1993: The Pakistan Army’s First Attack on Bombay

1993 Bomb Blast Bombay
1993 Bomb Blast Site/ Source: BBC

The 1993 bombings marked the first in a series of three major terrorist attacks over 15 years, all of them aimed at the heart of India’s commercial capital. It was the first time Pakistan came close to being declared a sponsor of terrorism but it would not be the last.

Exactly 28 years ago, 12 bomb explosions ripped across Bombay, as the city of Mumbai was known then. Blast waves from the explosion travelling at supersonic speeds turned pieces of metal and concrete into deadly missiles that killed 257 Mumbaikars and maimed over 1,400 others. 

The March 12 Bombay bombings, as they came to be called, shattered five-star hotels, the Bombay stock exchange and the regional passport office. They were among the earliest versions of what the US now calls Complex Coordinated Terrorist Attacks (CCTA). Until Al Qaeda’s hijack-suicide bombings of September 11, 2001, these were the most devastating serial bomb attacks on any city, carried out using military-grade explosives.

Bombay 12/3 was the first in a series of three sensational attacks on the island city carried out by the Pakistan Army’s ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence--the 2006 train bombings which killed 202 commuters and the November 26, 2008 terrorist attacks which killed 166 persons were the other two. All of these military-style attacks on Mumbai had been executed by so-called ‘non-state actors’, which allowed GHQ Rawalpindi to exercise ‘plausible deniability’.

Why is our Mumbai such an attractive target?

former Mumbai police commissioner Rakesh Maria asked in his 2020 autobiography, Let Me Say It Now. "Obviously because a successful attack on Mumbai means a decisive blow to the economy and reputation of India."

The attacks exposed what was to become another recurring feature of later attacks--the lack of coordination between central agencies. Between January 21 and 24, 1993, the journalist Hussain Zaidi writes in his 2002 book Black Friday, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence had received inputs that the Dawood Ibrahim syndicate was to land arms and explosives in Raigad (the shipments were eventually landed at Shrivardhan further south on February 3).

The attacks were characterised by feeble responses from the Union government in New Delhi which failed to grasp the true nature of the covert war they were up against.

After the bombings, the foot soldiers who carried out the attacks were swiftly rounded up—they were members of the Dubai-based underworld don Dawood Ibrahim. The Dawood Ibrahim syndicate had ostensibly wreaked havoc on the city in revenge for the 1992 and 1993 communal riots in Bombay that followed the December 6, 1992, demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. The police investigations which followed focused almost exclusively on handling something that they were comfortable with—the Mumbai underworld.

The Dawood Ibrahim gang’s skillsets lay in smuggling gold and electronics across the Arabian Sea in exchange for financial gains. 

Who turned a ragtag bunch of smugglers into global terrorists?

The actual masterminds were the Pakistan Army and its military spy agency, the ISI. It was then headed by Lt General Javed Nasir, handpicked by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to the post on March 2, 1992. The general had earlier been director-general, Pakistan Ordnance Factories (POF) believed to be the source for the RDX. 

In his spare time, Nasir headed the Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic missionary outfit, as its Amir. Without the Pakistan army’s direct assistance in transporting the massive shipment of nearly three tonnes of RDX to the Bombay coast and 1,100 detonators, it would have been impossible for the gangsters to carry out the serial bombings.

Besides drawing up the target list, providing the explosives, finances and training, the ISI helped with a far more ominous Phase 2 of the attacks. This phase called for gangsters to walk into government buildings like Mantralaya, the Shiv Sena Bhavan and the BMC building and gun down government officials. 

The Pakistan military had transported 63 Type 56 rifles, 40,000 rounds of ammunition and 450 hand grenades using the D-company’s smuggling network. This phase collapsed when the 20 gangsters who had been trained in weapons handling, panicked and fled the city.

The 1993 blasts, according to the German scholar Hein Kiessling, ‘can be attributed to the ISI as they occurred on the watch of the bearded general’. In his 2016 book, The ISI of Pakistan, Kiessling describes Nasir’s 18-month career as an Islamist Trotskyite who airlifted assault rifles, land mines and anti-tank guided missiles to Bosnian Muslims and led missions to North Korea to supply them with Stinger surface-to-air missile knowhow.

Washington was so frustrated by Nasir’s conduct that Christina B. Rocca, assistant secretary of state for South Asia recommended to her superiors in 1992 that Pakistan be added to the control list of ‘suspected state sponsors of terrorism’. Nasir was eventually sacked in May 1993.

Prem Mahadevan, senior analyst in the Geneva-based Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime, says it is tempting to believe that Nasir's sacking was linked to the 1993 blasts alone, but there were other reasons as well. Not only had pressure been mounting from Washington over Pakistani covert support to Kashmiri and Khalistani separatist groups in India, but even Arab and Central Asian countries had expressed exasperation for Pakistan’s indulgence of violent dissidents which targeted their political regimes while based on its territory. Thus, a combination of factors led to Washington issuing a written demand for Nasir’s sacking, which Islamabad succumbed to in May 1993 in order to avoid being moved from the terrorism watchlist to being actually designated a state sponsor of terrorism,” Mahadevan says.

Zaidi’s book, based on the police investigations of the 1993 blasts, is littered with clues of the hidden mastermind behind the attack. The planning might have begun as far back as December 1992. Zaidi describes a phone conversation Dawood Ibrahim had at the time. The book doesn’t source the conversation but says the don received the call at his Dubai home. The chat seemed to have enthused the don who was then fighting a territorial war with Pakistani gangsters. 

Dawood told his lieutenant, Chhota Shakeel, that ‘they’ wanted to land some important cargo in Bombay. (Zaidi believes ‘they’ referred to some top officials in Pakistan.) The cargo, Ibrahim told Shakeel, would not be gold or silver but could be ‘retribution’ for the Bombay riots. In exchange for using his infrastructure, ‘they’ would protect his rackets from the Pakistan-based gangsters.

Another gangster, who was given the pseudonym ‘Badshah Khan’ (he later turned police approver), describes the stunned silence among a roomful of Dawood gang members in Bombay on March 7. This response followed Dawood’s lieutenant in Bombay, Ibrahim Mushtaq ‘Tiger’ Memon, reeling out a list of targets—the airport, stock exchange, five-star hotels, film theatres, the passport office they had to strike in the metropolis. ‘After every meeting with us he (Memon) referred back to some unseen and unknown high command,’ Khan told the police.

Nasir, who was certainly part of the ‘they’, was the product of an army that had become a frontline state in the US’s war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan on December 25, 1979, a move that saw the US initiate a covert war supplying the Mujahideen guerrillas with billions of dollars of military hardware, including Stinger missiles, and saw Pakistan create an elaborate infrastructure to recruit, train and arm the so-called ‘non-state actors.

When the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan in 1988 after a bruising nine-year war, Pakistan was left with two very significant assets— its terrorist infrastructure and, at the other end of the spectrum, nuclear weapons.

Pakistan’s assistance in fighting the nine-year war in Afghanistan saw the US turning a blind eye to its stealthy acquisition of nuclear weapons, including blueprints of tested Chinese nuclear devices. By the early 1990s, these two assets--nuclear weapons and non-state actors--melded into the sword and shield. It had successfully bled the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and believed it could do the same to India by fuelling insurgencies across the country.

So brazen were the Bombay terror attacks that they would have been an invitation to war, or at the very least, retaliation. Instead, New Delhi groped in the dark. The Narasimha Rao government’s attempts to get Pakistan declared a state sponsor of terrorism, on the basis of the vast stocks of weaponry smuggled into Bombay, fizzled out. 

The US deemed these weapons as insufficient evidence. There were, they claimed several instances of leakage of arms and ammunition from Pakistan government stocks into the hands of arms smugglers.

In his 2006 book, The Kaoboys of R&AW, former special secretary B. Raman mentions how R.N. Kao had scolded him after the 1993 bombings. He had told the since-retired agency founder of having handed over the US-made detonators used in the 1993 bombings to US investigators. The US said they had destroyed it during the investigations. “One should never trust the US in matters concerning Pakistan.

 The US will never act against Pakistan for anything it does to India,” Kao said.

Emboldened by the lack of retaliation, GHQ Rawalpindi refined the use of its two strategic assets—terrorists and nuclear weapons—against India. The sword of terrorists was used to inflict a thousand cuts. The shield of nuclear weapons protected them from a conventional military riposte by India.

 By the early 2000s, this sword-and-shield solidified into what strategic analyst Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar calls ‘Nuclear Weapons-Enabled Terrorism (NWET). Despite terror attacks, the Pakistani narrative went, New Delhi had no option but to talk to Islamabad on Kashmir. This ‘talks and terror’ narrative began to be challenged for the first time in 2016 when New Delhi authorised cross-border commando raids on multiple Pakistan army posts across the Line of Control and for the first time claimed ownership of these attacks in a statement read out by the Director General Military Operations (DGMO).

The narrative was challenged again after the Feburary 14, 2019, Pulwama bomb attack which killed 40 CRPF troopers when the government sent in IAF jets to bomb a terror training camp in Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on February 26, 2019. Kinetic measures have been backed by sustained diplomatic and economic pressure. A 2021 research paper by the independent Pakistani think-tank Tabadlab estimates the Pakistan GDP has incurred cumulative losses of $38 billion in the decade between 2008 and 2018. 

The infrastructure of terrorism, however, is intact in Pakistan. The Pakistan Army now controls the state to an extent that it does not need to overthrow the civilian government. With the US withdrawal from Afghanistan now a certainty this year, a new phase of the Great Game is unfolding for Rawalpindi’s ambitious generals.

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