The Mumbai massacre took place in India exactly 15 years ago on 26 November 2008. It left 166 people dead and 300 wounded. The attack presented a ghastly insight into the planned and coordinated use of small arms by fanatical terrorists and served to reveal the utter carnage and rapid loss of life that can occur. It also highlighted the difficulty faced by security agencies in identifying and neutralising determined gunmen infiltrating largely unprotected public places in popular, frequently visited, globally recognised major cities.

Although the attack was initiated on the 26 November 2008, it wasn’t until the 29 November that Indian security forces and military finally contained it.

The plan originated in Pakistan where the perpetrating terror group had trained. A ten man insurgent team, members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, arrived by sea in inflatable craft through the district of Colaba to the south of the city. They moved to infiltrate a major metropolis and conducted attacks on carefully chosen targets. Their primary weapons were Chinese produced 7.62mm AK-56 semi-auto assault rifles. In addition, they carried hand grenades and made some limited use of explosives. They were not using the tactics of suicide bombers; the attack paralyzed a city of 18 million. Their target locations were not random, this was mass murder mapping.

Mumbai became a raw template for future gun terror attacks of this nature. The Peshawar School shooting in Pakistan on 14 December 2014 left 141 dead, (mostly children). The Garissa University attack in Kenya on 3 April 2015 left 148 victims shot to death. In Paris on 13 November 2015 a total of 130 victims died in a number of insurgent attacks. The Las Vegas Route 91 Harvest music festival mass shooting took place on 1 October 2017. A single gunman shot and killed 60 victims and wounded 413 from a hotel upper window overlooking the crowd.

In Mumbai the Indian security services were criticised for not acting on intelligence and not confronting the terrorists with sufficient determination and firepower at the onset. It is perhaps easy and unfair to make this judgement because the attack was huge in scale. Fishermen in Colaba had nevertheless informed the local police about the odd circumstances of their arrival but they were apparently ignored. The police and available forces in Mumbai struggled and failed to contain the attackers; specialist forces had to be helicoptered in from Delhi. The attack concluded with the death of 166 people and 9 of the attackers, (only one was captured alive and he was later tried and hanged). Over 300 people were injured.

Would a similar attack here in the UK be met with the same confused procrastination? If a concentrated firearms attack took place at one of our major airports or shopping centres would the presence of armed Police Officers be able to effectively neutralise or contain an attack, assuming they survived the first exchange of fire. We have got used to the sight of armed Police patrolling in close pairs at our airports for some years now. I have been surprised at the condition of some of them, physically overweight and weighed down with equipment; they don’t look ready to combat anything. The Mumbai attackers were extremists but they were young and fit and had trained and rehearsed this operation. They fired their weapons in a controlled manner, despite most of their victims being defenceless. This compounded the horror. There was little evidence of bullet strikes in ceilings and floor space, examples of which are common in frenzied mass shootings. Combating this type of enemy in a crowded urban environment is and will always be a major problem.

Carrying a firearm in a security capacity and looking the part is one thing, using it effectively against such attacks is something else. 

We have been warned via the media and security services that there is a perceived increase in the threat level of a firearms attack in a public place in the UK. These warnings are perfectly reasonable. The manner in which we exist and conduct our lives will never stop a determined Mumbai style firearm attack. The only way to minimise the chance of such a hideous scenario is through intelligence, stopping the process before such a planned slaughter is mounted.

The difference between a bomb and a bullet is the bullet is more personal.

You only have to look at the number of killed and wounded in Mumbai, (and during the Las Vegas mass shooting attack); it was far greater than most bomb attacks. A gun attack will be over a sustained and prolonged period, an intensely frightening and exposed experience. Bomb attacks are ferocious and mind numbing, the scale of devastation transcends after the attack, with firearms it is during the attack, prolonged agonising periods of hearing and seeing what is happening and suffering the indescribable anxiety of awaiting a fate. Most of us have no idea what it is like to be close to explosives detonating or full bore high velocity firearms being discharged. The sound and shock wave emanating from an explosion or the ear shattering crack and concussion that emits from a firearm being discharged close by can be overwhelming and disorientating and this is very difficult to show or recreate on film.

Could such an attack occur on UK soil; of course it could. What is preventing it? Effective and coordinated intelligence, well trained and dedicated response agencies, physical security measures and access to firearms and ammunition. Whilst illegal firearms exist in the UK organising sufficient firepower and ammunition levels to perpetrate a Mumbai style attack would be more difficult than in countries that harbour vast quantities of both along with ineffective measures to control it.

Any such attack on UK soil would eventually be effectively contained, we have some of the best resources in the world but in the initial period a determined attack would wreak total chaos irrespective of who is on the ground to counter it. The advantage is always with the terrorists because they have the element of surprise. Determined insurgents only have to be lucky once to achieve their aim whilst innocent people and the security forces have to be lucky all of the time when it comes to stopping them.

Despite suffering decades of devastating terrorist attacks in the UK whether it was the IRA during The Troubles or Islamic factions in more recent times the average person on the street is statistically and mentally, largely removed from the direct threat and the shock. I was in London on the north side of the Thames outside a theatre during an interval on Sunday 13 December 1983 when the IRA Harrods bomb detonated, killing 6 and injuring 90. Many hours passed before the rest of the country and even Londoners were aware of what had happened.

We are all acutely aware of the terrorist threat, but we never believe it will affect us personally. We have distorted views and we fail to see signs. My book, Gunfire-Graffiti – Overlooked Gun Crime in the UK reveals our shared ignorance and indifference about firearms. Frankly speaking, we are blind to it. I have never inferred that what I have found and continue to find has any direct or immediate link to terrorist activity but what I do know is that these violent signatures are always around us. The ease with which armed perpetrators, whoever they are, can experiment and illegally discharge firearms and rehearse their fantasies in public is staggering. 

See Terrorist Shooters, the A68 incidents.