60 Hours that shook India

Last Updated: Fri, Jul 13, 2012 19:04 hrs

The arrest of Lashkar-e-Taiba operative Abu Jundal has brought the focus back on 26/11. Veenu Sandhu looks at three documentaries which recount the horror

Last month, the man whose voice had directed the chilling attacks on Mumbai in 2008 was finally brought to India. Identified as one of the six 26/11 handlers, Sayed Zabiuddin Ansari aka Abu Hamza aka Abu Jundal was among those who, sitting in Pakistan, guided, encouraged and coaxed the terrorists who landed on Mumbai’s shores on November 26, 2011 to go on killing till their last breath. The intercepts of these phone conversations are now part of some remarkable documentaries which retrace the horror of those 60 hours and piece together the picture which has many faceless players operating from across the border.

A Perfect Terrorist, released last year, is a painstaking investigation by FRONTLINE and ProPublica into the rise of David Coleman Headley, 52, from a strapping young man to a drug dealer and US government informant and finally into the radical plotter of the Mumbai attack. Of all the documentaries on 26/11 so far, A Perfect Terrorist scores for being a remarkable piece of investigative journalism which includes never-before-seen pictures and video clips of the man born with distinctive heterochromic eyes: one brown and the other blue. One of the clips is of surveillance footage shot by Headley himself while on reconnaissance for the attack on the Danish newspaper that had printed the Prophet’s cartoons — that was to be his mission after Mumbai before Lashkar-e-Taiba called it off.

Here we get to see a man who likes to take crazy risks, will not hesitate to sell out his childhood friend (Tahawwur Rana, eventually convicted for his role in the Danist plot) to save his skin, and somehow manages to bluff investigating agencies even though one of his wives warns the US embassy in Islamabad about her husband’s suspicious activities, and another, who lives in New York, tells FBI about his attending training camps in Pakistan. That’s not all — FBI was similarly warned by the owner of the coffee shop his mother frequented, and a friend of Headley’s girlfriend.

Headley, born Daood Sayed Gilani, is now in federal custody at an undisclosed location. A Perfect Terrorist has some clips of FBI’s interrogation of Headley shortly after he was arrested. The tapes show him desperately trying to strike a deal to escape the death penalty. Even when cornered, the flamboyance is visible in the near bow he makes on being told that he had given vital information.

Tracing Headley’s journey from his childhood where he is part of Pakistani society’s crème-de-la-crème back in the 1970s to his interrogation by FBI after his arrest in October 2009 from a Chicago airport, ProPublica’s reporter Sebastian Rotella puts together many missing links and raises questions on why US intelligence did not nail this man earlier. Rotella’s quest as he tries to practically get into Headley’s mind takes him on a journey across continents, countries and cities — Pakistan, Philadelphia, India, Denmark, New York, Chicago and more — and offers a fair insight into LeT’s determined bid to widen its terror network. Laced with interviews with Headley’s neighbours in Pakistan, his attorney and friends — including Mahesh Bhatt’s son Rahul who wanted to be paid for the interview, a request Rotella denied — Rana’s wife and terror experts, A Perfect Terrorist is the closest we have come to knowing Headley.

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But by far the most chilling documentary on 26/11 is the one that came out a year after the attack — Channel 4’s Dispatches: Terror in Mumbai. Winner of the 2010 Bafta award for current affairs, it uses Indian intelligence agencies’ intercepts of the conversations between the terrorists and their handlers in Pakistan, starting from when they land in Mumbai to when the last terrorist was gunned down. The first question the handler asks is: “Did you kill the man who was with you in the boat?” Then he wants to know how. “We slit his throat,” he’s told. That’s the beginning of the inside story of 60 hours, told by victims, terrorists and their operatives, and through graphic CCTV footage unseen till then.

The cold and calculated approach in the voices which gently encourage the foot soldiers to kill and die rings all through. At Nariman House, hours after speaking to Norma Shvarzblat Rabinovich, one of the hostages there, on a terrorist’s phone, and assuring her that all would be well and she might get to celebrate Sabbath with her family if she called the consulate to seek the release of Ajmal Kasab who had by then been arrested, the operator tells a terrorist to kill all the hostages. “Sit them up and shoot them in the back of the head. Do it. I’m listening. Do it,” he says. Terror in Mumbai is not shot dramatically — it didn’t need to be. The Mumbai skyline, ink blue in the night, forms the backdrop to the sound of the phone. The soldiers of terror seem to be practically taking notes from their handlers. For example, when a controller tells a gunman to say to the media, “This is just the trailer, just wait till you see the rest of the film”, the gunman repeats, “‘wait for the rest of the film’ — shall I write that down?”

Produced and director by Dan Reed, Terror in Mumbai is a must-watch to get a picture of what Mumbai was up against in those 60 hours.

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Barely a month after 26/11 came Al Jazeera’s 101 East: Terror in Mumbai, a two-part documentary which does not match the other two in scale, investigation or cinematography but is important nevertheless. While it retraces the events of that day through eyewitness accounts, one of them the fisherwoman who was the first to see the terrorists land in Mumbai, it also draws attention to Mumbai’s vulnerability and how its poorly-equipped police hardly matched up when confronted with something of this magnitude. Starting 1993, Mumbai has been the target of some of the worst attacks which the country — and now the world — has seen. When 26/11 happened, its policemen were still confronting terrorists with guns that would jam. This is precisely what happened at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (popular as CST), the first target, where, in sheer desperation, a policeman threw a plastic chair at the terrorists, one of them being Ajmal Kasab.

Three-and-a-half years have gone by since. But there are still many stories to be told and wheels within wheels to be laid bare. The list above is not exhaustive, but together these documentaries cover several aspects of 26/11 which have been revealed to us so far.

Some other documentaries worth a watch: 60 hours and Lest We Forget, HISTORY channel 60 HOURS — 26/11 A Close View, CNBC TV18 (on Flipkart)

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