It was just five years ago when, on the evening of November 26, 2008, a group of terrorists made a series of attacks throughout Mumbai. The Siege focuses on the hostages held at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which had a global reputation for high-end glamour. By the end of the ordeal 31 people and one security “sniffer” dog were dead, hundreds were wounded and much of the hotel had burned. Amazingly, it could have been much worse.

Authors Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy faced numerous challenges researching this book. People who survived the events were reluctant to relive them. When they did, their accounts often directly contradicted those of other witnesses. They were able to establish a timeline by researching phone and text message records, and from there mapped events from as many perspectives as possible. Parents of the terrorists, all of whom died in the attacks, were told by higher-ups in the Lashkar-e-Toiba organization that their sons were martyred elsewhere or died accidentally; even seeing a photo of his son in an Indian morgue failed to persuade one father, who insisted, “That’s a fiction created by India and America.”

The authors have a gripping and complex story to tell, so it’s a bit confounding when they spend more than 60 pages introducing characters before beginning to diagram the action. Instead of making it easier to tell everyone apart, it adds to the confusion. That may be intentional—the bombing, grenade strikes and assault rifle fire created a state of abject chaos—but this reader had to refer back to earlier passages numerous times for orientation.

Through the chaos some very vivid pictures emerge, especially of the young jihadis. Many of them dropped out of the organization during training, phoning relatives to retrieve them from in front of the compound’s gates. Others waited there, and when nobody came for them their fates were sealed. It’s chilling to see a Pakistani organization that loathes India and the U.S. equally using Google Earth to case locations and monitor the attacks. When the young men are sent on their way, their knapsacks contain both weapons and bottles of Mountain Dew.

The Siege is not an easy read, but it’s an important one; it honors the everyday heroics of those who were there, and makes frighteningly clear how little it takes to create a terrorist.

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