11 January, 2016 Features
On 12 March 1993, terrorists set off 13 bombs across Mumbai, then called Bombay. These included car bombs, motor scooter bombs, suitcase bombs, plus a few grenades. The blasts killed 357 and injured 717; other statistics say there were 250 killed and 1,100 wounded. Regardless, it was the highest terrorist attack casualty rate in India’s history, and it was also one of the first big multiple bomb attacks in the history of terrorism.
Most of the bombs consisted of RDX, a broad term for a military grade plastic explosive that forms the basis of more than 10 specific types of explosives such as Composition 4 (C-4), and Semtex. RDX’s velocity of detonation is approximately 28,000 feet per second, so just a small amount has high shattering power (aka, “brisance”).
The responsible party was reportedly “D-Company,” a Mumbai-based criminal organization run by the infamous Dawood Ibrahim. Ibrahim has been described as a “Pakistan-based underworld boss” with connections to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI.) So he was, to many Indians, part gangster, and part terrorist/subversive.
Pakistan strongly denies the links between Ibrahim and the ISI.
In 2013 an Indian court, based on evidence collected over years of investigation, asserted that, for the bombing, the ISI assisted Ibrahim in:
India’s Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) arrested as many as 30 people involved in the plot, but several key perpetrators remain at large to this day, including Ibrahim. He is India’s most wanted man and is rumored to travel between Pakistan, UAE, and South Africa.
The Hindu vs. Muslim riots of December 1992-93 provided the motivation for the bombings. The riots, which killed 900 and wounded 2,000, resulted from the “Ayodhya dispute” where Indian Hindu nationalists stormed and destroyed the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya city, Faizabad district, Uttar Pradesh state. Conquering Mughal Muslims built the mosque in 1528 on the site of a sacred Hindu temple that celebrated the birth of the God-king, Rama. The religious tension between Hindus and Muslims over the mosque/temple issue never subsided, and, on occasion, it boiled over into violence, as in the case of the “Ayodhya dispute.”
D-Company agents plotted the 1993 bombings to avenge the destruction of the mosque.
The targets included, but were not limited to, popular urban locations such as the Fisherman’s Colony in Mahim causeway, the Plaza Cinema, the Century Bazaar, the Air India Building, and the Mandvi Corporation Bank Branch.
There were also three five-star hotels hit, according to India’s CIB, each by suitcase bomb with RDX explosives. They were:
The Hotel Airport Centaur bomb exploded at 3:40 pm, killing two and injuring eight. The bomber used an alias, “Ramesh Saxena,” to check in one day before the explosions.
The bomb in Hotel Juhu Centaur was hidden in room 3078 and injured three staff when it exploded at 3:20 pm. A man using the cover name “Mr. Sanjeev Rai” had reserved the room in advance, but the man who checked in and paid for it was “Gyanchandani Lalit.” Front desk staff asked about the discrepancy but thought nothing more of it when the suspect explained it away as a nickname type issue. After the explosion, the hotel was forced to close for several weeks for cleanup and repairs.
The bomb in the Sea Rock Hotel was left in room 1840 by a man who, 1) used a fake name (“Advani”) and address for check-in, 2) paid cash for the room in advance, 3) placed his explosives in the room two days before detonation, and, 4) never stayed in the room. The device exploded at 3:10 pm, shattering every window in the building.
Because of this tactic – for a limited time after the blast, at least – many hotels in Mumbai stopped accepting walk-in customers, and some even required references of their patrons.
Of the three hotels bombed, the sad saga of the Sea Rock stands out as uniquely tragic. While fortunately no one was killed or injured in the attack, the hotel itself never recovered. The hotel died that day.
The initial blast damage was estimated at Rupees 9 crore, which equated to $1,413,000 USD in 1993. That’s about $2,321,724 USD in 2016.
The damage, however, was much more severe, and the costs far surpassed the initial estimates. As the months ticked by, it became apparent that a mere 40 of the hotel’s 398 rooms were usable, and its elevators ceased working because the lift well suffered structural damage. Additionally, the revolving restaurant – an advanced concept at the time – ceased functioning, and there was structural damage to various floors. In time, it became obvious that most of the hotel had been rendered unusable, a loss of over $100 million. “Only the fourth floor remained functional with 10 to 12 rooms, and we had to climb the stairs to our rooms when we visited Bombay,” a hotel guest told The Business Standard.
The Sea Rock started up in the 1970s, a project by the famous Luthria brothers and ITC, one of India’s largest hoteliers. The Business Standard says that, at one point, the hotel was called the “Sea Rock Sheraton” because Sheraton became part of the project in the 1980s.
The hotel was a societal icon. The Economic Times of India described the Sea Rock Hotel this way:
“More than a building with rooms, it was the playground of Bollywood, suburban businessmen and lotharios. It also boasted a revolving restaurant, The Palace of the West Empress. And then it had that location. Right at the tip of Bandra, on the waterfront.”
It was a key center of entertainment and ritzy social life for about a decade or more.
The 1993 bombing wrecked all that. The hotel became embroiled in lawsuits over bombing repairs and restoration, and family ownership disputes made it all worse. “The bomb blast struck us like lightning…the next 14 years were torturous for the family…we spent more time in courts than at home,” one of the Luthrias family told the press.
There was also a major dispute between the Luthrias (the hotel owners) and ITC Limited, the company that managed the hotel, regarding insurance and who was to pay for reconstruction. The owners assert ITC secured the insurance money for rebuilding, but that it never actually used those funds for rebuilding.
The Financial Express reported in 2009: “The Sea Rock hotel had remained closed since the 1993 bomb blasts and had been a security threat for the Taj’s property right across the road. Incidentally, the company’s other property, the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, was attacked by terrorists last November [November 2008].”
ITC took issue with this, insisting that the hotel hadn’t closed, just that it was operating on a severely reduced guest and operational capacity.
IHCL acquired the Sea Rock in June 2009. It had the building demolished in 2010, and it is developing the property as part of its extensive Mumbai hotel network. Financial wrangling, permit red tape, and development technicalities have delayed the project, however.
The 1993 Mumbai bombings are relevant to hotel safety and security for four reasons. First, in any region gripped by emotionally charged and severely contentious religious issues, civilian targets are at risk when political violence and terrorism enters the picture, and this obviously includes hotels. They were soft targets Islamist jihadists figured would cause severe damage and casualties, perfect for revenge against Hindu nationalists.
Second, the more iconic the hotel, the better, in the minds of terrorists seeking to do severe damage. All three of the hotels attacked in this case were rated five stars, and the Sea Rock was a major societal and entertainment icon as well. Looking forward, it is no surprise that, in 2008, Islamist jihadist terrorists attacked Mumbai’s Taj Mahal hotel, more or less “the Sea Rock of its time,” but even more upscale.
Third, terrorists used nearly the same tactics to attack each hotel, and these can be defended against by applying the right security procedures. The bombers checked in using fake names and addresses, they paid fully in advance, they arrived at their targets one or two days before detonating their bombs, they did not stay in their rooms, and they all used RDX-laden suitcase bombs.
Security procedures insuring that customers are who they say they are can help thwart these tactics, and these are indeed applied in some hotels in India via registration systems that are linked to the police. It is not a fool proof system, however – no security ever is – and in many cases in India, this system is not automated, which increases room for error.
Additionally, many hotels in India have airline security style luggage scanners in place to look for explosives and weapons. It is a good system, but it is only as good as the technical ability of the scanners and the people running them. If the scanners do not detect explosives, for example, then the system will be only partially effective. If the staff running the scanners are only somewhat motivated and just marginally trained, then the system will be weaker as well.
Fourth, the failing of the Sea Rock hotel as a direct result of terrorism and the legal mess that followed demonstrates that hotels must have clear, concise, and enforceable ownership-management contracts in place that designate, in case of a terror attack, what party is responsible for:
Insurance policies should include these issues as well. The Islamabad Marriott experienced similar trouble in the wake of the September 2008 bombing that resulted in the razing of the entire hotel. Insurance squabbling and lawsuits over that attack have carried on into 2016.
Sources and further reading:
“Hotel Sea Rock’s saga: Sapped the Luthria family that owned it,” The Economic Times of India, 2 April 2014.
“1993 Bombay bomb blasts: Sanjay Dutt, AK-56 plot, trial and terror top guns,” TNN & Agencies, 22 March 2013.
“Pakistan: Ghost of 1993 Mumbai blasts still haunts ISI,” Right Vision News, 25 March 2013.
“The 1993 Mumbai blasts: what exactly happened on March 12 that year,” Ibn Live, 21 March 2013.
“Indian Hotels buys Rs 680-crore stake in Sea Rock, net down 96%,” Financial Express, 13 June 2009.
“No more SeaRock by the sea rock?,” Business Standard, 6 May 2009.
“Three get death for 1993 Mumbai blasts,” The Economic Times of India, 19 July 2007.
“Juhu Centaur bomber convicted,” The Hindustan Times, 27 September 2006.
“Shaikh convicted for Katha Bazar blast,” The Hindu, 22 September 2006.
“TRACKING TRAVEL,” Asian Wall Street Journal, 21 April 1993.
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