Back in July of 1993, U.S. counterterrorism agents arrested and later convicted eight individuals of plotting an elaborate, multistage attack on key sites in Manhattan. I had forgotten about this bust, it took place just four months after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and New York City was on high alert.
At the time, U.S. counterterrorism officials deemed that the attack would have had a 90% success rate. This disaster was averted because federal agents captured the plotters planning the Landmarks attack thanks to an informant who had infiltrated the group. The United States was very lucky.
The reason I bring up the 1993 New York Landmarks Plot is because of the details of the plot.
The planned attack called for several teams to raid sites such as the Waldorf-Astoria, St. Regis and U.N. Plaza hotels, the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, and a midtown Manhattan waterfront heliport servicing business executives and VIPs traveling from lower Manhattan to various New York-area airports.
Authorities showed that the militants had carried out extensive surveillance both inside and outside the target hotels using human probes, hand-drawn maps and video surveillance. Detailed had been notes taken on the layout and design of the buildings, with stairwells, ballrooms, security cameras and personnel all reconnoitered.
The attackers intended to infiltrate the hotels and disguise themselves as kitchen employees. On the day of the attack, one attack team planned to use stolen delivery vans to get close to the hotels, at which point heavily armed, small-cell commando teams would deploy from the rear of the van. Stationary operatives would use hand grenades to create diversions while attack teams would rake hotel guests with automatic weapons. The attackers planned to carry gas masks and use tear gas in hotel ballrooms to gain an advantage over any security they might come up against. They planned to attack at night, when the level of protection would be lower.
The targeted hotels host some of the most prestigious guests in Manhattan. These could have included diplomats like the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who traditionally keeps an apartment in the Waldorf-Astoria, or even the U.S. secretary of state, who is known to stay at the Waldorf during U.N. sessions. They also host various business leaders. If successful, the attackers doubtless would have killed many high-profile individuals key to New York’s stature as a center for financial and diplomatic dealings.
Meanwhile, the plots to detonate explosives in the Lincoln and Holland tunnels would have blocked critical transportation infrastructure, sowing chaos in the city as key escape routes were closed off. And VIPs seeking to escape the city via the midtown heliport would have been thwarted by the attack planned for that location. In fact, the heliport attack was planned to be carried out using watercraft, which also could have been used to target transport ferries, further disrupting transportation in and out of Manhattan. The New York City Police Department could plausibly even have quarantined Manhattan to prevent the attackers from fleeing the city.
With the city shut down and gunmen running amok, the financial center of the United States would have been thrown into chaos and confusion until the attackers were detained or killed. The attacks thus would have undermined the security and effectiveness of New York as a center for financial and diplomatic dealings.
Now a little more than fifteen years later, the Nov. 26 attacks in Mumbai closely followed the script of the New York plot. Militants armed with AK-47s, grenades and military-grade explosives carried out a very logistically sophisticated and coordinated attack on the financial capital of India.
The Mumbai attack involved extensive preoperational surveillance. Attackers had maps of the targeted hotels, and according to the Indian Marine Commandos who raided the Taj Mahal hotel, the militants moved around as if they knew the hotel’s layout by heart. Advance members of the attack teams had already taken up positions in the hotels, stockpiling firearms, ammunition, grenades and food that were quickly accessed and used to maintain the attackers’ positions in the hotels. One of the attackers reportedly also had taken a job as an intern chef in the Taj Mahal hotel kitchen, so his movements raised less suspicion and he had a detailed knowledge of the entry points and corridors. For such attacks, preparedness is key, and escaping alive is a long shot. The attackers therefore must have been highly motivated and willing to die — a rare combination that requires immense amounts of training and ideological zeal.
The similarities between the Landmarks plot and the Nov. 26 Mumbai attack are quite obvious. The similarities between the Landmarks plot and the Mumbai attack exist at several levels.
The first relates to the target set. Both New York and Mumbai are the respective financial centers of their countries and home to their nations’ major stock exchanges.
The second similarity involves how both plans included peripheral targets to cause confusion and chaos and thus create a diversion from the main targets.
A third similarity exists in the geography of the two cities. In both plots, the use of watercraft is a distinctive tactical similarity.
A fourth similarity lies in transportation. In addition to using watercraft, both plots involved the use of deceptive vehicles to maneuver around the city undetected. The Landmark plotters used taxis to conduct surveillance and planned on using a delivery van to approach the hotels.
Gauging by the success of the Mumbai incident, we can expect similar strategies and tactics in future attacks.
How is that War on Terror going, President Bush.