New York: In a revelation that sends shivers down one's spine, an investigative report on Tuesday claimed that the attacks in Mumbai in 2008 could have been thwarted had the US, British and Indian spy agencies managed to pull together all the strands gathered by their high-tech surveillance.
The horrific attacks took place as a result of one of the "most devastating near-misses in the history of spycraft", said a detailed report by the New York Times, ProPublica and the PBS series 'Frontline' titled 'In 2008 Mumbai Killings, Piles of Spy Data, but an Uncompleted Puzzle'.
The report added "that hidden history of the Mumbai attacks reveals the vulnerability as well as the strengths of computer surveillance and intercepts as a counter-terrorism weapon."
"What happened next may 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," said the lengthy report.
Citing classified documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, it said although electronic eavesdropping often yields valuable data, even "tantalizing" 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.
The report quoted former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon as saying that "no one put together the whole picture," referring to the intelligence gathered by the US, Indian and British agencies months before the attacks.
"Not the Americans, not the Brits, not the Indians...Only once the shooting started did everyone share" what they had, largely in meetings between British and Indian officials, and then "the picture instantly came into focus," said Menon, who was the foreign secretary at the time of the attacks.
In one of the most glaring intelligence failures, the report said Indian and British intelligence agencies monitored online activities of a key 26/11 planner Zarrar Shah, the technology chief of Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) terror group, "but couldn't connect the dots" before the attacks that killed 166 people, including six Americans.
In the fall of 2008, Shah "roamed from outposts in the northern mountains of Pakistan to safe houses near the Arabian Sea, plotting mayhem in Mumbai, India's commercial gem."
He was, however, unaware that by September, the British were spying on many of his online activities, tracking his Internet searches and messages, the report said.
"They were not the only spies watching. Shah drew similar scrutiny from an Indian intelligence agency," it said, citing a former official briefed on the operation.
The report also reveals that the Pakistan-based LeT's technology chief had posed as an Indian businessman while negotiating to buy from an American company a Voice-over-Internet Phone service that was later used by the LeT handlers to communicate with 26/11 attackers while concealing their actual origin.
Zarrar Shah, a 30-year-old computer expert, had set up an Internet phone system to disguise his location during the 26/11 attacks by routing his calls through New Jersey.
The detailed investigative report by the New York Times, ProPublica and the PBS series 'Frontline' said that Shah, contacted the New Jersey company, "posing online as an Indian reseller of telephone services named Kharak Singh, purporting to be based in Mumbai”.
"His Indian persona started haggling" over the price of the VoIP that had been chosen because it would make calls between Pakistan and the terrorists in Mumbai appear as if they were originating in Austria and New Jersey, it said.
"its not first time in my life i am perchasing in this VOIP business," (sic) Shah said in shaky English, to an official with the company when he thought the asking price was too high, according to British intelligence documents quoted in the report. "i am using these services from 2 years."
Shah had set up the VoIP service through the New Jersey company, ensuring that many of his calls to the terrorists would bear the area code 201, concealing their actual origin.
In November 2008 however, the company`s owner wrote to the fictitious Indian reseller Singh, complaining that no traffic was running on the digital phone network.
"Dear Sir, i will send trafic by the end of this month," (sic) Shah said in his ominous reply.
In a plan to pin the blame on Indian Muslims for the attacks, Shah had typed a statement of responsibility for the attack from the Hyderabad Deccan Mujahadeen - a fake Indian organisation.
Early on November 26, Shah e-mailed a draft of the phony claim to an underling with orders to send it to the news media later, according to American and Indian counter-terrorism officials.
The report described Shah as a "digitally savvy operative" who had "strong ties to Pakistani intelligence and an intense hatred for India."
"As he made his plan, he searched on his laptop for weak communication security in Europe, spent time on a site designed to conceal browsing history, and searched Google News for "indian american naval exercises", presumably so the seagoing attackers would not blunder into an overwhelming force," it said.
In mid-September, during a session, which took place in a huge "media room" in a remote camp on the border with Jammu and Kashmir, Shah and fellow plotters used Google Earth and other material to show Ajmal Kasab and nine other terrorists their targets in Mumbai, according to court testimony.
Shortly before the assault in November 2008, Shah searched online for a Jewish hostel and two luxury hotels, all sites of the eventual carnage.
The session was part of an effort to chart the terrorists' route across the Arabian Sea, to a water landing on the edge of Mumbai, then through the chaotic streets.
Videos, maps and reconnaissance reports had been supplied to Mir by Pakistani-American David Headley.
"The gunmen were shown all this data from the reconnaissance," said Deven Bharti, a top Mumbai police official who investigated the attacks, adding that the terrorists were trained to use Google Earth and global positioning equipment on their own.
"Kasab was trained to locate everything in Mumbai before he went."
He also searched online for previous terror strikes in India and weather forecasts in the Arabian Sea, typed "4 star hotel in delhi" and "taj hotel," and visited mapsofindia.Com to pore over sites in and around Mumbai, documents show.
"Still, the sheer scale of his ambition might have served as a smokescreen for his focus on the city," the report said, adding that he also showed interest in Kashmir, Punjab, New Delhi, Afghanistan and the US Army in Germany and Canada.
He constantly flipped back and forth among Internet porn and entertainment sites while he was carrying out his work. "He appeared to be fascinated with the actor Robert De Niro, called up at least one article on the singer Taylor Swift, and looked at funny cat videos."
By November 24, Shah had moved to the Karachi suburbs, where he set up an electronic "control room" with the help of an Indian militant named Abu Jundal, according to his later confession to the Indian authorities.
The report said that it was from this room that Mir, Shah and others issued minute-by-minute instructions to the assault team of 10 LeT men once the attacks began.
A day before the attacks, Jundal tested the VoIP software on four laptops spread out on four small tables facing a pair of televisions as the plotters, including Mir, Shah and LeT operations commander Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi waited for the killings to begin.
"Before the attacks started that evening, the documents show, Shah pulled up Google images of the Oberoi Hotel and conducted Wikimapia searches for the Taj and the Chabad House,the report said, adding that he began Googling news coverage of Mumbai.
While the US was unaware of the two agencies' efforts, it 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, the report said.
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 alerts from the United States, the report said.
Among the most significant clues "slipped" by the Americans was related to Pakistani-American David Headley, who had scouted targets in Mumbai for the attacks and exchanged incriminating e-mails with plotters that went unnoticed until shortly before his arrest in Chicago in late 2009.
US counter-terrorism agencies also 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, the report said.
"We didn`t see it coming," a former top US intelligence official said. "We were focused on many other things - al Qaeda, Taliban, Pakistan's nuclear weapons, the Iranians. It`s not that things were missed, they were never put together."
The detailed report by the New York Times, ProPublica and the PBS series 'Frontline' said Headley's name "did not appear" in the "stacks of intelligence reports" from India, the US and UK that began piling up following the 26/11 Mumbai attacks in 2008 that left 166 people dead.
"None of the intelligence streams from the US, Britain or India had yet identified him as a conspirator," it said.
The report quoted court records and American counter-terrorism officials as saying that Headley had "also exchanged highly suspicious e-mails with his LeT and ISI handlers before and after the Mumbai attacks."
The US' National Security Agency collected some of his e-mails, but did not realise his involvement until he became the target of an FBI probe in July 2009 relating to a terror attack he was plotting with the LeT against a Danish newspaper that had published cartoons of the Prophet.
"Almost immediately" after the Mumbai attacks, Headley began pursuing the new plot against the Danish newspaper.
Following a trip to Denmark in January 2009, Headley sent messages to his fellow conspirators and e-mailed himself a reconnaissance checklist of sorts, with terms like "Counter-Surveillance" and "King`s Square" - the site of the newspaper.
"Those e-mails capped a series of missed signals involving Headley," the report said, adding that the FBI had conducted at least four inquiries into allegations about his extremist activity between 2001 and 2008.
One of Headley's three wives, Faiza Outalha, a Moroccan, had visited the US embassy in Islamabad three times between December 2007 and April 2008, claiming that he was a terrorist carrying out missions in India, the report said.
Following the Mumbai attack, Headley`s "unguarded e-mails" reflected euphoria about LeT's success.
An exchange with his Pakistani wife in Chicago continued a long string of incriminating electronic communications by Headley written in a transparent code, according to investigators and case files. "I watched the movie the whole day," she wrote, congratulating him on his "graduation”.
About a week later, Headley hinted at his inside information in an e-mail to fellow alumni of a Pakistani military school Tahawwur Rana.
Writing about the terrorists who carried out the mayhem in Mumbai, he said: "Yes they were only 10 kids, guaranteed. I hear 2 were married with a daughter each under 3 years old."
His subsequent e-mails contained several dozen news media photos of the Mumbai siege.
The report said after disclosures of widespread NSA surveillance, American officials claimed that bulk collection of electronic communications led to Headley`s eventual arrest.
Headley pleaded guilty for his role in the Mumbai attacks and was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
26/11 attacks plotted by LeT and some ISI officers
The 26/11 attacks were plotted by the LeT and some officers of Pakistans's powerful ISI as a commando-style assault in India that would "dwarf" previous operations after their alliance came under strain when the terror group pushed for Western targets, the report said.
The report added that the LeT, whose initial focus was India and Kashmir, later became increasingly interested in the West.
Lashkar-e-Toiba's alliance with the ISI, its "powerful patron", came "under strain as some of the militants pushed for a Qaeda-style war on the West," the report said.
"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 report said, citing interviews and court files.
"The plan called for a commando-style assault in India that could also hit Americans, Britons and Jews there. The target was the centerpiece of Indian prosperity: Mumbai.”
"Lashkar's chiefs developed a plot that would dwarf previous operations," the report said.
Reflecting LeT's western ambitions were plots to carry out attacks in Australia in 2003 and recruiting, buying equipment and raising funds in North America and Europe.
"The US intelligence community - on multiple occasions between June and November 2008 - warned the Indian government 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."
"Whatever the reason, no one fully grasped the developing Mumbai conspiracy," the report said.
"They either weren't looking or didn't understand what it all meant," said one former American official who had access to the intelligence. "There was a lot more noise than signal. There usually is."
Former Indian national security adviser Shivshankar Menon said that a lesson that emerged from the tragedy in Mumbai was that "computer traffic only tells you so much. It`s only a thin slice."
The key is the analysis, he said, and "we didn`t have it."
In early 2008, Indian and Western counter-terrorism agencies began to pick up chatter about a potential attack on Mumbai. Indian agencies and police gathered periodic leads from their own sources about a LeT threat to the city.
In late September and again in October, LeT botched attempts to send the attackers to Mumbai by sea. During that period, at least two of the CIA warnings were delivered, according to American and Indian officials, the report said.
An alert in mid-September mentioned the Taj hotel among a half-dozen potential targets, causing the facility to temporarily beef up security, the report said.
Another on November 18 reported the location of a Pakistani vessel linked to a LeT threat against the southern coastal area of Mumbai, where the attack would occur.
The report said after the assault on prime Mumbai targets began by the 10 LeT terrorists, the three countries quickly disclosed their intelligence to one another, including monitoring a LeT control room in Pakistan where the terror 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.
(With PTI inputs)