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Piles of spy data failed to decode 26/11 attack plan

In the fall of 2008, a 30-year-old computer expert named Zarrar Shah roamed from outposts in the northern mountains of Pakistan to safe houses near the Arabian Sea, plotting mayhem in Mumbai.

Shah, the technology chief of Lashkar-e-Taiba, and fellow conspirators used Google Earth to show militants the routes to their targets in the city. He set up an internet phone system to disguise his location by routing his calls through New Jersey. Shortly before an assault that would kill 166 people, including six Americans, Shah searched online for a Jewish hostel and two luxury hotels, all sites of the eventual carnage.

But he did not know that by September, the British were spying on many of his online activities, tracking his internet searches and messages, according to former American and Indian officials and classified documents disclosed by Edward J Snowden, former National Security Agency contractor.

Shah drew similar scrutiny from an Indian intelligence agency, according to a former official briefed on the operation. The US was unaware of the two agencies’ efforts, but had picked up signs of a plot through other electronic and human sources, and warned Indian security officials several times in the months before the attack.

What happened next could rank among the most devastating near-misses in the history of spycraft. The intelligence agencies of the three nations did not pull together all the strands gathered by their high-tech surveillance and other tools, which might have allowed them to disrupt a terror strike so scarring that it is often called India’s 9/11.

“No one put together the whole picture,” said Shivshankar Menon, India’s foreign secretary at the time of the attacks and later the national security advisor. Menon, now retired, recalled that “only once the shooting started did everyone share” what they had, largely in meetings between British and Indian officials.

The British had access to a trove of data from Shah’s communications, but contend that the information was not specific enough to detect the threat. The Indians did not home in on the plot even with the US alerts.

Clues slipped by the Americans as well. David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani-American who scouted targets in Mumbai, exchanged incriminating emails with plotters that went unnoticed until shortly before his arrest in Chicago in late 2009. The US counter-terrorism agencies did not pursue reports from his unhappy wife, who told American officials long before the killings began that he was a Pakistani terrorist conducting mysterious missions in Mumbai.

That hidden history of the Mumbai attacks reveals the vulnerability as well as the strengths of computer surveillance and intercepts as a counterterrorism weapon, an investigation by The New York Times, ProPublica and the PBS series ” Frontline ” has found.

Though electronic eavesdropping often yields valuable data, even tantalising clues can be missed if the technology is not closely monitored, the intelligence gleaned from it is not linked with other information, or analysis does not sift incriminating activity from the ocean of digital data.

While telephone intercepts of the assault team’s phone calls and other intelligence work during the three-day siege have been reported, the extensive espionage that took place before the attacks has not previously been disclosed.

“We didn’t see it coming,” a former senior US intelligence official said. “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 countries quickly disclosed their intelligence to one another . They monitored a Lashkar control room in Pakistan where the terrorist chiefs directed their men, hunkered down in the Taj and Oberoi hotels and the Jewish hostel, according to current and former American, British and Indian officials.

That cooperation among the spy agencies helped analysts retrospectively piece together “a complete operations plan for the attacks,” a top-secret NSA document said.

The Indian government did not respond to several requests for official comment, but a former Indian intelligence official acknowledged that Indian spies had tracked Shah’s laptop communications.

The attacks still resonate in India, and are a continuing source of tension with Pakistan.

The story of the Mumbai killings has urgent implications for the West’s duel with the Islamic State and other groups. Like Lashkar, the Islamic State’s stealthy communications and slick propaganda make it one of the world’s most technologically sophisticated terror organisations. Al Qaeda, which recently announced the creation of an affiliate in India, uses similar tools.

Though the US computer arsenal plays a vital role against targets ranging from North Korea’s suspected assault on Sony to Russian cyberthieves and Chinese military hacking units, counterterrorism requires a complex mix of human and technical resources. Some former counter-terrorism officials warn against promoting billion-dollar surveillance programmes with the narrow argument that they stop attacks.

That monitoring collects valuable information, but large amounts of it are “never meaningfully reviewed or analyzed,” said Charles (Sam) Faddis, a retired CIA counterterrorism chief.

The targeting of Shah’s communications also failed to detect Headley’s role in the Mumbai attacks, and National Security Agency officials did not see for months that he was pursuing a new attack in Denmark.

Lashkar-e-Taiba grew rapidly in the 1990s thanks to a powerful patron: the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), the Pakistani spy agency that the CIA has uneasily worked with for years. Lashkar’s alliance with the ISI came under strain as some of the militants pushed for a Qaeda-style war on the West. As a result, some ISI officers and terror chiefs decided that a spectacular strike was needed to restore Lashkar’s cohesion and burnish its image. The plan called for a commando-style assault in India that could also hit Americans, Britons and Jews there.

The target was the center piece of Indian prosperity: Mumbai. The lead conspirators were alleged to be Mir and Lakhvi, according to interviews and Indian court files, with Shah acting as a technical wingman.

In early 2008, Indian and Western counter-terrorism agencies began to pick up chatter about a potential attack on Mumbai. Indian spy agencies and police forces gathered periodic leads from their own sources about a Lashkar threat to the city.

Starting in the spring, CIA warnings singled out the iconic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and other sites frequented by Westerners. Those warnings came from electronic and human sources, not from tracking Shah, officials said.

“The US intelligence community – on multiple occasions between June and November 2008 – warned India about Lashkar threats in Mumbai,” said Brian Hale, a spokesman for the director of the Office of National Intelligence. “The information identified several potential targets in the city, but we did not have specific information about the timing or the method of attack.”

Western spy agencies routinely share significant or “actionable” intelligence involving threats with allies, but sometimes do not pass on less important information. Even friendly agencies are typically reluctant to disclose their sources of intelligence.

Britain and India, while cooperative, were not nearly as close as the US and Britain. And India is not included in the tightest intelligence-sharing circles of international, eavesdropping agencies that the two countries anchor.

Intelligence officials say terror plots are often discernible only in hindsight, when a pattern suddenly emerges from what had been just bits of information. Whatever the reason, no one fully grasped the developing Mumbai conspiracy.

The Pakistani terrorists had come ashore in an inflatable speedboat in a fishermen’s slum in south Mumbai about 9 pm local time. They fanned out in pairs and struck five targets with bombs and AK-47s: the Taj, the Oberoi Hotel, the Leopold Cafe, Chabad House, and the city’s largest train station.

The killing was indiscriminate, merciless, and seemingly unstoppable over three horrific days.


2014© The New York Times News Service

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