By Shrideep Biswas
“Lashkar-e-Toiba ranks right up there in the al-Qaida and related groups as terrorist organizations…” Janet Napolitano, US Secretary of Homeland Security, May 27, 2011
The statement of the US Secretary of Homeland Security, acknowledging the scale of the threat from Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), comes in the wake of cumulative and overwhelming evidence that this terrorist formation has long outgrown its initial focus on Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) to emerge as a global terrorist threat, matching al Qaida in aspiration, resources and reach.
Napolitano’s comment was, however, far from the first acknowledgement of the LeT threat by the United States (US). Recently, on April 13, 2011, Admiral Robert Willard, Chief of the US military’s Pacific Command Forces, told the Senate Armed Services Committee: “Unquestionably they [LeT] have spread their influence internationally and are no longer solely focused in South Asia and on India.” He added, further, that the US had evidence of LeT’s presence in Europe and the broader Asia-Pacific region. Willard’s words were almost echoed by former British foreign secretary David Miliband on April 29, 2011, when he cautioned, “If it’s true that the LeT is developing global ambitions for its terrorism and its own capacity to do so, as well as regional ones (sic), we have to be even more insistent on the need to roll up that infrastructure.”
On March 12, 2010, US lawmakers had urged President Barack Obama to push Pakistan to crack down harder on the LeT. The House of Representatives Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia held a hearing to discuss LeT terrorism, during which Chairman Gary Ackerman accused the Pakistani military of supporting the banned outfit.
These statements reflect only the tip of the iceberg of Washington’s growing uneasiness with LeT’s ‘holy warriors’, long pampered and mollycoddled by Pakistani authorities as comrades-in-arms in the overt and covert war against their perceived ‘eternal enemy’, India. In the past, with the LeT and cognate outfits such as Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI), Harkat-ul-Mujahiddeen (HuM), etc., engaged in waging jihad in Kashmir alone, or in bleeding India through ‘a thousand cuts’, western authorities, quite reasonably from their own perspectives, observed these developments with perfect equanimity and a great lack of concern. Of late, however, with an increasing presence and incidence of LeT’s networks and activities in the western world, there is a growing alarm in the US and Europe regarding the escalating terrorist threat in their own backyard. The stoicism regarding terrorism in theatres thousands of miles away no longer seems as prudent or sustainable with the menace manifesting in their own backyards.
Indian authorities have long warned the world of the augmenting international threat of state-backed terrorist formations in Pakistan, prominently including the LeT. India’s then National Security Adviser M. K. Narayanan, for instance, warned, on August 11, 2006, “The Lashkar (LeT) today has emerged as a very major force. It has connectivity with west Asia, Europe… Actually there was a LeT module broken (sic) in Virginia and some people were picked up. It is as big as and omnipotent as al Qaeda in every sense of the term.” Again, on April 21, 2010, he reiterated, “The LeT has networks in 21 countries, including Australia, North America, Europe and Asia.”
The South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database has long documented LeT’s global footprint to note:
- LeT has an extensive network that run across Pakistan and India with established branches in Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom, Bangladesh and South East Asia.
- LeT has a network of sleeper cells in the US and Australia, has trained terrorists from other countries, and has entered new theatres of ‘jihad’, such as Iraq.
- LeT maintains ties with various religious/military groups around the world, ranging from the Philippines to the Middle East and Chechnya, primarily through the al Qaeda fraternal network.
- LeT is part of the ‘al Qaeda compact’ and is a member of the “International Islamic Front for the struggle against the Jews and the Crusaders” established by Osama bin Laden on February 23, 1998.
- LeT was part of the Bosnian campaign against the Serbs.
- LeT has links with several international Islamist terrorist groups, including the Ikhwan-ul-Musalmeen of Egypt and other Arab groups.
- LeT has a unit in Germany and also receives help from the Al Muhajiraun, a supporter of the Sharia Group, (Abu Hamza Masari of the Finsbury Park Mosque, North London). Its annual convention is regularly attended by fraternal bodies in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen, Bahrain, Oman, Kosovo, Bangladesh, Myanmar, USA, Palestine, Bosnia, Philippines, Jordan, Chechnya, among others.
- LeT has links with the International Sikh Youth Federation (under the leadership of Lakhbir Singh Rode) a Sikh terrorist group, backed by Pakistan, responsible for numberless acts of terrorism in Indian Punjab, which also has an international network of support.
- Headquartered in Muridke, LeT has run terrorist camps at Muzaffarabad and Gilgit (in Pakistan occupied Kashmir), Lahore, Peshawar, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Karachi, Multan, Quetta, Gujranwala and Sialkot. The group runs at least 16 Islamic centers, 135 “secondary schools,” 2,200 offices and a vast network of madrassas (religious seminaries), orphanages, medical centers and charities across Pakistan.
- The U.S. State Department’s 2008 Report on International Religious Freedom noted that “schools run by Jamat-ud-Dawa [LeT’s parent organisation] continued… teaching and recruitment for Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, a designated foreign terrorist organization.”
- Until its designation as a terrorist group by the UN Security Council in December 2008, LeT openly published a number of journals, papers and websites.
- Crucially, LeT remains a ‘loyal’ group, and unlike many others created by the ISI who have since turned against Islamabad or whose loyalties are now suspect, continues to coordinate its activities with Pakistani state agencies.
- Finances for LeT include implicit state support from Pakistan, including the transfer of large quantities of fake Indian currency.
Among LeT’s top leaders are its founder, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, ‘Commander’ Sajid Majid and ‘operations chief’ Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi. Each of these has been accused by Indian authorities of masterminding the November 26, 2008, Mumbai terror attacks (26/11), and features in in India’s latest list of 50 most-wanted hiding in Pakistan. During the Mumbai attacks, LeT terrorists, while indiscriminately slaughtering Indian nationals, also made it a point to selectively kill American and Israeli civilians after inspecting their passports to ascertain their identity.
On October 18, 2009, Tahawwur Hussein Rana, a Pakistani-Canadian and David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani-American, were charged and arrested by US federal authorities in Chicago for plotting attacks on the offices of Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper which published the controversial cartoons of prophet Mohammad. According to senior US intelligence officials, the plot, nicknamed the “Mickey Mouse Project”, involved assault teams assigned to attack the headquarters of Jyllands-Posten and kill the staff. The duo, however, were not just hot headed fanatics trying to salvage the outraged religious feelings of the Muslim community. Subsequent investigations revealed that both Headley (who was known as Daood Gilani before he took up a Christian name in 2006) and Rana were in fact LeT operatives who had conducted a reconnaissance mission in Mumbai on behalf of the LeT before the outfit had launched its dreaded attacks on the metropolis. This latter case is now the subject of a trial in Chicago.
Initial testimonies in the Chicago trial indicate that LeT terrorists worked hand-in-glove with the Pakistani external intelligence agency, Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). David Headley, Tahawwur Rana’s accomplice and a co-accused in the 26/11 case, testified that every major LeT operative had an ISI handler, and all the major operations executed by the group were conducted in coordination with these handlers. Headley also asserted that a man whom he understood to be from the Pakistani navy helped to plan the ‘maritime insertion’, instructing him to explore the position of naval vessels and possible landing sites during subsequent surveillance trips to Mumbai. His handler ‘Major Iqbal’, Headley said, was aware of the targets chosen and of the LeT leadership’s need to demonstrate their credibility through major terrorist strikes in order to retain control over elements within the organization.
US and Indian security officials familiar with the case say they believe a small coterie of serving and retired Pakistan military officers played a role in or had knowledge of the Mumbai attacks. Headley also told the US District Court jury about secretly recorded telephone conversations with Rana and retired Pakistan military officer Abdur Rehman aka Pasha. Headley testified that he had attended over 50 training sessions with the ISI, including espionage training.
The notorious Pakistan-based crime syndicate, D-Company, under the leadership of the mafia don Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar, has established a close operational relationship with LeT. Kaskar was responsible for the 1993 serial blasts in Mumbai, India’s highest fatality act of terrorism, which killed 257 people. In the past Kaskar was looked upon mainly as a mercenary, while LeT was thought to be ideology driven. Kaskar and his gang, intelligence sources believe, have now substantially merged operations with LeT. The D-Company has an international network and engages in a wide range of criminal and legal operations across West and South East Asia. On October 16, 2003, the US Department of Treasury announced that it was designating Dawood Ibrahim as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist under Executive Order 13224.
Long before the Headley disclosures, terrorist activities and incidents had already been recorded across the world, betraying some degree of LeT involvement. Among the most significant of such ‘footprints of terror’, the SATP database records the following:
In 2003, Willie Brigette, a French convert to Islam, was detained on suspicion of planning attacks on the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor and the Pine Gap intelligence-gathering station in Australia. Following his extradition to France, Brigette confessed to operating under LeT instructions. It further emerged that he spent four months training in a LeT camp in Pakistan, where he received instructions in weapons handling and explosives.
In 2005, one of the main perpetrators behind the London underground bombings (7/7), Shezad Tanweer, was similarly believed to have operated in contact with LeT and had stayed at the group’s headquarters in Murdike (Pakistan). British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw disclosed that authorities in Pakistan suspected that Tanweer had been recruited during studies at a school run by the LeT.
In 2007, an investigation in Germany into a foiled terrorist plot orchestrated by the so-called Sauerland Cell, a four-man team that was planning to bomb US targets and kill American citizens in Germany on the sixth anniversary of 9/11, revealed that several German nationals had traveled to Pakistan to seek out and work with LeT operatives.
Other jihadis allegedly trained by the LeT included the Australian David Hicks, who was held in Guantanamo Bay until 2007; Omar Khayyam, who spearheaded a 2004 fertilizer bomb plot in the UK; and Dhiren Barot, the British Islamist militant of Indian origin, the architect of a failed gas cylinder bombing plot in London in 2004.
Yet another LeT module was busted by the American authorities in Virginia June 2003. Dubbed as the Virginia terror network, this was a cell of 11 members, comprising of Pakistani-Americans and local converts to Islam. The cell was connected to the LeT. Seven of the men also traveled to Pakistan; one member allegedly trained at a LeT camp and used his experiences to recruit others into the group.
On December 15, 2009, one Pakistani-American, Syed Haris Ahmed of Atlanta, and a Bangladeshi-American, Ehsanul Islam Sadequee of Georgia, were sentenced to 13 and 17 years in prison respectively by a US court for their link to LeT and JeM and providing them with material aid and support for attacks in the US and abroad. Earlier, on September 15, 2005, US authorities arrested one Ali Asad Chandia and a British national, Mohammed Ajmal Khan, at College Park in the Maryland suburbs on charges of providing support to the LeT. A Maryland resident, Mahmud Faruq Brent alias Mahmud Al Mutazzim, was arrested on August 5, 2005 in Newark, New Jersey, and charged with conspiring to aid terrorism by training to become a Jihadi fighter in camps in Pakistan. Brent was accused of traveling to Pakistan after 9/11 to receive training in camps operated by the LeT. On April 28, 2005, a local Muslim scholar, identified as Ali Tamimi of Fairfax County was convicted of encouraging his followers to join the LeT and to do Jehad against the US.
These, among a number of lesser cases, demonstrate the LeT’s global jihadi aspirations, as well as its consolidation as a nursery for indoctrinating, training and deploying militants with so-called “clean skins” – no prior criminal records and Western citizenships – to carry out terrorist attacks in the West.
The arrest of senior al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah at a LeT safe house in Faisalabad in Pakistan on March 28, 2002, also provided an index of the growing intimacy between LeT and bin Laden’s al Qaeda. According to US intelligence, moreover, David Headley was in contact with al Qaeda ‘commander’ Ilyas Kashmiri. Stephen Tankel, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, notes: “Several men close to Kashmiri formerly belonged to the LeT and so they act as a bridge to the group. In terms of his relationship with the group [LeT], Kashmiri cooperates and competes with it.”
Intelligence sources suggest that elements within LeT, along with several other Pakistan-based Islamist terrorist groups, including HuJi, Laskhar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and JeM, has operationally ‘merged’ with al Qaeda under the identity of ‘Brigade 313’.
LeT has never sought to disguise its global aspirations, and the language of the global jihad and denunciations of the US and Israel, have been integral to its propaganda. Hafiz Saeed has publicly vowed that LeT would “plant a flag” in Washington and Tel Aviv. In more recent outbursts, in the aftermath of the Abbottabad Raid, Saeed extolled bin Laden’s ‘sacrifice’ for ‘Muslims around the world’ and declared that the LeT was ready to fight the US and India, and to ‘protect Pakistan’. In March this year, he declared that “ America, India and Israel are scared of jihad. The Muslims must understand that jihad is the key to their survival.”
In the jihadi worldview there has never ever been any ambiguity about the perceived ‘enemies of Islam’. Kashmir may have been a transient tactical goal for the LeT, but its leadership has moved far beyond, identifying an ‘unholy trinity’ of ‘Crusaders, Zionists and Hindus’, as the unrelenting enemy of Islam. It is against this ‘enemy’ that the LeT – the ‘Army of the Pure’ – now directs its rage and its terror, across the world.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management