ANALYSIS: The fanatics behind the Mumbai bombings would like to trigger nuclear war

Dressed in jeans, T- shirts and trainers, they landed in four boats and carried huge quantities of almonds in their rucksacks  -  food for a long siege.

Witnesses reported that the terrorist attackers in Mumbai were like a 'jihadist infantry'  -  up to 100 young men in their twenties split up and striding in groups through their target locations, lobbing grenades and using AK-47 assault rifles to mow down terrified bystanders.

India is no stranger to terror attacks. The victims of these atrocities join the 600 killed in the country over the past six years. Most of these outrages have involved coordinated bomb blasts, like those on Mumbai's railways which killed 209 people in July 2006.

But two features of Wednesday night's attacks are different.

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A suspected gunman walks outside the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai on Wednesday night

First the use of jihadist commando units prepared to kill and be killed and secondly the ominous selection of U.S. and UK nationals as hostages who were forced to produce their identity papers and passports.

This has chilling echoes of the 1970s when Palestinian terrorists and their Leftwing European accomplices selected Israeli hostages on hijacked planes for execution.

Now these jihadis are deliberately targeting British and American citizens, mostly businessmen and tourists, as their principal victims.

Soon after the attacks commenced, an email  -  bafflingly sent via Russia  -  declared that they were the work of the Deccan Mujahadeen, Islamist extremists who take their nom de guerre from a huge plateau spanning eight states in southern India.

This group also claimed responsibility for murdering 63 people in Jaipur in May and 45 people in Ahmedabad in July.

Deccan Mujahadeen might well be a cover name for jihadis from the two fundamentalist groups that the Indian security services claim carry out most terrorist atrocities in the country.

These are the Pakistan-based Lashkar-i-Taibar (Soldiers of the Pure) and a northern Indian Islamist group called Students Islamic Movement of India which has members from Bangladesh and Pakistan. Both of these organisations  -  which are banned in the U.S. and the UK but receive money via 'charities' from UKbased Pakistani businessmen  -  have links to Al Qaeda.

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Indian Army soldiers patrol outside a Jewish centre based in Nariman House, Mumbai

Indian prime minister Singh is in no doubt that the attack had a 'foreign' dimension and the Times of India is reporting that the captured terrorists include Pakistanis. But what were the terrorists trying to achieve?

The immediate aim is simply to destabilise India's economy, for Mumbai is a major tourist centre and home to a stock exchange and the reserve bank.

Arab jihadists have long sought to ruin tourism in Egypt, Jordan and Morocco by murdering foreign visitors. In 1997, they killed 63 people in Luxor, one of Egypt's most important tourist sites.

In those countries today, security is formidable but in India arrangements are utterly shambolic. After suffering so many atrocities over the years, it beggars belief that these seaborne terrorists could simply saunter into hotels and stations and open fire.

What some are dubbing India's 9/11 was well timed. India is holding federal and state elections and it is these which the terrorists are hoping to influence.

The ruling Congress Party has been condemned by its hardline Hindu rivals, the Bharatiya Janata Party, for hopelessly inadequate measures against terrorism. The latest attacks are likely to give the BJP a boost in the polls.

THIS may not seem an obvious goal for the terrorists but the Congress Party has recently been talking to neighbouring Pakistan about joint initiatives against Islamic terrorists. The BJP wants nothing to do with the Pakistan government and insists it has links to terrorism.

Pakistan's murky Inter-Services Intelligence agency was widely suspected of being behind the 2006 railway bomb attacks in Mumbai and a lethal assault on India's parliament-building four years earlier.

This attack brought India and Pakistan to the verge of nuclear war until the U.S. brokered a truce. With the BJP demanding hardline action against Pakistan, the same thing could happen again. This would drag Barack Obama in as a mediator virtually the moment he is sworn in as president.

Further, a BJP triumph at the polls could lead to Hindu violence against the Indian Muslim community, pushing more of this community into supporting the extremists.

The Congress Party may now be forced to play the Pakistani card to secure victory in the polls.

This will be doubly unfortunate for the world since in recent weeks, under relentless U.S. pressure, the Pakistani armed forces have been making efforts to combat the Afghan-Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda in their remote fastnesses in the north-western Punjab. Pakistan is doing this in order to dissuade the U.S. from launching Predator drone airstrikes on their side of the border  -  attacks which are hugely unpopular in Pakistan.

A major crisis with India will distract the Pakistani government from this urgent task, giving both the Taliban and Al Qaeda a muchneeded breathing space.

This is why many experts suspect the long arm of Al Qaeda may have had a role in these attacks.

The purpose of terrorist attacks is often to provoke an extreme response. The danger here is that India and Pakistan could find themselves once again at loggerheads. A terrifying prospect because both countries are nuclear powers  -  but an outcome that the terrorists would relish.

  • Michael Burleigh's Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism is published by Harper Collins


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