Were the Mumbai Terrorists Fueled by Coke?

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The Times of India / Reuters

A suspected gunman walks outside the premises of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (or Victoria Terminus) railway station in Mumbai, Nov. 26, 2008

Did the jihadists who tore up Mumbai last week rely on party drugs usually associated with Western decadence to stay awake and alert throughout their three-day killing spree? Britain's Telegraph newspaper suggests that they did, citing unidentified officials claiming physical evidence shows the assailants used cocaine and other stimulants to sustain their violent frenzy. And if the notion of self-anointed holy warriors on a coke binge sounds incongruous, the report also maintains that the killers imbibed the psychedelic drug LSD while fighting advancing security forces.

"We found injections containing traces of cocaine and LSD left behind by the terrorists, and later found drugs in their blood," the Telegraph was told by one official, whose nationality and relation to the investigation were not specified. "This explains why they managed to battle the commandos for over 50 hours with no food or sleep." (See the terrorism in Mumbai.)

The hallucinogenic and sensory-distorting effects of LSD make it an unlikely combat drug, even for kamikaze assailants who were, after all, seeking to kill as many people as possible before their own inevitable death. But the suggestion that the Mumbai jihadists may have amped themselves up on stimulants typically forbidden by their strict Salafist brand of Islam strikes some experts as plausible, particularly within the twisted jihadist logic in which holy ends justify impious means.

"We've never seen instances of operatives using drugs in attacks before, but we've also never seen the kind of open-ended, insurgent-style strike of civilian targets by Islamists prior to Mumbai," says Jean-Louis Bruguière, who retired this year as France's chief counterterrorism investigator to take a top post in the transatlantic Terrorist Finance Tracking Program. Bruguière had no information to confirm or deny the reported cocaine binge by the Mumbai assailants, but he believes that discounting it out of hand would be naive.

"Why wouldn't attackers do something forbidden by their religious practice — to take drugs or anything else — that could help them achieve what they consider the far more important goal of their plot in striking a blow for God?" Bruguière asks. "Adepts of the Takfir wal-Hijra sect will adopt what Islam considers impure behavior of enemy societies, like drinking alcohol, eating pork and wild living, to better prepare attacks for those same societies. That's what Mohamed Atta and the other 9/11 attackers did while plotting in the U.S. If terrorists feel jihad justifies impious acts to prepare strikes, why wouldn't that rationalization also apply to carrying attacks out?"

Independent French terrorism expert Roland Jacquard is a little more skeptical of the report, however, at least as far as it claimed some of the fighters had used narcotics to numb themselves to pain as death approached. Though he understands the strategic logic of assailants using stimulants to overcome fatigue as their attack wears on — conventional armies, including the U.S. military, have used stimulants to counter combat fatigue — he does not believe the stern Salafist prohibition of soporifics would be ignored as the end loomed.

"We're talking about people who think they're killing for God and who are certain they'll attain paradise by slaying innocent people. The most powerful drug they could ever find is already in their head before the attack starts," says Jacquard. "There's a very strong antidrug culture among Salafists — most don't even use tobacco. And extremists with any drug experience usually say Islam is what allowed them escape it."

The Telegraph story also quotes an official saying traces of steroids had been found in the bloodstreams of Mumbai attackers — something the unnamed source says "isn't uncommon in terrorists." If so, it's a well-kept secret that runs counter to jihadists' disdain of external "impurities" being used to attain physical fitness they often extol. But for Bruguière, wrangling over those kinds of details is simply a counterproductive attempt to create a precise, predictable stereotype of a terrorist in what is, in fact, a diverse, rapidly changing, amorphous milieu of extremists. (Read Mumbai's Terror Is Over, but Panic Persists.)

"It's now clear the Mumbai group was connected to the Pakistan-supported Lashkar-e-Taiba, but it takes a while before we know how close and structured that relationship was and how much autonomy the attacking unit was operating with," Bruguière says. "LeT is keen to export its fight throughout the region and world but will do so in loose relationships with myriad extremist movements out there. Some will use car explosions, others kamikaze bombers, and others insurgent terrorists who — just maybe — decide to use drugs to keep their strike going longer. If we want to prepare for the way we may be attacked next, we have to start considering all the ways we haven't been attacked yet, as well as the ones we know."

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