The extremists who hit Mumbai are poised to strike again - Macleans.ca

The extremists who hit Mumbai are poised to strike again

Lashkar-e-Taiba now has global ambitions

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Tahawwur Hussain Rana, a Canadian citizen and immigration consultant living in Chicago, is at the centre of terrorism investigations in India and the United States that link him to plots in Europe and America—and to the massacre in Mumbai one year ago that killed more than 160 people. Rana, who co-owns a house in Ottawa where he frequently visits, is currently charged in Chicago for allegedly planning an attack against the Danish newspaper that published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. But according to Indian reports citing government sources, he is also suspected of playing a role in the Mumbai attacks, perhaps even scouting targets in the days before the massacre.

It is widely believed that the assault on Mumbai was carried out by the Pakistani Islamist group Lashkar-e-Taiba. Rana’s co-accused, a Pakistani-American who changed his name from Daood Gilani to David Headley in 2006, told American police he trained with Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in Pakistan, where he allegedly met with al-Qaeda affiliate Ilyas Kashmiri to plan foreign operations. Court papers allege that Rana, who attended military school with Headley in Pakistan, also used email to discuss with an LeT operative how the group might smuggle members of the group into the United States.

These allegations, if proven true, are significant for what they tell as about the LeT’s growing international reach, and its current strength. The group that once confined its terrorist aspirations to South Asia appears to be branching out to Europe and even North America. Lashkar-e-Taiba can afford to stretch its horizons. Only one year after bringing so much death and destruction to Mumbai, the group is thriving. Its base in Pakistan is secure. And the Pakistani government, which knows all about Lashkar’s power and its evolving ambitions, is unwilling—or unable—to do anything about it.

The organization was created in the late 1980s by Pakistan’s largest spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). According to Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who, earlier this year, chaired an inter-agency review of American policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan for the White House, this was done with co-operation and funding from Osama bin Laden, who then had a base in the Pakistani city of Peshawar.

Although in its early days the group sent fighters to join the anti-Soviet mujahedeen in Afghanistan, Lashkar’s main mission was to fight Indian rule in Kashmir, a disputed region split between China, India, and Pakistan, but with the latter two both contesting the area held by the other. Its members soon targeted India directly. Last November’s massacre in Mumbai was only the most recent of several attacks on Indian soil over the past decade.

Pakistani officials say they cut off contact with the LeT after Sept. 11, 2001. But clearly ties still exist between Lashkar and the ISI. Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, describes the LeT as an “ISI alumni association,” meaning that links between the terrorist group and Pakistan’s intelligence agency are maintained by officially retired spies. Christine Fair, assistant professor of security studies at Georgetown University, says Lashkar is a “surrogate” of the ISI. “It’s a non-state actor only in the sense that they are not issued government of Pakistan paycheques,” she says. “But they are tools of the state.”

Although the LeT’s main goal remains driving India out of Kashmir, its links to other transnational jihadist groups, and its activities beyond South Asia, suggest it is developing a broader agenda. It sent fighters to Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks, and then to Iraq, where several Lashkar operatives were captured by British forces in 2004. David Hicks, the Australian former Guantánamo Bay detainee, was introduced to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan by the LeT. Al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah was captured in a Lashkar safe house in Pakistan. According to Gary Schroen, the CIA’s former station chief in Islamabad, “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.”

Now there are allegations that American and Canadian Lashkar members plotted to murder a Danish cartoonist and infiltrate their fellow jihadists into the United States. In short, the group appears to be evolving into what Bruce Hoffman, a professor of counterterrorism at Georgetown University, has described to Maclean’s as “al-Qaeda’s stalking horse. They have global ambitions, and they play very directly into the global jihad. They are much more than a Kashmiri separatist group.”

Yet the LeT’s ballooning ambition hasn’t been matched by a Pakistani crackdown. “They play the game of being marginal satisfiers,” says Marvin Weinbaum, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and a former Afghanistan and Pakistan analyst with the U.S. State Department, referring to the Pakistani government. “They give you enough that it takes the pressure off them, and not enough that they have to commit themselves to something they don’t feel they want to do.”

Pakistan has officially banned the group. It has even arrested a few low-level grunts. But Lashkar simply hides behind its charitable front organization, Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), based in Pakistan’s Punjab province. Jamaat’s leader, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, is periodically placed under house arrest. These never last. A Lahore court dropped all charges against Saeed in October. He’s now a free man.

This laxity persists despite evidence that has emerged since the Mumbai massacre detailing Lashkar’s role. Ajmal Kasab, the sole survivor among the 10 attackers, shocked an Indian courtroom in July with a full confession in which he recounted his training and preparation for the mission by Lashkar-e-Taiba. It wasn’t difficult for Kasab to locate the group. He simply went to a market in Rawalpindi and asked how he might join the mujahedeen. He was directed to a nearby LeT office.

It is still easy to find Lashkar-e-Taiba. Worried that the group is losing the Western media offensive, Abdullah (not his real name), a chance acquantaince who happens to be a former LeT fighter, offers to take Maclean’s to the newly built LeT compound in Dulai, a village 25 km south of Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. He is going there with his cousin Zubeida, who is looking for her second husband, an LeT fighter who was sent off six months ago. This Maclean’s reporter is to pose as his cousin, a not very good Muslim who needs to see some “real” Muslims.

At the checkpoint leading into Pakistani-held Kashmir, Abdullah, squeezed into the back of the rickety car between Zubaida and her teenage son, scornfully pays the bribe the police officer demands. “This is why the LeT is so important for Pakistan,” says the 22-year-old former fighter. “These people are all corrupt.” But the bribe was small, a mere 100 rupees (about $1.25), and the fact that the police officer lets the car through at all tells its own story: a year after the brutal carnage in Mumbai, the LeT still wields considerable influence in this volatile part of Pakistan. “Why didn’t you tell me you were going to the camp?” the officer says to the driver. “Go! Go!”

For Abdullah, going to the Dulai camp is a homecoming of sorts. Five years ago, he was an angry young volunteer, freshly graduated from a JuD school, arriving in Kashmir to learn the secrets of guerrilla warfare. He was trained and housed at another camp near Muzaffarabad before being sent across the Line of Control separating Pakistani- and Indian-held Kashmir to join the jihad. For the next two years, he crossed back and forth regularly, aided, he says, by the ISI. “I still have many friends in the LeT from those days,” he says. “We will have no problem getting permission to enter the camp.”

Since the attacks on Mumbai, Pakistani officials have resolutely stuck to the story that LeT camps in Pakistan have been closed. Indeed, following Mumbai, and under immense pressure from the U.S., the Pakistani army raided what was then the LeT’s main training camp, five kilometres outside of Muzaffarabad, and arrested 20 militants. “That camp is now occupied by the Pakistani army,” says Abdullah. “They sit there for the sake of the media, to show that Pakistan is acting against the LeT. But it’s all just a game.” What in fact happened, he adds, is that the camp was simply moved to Dulai.

Unlike its predecessor, which operated more or less in the open, the Dulai camp is built away from the prying eyes of outsiders. A sign points the way to the innocuously named Quaid-e-Azam Academy (officially a JuD-run school), up a stone-covered jeep track climbing steeply into pine-covered mountains. But at the end of the track is a gate, with surveillance cameras and heavily armed guards. Abdullah is recognized and welcomed. Zubaida is told she must go to the family residences, where the wives and children of some of the fighters are housed.

After a body search, and confiscation of mobile phones, we enter the camp. Armed LeT fighters, mostly Punjabis but also some Pashtuns from Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, wander around the flower-lined pathways, many wearing Pakistani army issue winter jackets and sweaters, some engaging in religious discussions. The camp is a testament to how disciplined and organized the LeT is. Smoking is banned, and unlike most of Pakistan, there is not a speck of litter. Much of the buildings are constructed from materials left behind by international aid agencies that rushed to Kashmir following the devastating earthquake of October 2005; the barracks and offices are entirely made from former Turkish Red Crescent field hospitals, still bearing the organization’s trademark red crescent moon symbol. The irony is hard to ignore: structures once used to save lives now house men whose mission is to take them.

Abdullah locates an old friend, Abu Huraira. After seven years fighting Indian forces, the wiry militant is now a well-respected senior commander in the LeT. The Dulai camp is a command centre. Much of the Kashmir jihad is planned and directed from here. Abdullah explains why he is at the camp and gives Abu Huraira the names of his cousin and her missing husband. “There is nothing we can do right now,” says the commander. “We will have to wait for Muzammil to return to the camp. He is at a training facility but is expected to return tomorrow.”

Muzammil. According to Indian authorities, surviving Mumbai terrorist Ajmal Kasab named Yusuf Muzammil as the lead planner of the attacks. His phone number was found on satellite phones recovered during the Indian investigation, and Indian authorities have demanded that Pakistani authorities hand him over. But Abdullah explains that Muzammil has since become the supreme commander of LeT operations in India. Abu Huraira adds that Muzammil oversaw the entire Mumbai operation. “He was in constant contact with our brothers carrying out the attack,” he says. “He was giving them instructions as the operation progressed.”

The sophistication of that operation is something Abu Huraira is proud of. The LeT has come a long way since Abdullah left, he says. Logging on to the camp’s high-speed wireless Internet network, he demonstrates how the LeT uses Google Earth to plan its attacks, effortlessly checking out areas in Indian-held Kashmir, pointing out military facilities the group targets.

But why Mumbai? Why kill civilians? Abu Huraira offers up the following explanation. “Our jihad in Kashmir has been going on for a long time,” he says. “Its impact on the Indian population has diminished. We wanted to do something that would bring Kashmir back into the minds of the Indian people. But we did not choose our targets lightly. Each one was picked for a certain reason and we made certain the people we killed were legitimate targets under Islamic law.” Nariman House, the Jewish centre where six people died, was, he claims, a front for anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan activities. “At the hotels,” Abu Huraira claims, “we targeted mostly foreign businessmen, to stop foreign investment in India and hurt its economy. In fact, we were very careful about who we killed. We wanted to target high-value individuals, big businessmen. Our operatives were told to check the identification of individuals. We checked who they were on the Internet and advised our fighters who to kill—these men are supporting the enemies of Islam by helping to boost the Indian economy. Yes, our brothers killed innocents, but so do Western armies during their military operations. Collateral damage is unavoidable.” (Transcripts of phone conversations between the attackers and their handlers, given to Pakistani investigators by their Indian counterparts, seem to show a less selective approach to the killing spree.)

Despite Pakistan’s recurring denials of any connection to militants in Kashmir, a camp like the one at Dulai could not exist without the approval of Pakistani officials. Its sophistication implies continued military support. But the most perplexing thing is that Pakistanis themselves should be more concerned about the LeT than anyone else. Their jihad has gone global. Abu Huraira admits openly that they support groups like al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban (though he denies they have any connections to the Pakistani Taliban). “We don’t give our brother groups fighters,” he says, “but we share resources with them—weapons, information. We coordinate with them. And if one of our fighters chooses to join another jihad—in Iraq or in Afghanistan—we will help him get there.”

And what about the allegations against Rana and Headley in Chicago? Abu Huraira denies knowing anything about that case, and last week an LeT spokesman denied any connection with the two men. Indian and U.S. officials claim, however, that the two men have close links to the militant outfit. And meanwhile, the group’s agenda is expanding, says Abdullah, spearheaded by its new operational commander, Yusuf Muzammil. When he arrives at the camp the next morning, it’s obvious the other fighters worship him. He towers over them, standing well over six feet, his luxuriant beard neatly trimmed and combed, eerily similar to descriptions of Osama bin Laden during his early rise to fundamentalist fame. After prayers, a group of core fighters joins him in the camp’s mosque. They sit in a circle to discuss strategy, Muzammil pointing to individuals and giving instructions. After that, he disappears into the “restricted” area of the camp.

Given Muzammil’s presence at the Dulai camp, there appears to be little doubt that the LeT operates on Pakistani territory with official sanction. But Pakistan’s refusal to roll up Lashkar has come with a heavy price. It has strained relations with the United States, Pakistan’s biggest financial donor, and has pushed America closer to Pakistan’s archrival, India. Pakistan’s relationship with India has been another casualty. India gave Pakistan what it says is convincing evidence that Saeed was involved in the Mumbai attacks and is furious that Pakistan has not charged him. Intelligence agencies from the two countries reportedly no longer talk to each other. The peace process has run aground.

“It’s also eating at Pakistan’s integrity as a state,” says Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institution. The existence of armed and violent non-state actors in Pakistan makes its government look weak. The obvious similarity is with the Taliban. Pakistan supported the Islamist group as a means of projecting influence into Afghanistan. Then Pakistani Pashtuns, some of whom had fought with the Afghan Taliban, began to emulate it. Now Pakistan has a full-on insurgency raging along its frontier with Afghanistan and terrorist attacks in its capital. Hundreds have been killed, millions displaced.

So why won’t Pakistan at least try to shut down the LeT? There are two possible explanations. It can’t. And it doesn’t want to. The most important thing to understand about Lashkar is that, unlike the Pakistani Taliban, it is not a frontier-based outfit of illiterate Pashtun tribesmen. It has hundreds of thousands of supporters in Pakistan’s Punjab heartland, many of whom are educated. Confronting the LeT would be an enormous undertaking for which Pakistan’s armed forces might not be ready.

“I think they can make a convincing case that it’s actually more dangerous for them to go after Lashkar than not to go after Lashkar,” says Christine Fair of Georgetown. “Because Pakistan can reasonably say that their military is probably the best-trained military that has never won a war, that it is massively overstretched in its current operations, and they’ve got serious morale issues. So the army can say: ‘Look, we’ve got this India issue. We’re trying to support your forces [by allowing coalition troops and supplies to traverse Pakistan] in Afghanistan. We’ve got holding operations going down in Swat and Buner [districts that the Pakistani army recently retook from the Taliban]. And we’ve got a military offensive in Waziristan [against the Taliban].’ And Lashkar-e-Taiba is square in the Punjab.”

According to Stephen Cohen, even if Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari were to order his country’s security forces against Lashkar, it’s uncertain whether they’d pay attention. “Zardari doesn’t control all of Pakistan,” says Cohen. “He sits there and pulls the levers and presses the buttons, but sometimes nothing happens. The civilian government is weak because the state bureaucracy has its own internal logic and its own strategy.”

This touches on the second reason why Pakistan is unlikely to do much to weaken the LeT. In the eyes of much of the Pakistani establishment, and certainly in military and intelligence circles, Lashkar-e-Taiba is a useful tool rather than a liability. Its goal of “freeing” Kashmir is widely supported in Pakistan, and its Islamist ideology is becoming increasingly ingrained in Pakistan’s military and intelligence services. “They are, after all, their boys. I mean, they raised the little monsters,” says Fair. “From their view, Lashkar-e-Taiba is an asset. It has exclusively targeted outside Pakistan.”

Unless Lashkar commits some sort of outrage inside Pakistan, it’s unlikely Pakistan will stop considering the LeT as a resource—a means of waging war in Kashmir and of striking at India while maintaining a fig leaf of deniability. Lashkar, for its part, has good reason not to provoke the Pakistani state. Its members enjoy the unofficial shelter Pakistan provides them, and they share a common enemy in India.

What’s unclear is how long this state of affairs can last. Cohen believes it is inevitable that Lashkar will eventually turn on its creators. “That’s what the spooks call blowback,” he says. “If you allow these groups to operate, then sooner or later they’re going to operate against you, in your own country. Lashkar-e-Taiba’s ideology would lead them to conclude that a government that is working with the United States is an enemy.”

This hasn’t happened yet. But the LeT’s affiliation with groups that have hit Pakistan, including al-Qaeda, suggests it might. Pakistan is playing a dangerous game.