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Terror In Mumbai: A Terrific Documentary But A Terrifying Reality

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In an introduction to HBO's Terror In Mumbai, airing tonight, narrator Fareed Zakeria describes the documentary as a "360 degree view of terrorism."

His description makes perfect sense; the coverage of the terror is so complete it almost feels invasive. CCTV footage, recorded phone calls, news reports shot by rolling TV crews, grainy footage shot by amateurs on mobile phones and posthumous interview footage from the survivors are all combined. Documentary makers could never hope for more raw footage. It makes for a terrific viewing, but a terrifying concept.

When ten young men from Pakistan entered Mumbai aboard hi-jacked boats on the night of 26th November 2008, they had one intention: to create a terror that would grip international media and make the world sit up and take notice of Lashkar-e-Taiba -- the Army of the Righteous, a previously little known terrorist organization based in Pakistan.

And it's this intention, despite the extreme violence, allegations against Pakistan and shocking negligence of elements in the Mumbai police force, which really sticks with the viewer of Terror in Mumbai. The more you watch, the more you realize they succeeded.

Filmmaker Dan Reed has covered similar ground before -- his 2003 film Terror in Moscow looked at the hostage situation in a Russian theatre and the subsequent botched rescue by Russian authorities. However, with the Mumbai attacks Reed has an incredible arsenal of footage and recordings at his disposal -- including hours of phone calls made between the young men committing the attacks and their older leaders, including spokesman "Brother Wasi", in Pakistan.

These phone calls, intercepted by Mumbai police who had fed traceable sim cards to known terrorist organizations, are the fascinating centerpiece of the film Notably, the killers, young men from Pakistani villages, frequently show incredible naivety. "There are computers here with 30 inch screens!" exclaims one mass-murderer on the phone to his irritated boss whilst in Mumbai's iconic Taj Mahal Hotel. He goes on, "It's amazing -- the windows are huge! It's got two kitchens, a bath and a little shop." Brother Wasi, sounding exasperated, orders them to set the building on fire (they comply).

The callous nature of their leaders is also exposed. "There's no harm in throwing a few grenades," says Brother Wasi at one point. At other points he is coldly urging the scared young men into suicidal situations, ignoring the fear in their trembling voices.

The killers themselves cut tragic, almost sympathetic figures. We see the one surviving terrorism handcuffed to a bed and bleeding; he claims he was "sold" into terrorism by his family. It's clear from this footage why the organizers of the attack urged their foot soldiers to fight to the death -- far from the organized harbinger's of death they would like to present to us, we get bewildered and confused boys, terrified of the situations they find themselves in.

Brother Wasi gives the killers a sound bite to say if the media contacts them: "This was just the trailer. Just wait until you see the rest of the film." If that doesn't make you uncomfortable watching this documentary, it probably should. Those organizing the attacks new precisely of the power of the media footage would play in spreading message of terror. The very fact that their attacks make such a compelling film is almost disturbing.

But Reed's film goes far beyond voyeurism, offering real insight into the attacks -- more insight then terrorists would probably like. And it's reassuring that for all the bravado, the conclusion is that the attackers and their elders are what we always suspected they were: deluded, cowardly and wrong.

Terror In Mumbai is showing at 8pm ET/PT - November 19, 2009

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