For those of us who were in Mumbai during the 2008 terrorist attacks there, the bulletins from Paris on Friday night evoked queasy déjà vu. With each shocking addition to the story—drive-by shootings at one crowded restaurant and then another, explosions reported at the other end of town, casualty estimates rising sharply, and then the first social media hints at hostages being calmly slaughtered—the feeling intensified.
The parallels between the two outrages are striking, and not just in the terrorists’ methodology of using small teams to attack simultaneously multiple “soft” civilian targets in carefully chosen, symbolically significant locations.
In both cases, some or all of the terrorists had received professional military-style instruction. The Mumbai terrorists had learned their lethal craft at camps in Pakistan run by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a militant group associated with that country’s intelligence agency, ISI. Just 10 of them were able to hold off some of the best of India’s armed forces for almost four days. As for the Paris terrorists, it seems likely that at least some were veterans of ISIS’s campaigns in Syria and Iraq, and it’s possible they had been specifically trained for urban terrorist missions in Europe.
In any case, both sets of terrorists were highly proficient killers. A photographer who witnessed the methodical slaughter in Mumbai’s CTS Terminus told me that the two terrorists fired with consistent, lethal accuracy at the upper bodies of their victims. In Paris a survivor of the Bataclan theater massacre said they were “shooting at us like if we were birds.”
In Mumbai and Paris alike, the terrorists employed deliberate cruelty, both as a means of stunning hostages into inaction and to amplify the impact of their attacks. In both cities, the jihadists had no intention of surviving their attacks. (Although the Mumbai terrorists were not equipped with suicide vests, as were all eight of the known Paris attackers, some of them carried cyanide capsules.)
They also made the same tactical choice to use guns and grenades rather than massive bombs, preferring to kill their victims up close or even one by one. This was presumably because, while gunning people down is less efficient than blowing them up, it is more intimate and therefore more psychologically disturbing when contemplated by the society that has been attacked. No one should underestimate the psychological sophistication of the planners of the Mumbai and Paris attacks: They understand very well just how terrifying and demoralizing the idea of slaughter by bullet and blade is for civilized, prosperous people who have the good fortune to be unfamiliar with extreme violence.
They also understand how social media and 24-hour news coverage can not only powerfully amplify the fear they instill, but can also project it across great distances, even around the world.
(As modern as all this sounds, there is a theory that the terrorists were employing a strategy that goes back to the days of the prophet himself. Among the methods his numerically weak forces used to demoralize and conquer great cities and long-established regimes was to send small groups of disguised fighters into marketplaces, where they would sow panic by suddenly attacking and slaughtering unarmed civilians.)
The planners of both attacks put considerable thought into choosing targets whose violation would be particularly damaging to a city’s morale and sense of security.
In Mumbai, although the targets included a train station, a hospital, a cinema, a Jewish center, and a café popular with backpackers, the primary objectives were two five-star hotels long favored as social and business hubs by India’s small political, cultural, media, and business elites. The terrorists knew that by attacking these institutions they would send a chill through the entire Indian ruling class.
The Paris attackers, on the other hand, seem to have been more concerned with shaking the confidence of French society as a whole than with striking a blow at the heart of the French establishment, although they surely knew that President Hollande was attending the international soccer match they targeted with suicide bombers. Moreover, their attacks were about more than demoralizing the “crusader” enemy or demonstrating their ability to cause mayhem.