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Spy agencies reportedly had intel pointing to Mumbai attack

Interviews, leaked document show that US, UK, India failed to piece together pieces of puzzle in months before 166 killed in 2008 massacre

Mohammed Ajmal Kasab stalks a railway station in Mumbai during the 2008 terror attack. (Sebastian D'souza/Mumbai Mirror/File/AP)
Mohammed Ajmal Kasab stalks a railway station in Mumbai during the 2008 terror attack. (Sebastian D'souza/Mumbai Mirror/File/AP)

Three spy agencies collected intelligence that could have thwarted the lethal terror attack in Mumbai in 2008 but failed to put the pieces together, according to a report published late Sunday evening by The New York Times and Propublica, an online news source.

According to the report, based on interviews with unnamed US and Indian officials and on documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward J. Snowden, the United States had picked up signs of a plot to perpetrate an attack by the Pakistani terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba through electronic and human sources, and warned Indian security officials several times in the months before the attack.

The attack, which targeted luxury hotels, a Chabad center, a train station and other sites in central Mumbai, left 166 people dead, including a husband and wife running the Chabad house and four Jewish tourists.

Zarrar Shah, the technology whiz of the terror group, used Google Earth to show the attackers the routes to their targets in the city and set up a voice over internet protocol phone system to disguise his location by routing his calls through New Jersey.

Shah also searched the web for Jewish sites and luxury hotels in Mumbai – all places which were later attacked during the several-day assault starting November 28, 2008.

In September of that year, British spies had been already closely tracking Shah’s online activity. At the same time, an Indian intelligence agency was following Shah. The CIA separately collected intelligence on intentions to carry out a large-scale terror attack but was unaware of the work done by the UK and Indian agencies.

Indian commandos prepare to storm the Nariman House in Mumbai during the 2008 terror attacks. (photo credit: Youtube screen capture)
Indian commandos prepare to storm the Nariman House in Mumbai during the 2008 terror attacks. (photo credit: Youtube screen capture)

Shivshankar Menon, who served as India’s foreign minister at the time of the attacks, told Propublica that “no one put together the whole picture, not the Americans, not the Brits, not the Indians.”

Menon later became India’s national security adviser. Now retired, he recalled that “only once the shooting started did everyone share” the intelligence they had, and then “the picture instantly came into focus.”

A former senior United States intelligence official told the news outlets “we didn’t see it coming. We were focused on many other things — Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, the Iranians. It’s not that things were missed — they were never put together.”

After the assault began, the US, UK and India quickly disclosed their intelligence to one another. Using data collected by all three spy agencies, analysts managed to retrospectively piece together “a complete operations plan for the attacks,” according to a top-secret NSA document quoted in the report.

Naftali Charter, Chief of Security at Nariman (Chabad) House, which reopened earlier this year and has been left in the same state as it was after the Mumbai terrorist attacks, speaks to media on the sixth anniversary of the attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai on November 26, 2014. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO/ INDRANIL MUKHERJEE)
Naftali Charter, Chief of Security at Nariman (Chabad) House, which reopened earlier this year and has been left in the same state as it was after the Mumbai terrorist attacks, speaks to media on the sixth anniversary of the attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai on November 26, 2014. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO/ INDRANIL MUKHERJEE)

Chabad emissaries Gabriel and Rivky Holtzberg were killed in the attack, along with four Jewish visitors: two from Israel, one from Brooklyn and one from Mexico. The couple’s son Moshe, then 2 years old, was rescued by his Indian nanny and now lives in Israel with his grandparents. His nanny, Sandra Samuel, also relocated to Israel.

Chabad’s Nariman House was rededicated in August. The top two floors now serve as a Jewish museum. The bullet holes made by the terrorists have been preserved.

The Indian government refused to comment on the report, but a former Indian intelligence official acknowledged that Indian spies had tracked Shah’s laptop communications. It is unclear what data the Indians gleaned from their monitoring.

A British official issued a statement defending the conduct of the Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, the British eavesdropping agency, in the months leading to the attack. “We do not comment on intelligence matters. But if we had had critical information about an imminent act of terrorism in a situation like this we would have shared it with the Indian government. So the central allegation of this story is completely untrue.”

JTA contributed to this report.

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