On Wednesday (November 26), ten militants arrived at India's financial capital by boat to unleash a 60-hour long shooting spree that left nearly 200 people dead and paralysed the whole city with fear. Targets included two hotels, a train station and a Jewish centre.
Troubling enough is the fact that these men were willing to wreak such havoc. But, as I consider in this editorial piece, Al Qaeda's latest exploit betrays an even more disturbing aspect of modern terrorism - one that, for the Jihadists at least, re-affirms the logic behind targeting civilians.
To understand the significance of the global terror network's constantly evolving strategies it is necessary first to take a look back at that landmark event in 21st century warfare: September 11, 2001.
The 9/11 attacks brilliantly encapsulated everything the world's disparate and discordant Islamist movements wanted to express about the growth of democracy. From America's own soil, a chilling, almost-unreal message of horror reverberated around the world. 'We are Muslims'. 'We are warriors'. 'Do NOT fuck with us'.
An apocalypse, however, it was not. Nineteen men may have altered the course of history, but they only did so by exploiting a foolishly overlooked aspect of airline security. Had the well-documented threat of fedayeen (suicide attackers) been properly appreciated by western governments, the reality is that Al Qaeda's great strike on the US would most likely have been a truck bomb. Fifty, perhaps 100 people would have died.
Instead, 3,000 lost their lives. Pundits wailed about how the world was forever changed. And yet in the seven years that have followed, how much of the doomsayers' portents have really borne fruit?
Let us first concede that - when you look beyond the media's finicky and ethnically-prejudiced stance on global terrorism - Al Qaeda's minions have undeniably been a busy bunch. Despite the hastily-waged war on Afghanistan, the organisation pulled a suicide bombing out of the bag in Tunisia just seven months after 9/11, slaughtering 21 innocents including 15 Westerners.
In the years that followed a complex mesh of autonomous terror groups - united solely by their religious preferences and their hatred of the West - successfully struck at targets in countries as diverse as Spain, Yemen, Indonesia, Morocco, Pakistan and England. All waging war under the banner of Al Qaeda's exceptionally successful brand.
But in spite of such isolated victories, I would contend that terrorism has dipped in the public psyche. If 9/11 ushered in such an earth-shattering change for democratic nations, why did London rebound so quickly after 7/7? Why have just three international terror attacks breach the psychologically-significant 100-fatalities mark (Bali, 2002; Madrid, 2004; Mumbai, 2008). To put it bluntly, why don't people seem to care any more? How come we're all talking about the economy again?
One answer might be that societies adapt to the threats they face, responding proportionately to whatever degree of peril appears to be bearing down on them. In layman's terms: after 9/11, everyone was shit-scared; whereas after 7/7, while we didn't much like what was going on, no planes were falling out of the skies and no skyscrapers were crumbling to the ground - so we kind of just got on with things. To me this makes good logical sense.
Sadly for democratic nations, though, radical Islamists are not blind to this reality. Having witnessed the growing success of rudimentary security measures - such as locked cockpits and concrete bollards - Al Qaeda and its supporters duly re-thought their strategic approach to terror. Bin Laden and his cohorts may still dream of rekindling the glory of 9/11, but on the ground the organisation is pragmatically manoeuvring to re-define and keep relevant its brand of terror.
Consider Al Qaeda's approach to public affairs. In its pursuit of headline-grabbing atrocities, the organisation's manifesto calls on its foot-soldiers to strike at the heart of Western might. That means hitting America and its allies by targeting their military, political and economic strength.
Prior to 9/11 such goals seemed realistic. The 2000 attack on the USS Cole constituted a military coup for the organisation - severely damaging an American warship and slaying 17 sailors in the process - while 9/11 undoubtedly dealt a heavy blow to America's economic and military prowess. The 2001 assassination of Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud days before the 9/11 attacks - which weakened the Taliban's main opposition ahead of a looming US invasion - also exemplified Al Qaeda's creativity and adeptness at political manipulation.
But in a security-obsessed post-9/11 world, a very different landscape has emerged. The war in Iraq showed us that even in the midst of a virulent anti-American insurgency, Islamist fighters are incapable of inflicting significant-enough US casualties to sway public opinion back home. Similarly, political assassinations of all but the most foolhardy top-level public figures (Benazir Bhutto being a prime example) are simply not viable. And whatever attacks Al Qaeda can muster against the US economy either fail miserably (as in Saudi Arabia), or prompt embarrassingly quick recoveries (as in Yemen).
Thus the growing trend towards hitting soft targets: a hotel in Kenya; a residential compound in Saudi Arabia; a synagogue in Turkey. Irrespective of who may be pulling the strings, Al Qaeda is always mindful not to buy into its own propaganda. It largely restricts itself to realistic and attainable goals, even if doing so means exclusively targeting civilians (after all, as London bomber Mohammad Sidique Khan put it, civilians must apparently shoulder the blame for electing their own governments).
Of course, a considerable amount of fine-tuning has been necessary. The hopelessly amateurish 2003 bombings in Casablanca - where 12 suicide bombers killed a total of 33 people, and a further two failed to detonate - reiterated the need for comprehensive reconnaissance and planning. What's more, comparatively successfully attacks in Turkey and Jordan prompted a severe backlash against the Islamist movement because of heavy collateral damage among ordinary Muslim pedestrians. Al Qaeda has made mistakes over the past seven years, but it has been quick to learn from them.
And so we come to last week's horrific Mumbai attack, which also centred on soft targets. While the prospect of an Al Qaeda-inspired attack against Westerners has long been on the cards in India - a country that has suffered several domestic Islamist strikes this year alone - many supposed experts seemed shocked by the modus operandi of this latest atrocity.
Take the callously ignorant remarks of Christine Fair, South Asia expert at the RAND Corporation, who said of the Mumbai attacks: "There's absolutely nothing Al Qaeda-like about it. Did you see any suicide bombers?" No Ms Fair, nor did we see any suicide bombers in the 2004 Madrid attack - perhaps Al Qaeda's most high-profile strike since 9/11 - while its 2002 Bali attack involved just one peripheral suicide bomber working alongside a much larger, planted bomb.
Ms Fair went on to dismiss the obvious likelihood of Lashkar-e-Toiba - an Al Qaeda-linked group - being responsible for the attacks, once again spurting out a moronic appraisal of the group. "They don't do hostage-taking," she told the International Herald Tribune. "And they don't do grenades." Lo, no-one tell her about the group's 2001 attack on the Indian parliament, in which five fedayeen hurled several grenades in a shoot-out that killed 12 people and brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war.
The simple truth is that - as we have been told time and again - Al Qaeda is not a traditional organisation that adheres to a strict code of conduct. Rather, it is an organic and highly-flexible ideology - one whose targets, leadership and methodologies are all prone to constant revisions.
In India, attackers rightly deemed that a drawn-out shooting spree would be the most effective way of ramping up casualty figures, not to mention prolonging public anxiety and media coverage. Conversely, a massive truck bomb was selected as the preferred modus operandi in the recent attack against Islamabad's heavily-fortified Marriott hotel, as Al Qaeda realised that heightened security measures in Pakistan would diminish the likelihood of a successful ground assault.
In and of itself there is nothing particularly earth-shattering about last week's terror attack in Mumbai. It will be notched up as another transient success in Al Qaeda's sickening war against the West. The buildings will be restored, memorials erected, and relatives will gradually come to turns with their losses. Indeed, contrary to what many Mumbaikars contend, this was not India's 9/11. Nor was Beslan Russia's 9/11. Nor 7/7 the UK's. All these countries can expect more of the same in the years to come.
However, the Mumbai attack is significant in one key respect: it illustrates like no other recent strike Al Qaeda's willingness to adapt its tactics in pursuit of higher death tolls, particularly when hitting soft targets.
Quite how this versatility will unravel in the years that follow is anyone's guess. But whatever path Al Qaeda's operatives follow, their resilience and innovation will only bolster the organisation's monopoly on terror. After all, what better way to strike fear into people's hearts than to keep them guessing about the very nature of the threat they face.