I lack sufficient depth and familiarity with the Indian political context to comment intelligently on the origins and ultimate aims of the shadowy Islamist group that carried out the Mumbai Massacre. I’d love to hear Olivier Roy speculate on the ideological aspect but in terms of organization, I’d bet heavily on a “modular” structure of transnational and indigenous personnel – a strategic alliance between groups or a hybrid operation.
What I can comment sensibly on is the use of “Spree killings” as a tactic by terrorist groups. Spree killings are an attractive tactic because they are easy to initiate, impossible to anticipate and can be massively effective in driving media attention.
Spree killers like Andrew Cunanan or John Muhammed “the DC Sniper” riveted the attention of an entire nation or acheived international news coverge. Cunanan, while on the run from a national manhunt for earlier murders managed to assassinate celebrity designer, Gianni Versace before committing suicide; Muhammed and his junior partner managed to murder ten people in a metropolitan area blanketed with local, state and Federal law enforcement despite having gandiose plans that were the product of a confused and agitated mental state. “School shootings“, another form of spree killings, have almost become a macabre rite of Spring in the United States and the late 1990’s bank robbery gone awry in Los Angeles, that featured a heavily armed, body armored, pair of criminals holding off dozens of police in a savage shoot-out that may have been inspired by a scene in the Robert DeNiro movie Heat.
Spree killings, though rare, have previously been used to forment terror both by non-state actors as well as by states. A few examples:
In 1997, Gamaa Islamiya massacred 58 foreign tourists at Luxor, Egypt an action that led the Egyptian regime of Hosni Mubarak to crush Egyptian Islamist groups as harshly as Nasser had once cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1990, the Tamil Tigers killed 147 Muslim men and boys at four mosques in Katthankudi, Sri Lanka ( the Tigers are a highly effective and innovative terrorist-insurgency, having pioneered both suicide bombing and naval-terror operations).
In 1941, the radically fascist and fanatically anti-semitic Iron Guard in Romania attempted a coup d’etat against the nationalist dictator and Nazi ally, Ion Antonescu, which featured wild street violence by Legionaires and a ghoulish pogram against Romanian Jewry so horrific that even German SS commanders on the scene in Bucharest were appalled. Despite having made use of such tactics himself in the Kristallnacht and the Night of the Long Knives and having his own genocidal program for the Jews, Hitler ordered the Wehrmacht and SS to assist Antonescu in crushing the Iron Guard revolt.
Spree killings have almost never produced long term positive effects for the groups using them and we can expect that the Mumbai massacre will have negative consequences for both Pakistan as well as Indian Islamist groups. Despite this, we can expect that the likelihood of spree terrorism will increase when groups become sufficiently radicalized because any semi-open society presents almost ubiquitous oportunities for random mass-murder on a modest budget and the terrorists’ own extremism blinds them to how their actions will be interpreted or perceived.
From an email with security expert Steve Schippert of Threatswatch.org, ( see Schippert’s Mumbai commentary here and here ) I learned that the terrorists in Mumbai were unable to or never targeted any systems in India’s center of capitalism – water, power, internet, road arteries etc. – were left untouched. That in my view is a future danger, terrorists using the all-consuming attention generated by spree terrorism as a trojan horse or distraction to conceal a strategic systems-level attack.