Until now, most of us thought of Mumbai, if at all, as just a name on a map. Now we have a clearer image. On November 26 a band of terrorists swept through the Indian port city, shooting and bombing, taking over buildings and combing them for people to kill. For three days the world looked on in horror, and even though we had seen terrorism before, this felt like something new. Indeed, the Mumbai attack may well have altered our relationship to terrorism, much as the September 11 attacks did seven years ago.
The September 11 analogy is not as false as it might seem. True, the death toll in Mumbai was scarcely comparable — barely 180 dead this time, as against nearly 3,000 in 2001.
The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were unique in scale. They expanded the horizons of mass murder: A mere handful of men with box cutters successfully murdering thousands in a stroke. Nine-eleven opened a whole new world of possibilities for terrorists to imagine. It thus transformed the meaning of terrorism. It was a game-changer.
The Mumbai attack is a game-changer in its own way. It expands terrorism’s horizons, not in numbers of dead but in the complexity and ambition of possible future operations. In Mumbai we saw a coordinated assault on the heart of a major city. That is indeed transformative.
Terrorism is commonly understood by military and diplomatic experts to be a psychological weapon, not a strategic one. Terrorists can sow fear and panic among a citizenry with their sudden acts of cruelty, but they cannot alter the balance of power within and between societies. Forcing a power shift requires the ability to dislodge an enemy, capture his ground and hold it. Terrorists don’t do that. Armies do. That, at least, is the way it has been.
The attack on Mumbai raised the possibility of eliminating that distinction, of lowering the barrier between terrorism and strategic military action. In an unsettling show of discipline and precision, the terrorists fanned out across a city, captured a list of high-profile targets and dug in, much as an army’s advance troops would do. No, they did not capture a military base or a government house — only a pair of hotels and a community center. If their goal was to expand their strategic capabilities, they’re not there yet; this was just a preliminary test run. Still, they did capture their multiple targets and hold their ground for days. That changes the rules of terrorism.
The Mumbai attack was a game-changer in another sense. The terrorists who staged these atrocities introduced us to a frightening new recipe for hatred. It’s a toxic brew that mixes a regional border dispute in South Asia together with the symbols of global jihad and a caricatured version of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, reconfigured as a genocidal race war. If this mixture becomes the new paradigm, it will be tough to roll back even to a manageable level of insanity.
The individual elements are not new. Attacks on Diaspora Jewish institutions by Muslim extremists and violent supporters of the Palestinian cause are all too familiar — in Istanbul and Casablanca, Paris, Buenos Aires and Seattle. Some of these were sophisticated assaults by organized terrorist groups, targeting Jews as Israel’s second line of defense. Others were the acts of loners looking to make a perversely symbolic statement. Never before, however, was such an act carried out by a regional Muslim group fighting its own local war, whether in Chechnya, Kashmir or the Philippines.
The Mumbai terrorists appear to be the first to bring a highly visible Jewish target into an operation rooted in a regional dispute and wrapped in the symbolism of global jihad. That’s a highly unstable cocktail.
We have argued before that the rising tide of attacks on Jewish institutions by pro-Palestinian actors calls for a joint Israel-Diaspora strategic reassessment. The latest events only make the task more urgent.