Although terrorists have targeted aviation and mass transit in deadly attacks in recent years, top U.S. intelligence and security officials said today that the low-tech mass killings of the November Mumbai attacks could be a turning point in terrorism tactics.
The deadly attacks, which left 164 dead and injured hundreds, showed that 10 gunmen were able to seize the world's attention as the attacks unfolded for nearly three days.
"Terrorists are very attuned to the media and they saw the success. ... Some groups may look to this as a model," said the FBI's chief intelligence officer, Donald Van Duyn, at a hearing before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs.
"We sometimes focus on tactics that may be exotic and esoteric, but for most terrorists, they're looking for what works."
The attackers were skilled with firearms, New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly told the committee.
"When our liaisons toured the hotels and railway stations," he said, "they saw from bullet holes that shots were fired in groups of three aimed at head level."
On Wednesday in Washington, White House Homeland Security Advisor Ken Wainstein said the attackers were "very well trained" for such a low-tech operation.
"They economized on ammunition and maximized the death that they left," he said.
Although more people -- 209 -- were killed in a July 11, 2006 attack aboard an Indian train in another act of terrorism, DHS Chief Intelligence Officer Charles Allen noted that the Mumbai attackers "were able to galvanize the world for 72 hours."
Recently released transcripts of phone calls between the attackers and their handlers show how keenly aware they were of the impact of their actions.
In one of the intercepts a handler says, "The media is comparing your action to 9/11. One senior police official has been killed. ... Everything is being recorded by the media. Inflict the maximum damage. Keep fighting. Don't be taken alive."
In another excerpt, one of the handlers says to one of the gunmen, "Kill all hostages, except the two Muslims. Keep your phone switched on so that we can hear the gunfire."
At the hearing today, officials discussed possible plans to coordinate shutting down phone systems and mentioned the need to possibly develop plans with the news media on how similar attacks in the future would be covered.
The terrorist group Lashkar-e-Tayyiba is believed to have provided training to the Mumbai terrorists, which has raised the profile of the group.
U.S. officials are concerned about potential recruitment efforts by Lashkar-e-Tayyiba inside the United States.
In a Virginia terrorism case in 2003, for example, "The Virginia Jihad" network had several members travel to Pakistan to a training camp, according to the FBI.
According to DHS and FBI officials, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba is a threat to U.S. interests in Southeast Asia, though there is no current information indicating that the group wishes to attack the United States domestically.
However, the commando-style attack is of concern to top U.S. security officials. The FBI has a team working with Indian authorities, and the New York Police Department also dispatched a team of three liaison officers to gather as much information as possible about the attacks and tactics used.
"We need to understand the implications of some of the tactics used successfully in these attacks," committee chairman Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., said at the Washington hearing. "We know that the attackers traveled undetected from Karachi to Mumbai by boat. What are the implications of this attack from the water for our own maritime security?
"We need to look at the targets of this attack," he added, "and determine whether we are doing as much as we should be doing to appropriately protect our own 'soft' targets, including shopping malls, hotels and sporting venues."
Allen, of DHS, said that DHS and the FBI have issued a series of intelligence bulletins and analysis of the attacks to law enforcement and private sector organizations.
"This type of attack ... I think we have to be prepared for it," he said.
N.Y. Police Commissioner Kelly said his department held special meetings with almost 3,000 security managers in the New York area to discuss analysis of the attacks and prevention methods.
The Mumbai attacks raged on for days in part because of poor communication between Indian authorities and the slow response of Indian commandos to counter the heavily armed attackers.
Kelly told the committee the NYPD's emergency service unit and new police recruits will be trained in the use of heavy weapons.
"We need to go back to basics, strengthen our defense on every front, stay sharp, well-trained, well-equipped and constantly vigilant," Kelly said.