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The menace that is Lashkar-e-Tayiba

Last updated on: March 28, 2012 23:55 IST

The menace that is Lashkar-e-Tayiba

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Ashley J Tellis

Mumbai-born Ashley Tellis is one of America's top experts on South Asia. A Senior Associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Tellis recently gave a lecture at the National Defence University's Programme on Irregular Warfare and Special Operations Studies on the grave threat posed by the Lashkar-e-Tayiba to the world.

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (external link) has kindly permitted rediff.com to carry the transcript of his speech. This is the first of the four-part series

Though the international community first began taking notice of the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Tayiba after its spectacular coordinated bombing and shooting attacks in Mumbai, India, in November 2008, the group was established in 1987 at a time when Pakistan was in the throes of Islamic ferment.

Then, LeT had access to a steady supply of volunteers, funding, and -- most important of all -- concerted state support. Long bolstered by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, this Wahhabi group promotes the vision of a universal Islamic caliphate through tableegh and jihad --preaching and armed struggle.

Though India and Kashmir have been LeT's primary area of operations so far, the group has an unsettling presence internationally. It is clear that after Al Qaeda, the LeT is the most dangerous terrorist group operating in South Asia because of its:

1) Global vision and international ambitions

2) Distinct ideology that underwrites Islamic revanchism, justifying collaboration with other terrorist groups

3) Loyalty to Pakistan and willingness to protect its patron state against domestic opponents

4) Diversified network for mobilizing resources, promoting its international presence, and recruiting members, which minimizes its dependence on the state

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Image: File photo of Lashkar terrorists


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5) Involvement in terrorism and social development concurrently, which limits Pakistan's ability to target the group even if it were so inclined

6) Cohesive and hierarchic organisational structure that is effective at both the conduct of violence and the delivery of social programmes

7) Proficiency at exploiting science and technology, extra-national social links, and state vulnerabilities in order to advance its political aims

The LeT is a formidable and highly adaptable adversary with a genuinely global reach and the ability to grow roots and sustain operations in countries far removed from its primary theatre of activity in South Asia.

Though India's proximity to Pakistan has resulted in New Delhi absorbing most of the blows unleashed by LeT, the carnage in Mumbai demonstrates that the terrorism facing India is not simply a problem for New Delhi alone. An attack could even reach US soil.

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Image: The LeT logo


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The menace that is Lashkar-e-Tayiba

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The only reasonable objective for the United States is the permanent evisceration of LeT and other vicious South Asian terrorist groups -- with Pakistani cooperation if possible, but without it if necessary.

Although the US government has been closely tracking the murderous activities of Lashkar-e-Tayiba since the early 1990s, the international community first began taking notice of this terrorist group only after its spectacular coordinated bombing and shooting attacks in Mumbai, India, in November 2008.

Even in the immediate aftermath of these events, there was considerable confusion about what LeT represented and whether it was, in fact, responsible for the mayhem that occurred in India's largest city.

LeT's worldview goes far beyond India and the dissatisfactions that extremist Islam may have with New Delhi.

Since then, intercepted conversations between the LeT attackers and their handlers in Pakistan, along with information emerging from the Chicago trial of David Coleman Headley, an American charged in connection with the Mumbai attack, have confirmed the suspicion that LeT is a formidable terrorist group.

In fact, it is the most dangerous terrorist group operating in South Asia after al-Qaeda. But the reasons for this judgment are sometimes not obvious and, therefore, merit clarification.

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Image: A burning Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai during the 26/11 terror attacks
Photographs: Reuters

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The menace that is Lashkar-e-Tayiba

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The Sevenfold Problem

The LeT is the most dangerous indigenous terrorist group operating in South Asia for seven reasons, all of which bear on both regional and international security.

First, LeT has a global vision and international ambitions, even if it may be currently limited by capacity or focus. The LeT is linked in popular perceptions to terrorism in the disputed regions of Jammu and Kashmir and, additionally, to violence directed at the Indian nation more generally.

It is true that the group has long sought the "liberation" of the disputed Himalayan state and subsequently the incorporation of many other Indian territories into Pakistan.

But the LeT's worldview goes far beyond India and the dissatisfactions that extremist Islam may have with New Delhi.

In fact, since its establishment in 1987, LeT's objectives relating to Kashmir and, more generally, India were fundamentally embedded in wider ambitions, with its focus on the subcontinent deriving mainly from its practical circumstances.

The LeT was formed in 1987 as the armed wing of the Markaz Dawat-ul Irshad, the Centre for Proselytisation and Preaching. The group was founded at a time when Pakistan was in the throes of Islamic ferment.

General Zia ul-Haq's decade-long programme (1977�) of Islamising Pakistan had by then grown strong domestic roots, providing a plethora of armed groups such as LeT with a steady supply of volunteers, funding, and -- most important of all -- concerted state support.

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Image: Members of the LeT hold their weapons while dancing in a show-of-force
Photographs: Adrees Latif/Reuters

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The LeT's three founders -- Hafiz Saeed, its current emir; Zafar Iqbal of the Engineering University of Lahore; and Abdullah Azzam of the International Islamic University in Islamabad -- capitalised on this environment.

Their desire to engage simultaneously in tableegh, or preaching, and jihad, or armed struggle, found manifestation in different ways from the moment of its founding.

As an Ahl-e-Hadith adherent to the principles of Sunni Wahhabism, the LeT seeks first and foremost to establish a universal Islamic caliphate with a special emphasis on gradually recovering all lands that were once under Muslim rule.

This strategic objective has made the LeT a strong ideological ally of Al Qaeda, and the emphasis on recovering "lost Muslim lands" in Asia and Europe has taken LeT to diverse places such as Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories, Spain, Chechnya, Kosovo, and Eritrea.

Given this worldview, the LeT's focus on India has been driven as much by ideology as by convenience. To begin with, India's achievement in becoming an economically dynamic, multiethnic, and secular democracy remains an affront to the LeT's vision of a universal Islamic caliphate.

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Image: Lashkar-e-Tayiba founder and alleged 26/11 attacks mastermind Hafiz Saeed ar a protest rally in Karachi
Photographs: Athar Hussain/Reuters

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This ideological obsession received a sharp fillip thanks to the interests of the LeT's state patrons in Pakistan, namely the army and the country's principal intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate.

Moreover, India's growing counterterrorism collaboration with the United States and the West in general deepened the incentives for the LeT-ISI collaboration. India's changing strategic orientation thus made it part of what the LeT called the detestable "Zionist-Hindu-Crusader" axis that must be confronted by force.

Finally, New Delhi's emergence as a rising global power represented a decisive impediment to LeT's core objective of recovering the "lost Muslim lands" en route to the re-creation of its Islamic caliphate.

Given the interaction of LeT's ideology and its sources of Pakistani state support, it is not surprising that Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, LeT's emir, wholeheartedly endorsed the objective of destroying India writ large.

Asserting in a 1999 interview that "jihad is not about Kashmir only," he went on to declare that "about fifteen years ago, people might have found it ridiculous if someone told them about the disintegration of the USSR. Today, I announce the break-up of India, Insha-Allah. We will not rest until the whole [of] India is dissolved into Pakistan."

In a later 2001 statement he reaffirmed the proposition that "our struggle will continue even if Kashmir is liberated. We still have to take revenge for East Pakistan."

In accordance with his declaration that Kashmir was merely a "gateway to capture India," Saeed then directed his LeT cadres to focus their attention on capturing the Muslim-dominated areas outside of Jammu and Kashmir, such as Hyderabad, Junagadh, Munabao, and West Bengal, which he argued were forcibly occupied by India in 1947.

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Image: Logo of the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence


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Judging from the LeT's operational record, Saeed has been as good as his word.

The earliest LeT presence in India was detected in 1993, when a cohort of the group's Punjabi cadres crossed the Line of Control that separates the Pakistan-controlled from the Indian-controlled portions of Jammu and Kashmir.

The organization's presence, however, was not publicly recognised until early 1996 when a group of LeT terrorists massacred sixteen Hindus in Barshalla in Kashmir's Doda District.

Since then, hundreds of terrorist attacks involving LeT militants have occurred throughout India.

The LeT was implicated in plots like the terrorist attacks in New Delhi in October 2005; in Bangalore in December 2005; in Varanasi in March 2006; in Nagpur in June 2006; and in the July 2007 train bombings in Mumbai.

Through these myriad efforts, LeT has attempted -- consistent with both its own ideology and the interests of its state supporters -- to cripple India's economic growth, destroy national confidence in its political system, attack its open society, and provoke destabilizing communal rivalries.

All the while, the group has tried to send a message that India will remain an adversary because its successes make it a hindrance to LeT's larger cause.

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Image: A bullet hole is seen in a window at the CST railway station in Mumbai during the 26/11 carnage
Photographs: Reuters

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It took, however, the devastating November 2008 Mumbai attacks -- a bloodbath that claimed the lives of over 150 people, including 26 foreigners of fifteen nationalities -- for the international community to recognise that the LeT's ambitions, transcending India, were actually part of a larger war with the West and with liberal democracies more generally.

The barbarity in Mumbai thus represents the ugly face of a brand of Islamist terrorism that threatens India, the United States and its allies, the larger international system, and, though often missed, Pakistan as well.

The LeT's universal ambitions simply do not permit the group to confine itself only to South Asia.

As Saeed has unequivocally declared, LeT intends to "plant the flag of Islam in Washington, Tel Aviv and New Delhi." Such statements are not simply grandiose.

That LeT has by no means restricted itself to keeping only India in its sights, even if it has focused on the latter disproportionately thus far -- thanks to ISI objectives and support -- is now acknowledged even by those who were initially sceptical of the group's larger ambitions.

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Courtesy: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


Image: File photo of the Chabad House, which was one of the targets of the 26/11 terrorists
Photographs: Wikimedia Commons

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