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Why the ISI will not take on Lashkar

Last updated on: December 02, 2010 12:03 IST
Stephen TankelStephen Tankel, author of the book Lashkar-e-Tayiba, From 9/11 to Mumbai, feels the Pakistani terror outfit continues to be the most dangerous as far as India is concerned.

In this interview with Rediff.com's Vicky Nanjappa, Tankel, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says Pakistan has not taken any steps to dismantle the Lashkar since it still has utility vis-a-vis India.

Two years have passed since the 26/11 attacks. How do you think the scenario regarding terrorism has changed in the world today?

I think several trends that were already extant at the time of 26/11 have accelerated since then.

First, the threat from Pakistan's tribal areas comes from a congress of groups acting together, such that it is often difficult to ascribe responsibility to any one outfit.

Second, we seem to be seeing increasing hybridisation in terms of targets, especially in South Asia.

For example, the targeting of foreign interests in India, which was one of the notable features of 26/11, continued with the bombing in Pune.

Third, the threat is also expanding geographically. Several years ago, Yemen and Somalia were places we worried about. Now those concerns have been borne out by attempted and successful attacks.

The US recently said that Al Qaeda continues to be more dangerous compared to the Lashkar-e-Tayiba. Do you think this is correct?

I think one needs to qualify this by asking: Dangerous to whom? Al Qaeda continues to be pose a greater threat to the US, but the Lashkar clearly is more dangerous to India.

What are your thoughts on David Headley's revelations? Is he as big as he being made out to be?

I've seen Headley's testimony and I think it reinforces a lot of what we already knew or suspected. This is especially true with regard to the tensions within Lashkar and the degree to which the scale of the 26/11 attacks was fuelled by internal dynamics.

Do you feel that Pakistan has let go of the Lashkar or does it still continue to support it?

I don't know that it is one or the other. The army and the ISI (Inter Services Intelligence) have not taken steps to dismantle the Lashkar for two main reasons: First, fear of driving the group into the insurgency in Pakistan; and second, because it still has utility vis-a-vis India.

The aim is still to control the group, but I question the degree to which this control filters throughout the ranks.

Has the Lashkar emerged into a global organisation or does Al Qaeda continue to hold the fort?

There is no question that the Lashkar has grown beyond the dynamics of the India-Pakistan competition and become more active in the global jihad. Indeed, this evolution has been taking place since 9/11.

However, I'd argue that the core leadership and a significant portion of the rank-and-file remain influenced by national and regional dynamics.

So it is emerging into a more globally-oriented organisation, but evidence suggests the ambition to grow in this direction is not uniform throughout the group.

There appears to be talk of a split in the Lashkar. Is it for real?

It is fair to say that factionalism in the Lashkar has increased in recent years as has freelancing. There are real disagreements about how involved to be in Afghanistan, in the insurgency in Pakistan and in the global jihad in general.

According to David Headley, Ilyas Kashmiri is emerging as the next bin Laden. Is this correct?

I am not sure it helps to try to compare him to Osama who at this stage is a much more inspirational figure. I doubt Kashmiri could ever play this type of role.

He is more of a military operator, and in this regard he is a very dangerous actor in his own right.

Do you think both India and Pakistan are in a better position to talk peace today as compared to last year?

Yes, relative to last year I do think they are in a better position. That does not mean they are in a good position, but things have improved.

How do you think Pakistan's approach towards dealing with terrorism has changed in the past two years?

Pakistan's counter-insurgency capabilities have improved and it has shown greater commitment to dealing with some of the militants within its borders. For that it deserves recognition.

Unfortunately, selectivity remains the order of the day. In part this owes to a desire to avoid drawing additional outfits into the insurgency. But it also stems from the belief of some elements within the country that the use of militant proxies for geopolitical purposes remains a sound strategy.

Which outfits do you rate as most dangerous to the world today -- Lashkar, Al Qaeda or the Taliban?

I think that depends on where you live in the world. The Taliban is by far the most dangerous of the three in Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda is the most focused on destabilising Pakistan and executing attacks against US interests throughout the world.

Lashkar clearly poses the greatest danger to India.

To me, the more interesting and more dangerous development is the degree to which these three outfits along with a host of others are increasingly working together and blending their target selection accordingly.

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Vicky Nanjappa