LeT’s Not Jump the Gun

Guessing is great, but the pundits’ certainty is worrisome

Last week’s attacks in Mumbai were, in a word, horrific. As happens after every crisis, the pundits and analysts swarm the nearest media outlets to share their views on what happened, why, and who did it. This is perfectly understandable—a manifestation of what Nassim Taleb calls our desire to assign a narrative to every action so that it might have a beginning, middle, end, and meaning.

Rushing to judgment about the Mumbai attacks, however, is little but a fool’s errand. One of the earliest, and funniest, examples of this was a contest The New York Times recorded, between C. Christine Fair, the RAND Corporation’s resident expert on South Asian insurgencies (and one of the few Americans at all to have studied the topic), and Sajjan Gohel, the Director of International Security for the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a think tank that specializes in security and counterterrorism. Gohel pointed to the coordinated nature of the attacks as “fingerprints” that “point to an Islamic Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group.” Fair, meanwhile, noted the ways this attack was different than other al-Qaeda attacks: “Did you see any suicide bombers? And there are no fingerprints of Lashkar. They don’t do hostage-taking and they don’t do grenades.”

The “Lashkar” Fair spoke of is Lashkar-e-Toiba, a radical Islamist group normally associated with the violent guerilla struggle over Jamu and Kashmir, two disputed regions that have been disputed by India and Pakistan since partition in 1947. Lashkar, which is sometimes abbreviated LeT, has become the primary suspect behind the attack, according to anonymous U.S. officials.

The reason so many seem to be searching for familiar groups on which to pin blame is that, as far as officials are concerned, the supposed responsible party—a group calling itself “Deccan Mujahideen”—has never before existed. Considering LeT has attacked Mumbai before—they were partially responsible for the train bombings that killed 209 people in Mumbai in 2006—it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for them to attack that city again.

Ms. Fair, however, is right to urge skepticism. On September 14 of this year, for example, the Indian Mujahideen, which has carried out terrorist attacks in Delhi, Ahmedabad, and Jaipur, threatened it would “carry out attacks” in Mumbai. The Ahmedabad attacks—twenty-one bombs in total, spaced out over July 26 of this year— killed over fifty people. Over two weeks, IM set off a series of bombs in Delhi that killed at least fifty-three people. The Jaipur attacks killed sixty-three.

Indeed, while horrific and carried out in a novel fashion, the scale and even coordination of these attacks was not unprecedented inside India. It remains too early to pin the blame for a bunch of commando-style militants wielding assault rifles on a terror group known mainly for planting bombs. There is no reason why the attacks can’t have come from a new group, or a splint faction of an old group, or something we haven’t thought of yet. People are not zombies, and, in particular, successful insurgents tend to be very creative in how they kill innocent people.

There is a curious double standard in the commentary about India, as well. Shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S., entire countries would be threatened with isolation or consumer boycotts for daring to suggest that the U.S.’s Middle East policy was even partially responsible for the attacks. During the Republican presidential primaries, Ron Paul was routinely mocked for saying the same thing, and derided as “supporting the terrorists.”

Yet that is exactly the kind of thinking that crops up when you hear, for example, Ms. Fair remarking that India has a lot of “very, very angry Muslims.” You can detect a similar tone in Newsweek’s coverage, which seemed to blame the attacks on India’s possession of Kashmir and the “serious economic, religious, political and social causes of Muslim discontent.”

Talk about blaming the victim. India is not a nation of Mother Theresas, but neither is it a seething wastepit of anti-Islamic fanaticism—the best anyone can say of that in recent memory is the 2002 riots in Gujarat. A rare spot of sobriety about the Mumbai attacks comes from Bruce Riedel at the Brookings Institution, who warns:

India has been a target for al Qaeda and the global jihadist movement for over a decade. India has often been listed by bin Laden and his accomplice Ayman Zawahiri as a part of the ‘Crusader-Zionist-Hindu’ conspiracy against the Islamic world. The targets of the killers in Mumbai—Americans, Brits, Israelis and Indians—fit exactly into the profile al Qaeda and its partners vilify and plot against. Both bin Laden and Zawahiri have spoken about the “U.S-Jewish-Indian alliance against Muslims.” …

But we should be careful not to draw conclusions too early from an incomplete investigation. There is considerable confusion and contradiction in the press accounts of what transpired.

His advice should be heeded by all the flapping jaws on TV, blithely declaring this or that terror group “clearly” bears responsibility for the attacks. India has had too many enemies for us to narrow it down so soon. And seeing as to how sophisticated and truly unprecedented these attacks were, we might be making things worse by jumping to conclusions based on little more than our own assumptions.

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Joshua Foust is a military consultant. He is a contributor to PBS Need to Know, a contributing editor at Current Intelligence, and blogs about Central Asia and the Caucasus at Registan.net.