Eight years ago, ten heavily armed terrorists from the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) nearly set India and Pakistan on the brink of war. Using a stealthy, seaborne insertion tactic pioneered by Palestinian terrorists decades ago, the military-style assault on Mumbai achieved its initial objective: complete surprise.
It was the world’s first hybrid terrorist attack — a deadly witches’ brew of car bombs and well-trained gunmen swarming across multiple locations to achieve what the military calls the penetration of an adversary’s OODA cycle: a sequence of Observe, Orient, Decide and Act… The Mumbai city police, steeped in its mythology of gangland wars, fumbled at first to identify the unfolding threat. When they had established it to be an overwhelming terror attack, they unaccountably withdrew from all the locations. They lacked the capability to respond.
When the armed forces were called in, it resulted in India’s first counter-terrorist operation involving all three armed forces — the first responders, MARCOS of Indian Navy, Infantry units of the Indian Army that laid cordons around the locations and the Air force pilots who flew in the NSG.
Black Tornado is the name of the operation launched by the National Security Guard, specifically its 51 Special Action Group, to rescue the civilians who were trapped in the three sieges and to neutralize eight terrorists. There has been no detailed analysis or account of this joint but loosely coordinated military action.
The following are the Extracts from the book Black Tornado: The Military Operations of 26/11 . This book attempts to put the military aspect of this response into perspective through interviews with the marine commandos, personnel from the infantry unit based in the city and the NSG’s strike element, the 51 Special Action Group. The narrative is focused on the SAG that handled, in public glare, forty-eight of the sixty hours of the operations.
This article will give you a detailed insight of role played by Indian Navy’s Marine Commandos (MARCOS) during the 26/11 Attack at the Taj Mahal Palace.
The First Responders – MARCOS
At around midnight on 27 November, a harbour craft ‘Vahini’ arrived at the boat jetty of an Indian Naval Special Forces Base, INS Abhimanyu. The base was just eight kilometers off the city on the mangrove-fringed mainland. An imposing memorial a little distance away from the jetty, a fifteen-foot high bronze frogman’s hand wielding a dagger, was framed against the orange glow of the Mumbai city skyline. The granite plaque beneath the memorial read ‘We live by duty, honor, courage, valour’. The sixteen heavily armed men — Indian Navy Marine Commandos or MARCOS — who swore by this motto, filed into the ferry. They were armed with AK-47s and MP5 sub-machine guns and holstered 9 mm pistols on their thighs. Hand grenades bulged in the pouches of the black, bulletproof vests they wore over Indian Army combat fatigues….
…A murmur of relief travelled around the densely packed Chambers. The hotel staff had begun taking guests out in small batches. The guests left in small groups of twos and fours, all of them escorted by the hotel’s Executive Chef Hemant Oberoi and his kitchen staff. The first to leave were the law makers whom Bhisham Mansukhani had seen giving interviews to TV channels from inside the dining hall. The full impact of those revelations was yet to be felt. Egged on by their Pakistan-based handlers, the four terrorists had sprinted down from the top floors of the Taj Palace to search for prized VIP hostages on the first floor. The terrorists arrived after around fifty guests had moved down the narrow service corridors into the lobby. They now set upon the remaining guests who lined the corridor. There were screams and the rattle of gunfire. No one could see where the shots were coming from. The nervous but orderly file, disintegrated into a stampede. They turned and darted back into the function rooms that stood in the corridor beside the Chambers.
The MARCOS heard the staccato bursts of fire echoing down the corridors. ‘They’re coming from the direction of the kitchen area,’ Kudiyadi exclaimed. The kitchen complex formed the second link between the heritage wing and the new Taj Tower. The team rushed towards it, guns at the ready. Kudiyadi showed them the way. The group cautiously approached the kitchen area. There was a sound that grew louder as they came closer. It was the trilling of dozens of cell phones: frantic, unanswered calls to the fifteen victims who lay contorted on the floor. Most of those victims were uniformed Taj staff, shot while fleeing, looking for cover. The green stone tiles were splattered with blood. At least seven persons were alive and seriously injured, writhing in pain on the floor. An injured lady was trapped beneath the corpse of a dead person. She looked at a commando and wailed weakly, ‘Take her off me.’
The commandos tensed as they approached one of the kitchen doors. Three gunmen were walking past. They saw the MARCOS. One of them whirled around and fired a burst from his hip and threw a grenade. The commandos took cover. The grenade did not explode. The terrorists fled through the numerous exits from the kitchen. ‘Evacuate the injured out of here,’ the team leader whispered to Kudiyadi.
The firefight told the commandos that they were up against heavily armed terrorists. But they also came upon another realization. The hotel was full of civilians. The MARCOS were all specialists: in communications, sharp shooting and handling explosives. But now, in the labyrinthine maze of the dimly lit hotel, they needed only one speciality: nerves of steel. They could not afford to be trigger-happy. As the commandos began shifting the wounded out of the corridor. Their priority had swiftly changed from neutralizing the terrorists to evacuating civilians.
More commandos were needed. The task was simply too large for eight men, however well trained. They radioed their chief of operations in the hotel lobby for reinforcements as they began helping the wounded out of the corridors.
The civilians who had escaped the slaughter had by now barricaded themselves into the rooms around the Chambers. The Mangeshikars, Bhisham Mansukhani and his mother were among fifty-odd guests who found refuge in the Lavender Room, at the far end of the corridor. The guests broke off a chair leg and jammed it through the door handles and pushed a circular table and piled chairs against the door. Tilu Mangeshikar was relieved to see her husband Prakash and daughter Kalindi were safe inside with her. She, however, had an emergency to attend to.
Rajan Kamble, a hotel maintenance worker, had been shot while trying to escort the guests in the corridor. A bullet had drilled his back and tore his abdomen out as it exited. Despite the chaos, the guests managed to pull him inside their hideaway. Kamble’s white uniform was blood soaked and his face contorted with pain. Tilu Mangeshikar used hotel serviettes to push his intestines back in. She laid the grievously wounded staffer on the floor and administered pain killers borrowed from a guest and when a table cloth would not hold his intestines, she held her hand over the wound for over six hours to keep them in place.
By around 5 a.m., sixteen more MARCOS had arrived at the Taj. This enhanced force now split into three teams. Two teams were deployed to evacuate injured civilians, the third searched for the terrorists. This third team reached the dining room of the Chambers, which had earlier served as the sanctuary for the civilians. The shiny cream-coloured granite corridor was brightly lit, but the room inside was dark. As the team entered the hall, there was deathly silence. Then they heard a soft but distinctive metallic rasp. It was the safety lever of an AK-47 being taken off. Gun flashes lit the dark hall. The terrorists inside the room fired at the commandos as they entered. One commando was hit as he ran for cover, a bullet entered his shoulder and another lodged itself in a spare AK-47 magazine tucked on his bulletproof vest. The MARCOS withdrew from the hall and evacuated their comrades.
The Taj staff informed the commandos that a large number of hotel guests were trapped in one of the four function rooms adjacent to the Chambers. The MARCOS chalked out a rescue plan as a dozen commandos closed in on the Chambers from two sides. Two MARCOS snipers, scaled the scaffolding around the Gateway of India, hefting Russian-made Dragunov sniper rifles. From here, they covered the large sea-facing windows that overlooked a basketball-court-sized open terrace, the roof of the hotel porch. Hotel staff told them these large windows were the only other access point to the Chambers. It seemed the terrorists had been cornered.
MARCOS tossed tear gas canisters into the Chambers and re-entered the hall, weapons at ready, at around 6 a.m. The terrorists were gone. Their escape route: a narrow staircase leading through the kitchen, back into the heritage wing of the Taj Palace.
In the Chambers dining hall, the commandos spotted a red rucksack left behind by the terrorists as they fled. It was brought down to the lobby, and the contents carefully opened and laid out on the floor. The Chinese- made rucksack belonged to Abu Umer alias Nazir, who had shot up the Leopold Café. The bag with ‘Changing the tide’ embroidered on it had a globally-sourced arsenal the commandos had seen in Kashmir: seven AK-47 magazines each with thirty 7.62×39 mm bullets. Over 100 loose M43 cartridges, to refill the magazines, a versatile AKM Type I bayonet which also functioned as an insulated wire cutter. An egg-shaped, blue Chinese Type 86P plastic-bodied fragmentation grenade packed with 1,600 steel balls with a six metre kill radius and a matchbox-sized twelve-volt battery, the kind favoured by militants to trigger off IEDs. The terrorists had clearly come prepared to inflict mass casualties.
But it was the four Arges 84 grenades that pointed the needle of suspicion across the border. The anti-personnel hand grenades were licence-produced by the Pakistan Ordnance Factory, Wah, from an Austrian firm Armaturen Gesellschaft mbH. Each half-kilo grenade had 5,000 steel balls packed around ninety-five grams of plastic explosives. When the pin was pulled and the grenade thrown, it exploded within three seconds. Each ball-bearing turned into a projectile with the velocity of a .22 calibre bullet, and could kill and injure within a twenty-metre radius. The Arges had surfaced in every major attack, with Pakistani fingerprints, the 12 March 1993 Mumbai serial blasts and the attempted storming of India’s Parliament on 13 December 2001 by fidayeen attackers.
The rucksack also contained a small plastic pouch with black tangy tamarind pods used by soldiers on the subcontinent as a stimulant to stay awake. Another plastic pouch contained half a kilo of almonds and raisins, a high energy source carried by most fidayeen. It indicated one thing: Mumbai’s attackers had come prepared for a long haul.
The commandos now turned to clearing the barricaded rooms. They knocked politely, explained they were from the armed forces, but never kept their fingers away from the trigger. They could not be sure if there were terrorists mingling with civilians. When Bhisham and Indra Mansukhani emerged from the Lavender Room at around 9 a.m., their eyes and nostrils were assaulted by the frozen tear gas smoke that hung outside. The corridor was a battlefield strewn with bullet empties and broken glass and shattered tiles. Grim-faced men in black asked them to raise their hands and walk out. Indra Mansukhani hesitated. She had lost her footwear in the stampede outside. The commando asked her to walk behind him, he cleared the glass pieces with his boots as he escorted them to safety. The Mangeshikars and the other guests walked to the safety of the hotel lobby helping out the wounded Rajan Kamble. (He later died in a city hospital).
The MARCOS’ action was brief, but critical. They had saved nearly 200 hotel guests from certain slaughter. They had pushed the terrorists back into the Palace wing away from the Taj Tower, which they could have used for another siege. And if this was any consolation, the attackers had a depleted arsenal. It was a small victory in the dark hours of 27/11.