Written by Fred Burton
December 24, 2008
by Fred Burton
The Trident-Oberoi and Taj Mahal hotels in Mumbai reopened Dec. 21, less than one month after the Nov. 26 Mumbai attack that left more than 170 people dead. During that crisis, hotel guests and visitors became trapped after coming under attack from militants using guns, grenades and other weapons to kill indiscriminately. As the investigation into the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack continues, New Delhi has demanded that Islamabad take action to control its militant proxies and militants operating from Pakistan. Because Islamabad has not yet met New Delhi's demands, Pakistan and India stand on the brink of military confrontation. (hyperlinks are for subscribers only-FREE TRIAL)
Prior to the attacks, India's increasingly precarious security situation and the inability of Indian security forces to effectively address the deteriorating situation had already made the country less attractive to businesses. A series of bombing attacks throughout the country in 2008, attacks against executives and above all, the Mumbai attack, all have showcased the danger of doing business in the South Asian country at present. And if military confrontation between India and Pakistan erupts in the wake of the Mumbai attacks, multinational corporations quite possibly could face a number of new threats from militant groups in addition to more traditional security problems. Because the exact nature and locations of potential Indian military action against Pakistan are not known, the specific problems multinational corporations might face cannot fully be predicted. Regardless, corporations should be prepared to respond to a number of problems with the potential to disrupt their operations and the security of their personnel.
If conflict breaks out between India and Pakistan, corporate operations will be affected regardless of whether a particular business finds itself in the line of fire. Pakistani retaliation to an Indian strike could take the form of traditional military action, but it also could well involve asymmetric warfare. In this scenario, Pakistan would act through its militant proxies - who could well target Westerners associated with multinational corporations in a bid to damage the Indian economy.
Previous attacks throughout India have shown that numerous militant organizations can cause serious damage and high body counts. But these attacks largely focused on Indian targets - including crowded marketplaces, theaters and mosques - that would cause high casualty numbers among the local population or would damage landmarks. The attacks in Mumbai widened this target set to include foreigners and Jewish interests. While the Taj and Oberoi hotels probably were attacked in part because of their status as Mumbai landmarks, the direct targeting of foreigners indicates the hotels also were chosen in a bid to strike Westerners. (It goes without saying that the attack on Nariman House was intended to target Jews and Israeli interests.)
The Mumbai attacks showed that attacking locations where Westerners are known to congregate, rather than attacks against marketplaces or cinemas that will primary kill Indian nationals, could well be a more efficient and effective way for militants to use their limited resources. And as hotels and other traditional soft targets harden their facilities and implement new security countermeasures to prevent further Mumbai-style attacks, militants will seek less-secure venues that will achieve the same result.
Such targets could include apartment complexes or neighborhoods that primarily house Westerners - similar to the 2004 attacks on the Saudi Arabian Oil Co. residential facilities in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia - or other soft targets such as Western-style marketplaces or restaurants. Though most multinational corporations operate in hardened facilities away from city centers, affording better access control and countersurveillance, their employees cannot remain behind walls at all times. And even within multinational corporate compounds, security cannot be fully guaranteed.
The Mumbai attack has renewed fears that insiders could be used to carry out future attacks on multinational corporate facilities. Ajmal Amir Kamil, the only Mumbai attacker taken alive, reportedly has told police that at least five people in the Mumbai area aided the attackers in their preparations for the attack. Kamil reportedly told investigators these persons provided information about various locations in the city and police stations, though they were not involved in the actual attacks. Indian media reports also note that an intern chef at the Taj may have assisted the attackers' preparations by providing access to various parts of the hotel, though the Taj has denied the man's involvement. Unconfirmed reports also hold that some of the attackers wore hotel uniforms, indicating possible staff collusion.
Given the high level of technical sophistication displayed in the way responsibility was claimed for the attack, and given that workers in the information technology industry were involved in previous attacks, the IT sector should be especially vigilant about the potential for militant attacks with inside assistance. While the investigation into how the attackers planned their mission is still ongoing, militants seeking to use the lessons from Mumbai might make renewed attempts to infiltrate multinational corporations to gain information that could be used to launch an attack.
Corporations should also take into account the possibility of Hindu-nationalist-led protests against the Mumbai attack long after the attack itself, which could disrupt business operations. Such a delay between a triggering event and the protests themselves has precedent in the February 2002 protests that occurred months after the December 2001 Kashmiri militant attacks on the Indian parliament. These protests continued sporadically through the summer of 2002, involving extensive violence and many casualties. Similarly, the militant group Indian Mujahideen (IM) said many of its recent attacks were in retaliation for the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat in which more that 1,000 (mostly Muslim) people were killed. Indian military action against Pakistan could be the trigger needed to incite widespread public protests against the Mumbai attacks.
Multinational corporations have long noted the problems of keeping track of employees traveling for either business or personal reasons. Travel during a military conflict poses special problems in this regard. The Mumbai attack showcased those problems, while also adding another layer of concern for corporate security managers. Though hotels have long been a favored target of militant attacks, the prolonged nature of the Mumbai conflict and the reports of Western hostages being held in the hotels made the situation even more problematic for those seeking to identify the people inside.
Efforts at locating employees were further complicated when Indian security forces cut off communication lines inside the hotels to isolate the attackers and prevent them from communicating with one another. Once employees were located inside, security managers also faced difficult decisions about what form of transportation to use when moving employees away from the scene of the crisis.
In the event of a military confrontation between India and Pakistan, corporations would be likely to face similar challenges in locating employees traveling in the country and in removing them from dangerous situations. In the event India chooses to carry out targeted airstrikes against Pakistan, all civilian aircraft could be grounded and Indian airspace frozen. In this scenario, executives and other travelers in India would be unable to leave the country until the ban is lifted.
In the long run, corporate travelers in India (and elsewhere) will continue to face the threat of militant targeting of hotels, especially as other militant groups observe the success of the Mumbai attackers. While the Taj and Oberoi were known as high-quality luxury hotels suitable for Western executives, a number of other similarly situated luxury hotels in the city also house high-profile guests that could make an attractive target for militants.
It is possible the Mumbai attackers chose the Taj and Oberoi because security at the two facilities was not as prominent or visible as in other hotels. In any case, that the Mumbai attackers pre-positioned explosives and other weapons for their use inside the hotel indicates they conducted extensive preoperational surveillance of the targets and likely understood the security countermeasures present in each location. Given the Mumbai attackers' successful penetration of these hotel facilities and similar attacks in the region, corporations and travelers should be prepared for similar attacks in the future.
These problems reinforce the importance of implementing a consistent travel security plan for employees that allows personnel managers to know the full itinerary of traveling employees, allowing a more effective response to emergency situations. Ultimately, it is impossible to predict the exact location or timing of emergencies. Even so, employees should be fully briefed on contingency plans for avoiding - and escaping from - emergencies, as well as points of contact to report their status to increase the odds of surviving future Mumbais.
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