The following article originally appeared in Mint on 26 November 2018, on the tenth anniversary of the Mumbai attacks.
The 26/11 attack was a watershed moment. It was not the most lethal incident of terrorism in India, or even in Mumbai, which experienced more fatalities in 1993 blasts and the train bombings of 2006. But 26/11 stood out for receiving unprecedented media coverage. The targets were high-profile. Victims from 17 countries lost their lives. These factors had several important consequences.
Firstly, it placed Pakistan at the epicentre of international terrorism. Not only were the perpetrators from Pakistan, but the role of Lashkar-e-Taiba was firmly established, as were links to handlers in ISI. After 26/11, it was not only India crying hoarse about Pakistan’s state support for terrorism. Further developments, including the Haqqani Network’s attacks on Kabul and the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, underscored the role played by Pakistan’s security services in fomenting acts of global terrorism.
Secondly, 26/11 resulted in unprecedented international cooperation for India on counter-terrorism. The role of FBI and others in the investigation opened room for bilateral and multilateral cooperation from which India continues to benefit.
Thirdly, the nature of terror attacks against India changed significantly. The years before 2008 witnessed routine terror attacks against civilians in Indian urban centres. After 2008, with a few prominent exceptions, terrorists began to focus more on security installations, such as in Gurdaspur, Pathankot and Uri, that were less likely to invite international opprobrium.
If these changes were decisive, there were other developments that were less so, such as the institutional reform of India’s intelligence apparatus. While P. Chidambaram, who became home minister after 26/11, outlined an ambitious programme to overhaul the internal security apparatus, many efforts became mired in issues such as centre-state relations. While India’s counter-terrorism capabilities have improved, 26/11 arguably did not result in the wholesale security reforms that had been expected.
The legacy of 26/11 is, therefore, significant. Even though the one surviving perpetrator Ajmal Kasab, was tried, convicted and executed, several key planners remain active in Pakistan. With the passage of time, other developments in Indian security, India-Pakistan relations, and the global environment have threatened to overshadow the events of November 2008. But for global perceptions of Pakistan’s support for terrorism, India’s transnational security cooperation, and the nature of terrorism in India, the clock has not turned back.