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10 years after 9/11: Are American cops ready for a Mumbai-style swarm?

Three years after a three-day siege in Mumbai, India, we must contemplate the possibility a of multiple-location multiple-attacker assault happening here


An Indian soldier takes cover as the Taj Mahal hotel burns during gun battle between Indian military and militants inside the hotel in Mumbai, India, Saturday, Nov. 29, 2008. Police said the siege at the Taj Mahal hotel was over after the gun battle, bringing an end to three days of terror in Mumbai in which more than 150 people were killed.

AP Photo

During Thanksgiving weekend 2008, many Americans — at least those not in a ‘tryptophan-induced couch-coma’ — watched the news of a prolonged terrorist attack unfold in Mumbai, India. All but one of the attackers — members of the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist organization — wound up dead, but not before they slaughtered more than 160 people and wounded more than 300 others.

Before Mumbai, many people had never before heard of a “swarm” attack, and even those of us familiar with the concept had not yet seen one of this scale take place.

The tactic is relatively simple: Attack, retreat, repeat. One of the factors that made this swarm attack so successful was the number of teams hitting simultaneously at widespread locations. During the course of that three-day siege (November 26th to 29th, 2008), ten men — split into five two-man teams — attacked locations and then retreated back into the moonless night so they could hit other pre-planned locations.

By Any Measure, a Terrorist ‘Success’
Fueled by nothing but hate, rage, and a despicable and damnable will to kill (some reports have mistakenly said they took narcotics like cocaine, others say they were high on Khat, others said LSD or steroids), they did this over and over and over again.

As we settle in for meals with our families, football on TV, and “day-after, door-buster” celebrations of “Christmas commerce,” it serves us well to reflect on the continuing threat posed by terrorists who would stop at nothing to do harm to the United States, its citizens, and our allies.

Few overseas events — if any — have had as much an impact on police training and tactics as Mumbai. At the risk of sounding like I have any admiration for the attackers or their carnage (I DO NOT), I am of the opinion that the attacks were as brilliant as they were brutal. These ten evildoers caused so much confusion — so quickly and so completely flummoxing the Mumbai police force — that they ensured what any terrorist would consider “success.”

They reportedly hit ten locations — attacking during the darkest 72 hours of the new moon — selecting a variety of targets. They hit a popular (but somewhat ordinary) restaurant and bar called the Leopold Café. They hit the world-famous Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel. They hit the Oberoi Trident hotel. They hit the Chhatrapati Shivaji train terminal. They hit a Jewish center known as the Mumbai Chabad House (also known as the Nariman House). They exploded bombs secreted in taxi cabs they had used to get to some of their attack locations.

Their kill ratio was roughly 18:1 (160+ dead innocents to just nine dead bad guys).

It’s sickening to say it so bluntly, but any serious analysis by any objective observer which reads differently is not merely myopic and wrong, but dangerously avoiding the type of real work we need to do to prepare for such an attack taking place here in America.

Said as straight as can be said: Mumbai represents a game-changer for American law enforcement.

Following the Mumbai attack, FBI Director Muller said that those attacks remind us “that terrorists with large agendas and little money can use rudimentary weapons to maximize their impact” and that “the simplest of weapons can be deadly when combined with capability and intent.”

My friend and colleague Dick Fairburn echoed those very sentiments in the opener of his excellent three-part series on Countering Terrorist Teams.

“The November 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India by teams of active shooter terrorists illustrates several shortcomings in U.S. police response tactics. In my opinion, our response shortcomings are mostly a misuse of available resources, which we can correct through training. Assuming, of course, we can move past the denial stage of believing such an event could never happen here,” wrote Fairburn.

During the NTOA annual conference in Richmond (Va.) I sat down with my friend, Don Alwes, who is a thought leader on strategies and tactics related to responding to prolonged, multiple-location, multiple-cell, terrorist attacks. Check out that video, which debuts on Police1 in conjunction with this column, and then resume reading below.

Video: Response Strategy for Mumbai-Style Attacks

Contemplating Communications Issues
As Don said in the video you just watched, “That [swarm attack] tactic is designed to get inside our decision cycle — our OODA loop — and it works. With modern communication technology they can have those multiple pulsing attacks — different locations and different groups. It’s more a unity-of-effort on their part than centralized command and control at the time. That’s something we’re going to have a hard time dealing with.”

Don’s essentially describing a leaderless effort. Hmmm, where have I recently heard about a leaderless effort that has involved a significant police response?

On the very day Don and I sat down for the above video interview (September 18th), protestors in the now-infamous “Occupy” movement had held control of Zuccotti Park for fewer than 24 hours. On that day, practically no one outside of Manhattan knew who they were or what they were up to. Since then, the phenomenon has gone global, and has maximized the very communications technology about which Don and I spoke that sunny Sunday in Virginia two months ago. We need to do some serious thinking about how we’re going to monitor (and manage a response) to Twitter-based tactical movements by the opposition, whether they are peaceful, First Amendment protesters or radical terrorists bent on destruction.

“Something else we need to be having a serious discussion about,” Don said in that video, “is our communications systems. It seems like there’s some research indicating that it takes a lot longer for 911 incoming calls to get processed through our communications and get dispatched. Most of us think in terms of ‘cop time.’ If I ask a typical officer, ‘How long does it take you to respond to a location?’ I would answer based on the time of my call — the time it was dispatched. But ‘victim time’ starts a little bit before that.”

Police1 Columnists Speak Out
Just days after the Mumbai attacks, my friend Glenn French wrote a guest column outlining his thoughts on the relevance for American cops. “The recent Attacks in Mumbai serve as a warning for U.S. Law Enforcement and if we fail to acknowledge this warning we will fail as this nation’s Guardians. Police departments across the United States need to prepare for such an event. Through training, equipment and the warrior spirit our officers can prevail when these terrorist knock on our doors,” French wrote.

In the wake of Mumbai, I asked my friend Dan Marcou to do an article in which he’d share his observations with LEOs across the country about the meaning of Mumbai.

“You may be the first to arrive,” wrote Marcou. “In Mumbai these terrorists engaged and outgunned the first responders. Even if multiple attacks were launched first responders will have a different perspective. You will have to prepare yourself to meet challenges in one incident at a time. Your concern will be one hallway, one room, one gunman or more, who lie in front of you to the left of you, to the right of you, above you, below you, or even behind you. You will have to make the decision to contact or contain. Your decision may require you to risk your life to save lives.”

During ILEETA in April of this year I attended a presentation by my friend, Chief Jeff Chudwin of the Olympia Fields (Ill.) Police Department, which covered this subject.

“Above all,” said Chief Chudwin, “this will be a fight of the patrol officer in the first minutes of the attack. This type of matter is going to be settled in the first 20 minutes and it’s going to be affected by patrol. The event may still be ongoing, but by responding well and quickly, the severity of the attack can be seriously mitigated.”

The abovementioned Dick Fairburn wrote in the final installment of his three-part series on Mumbai, “I know this: If an attack like the one at Mumbai strikes a U.S. community, ordinary police officers will run to the sound of the gunfire. Those officers will use whatever they are issued — or can scrounge — and will fight to the best of their ability. And, in so responding, many of those officers will die. We owe those officers as much practical training and equipment as we can muster, to enhance their effectiveness ... and survival. They will go, with or without preparation.”

Understand Yesterday, Prepare for Tomorrow
We must get accustomed with the history of these attacks, study them, and then apply that understanding to each and every one of our cities and towns. For example, here are just a few highly-successful multiple-location multiple-attacker assaults in the past three decades or so:

• October 1983: The Hezbollah attack on the U.S. Marine barracks and French military HQ
• March 1995: The Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack which occurred in the Tokyo subway
• August 1998: The al Qaeda bomb assault on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania
• March 2004: Three bombs at three different Madrid stations explode simultaneously
• July 2005: Four bombs at four London subway stations, killing 56 and wounding 700
• November 2008: The Lashkar-e-Taiba’s three-day-long swarm-style attacks in Mumbai
• March 2010: Two female suicide bombers attack Moscow subway stations within an hour

Spend some time reading about those attacks — the Google can help — and apply some of that understanding to the types of targets you have in your jurisdiction. I strongly suggest you do some Red Teaming — the process of devising, planning, and executing a simulated terrorist attack. During ILEETA this year, I attended a day-long session on this concept presented flawlessly by my friend Kevin Gors of SEAL-MAR Protection Services. Under his tutelage, I and a team of five other men — one law enforcer from the United Kingdom, one from the Great State of Illinois, one from a Detroit suburb, and two who work for NSA — completely dismantled the security of the hotel in which the event was taking place.

As I wrote at the time, “I won’t tell you the specifics of the attack we planned out, but I will tell you that it’s a near certainty that it would have worked. In fact, I haven’t got even the slightest shadow of a doubt that it would have worked. And it would have been spectacularly horrific. Trust me.”

The Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists who hit Mumbai three years ago were meticulous in their planning, approach, and execution of the attack, even though most observers would not consider these terrorists to be particularly sophisticated. The most technologically advanced tools they used were satellite phones and open-source intelligence sources like Google Earth — both of which are widely-available even to people in third-world areas. The attackers used what most of us would consider ‘small arms’ such as AK-47s, old surplus grenades, inflatable boats, and of course, fire.

Oh, yeah, let’s consider for a moment they also had a ‘healthy’ supply of adrenaline-boosting (and sleep depriving) narcotics that kept them juiced up and ready to continue their offensive for as long as they drew a breath.

Some reports have indicated that these bad guys used cocaine, meth, LSD, and steroids to stay awake and active for their attack. I have it on very good authority that this is not what happened in Mumbai, but we can certainly imagine a scenario in which this could be the case in a place where such drugs are conspicuously and readily available... yeah, in Anytown USA.

Those evildoers who hit Mumbai are considered by our enemies to be heroic martyrs, and many of those enemies who would gleefully follow their example here in America already live in the United States! Remember, just this year, a Chicago man named David Coleman Headley (a.k.a. Daood Sayed Gilani) was convicted for his role in “scoping the targets for the Lashkar-e-Taiba attacks on Mumbai.”

As I said to Don when we spoke at NTOA, the first frantic phone calls flooding into the 911 center will not be “Oh my God, I think terrorists are shooting up the place!” Those people will report shots being fired because they simply won’t know who’s doing the shooting or why. So that first radio call will go out, and a handful of squad cars will respond. If your PD has a full-time SWAT team, they’ll jock up and roll toward the scene as well.

That’s when the 911 calls will begin flooding in from a different location. And then, another one after that...

Could a Mumbai-style attack happen in Seattle or San Diego, Miami or Manhattan? You bet it could. Are American law enforcers preparing for the coming swarm? I [bleeping] hope so.

Stay safe, my brothers and sisters.

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.