Spies Could've Halted 'India's 9/11,' Failed to Connect Dots

Scads of 2008 surveillance data, but no one put it together: investigation
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 22, 2014 11:40 AM CST
Spies Could've Halted 'India's 9/11,' Failed to Connect Dots
Firefighters try to douse a fire at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, India, on Nov. 27, 2008. Teams of gunmen stormed luxury hotels and other popular locations, killing 166 people.   (AP Photo)

British, American, and Indian intelligence operatives all separately picked out elements of a possible major terror plot by autumn of 2008, but their inability to connect the dots led to what the New York Times calls one of "the most devastating near-misses in the history of spycraft"—the mass killings in Mumbai that November. In hindsight, spy agencies had significant clues leading up to when Lashkar-e-Taiba militants stormed high-end hotels, a theater, and other hotspots in the city and murdered 166 people, but inadequate communication appears to have allowed what has been called "India's 9/11" to take place. "No one put together the whole picture," Shivshankar Menon, the Indian foreign minister at the time, tells the Times. "Only once the shooting started did everyone share … [and] the picture instantly came into focus."

An investigation by the Times, ProPublica, and PBS' Frontline examined the espionage that took place before the attacks, including monitoring the laptop of Lashkar-e-Taiba's IT guru and extremist-leaning emails by Pakistani-American David Coleman Headley. The analysis found it wasn't the sophisticated surveillance technology that was lacking, but rather a comprehensive way to filter through the findings and assemble them into a cohesive picture. "Computer traffic only tells you so much. It's only a thin slice," Menon tells the Times, adding that it's pointed analysis of that traffic that's really needed. There were also other world events distracting intelligence officials. "We were focused on many other things—al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Pakistan's nuclear weapons, the Iranians," an ex-US intelligence official tells the Times. (Headley was sentenced to 35 years for his role in the attacks.)

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