weimann, Terror on the Internet: The New Arena, The New Challenges (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 2006), p. 123.

[2]U.S. Department of the Treasury, "1996 Selected Explosive Incidents,"1996, at http://www.atf.treas.gov/pub/fire-explo_pub/eir/cover.htm (December 3, 2008).

[3]James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., and Jack Spencer, "Facts About the Shoulder-Fired Missile Threat," Heritage Foundation WebMemo No.328, August 14, 2003, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/BallisticMissileDefense/wm328.cfm.

[4]U.S. Department of State, Statement by Richard Boucher, Spokesman, "Wassenaar Arrangement Agreement: Man-Portable Air Defense Systems Export Controls Man-Portable Air Defense Systems Export Controls," December 5, 2000, at http://secretary.state.gov/www/
 (December 4, 2008).

[5]For a summary of regulations, see U.S. Department of the Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, Web site, at http://www.atf.treas.gov/regulations/index.htm (December 4, 2008).

[6]See Michael A. Sheehan, Crush the Cell: How to Defeat Terrorism Without Terrorizing Ourselves (New York: Crown, 2008).

[7]This scenario was tested in a simulation conducted at the U.S. Army War College. See Richard Brennan, Protecting the Homeland: Insights from Army Wargames (Santa Monica, Cal.: RAND, 2002).

[8]For an example of the discussion of these issues, see transcript, "Fighting Terrorism, Preserving Civil Liberties," Cato Institute Policy Forum, October 2, 2001, at /static/reportimages/219D603C439CC9247C8A830CE081AE77.pdf (December 4, 2008).

[9]For the supporting statistical analysis, see Bruce Hoffman, "Terrorism Trends and Prospects," in Countering the New Terrorism, ed. Ian O. Lesser, Bruce Hoffman, John Arquilla, David Ronfeldt, and Michael Zanini (Santa Monica, Cal.: RAND, 1999), at http://www.rand.or
 (December 4, 2008). There is some debate about the reasons for the statistical trends of the past two decades. Worldwide, the number of terrorist incidents overall declined during the 1990s, but this may not indicate a long-term trend. Some analysts argue that increases in terrorist incidents strongly correlate with periods of war, major regional crises, and divisive international events. There are so many variables, they contend, that identifying long-term trends is virtually impossible. See Rex A. Hudson, The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism: Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why? A Report Prepared by the Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, September 1999, at http://www.loc.gov/rr/frd/pdf-
 (December 4, 2008); Bruce Hoffman, "Old Madness, New Methods: Revival of Religious Terrorism Begs for Broader U.S. Policy," RAND Review, Winter 1998-99, pp. 14-15; David Tucker, "Combating International Terrorism," in The Terrorism Threat and U.S. Government Response: Operational and Organizational Factors,ed. James M. Smith and William C. Thomas (Colorado: U.S. Air Force Academy, USAF Institute for National Security Studies, March 2001), pp. 130-139; Richard A. Falkenrath, Robert D. Newman, and Bradley A. Thayer, America's Achilles' Heel: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Terrorism and Covert Attack (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998), pp. 179-202.

[10]Human Security Report Project, "Human Security Brief 2007," May 21, 2008, at http://www.humansecuritybrief.info (December 4, 2008).

[11]Ely Karmon, "Counterterrorism Policy: Why Tehran Starts and Stops Terrorism," The Middle East Quarterly, Vol. V, No. 4 (December 1998), at http://www.meforum.org/meq/dec98/elyk.shtml (December 4, 2008). Karmon argues that only a confrontational approach will deter Iranian terrorist activity. For a different analysis of Iranian decision-making and the prospects for the future, see Daniel L. Byman et al., Iran's Security Policy in the Post-Revolutionary Era (Santa Monica: RAND, 2001), pp. 99-104.

[12]James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., "Securing the Homefront," The Journal of International Security Affairs, No. 12 (Spring 2007), at http://www.securityaffairs.org/issues/2007/12/carafano.php. (December 4, 2008).

[13]For analysis contending that the United States remains vulnerable, see Clark Kent Ervin, Open Target: Where America Is Vulnerable to Attack (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). For a study claiming that the transnational threat is far less severe than is commonly assumed, see John Mueller, "Is There Still a Terrorist Threat? The Myth of the Omnipresent Enemy," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 85, No. 5 (September/October 2006), at http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20060901facomment8
 (December 4, 2008).

[14]James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., "U.S. Thwarts 19 Terrorist Attacks Against America Since 9/11," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2085, November 13, 2007, at http://www.heritage.org/Research

[15]See Paul Rosenzweig, Alane Kochems, and James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., "The Patriot Act Reader," Heritage Foundation Special Report No. 01,September 13, 2004, at http://www.heritage.org/research/hom

[16]For the importance of this authority, see General Michael Hayden, Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, address to the National Press Club, January 23, 2006.

[17]Office of the Director of National Intelligence, "Information Sharing Environment Implementation Plan," November 2006, at /static/reportimages/AD829E9BA2DCE1A1A490FE89BF499CDD.pdf (December 4, 2008).

[18]Jena Baker McNeill, "Removing FEMA from DHS Would Be a Terrible Mistake," Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 2071, September 22, 2008, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/HomelandSecurity/wm2071.cfm.

[19] David Heyman and James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., "Homeland Security 3.0: Building a National Enterprise to Keep America Safe, Free, and Prosperous," Heritage Foundation Special Report No. 23, September 18, 2008, pp. 7-8, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/HomelandDefense/sr23.cfm.

[20]Homeland Security Council, "Planning Scenarios: Executive Summaries," July 2004, at http://www.scd.state.hi.us/grant_docs/National_Planning_Sce
 (December 4, 2008).


James Carafano
James Carafano

Senior Counselor to the President and E.W. Richardson Fellow