One of my favourite things about the Christmas holidays is doing nothing other than sitting down with a good book & a beer in a sunny Spanish garden (no kids see, it’s all about me!) Normally I immerse myself in the make-believe world of fiction, but this year I tried something new: non-fiction. This year, my Christmas read was ‘The Siege’ by Cathy Scott-Clark & Adrian Levy.


As mentioned on the cover, this is an in-depth analysis of the horrific attack and subsequent three-day siege at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, which began on the 26th of November 2008.


To refresh your memory, the 26th was the day that four jihadi gunmen from the Pakistani-based Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group attacked one of the most exclusive hotels in India as part of a coordinated assault on Mumbai. Despite the fact that shootings and/or bombings occurred at twelve separate sites more or less simultaneously, the Taj Hotel siege received the greatest attention due to the location’s popularity with Westerners and the Indian elite, as well as its iconic status as a Mumbai landmark and an oasis of opulence.


‘The Siege’ reads like a well-crafted thriller, drawing you in as the personal histories unfold and the tension builds. The reportage nature of the book subtly resurfaces every time you remember that these are the stories of real people whose tragic deaths only occurred because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I found the accounts of the lower-level staff particularly sobering – people earning very little yet risking a great deal to try to secure the safety of their wealthy, and sometimes ungrateful, guests. On occasion these staff-members paid the ultimate price, sometimes for reasons as petty as a guest refusing to turn off their mobile phone.

Something that stands out is the incredible depth of detail revealed by the book. The amount of research which must have been undertaken beggars belief. We are afforded a view into the lives of several of the hotel staff, both management and menial, getting to know their personas on a quite intimate level. We understand the chain of events which led to many of the guests being booked in on that fateful night, from a romantic one-off one-night stay, to a wedding party celebrating ‘the best day of a couple’s life’.


‘The Seige’ also provides an incredible insight into the backgrounds of the terrorists themselves, impressionable young men from impoverished rural families living in a world that offers little. Thanks to their limited educations they believed the preachings and promises of those their culture reveres. Enlisted as shaheed (martyrs) with the lure of izzat (great honour) for their families and everlasting rewards in heaven for themselves, they were easily coerced and convinced into committing brutal atrocities, guided by commanders who viewed the consequences of their orders via real-time global media footage, relaying directions via mobile phone.


The book is full of astounding revelations. A Lashkar-e-Taiba operative who was heavily involved in the operational planning was also a CIA informant, but his cover was maintained in the pursuit of a greater goal – Osama bin Laden. One of the terrorists confessed under interrogation that the offensive was carried out with the support of the Pakistani Intelligence Services. ‘The Seige’ also highlights the Indian government’s bewildering failure to act on repeated intelligence warnings from US & European intelligence agencies that an attack was imminent.

But what I found most disturbing was the utterly chaotic response of the Indian security forces and police to the unfolding drama. On one level, ‘The Seige’ tells the story of how unbelievably brave individuals of various ranks were utterly failed by a procedural process and chain of command that was completely unprepared and incapable of handling such a situation.


33 people lost their lives at the Taj hotel in those three days in November 2008.This is a figure that could and should have been avoided. I found ‘The Siege’ a wonderfully illuminating and poignant account in their memory.

Adrian Levy, one of the book’s co-authors, will be speaking at our Campfire on the 20th of March. If you fancy hearing for yourself what it takes to become one of the world’s foremost investigative journalists, taking tea with the Taliban in the Swat Valley or being held under house-arrest by the Burmese government, get in touch with for more information.