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Trail of terror

The horror in Mumbai is traced to a group with strong ties to al-Qaeda


 

Trail of terror

It is unlikely that Muhammad Ajmal Kasab drew a second glance from onlookers when he walked into Mumbai’s historic Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station a little after 9 p.m. on Nov. 26. The 21-year-old man’s upper body was heavily muscled, but his clean-shaven face was broad and youthful, softened by the remnants of baby fat. He wore sneakers, a pink wristband, baggy cargo pants and a T-shirt with a Versace designer label across the chest. With a blue backpack slung across his shoulder, he looked like a typical college student enjoying a bit of carefree travel—perhaps on his way to Goa, a favourite destination a little further down the coast.

But in his backpack, in addition to dried fruit and a mobile phone, Kasab carried grenades and ammunition magazines for the AK-47 assault rifle he had managed to conceal as well. When he reached crowded platform 13, Kasab and his partner Ismail Khan began shooting indiscriminately at commuters and diners in the train station café. The crowd panicked and those who could, fled. One of two police at the station tried to return fire while hiding in an alcove, but he was armed with a Second World War-era rifle and was forced to scramble for shelter while Kasab and Khan blazed away from their hips with automatic weapons.

The pair left the station and ambushed a police van, spraying it with gunfire and dumping the bodies of the slain officers on the road, one of whom was the anti-terrorism squad chief Hemant Karkare. Unknown to them, two police, including Const. Arun Jadhav, were alive but wounded in the back seat. The van careened through the city, with one of the two terrorists driving and the other shooting out the window. When Jadhav’s colleague’s cellphone rang, one of the gunman turned around and shot him. The terrorists said little, joking at one point about a police officer they murdered who had been wearing a bulletproof vest. Jadhav, who had been shot three times, was unable to reach his weapon. “I wish I could have lifted my gun,” he would later say from his hospital bed.

When one of the van’s tires went flat, Kasab and Khan abandoned the vehicle and hijacked another car. Police intercepted the pair and shot Khan dead. An enraged crowd at the scene descended on Kasab, kicking and thrashing him with sticks before police intervened and saved him. Here, Kasab’s perverted good fortune turned. He would later tell police that he had been trained to “kill to the last breath.” Instead, Kasab was captured alive. While he initially begged medical staff to give him saline to save his life, following interrogations by police he has reportedly said, “I don’t want to live.”

But Kasab is alive and talking. He is now telling Indian investigators about the attacks, how they were planned, and who the people were who sent him and his terrorist colleagues on their mission. The picture Kasab paints is blurry and is further confused by Indian officials—perhaps numbering as many as 15—who sat in on his interrogations and are furiously leaking often inconsistent reports of what they heard to local and international media. Throw in recollections from the odd hospital volunteer who might have overheard a snippet of conversation and the story that emerges is one that will change as further evidence is compiled, and rumours and hearsay are separated from facts. For the moment, though, Kasab’s testimony—at least the version of it passed on by Indian officials crowded around his hospital bed—is the foundation for what is so far known about the atrocities in Mumbai and who was behind them.

Muhammad Ajmal Kasab’s road to infamy began over a year ago at a mountain training camp near Muzaffarabad, in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. The camp was run by Lashkar-e-Taiba, a radical Islamist organization linked to international jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda, as well as to Pakistan’s spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)—which has long sponsored Islamist insurgent groups, including the Taliban, in both Afghanistan and Indian-administered Kashmir.

Details about Kasab’s life before arriving at the camp are vague. He is reportedly from Faridkot village in Pakistan’s Punjab province. His rural village lies in an area that is a rich recruiting ground for jihadists. He grew up poor, the son of a snack vendor, and left the village about four years ago. According to some press reports, Kasab told interrogators that his father “sold” him to a leading member of Lashkar-e-Taiba, for about $4,500. One Faridkot villager told journalist Saeed Shah that Kasab would return home about once a year and talk about “freeing” Kashmir from Indian rule.

In Muzaffarabad, Kasab met other members of the eventual team of 10 who would assault Mumbai. Some reports have it that they were selected from a larger group of 24 trainees, and that not all were initially trained at the same camp. They were reportedly given false names and discouraged from talking with each other about topics other than their mission. They were trained in the use of explosives, urban warfare, and hand-to-hand combat. At another Kashmiri camp near the massive Mangla Dam, they practised beach landings. All became extremely muscular in the course of their training. An Indian official suggested that traces of steroids were found in the blood of the slain terrorists, along with cocaine and other stimulants that allowed the 10 men to battle hundreds of Indian police and soldiers for 60 hours, apparently without sleep.

Kasab and his colleagues travelled to Rawalpindi when their training was over. Here, they memorized their targets: the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station, the Taj Mahal and Oberoi hotels, and the Chabad House Jewish centre. A reconnaissance team had reportedly chosen the targets and the routes to reach them in advance. Extra ammunition and weapons were allegedly cached in at least one of the hotels, and explosives might also have been smuggled into the city—perhaps with the assistance of local collaborators. Indian police have arrested several native Indians on suspicion of a connection to the attacks.

Kasab’s assault team then moved to the Pakistani port city of Karachi to begin their journey to Mumbai by ship. A wealthy gangster named Dawood Ibrahim makes his home there. He is originally from Mumbai, and his crime syndicate, “D-Company,” still controls smuggling into the city. Although he has a taste for lavish parties, Bollywood movies, and women, Ibrahim began moving in Islamist circles in the 1990s and is believed to have financed the 1993 bombings in Mumbai that killed more than 250 people. Some have argued that, given his extensive connections in Mumbai’s criminal underworld, he might have played a role in these attacks as well. He is thought to be living under the protection of the ISI. India has demanded that he be handed over; Pakistan denies knowledge of where he is.

When the terrorists left Karachi, the Indian navy was boarding and searching foreign ships in the Arabian Sea, and the team grew nervous. Abandoning their vessel and using motorized dinghies, they hijacked a local fishing boat, the Kuber, and killed everyone but the captain, whom they forced to steer for India. As they closed in on Mumbai, the terrorists slit the captain’s throat, climbed back into their dinghies and slipped into Mumbai. They brushed aside questions from the harbourmaster, split into teams, and raced into the night. Within minutes, Mumbai was awash in carnage and mayhem that would last more than two days. Kasab and his fellow terrorists murdered almost 200 people. He is the only one of the 10 attackers still alive.

Amid the many horrific details that Kasab has disclosed, by far the most consequential is his claim to have been trained and dispatched by Lashkar-e-Taiba. While unproven, it is a credible admission and is supported by intelligence agencies in both India and the United States. Pakistan initially said it had seen no evidence linking the attacks to any Pakistani groups. But earlier this week the Pakistani army raided a Lashkar-e-Taiba camp near Muzaffarabad and arrested the group’s operational chief, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi—an implicit acknowledgement that it, too, accepts Lashkar’s possible responsibility for the Mumbai assault.

Lashkar-e-Taiba, whose name means “Army of the Pure,” has its origins in the late 1980s and early 1990s as the military wing of the Pakistani Islamist organization Markaz al-Dawa wal-Irshad, which has since changed its name to Jamaat-ud-Dawah. It was created with the assistance of the ISI to wage an insurgency in Indian-controlled Kashmir and to train other Muslim extremists in India. According to Husain Haqqani, a former professor at Boston University and now Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., the group, which promotes the ultra-conservative Wahhabi form of Islam, was supported with Saudi money. Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who spent three decades working for the CIA, says Osama bin Laden was also an early supporter.

Lashkar-e-Taiba was officially banned by Pakistan in 2002, following heavy pressure on Pakistan from the U.S. But it continues to operate behind its still-legal front organization, Jamaat-ud-Dawah, which claims to be a charity, and does help many poor Pakistanis. The Muzaffarabad camp, for example, officially functioned under the banner of Jamaat-ud-Dawah, rather than Lashkar-e-Taiba. Jamaat’s leader, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, denies any association with Lashkar-e-Taiba, but it is widely understood that he leads that group, too—given that he founded it.

Although liberating Kashmir is Lashkar’s primary goal, it has adopted what Haqqani has described in a 2005 essay as “a maximalist agenda for global jihad.” Haqqani cites a Markaz al-Dawa wal-Irshad publication titled “Why Are We Waging Jihad?” that describes the U.S., Israel, and India as enemies of Islam. The publication goes on to list several often-cited reasons for jihad, including facilitating the conversion to and practice of Islam, ensuring Islam’s ascendancy, and liberating Muslim territories under non-Muslim occupation. On this last point, Lashkar’s rhetoric echoes that of Osama bin Laden. Supposedly occupied Muslim lands include: Spain, India, Bulgaria, Hungary, Cyprus, Sicily, Ethiopia, Israel and Palestine, as well as parts of Russia, China, France and Switzerland. All these territories “were Muslim lands, and it is our duty to get them back from unbelievers.”

To this end, Lashkar-e-Taiba co-operates with other jihadist groups. One Lashkar militant in Pakistan told a local researcher hired by Maclean’s that some members of his organization regularly meet with al-Qaeda and the Taliban to discuss strategy. “Not everyone agrees with these meetings,” he says. “Since the war in Afghanistan started, there have been disagreements about how to fight our enemies. We are surrounded by them now.” He said some Lashkar members who have embraced the global jihad might have been involved in the Mumbai attacks, but he doesn’t think the group as a whole was behind it.

Lashkar has sent its members to fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan and with Islamist insurgents in Iraq. At least seven Lashkar members were killed there in 2003. “The powerful Western world is terrorizing Muslims. We are being invaded, humiliated, manipulated and looted. How can we respond but through jihad?” Lashkar leader Hafiz Muhammad Saeed said in the weeks after the American-led invasion of Iraq. “We must fight against the evil trio, America, Israel, and India. Suicide missions are in accordance with Islam. In fact, a suicide attack is the best form of jihad.”

Lashkar’s co-operation with al-Qaeda appears to have solidified since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Links between the two groups are “extensive,” Bruce Hoffman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University and a former scholar-in-residence for counterterrorism at the CIA, told Maclean’s. “I would describe them as al-Qaeda’s stalking horse in many respects. They have global ambitions, and they play very directly into the global jihad. They’re much more than a Kashmiri separatist group.”

Senior al-Qaeda member Abu Zubaydah was captured in a Lashkar safe house in Pakistan in 2002. Others have met the same fate. Gary Schroen, the CIA’s former station chief in Islamabad who led the first CIA team into Afghanistan after 9/11, has noted that “since 2002, whenever a raid has been conducted in Pakistan against al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda members are found being hosted by militant Pakistanis, primarily from the LeT group.” According to Riedel, Lashkar actively recruits among Pakistan’s large diaspora in Britain.

What remains unclear is Lashkar’s relationship with Pakistan’s government and the ISI. Lashkar-e-Taiba is “a creation of the ISI and the Pakistani government,” Hoffman says. But he notes that many of the connections that bound Lashkar to the ISI have “frayed or atrophied” as Lashkar expanded its reach beyond Kashmir, and the government was pressured to rein it in. “This historically is not unusual if a government supports terrorist organizations where there is a commonality of aims—in this case the liberation of Kashmir,” Hoffman says. “But then very often the terrorist groups divert and pursue their own agenda. I don’t think the ISI necessarily has the same interest in global jihad.”

India’s retort, quite naturally, would be that even if Pakistan has let slip its grip on Lashkar’s leash, the dog still sleeps in Islamabad’s backyard. Lashkar and its front organization Jamaat-ud-Dawah have hundreds of schools, mosques, medical clinics and offices, in addition to training camps. Until the raid on the Lashkar camp this week, these were rarely targeted. “It depends how you define complicity,” Hoffman says, when asked about Pakistan’s responsibility. “Are they complicit in the sense that the Pakistani government was involved in the attacks? That’s one thing. But are they complicit in the sense that Lashkar-e-Taiba is allowed to operate almost unmolested in Pakistan? I mean, yeah.”

Complicating the question of accountability is the fact that even the ISI does not have control over all of its agents—some of whom are more loyal to the Islamist militant groups they helped create than to their government. A senior member of the ISI told a Maclean’s researcher that elements of the security services warn radical Islamist groups when government forces are sent to apprehend them. “Whatever intelligence we get,” he says, requesting anonymity, “quickly becomes obsolete. We hear about a meeting of the senior leadership but before we can swoop in, they know. They shift and we come up empty-handed.”

This ISI official’s frustration with his rogue spies reflects a larger lesson Pakistan is learning about the dangers of sowing the wind. For years, Pakistan’s army and spy agency quietly funded and trained Islamist terror groups, political parties, and even aspirant governments—such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jamiat-e-Islami, and the Taliban—as a means of projecting influence and, most often, of hitting India while retaining a semblance of plausible deniability. But now the whirlwind has come home. Islamist militias, including a Pakistani version of the Taliban, have launched an insurrection along the country’s northwest frontier with Afghanistan, and Islamist terror attacks are increasingly frequent elsewhere across the country. One such attack last December killed former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who had returned home to run for office and had promised to defeat the Islamist insurgents. Her husband, Asaf Ali Zardari, is now the nation’s elected president.

Pakistan’s civilian government is hitting back. It has sent the army into the country’s Tribal Areas, where al-Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban and affiliated Islamist groups have found refuge and planned several international terror attacks. But these offensives produce a backlash. Among the motivations for the attacks on Mumbai might have been a desire to relieve pressure on Islamists in the Tribal Areas by ratcheting up tensions with India in the east. “Our brothers in the Tribal Areas are suffering,” says the Lashkar-e-Taiba member. “The people who carried out this attack probably want to damage Indian and Pakistani relations so that Pakistan is forced to send troops back to the Indian border.” Zardari has also speculated that the Mumbai attacks were designed to “divert attention from the real war between the terrorists and the Pakistani army in the Tribal Areas.”

It’s a sensible strategy, and one with a precedent. The December 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian parliament brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war, as each nation mobilized one million men for nearly a year. As the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid notes in his recent book, Descent into Chaos, Pakistan was forced to move its troops away from the Afghan border to face the Indian army in the east. This allowed the Taliban and al-Qaeda escaping from Afghanistan to slip into Pakistan and establish a safe haven there.

Today, as in late 2001, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other radical Islamists on the Afghan-Pakistan frontier risk being squeezed between the Pakistani army—now acting with more resolve—and NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan. American unmanned Predator drones send Hellfire missiles into militants’ homes on the Pakistani side of the border, and Barack Obama’s pledge to send thousands of additional soldiers to Afghanistan will only increase the pressure. But were India and Pakistan to move to a war footing, this pressure would dissipate—Pakistani troops would withdraw, the Pakistani Taliban would take more territory, and al-Qaeda would likely be emboldened by its greater freedom.

It may still come to this. India’s moderate government, led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Congress party, is weak and will face demands for revenge—both from the general public and the opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which may whip up anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistani rhetoric in an upcoming election. Already there has been heated public anger on both sides of the border.

And yet the governments of the two nuclear-armed nations, which have been creeping toward peace since 2004, have so far shown restraint. Pakistan has promised to co-operate with India in its investigation, and its Muzaffarabad raid suggests Islamabad is willing to back up its words with action. The Pakistani government fears an Indian military strike. It is also facing enormous pressure from the U.S., which has provided Pakistan with more than US$10 billion in military and economic assistance since 2001. But with suspected Islamist terrorists attacking civilian targets in Pakistan, even in the aftermath of the assault on Mumbai, it is becoming unavoidably apparent that the two countries share a common enemy. It’s too soon to know what all the ramifications of the assault on Mumbai will be. But if, as seems likely, the attacks were designed to push India and Pakistan toward a deeper conflict, it’s not unrealistic to hope that they will backfire.

With Adnan R. Khan


 

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