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A terrorist threat beyond al-Qaeda

Like al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba too has a universalist ideology focused on establishing a universal Islamic Caliphate through the instrument of jihad

By A. S. Sekhon

"In my judgment, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) today remains—after al-Qaeda—the most important terrorist group of global reach operating from South Asia. Like al-Qaeda, LeT too has a universalist ideology focused on establishing a universal Islamic Caliphate through the instrument of jihad, but unlike al-Qaeda, which is truly a stateless terrorist organization, LeT remains primarily Pakistani in its composition, uses Pakistani territory as its primary base of operation, and continues to be supported extensively by the Pakistani state, especially the Pakistani Army and its Directorate, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)." — Ashley J. Tellis in his testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives in March 2010.

I believe Mr. Tellis' statement is accurate. Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), "Army of the Pure," is the military wing of the Markaz Dawat ul-Irshad (MDI), the center for proselytization and preaching, which was established during the 1980s.[2] It is an entity that remains closely linked, unfortunately, with the ambitions of senior people in the Pakistani government.

Ideology and ambition
MDI is affiliated with Ahl-i-Hadith, a way of life based on the traditions of the prophet Mohammad. It is against all "unlawful innovations" like Sufism and "imitations" of the traditional schools of Islamic jurisprudence and attempts to refashion the worldwide Muslim community in the mold of the companions of the prophet.

The decade of the 1980s saw an overlap of two important drives in the region that were to leave a lasting shadow on the years that followed. First, of course, was the "jihad" against the Soviets in Afghanistan that caught the imagination of some Muslim groups from far-off regions, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya, Yemen, and others, to converge together to fight. Second was the Islamization drive undertaken by General Zia-ul-Haq to transform Pakistan into an "Islamic State" based on shariah law. Widespread growth of madrassas (religious schools) was soon to become breeding ground for young minds to be transformed into fanatic fighters ready to take on the designated enemies of Islam.

After the Soviets withdrew in defeat, LeT was re-targeted against India in support of operations over contested territory. However, LeT's ideology goes beyond merely challenging India's control of the states of Jammu and Kashmir. According to Professor Hafeez Saeed (LeT leader), the purpose of this jihad is to carry out a sustained struggle for the dominance of Islam in the entire world and to eliminate "evil forces" and the ignorant.[3] He considers India, Israel, and the United States to be his prime enemies and has threatened to launch Fedayeen (suicide) attacks on American interests as retaliation for ongoing international counter-terrorism operations.

US officials appear to view LeT as less threatening than al-Qaeda despite knowing the links between these groups. For instance, the shoe bomber Richard Reid apparently trained at an LeT camp in Pakistan, and one of the London subway bombers Shazad Tanweer spent time in an LeT camp in Muridke, Pakistan.[4] LeT links to al-Qaeda go back even further, however. In 1998 LeT signed Osama bin Laden's fatwa for Muslims to kill Americans and Israelis.[5] Revelations from the recent investigation and trial of David Headley in the United States reveal that LeT (in coordination with the Harkat-ul-Jihadi-al-Islami) planned to attack the US embassy and Indian High Commission in Bangladesh around the one-year anniversary of the 2008, Mumbai attacks.[6]

Involvement of LeT in Afghanistan has increased in recent years as the Taliban started regaining influence in that country. LeT has supported insurgents by recruiting, training, and housing fighters and facilitating their infiltration into Afghanistan from the tribal areas of Pakistan. LeT also helped al-Qaeda by recruiting men from the Jalozai refugee camp in Peshawar for training at al-Qaeda camps to become suicide bombers.[7] Professor Saeed was at the forefront in leading prayers after the killing of Osama bin Laden and fomenting anti-American sentiment among people in the heartland of Pakistan.

The radicalization of Pakistani society, which started during General Zia-ul-Haq's rule in the 1980s, may be beginning to haunt Pakistan. Widespread intolerance for any divergent point of view is manifest. The murder of Mr. Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, during broad daylight on January 4, 2011, by his bodyguard,[8] and the killing of another minister, Mr. Shahzad Bhatti,[9] the only Christian minister in Pakistan, on March 2, 2011, who had aired his views against blasphemy laws, are cases in point to the extent of the radicalization in Pakistan, especially in the heartland.

Mobs demonstrating on the streets after each event related to US counter-terrorism action should be a cause for concern. Many terrorist groups operate from the soil of Pakistan. Jaish-e- Mohammad, Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, Afghan Taliban, Haqqani Group, or LeT may have ideological differences, but they have two things in common. First, they are all anti-American, and second, they are supported by Pakistan's intelligence services, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), in some fashion. I believe that a dual-purpose strategy adopted by Pakistan to use these groups against the United States and Afghanistan on one side and against India toward the east is sustaining these relationships.

Pakistani authorities have shown a halfhearted desire to move against operatives of LeT despite clear evidence from the 2008, Mumbai attacks' investigations and revelations during the David Headley and Tahawar Hussein Rana trials in Chicago.[10] It is all too clear that despite repeated requests from the United States, Pakistani authorities are not prepared to relinquish the leverage of using groups like LeT to pursue their agendas.

This scenario is particularly evident in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region where Pakistan has shown reluctance to move against groups such as the one led by Haqqani in North Waziristan or the Quetta region where senior Taliban leaders are known to be enjoying similar comforts under the patronage of authorities as was enjoyed by Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad close to the Pakistan Military Academy at Kakul. Another matter of grave concern is the evidence of the infiltration of radical/militant elements into governmental institutions in Pakistan.

The successful attack on the Pakistani naval installation at Mehran on May 22, 2011, with apparent inside help,[11] is a case in point. The recent arrest of Brigadier Ali Khan and two other officers of the Pakistan Army on June 21, 2011, for their suspected links with terrorists show the extent of such infiltration. We need to remember that control of Pakistan's strategic weapons, including nuclear weapons, lies with the army.

Threat Assessment
The United States appears to have begun taking terrorism seriously only after facing direct attack from al-Qaeda in the form of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the twin towers. I believe that the United States failed to sufficiently appreciate the epicenter of terror that has always been in the Af-Pak region and erred when it hesitated to aggressively pursue fleeing terrorists into Pakistan in 2003. Perhaps nonoperational reasons overshadowed tactical exploitation.

Although it appears that LeT generally refrains from directly targeting Americans, the killing of US citizens in Mumbai being an exception, it has the potential of posing a significant threat to US interests in the long term.

The events that unfold in Afghanistan will have lasting impact on the strategic environment in South Asia and Central Asian Republics where the United States has long-term interests. A clear victory for the United States in Afghanistan now seems unlikely. A stalemate in a conflict between a superpower and loosely affiliated militant groups with limited military equipment at their disposal would be considered a victory for the latter. Based on announcements of phased troop withdrawal by President Barack Obama, it seems that the Muslim militant groups, such as the Taliban (supported by other groups and elements in ISI), can look forward to forcing a second superpower to leave Afghanistan under disadvantaged circumstances. This would certainly give a boost (in global perception) to the operational viability of violent jihad for achieving goals and a similar boost to groups like LeT who have been openly advocating action against US interests.

LeT draws its rank and file mainly from the Pakistani state of Punjab. Pakistan's politics, government, military, and other institutions are dominated by the Punjabi elite. Punjabis as a group are holding prominent places of authority in the Pakistani military hierarchy and important institutions. Pakistan is a proven nuclear power with its arsenal increasing with each passing year. How safe are Pakistan's nuclear weapons? In the words of Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, who teaches physics at Islamabad's government-run Quaid-i-Azam University, Pakistan's establishment lacks the ability to keep its nuclear weapons safe (claims to the contrary made by the Pakistan Army notwithstanding). Hoodbhoy says, "It seems to me that the Pakistan Army is playing with fire. It knows that these nuclear weapons are ultimately in the hands of their own people and their own people have been affected by decades of radicalization. They may claim that they have personnel reliability tests, but I do not believe that answering questions on a form may indicate his [true] intentions."

In recent times, we have seen the infiltration of radicals into the ranks of the army. Militants have even targeted the Police Training Academy in Lahore[12] and Pakistan Army General Headquarters on March 30, 2009,[13] and October 10, 2009,[14] respectively, with inside assistance.

I believe that we can conclude the following:

1. The Punjabi population has immense influence in the government and the army in Pakistan.

2. LeT draws its rank and file, and support from Punjab, though some elements from Sindh and North- West Frontier Province are also there.

3. LeT has strong bonds with the Pak army, especially the ISI, and continues to enjoy its patronage because LeT has proven itself to be an important instrument to pursue Pakistani interests through terrorist pressure against India.

4. Pakistan's nuclear weapons are as safe as Pakistan's credibility in terms of its claims to participate sincerely in the war against terror.

5. Pak military installations and their leadership are vulnerable to infiltration by radical elements. LeT has remained close to authorities and therefore has the right contacts to arm itself and the militant Islamic supremacists in pursuit of their global agenda.

LeT and the strategic actions Pakistan has demonstrated are difficult to separate since they are complementary. LeT was born in Pakistan, and draws manpower, official patronage, and apparently operational directions from individuals in authority in Pakistan; the two are intertwined. LeT has continued to remain openly anti- America in its outlook.

LeT's support for the groups fighting US forces in Afghanistan is well known. As al-Qaeda operatives fled across the Pak Afghan border in October 2001 and US forces began destroying the jihadi training camps in Afghanistan, LeT was the primary jihadi group to escape the Pakistani crackdown with its camps intact. From October 2001 through 2003/ early 2004, LeT served as a major provider of military training for jihadi actors in the region.[15] The group has enjoyed immunity of action on account of an apparent dual-purpose policy adopted by Pakistan. Given the radicalization of Pakistan's population, the country's vulnerability as a state (whose economy is a mess and major tracts of territory are out of effective control), LeT is a coherent group with widespread support amongst the people of Punjab and could become an increasing menace in years to come.

I continue to hope that the United States will apply pressure with whatever means are available upon Pakistani authorities to dismantle the infrastructure supporting organizations like Lashkar-e-Taiba and encourage that nation to take steps to de-radicalize the radicalized by moderating its education institutions.
My. Sekhon is a retired lieutenant general of the Indian Army. He has command experience in the insurgencies of the northeast region and Punjab province of India. He commanded a brigade and later a division countering infiltration and carrying out counterterrorist operations in the Poonch and Rajaouri regions. The general later commanded a corps in Srinagar and finally served as Director General of Military Operations at New Delhi.

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