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Byline: BY MARIE BRENNER PHOTOGRAPHS BY BHARAT SIKKA
ANATOMY OF A SIEGE
A year ago, terrorists took over the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, India's fabled five-star hotel, in an attack that left 172 dead across the city. As India still seethes over the bungled rescue efforts, those who survived the 60-hour ordeal reveal the full horror of what happened
Last year ... I was working as a decorator in Jhelum city [in Pakistan]. But I was unhappy with the meager amount that I would make.... My friend Muzaffar suggested that for better money we should get into robbery and dacoity [armed robbery]. I ... went to Rawalpindi with Muzaffar and took a room on rent.
We ... knocked on the door. A man opened it and asked me what had I come for. I told him we had come for jihad, so he let us in.... Abu Maaviya was our trainer and trained me for three months in operating rocket launchers, grenades, AK-47s, and other sophisticated weapons.... Of the 15 of us, 2 had run away, while 6 were sent to Kashmir. So 7 of us were left, to which 3 other boys were added, making us 10 in allfive pairs ... sent to Mumbai.
In C.S.T. [Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus], Abu Ismail and I started firing at the public there with our AK-47 rifles. Ismail was throwing grenades also.... [Later, on the street,] I was surrounded by police. One snatched my gun. The others started punching me on my abdomen.... I then lost consciousness and woke up only in the hospital.
From the confession made in court in Mumbai (Bombay) on July 20, 2009, by Ajmal Kasab, 21, the only survivor of the 10 gunmen who carried out the terrorist attack on the city on November 26, 2008.
It was a bright Wednesday morning in Bombay, at the height of the wedding season. Crowds thronged the Gateway of India, the city's signature monument, in front of the grandest of the grand hotels, the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower. A warm breeze blew from the Arabian Sea, and bouquets of lightbulb-shaped balloons wobbled in the wind above the vendors at the Gateway. Politicians and socialites and bankers from Saudi Arabia packed the rooms of the hotel. That night there would be a wedding in the Crystal Room for the scion of a prominent textile family, a private dinner for the board of the Hindustan Unilever company, and a banquet with European dignitaries in the Rendezvous Room. Drivers, waiters, chefs, pool boys, and driveway attendants in towering turbans were starting their day. Because of riots in the region the month before, a police detail had been dispatched from the hotel to other parts of the state. The banquet staff was relieved that the V.I.P.'s would not have to go through the onerous security checks. The talk at poolside was about a new movie, Slumdog Millionaire, that had just opened in New York to rave reviews. "It is a travesty," one guest said. "They are making us look like we all live in a chawl [slum]."
All that day, crows flew in uncommon numbers over the red domes of the hotel toward the pool. In Room 476, Maria Mooers, a Texas oil heiress, awakened late in her suite and thought, Why are there so many crows today? Although for nearly a decade she had been spending months at a time at the Taj, she had yet to learn that in India the crow is believed to bring warnings and messages from the dead. From his suite over the Gateway, Sir Gulam Noon, the frozen-foods magnate referred to in the tabloid press as "the Curry King," saw them, too. They flew through the banyan trees in the hotel's garden all day long on India's 9/11.
"STAY INSIDE," THE OPERATORS TOLD THE GUESTS. "WHATEVER YOU DO, DON'T OPEN YOUR DOOR TO ANYONE. THERE IS A PROBLEM IN THE HOTEL."
I met Maria Mooers soon after I arrived in Bombay in January. The hotel had just reopened in the wake of the 60 hours of carnage that had unspooled on international TV the last week of November. Mooers was one of the first guests to return. Following the catastrophe, she had moved in with her driver and his family. "I felt safer with them than I did anywhere else," she told me. Tension gripped the city. Pakistan was deploying troops toward the border. There were rumors of terrorists at large in Bombay, of sleeper cells at the Taj, of Israeli intelligence agents camped out at the local Chabad, or Jewish center. "The person who is working for me is going to kill me," one young Taj chef reportedly told his father, a famous chef in Goa, shortly before he died.
As I write, 26/11, as it is referred to, remains the most important incident of international terrorism since 9/11. A recently released audiotape reveals the chilling level of sophistication as handlers in Pakistan negotiated with hostages in English. For almost three days, a highly trained, well-equipped team of 10 jihadists dominated the global stage. The most prominent act of terrorism plannedsome Indian officials have allegedwith the help of members of the Pakistani military, 26/11 was the first operation of its kind to employ cutting-edge technology. Terrorists in their 20s, in T-shirts, communicated with their handlers in real time by satellite phones and used the Internet to identify their victims.
The hotel, bombarded with requests for interviews, was turning everyone down. There was no sign of the usual tourists in kurtas and pink saris saying " Namaste " to smiling waiters who mocked them behind their backs. The garden was eerily quiet. In India, there is a karmic fear that returning to the scene of one catastrophe will invite another. Mooers was not superstitious, how-ever. A slim blonde of indeterminate age, she had the confident look of a woman who had grown up in a rich Texas familyher father was one of the early partners in ARAMCO, now the Saudi Arabian oil company. Love had found her in Bombay, but she was intensely private about her romantic life. She ran her oil-services business at night in order to be in sync with Texas time. She had not wound up, like so many others, dead in a hallway or stripped and bound on the night of horrors, when some 1,000 guests and 500 employees had been trapped in the hotel.
Most of the staff was back on duty, although many were still in shock from having seen their colleagues gunned down in front of them and body parts strewn throughout the hotel. A memorial to the Taj dead31 people, including 12 staff memberswas already in the lobby. An additional 141 had died throughout the city.
"A Bomb Has Gone Off"
On November 26, Mooers had just come back to Bombay for the winter and was given Room 476, a suite by the stairs on the modern, Tower side. "Room 476?" she complained to the general manager. "I hear the waiters all morning long. Please move me as soon as you can." She was irritated that it was the wedding season, which meant that the hotel was crowded. At 9:45 P.M., Mooers heard a grenade blast. It took a few moments for her to react. Bombay was always crowded and noisy, even in the late evening. For that reason, residents felt sure that their city was safe, at least for the privileged class. They lived in a bubble, shunning the use of "Mumbai," the new, political name for the city, believing that Bombay was still "the golden songbird," in the words of the writer Suketu Mehta. Although there was a long history of bombings in the country, including one at the Gateway of India in 2003, few of the elite believed that their cozy way of life would ever be threatened, and certainly not at the Taj. With its 10 five-star restaurants, where young chefs from the villages hoped to become the next Gordon Ramsay, the Taj was more than a hotel; it was a palace of dreams and aspirations. You came to the Taj to order your birthday cakes, and later you got married in the Crystal Room. Bombay's rich bought their best-sellers from Nalanda, the bookstore in the lobby, worked out at the Taj's gym and pool, and were members of Chambers, the private club. For more than a century, the Taj had kept out what V. S. Naipaul called the neurosis of India.
TERRORISTS IN THEIR 20S, IN T-SHIRTS, COMMUNICATED WITH THEIR HANDLERS BY SATELLITE PHONES AND USED THE INTERNET TO IDENTIFY THEIR VICTIMS.
Mooers had no such illusions. She seemed to understand what was happening almost from the start. At 9:45 she placed a call to the concierge. "Is someone doing a demolition?" she asked.
"No, Ms. Mooers."
"Well, then, you better call the Bombay police and security," she said. "A bomb has gone off inside the hotel."
There was no reaction from the concierge. "Do not worry, Ms. Mooers. It is wedding season. There are fireworks all through the city."
"What I heard were not fireworks. I think there are terrorists in the hotel," she told him.
"We will check on it," the concierge said, his tone light and bright. A few moments later Mooers heard gunshots. It was becoming clear to everyone that the hotel was under attack. The operatorswho would stay on duty until dawnbegan to call guests: "Stay inside. Whatever you do, don't open your door to anyone. There is a problem in the hotel."
All that night and the next day, Mooers was on her phone. From her window she saw a man trapped in a burning room. Smoke came under her door. For 24 hours she was marooned in her suite. She thought, I am by the stairs. I might be saved.
At first it was unnerving to see the vast Edwardian-era palace on the sea surrounded with massive scaffolding, the Palace wing and Louis Vuitton boutique boarded up. A guard was stationed in a green booth in the driveway, his assault rifle pointed toward the Gateway. A metal detector and a luggage check blocked the drive and hotel entrance. The turbaned driveway attendants, with no cars or limousines to park, looked lost, as if they had wandered off a Bollywood set into a demilitarized zone. From the guard's booth you could look up to the terrace of Chambers, where 100 guests had been captive that night. Many of its stained-glass windows had still not been replaced. Outside my room, an elderly security guard stood in the hall with a leather ledger, marking down the time guests left their rooms and the time they returned.
The city's rage had narrowed down to one issue: long into the night a squad of police and a contingent from the army had stood outside the Taj while terrorists roamed the floors above, taking hostages. The police were waiting for orders …