Mumbai attackers more tech savvy than police
When the attackers arrived on the shores of Mumbai last month, they had studied satellite images of the city, were carrying handheld GPS sets and were communicating with their handlers via the Internet and satellite phone.
Many of the Indian police they encountered did not even have walkie-talkies.
The Mumbai gunmen not only overwhelmed security forces with their weaponry and willingness to die, but also with their sophisticated use of technology, security experts said.
“These (terrorists) are well aware of the technology available and also know that the police are several steps behind. And a lot of this technology is extremely easy to use and to learn,” said Pavan Duggal, a technology expert and New Delhi-based lawyer.
India’s underfunded and poorly trained police force is simply unable to compete, experts said.
“Crimes that involve technology usually make the police very nervous,” Duggal said.
To prepare for their Nov. 26 assault, militants examined the layout and landscape of the city using images from Google Earth, which provides satellite photos for much of the planet over the Internet, said Mumbai’s chief police investigator, Rakesh Maria.
The 10 gunmen also studied detailed photographs of their targets on laptop computers, Maria said.
When the assailants traveled by boat from Karachi, Pakistan, to Mumbai — stealing an Indian trawler along the way — they used four GPS systems to navigate, Maria said. The sets could also be used as walkie-talkies.
The attackers were equipped with a satellite phone and nine cell phones. Throughout the attack, they called their handlers in Pakistan, who had eschewed conventional phones for voice-over-Internet telephone services, Maria said.
Those services route phone calls over the Internet, making it far harder to trace them. For example, a person might have a New York City telephone number, but calls made to that number are routed over the Internet, allowing a client to answer from anywhere there is online access.
Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, a Pakistani accused of plotting the attacks, spoke from two Internet phone numbers to six different Indian mobile numbers, India’s Hindu newspaper reported. The Internet numbers were paid by wire transfer by someone using fake ID, the newspaper said.
By contrast, many Indian police do not even have walkie-talkies or cell phones to communicate with each other. The commando unit flown in from New Delhi to take on the attackers had neither night-vision goggles or thermal sensors, which would have allowed them to pinpoint the locations of attackers and hostages during the siege, security experts said.
“The communication expertise that the gunmen employed was clearly a few steps if not a generation ahead of what the police had,” said C. Uday Bhaskar, a former naval commander and retired director of India’s Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses.
Bhaskar said the security forces in India, a country renowned for its huge supply of world class computer programmers, are especially weak in cybersecurity.
“When it comes to tracking satellite communication or e-mails and phone calls over the Internet, we know how to do this in an intellectual sense only,” he said.
It’s unclear whether India will soon have the training and the funding to bridge the technological gap. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he discussed offering counterterrorism aid to India in a meeting Sunday with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but details were not released.
The Mumbai attacks also raised concerns about how easily accessible and cheap civilian technology can aid criminals.
India has expressed concerns in recent years that Google Earth could be used by terrorists to examine targets in preparation for an attack.
In March, the U.S. Defense Department banned Google teams from making detailed, street-level video maps of U.S. military bases after images of a Texas base ended up on the popular Internet site. Google said taking such pictures is against its policy and that the incident was a mistake.
Google said in a statement it condemns terrorism but believes that Google Earth’s benefits outweigh its risks for criminal use, noting that the computer tool had been used for flood relief in India’s western state of Gujarat, tsunami relief in southern India and earthquake relief in Kashmir.
Indian investigators have not named the Internet phone service the planners and attackers used.
Skype, one of the more popular voice-over-Internet providers, condemns misuse of its service and “cooperates with law enforcement agencies as much as is legally technically possible,” spokeswoman Eunice Lim said, speaking about the company’s general policy.
“Unfortunately, criminals will use any type of communications tool to talk to each other or share information,” Lim said.