Reporting from New Delhi — Mumbai was on high alert Saturday as police set up checkpoints and conducted extensive searches for four men they believe have entered the financial hub to carry out a terrorist attack.
The sprawling metropolis was the site of a massive attack in November 2008 that saw the city under siege for three days as well-coordinated terrorists fanned out to transit centers, hospitals, luxury hotels and a Jewish center, killing about 170 people.
"Mumbai" has become a watchword for this style of suicide attack, which underscored the vulnerabilities of sprawling cities in the face of trained and highly motivated terrorists in real-time communication with distant handlers. Since then, police in Mumbai and across the world take even apparently minor threats seriously.
Indian authorities said they had received credible information that at least four men belonging to the banned Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba were planning an attack during the holiday season. India has blamed the organization — as well as its neighbor, Pakistan, for harboring this group — for the 2008 attack.
"Concern remains that there will be similar incidents," said Vikram Sood, a terrorism analyst formerly with the Research Analysis Wing, which is India's equivalent of the CIA. "There are fears that LET is roaming around."
Mumbai police set up checkpoints Friday along major roads, added patrols at high-visibility public places and released digital photographs of the four suspects.
Streets were also closed near the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, the iconic, sprawling complex that saw the greatest loss of life in the 2008 siege, and the landmark Gateway of India arch, both dating to British colonial days.
"The city's on edge," said C. Raja Mohan, a security analyst and columnist with the Indian Express newspaper. "And the year-end is always sensitive … amid fears attackers will use the holiday to gain more attention."
Hilloo Mehta, a textile importer who lives across from the Taj and watched the disaster unfold there two years ago, said such threats were increasingly a fact of life.
"We live in such uncertain times," she said. "It's very worrisome. That said, in India, people also take life as it comes. There's not much you can do about it."
In addition to its position as a financial hub, the city also encompasses India's social and economic extremes: It is home to the country's larger-than-life Bollywood film industry; the world's most expensive private residence, estimated at $1 billion; and Asia's biggest slums.
The top elected official in the state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, told reporters that authorities had received information on the threat from central intelligence agencies. "The state police and intelligence agencies are on alert, and all security arrangements are in place ahead of the festive season," Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan told local reporters.
Also cited as a possible target was Ahmadabad, a commercial hub in western India and among the fastest-growing cities in the country. Other areas, including the resort area of Goa, raised their threat awareness as well.
In Mumbai, the National Security Guard, Coast Guard, navy and a rapid reserve unit known as Force One were all put on alert. Authorities scrutinized guests in hotels and boarding houses, and officials asked the public, community watch groups and hoteliers to report anything unusual.
The response follows sharp criticism during the 2008 attack that government security agencies were sluggish and encountered lengthy delays — at one point security teams had to travel by bus because no alternate transport could be found — in getting SWAT-style units in place. There were also difficulties keeping police plans a secret and maintaining a proper security perimeter.
"Many reforms have been done," analyst Mohan said. "They now have a multi-agency center and a quicker response, with India determined to prevent another attack from happening."
Although many intelligence warnings may turn out to be false, no nation can afford to ignore them because of the huge risk of something happening. "It's a problem worldwide," Mohan said.