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'We don't know if 26/11 strike had inside support'

Last updated on: June 14, 2012 15:53 IST

Image: David Headley

India's efforts to extradite Lashkar-e-Tayiba operative David Headley are unlikely to fructify as the Pakistani-American has already struck a plea bargain with the United States.

Stephen Tankel, the author of Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an assistant professor at the American University, who is currently in India to study home grown terror.
In an interview to's Vicky Nanjappa, Tankel talks about Headley, co-accused Tawwahur Rana and LeT founder Hafiz Saeed.

Please share with us your thoughts on David Headley and Tawwahur Rana.

Some of us who followed Rana's trial were a bit surprised when he was convicted of providing material support to the LeT but not of any involvement in the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai. But then gathering information and presenting sufficient evidence in court to secure a conviction are two different things.

As for Headley, my understanding is that he provided a significant amount of information in return for a plea arrangement to avoid either execution or extradition. I can understand why Indians feel they got a raw deal on this, though Headley is hardly the first person to be offered a plea deal in return for information, a lot of which has been shared with India via the National Investigation Agency.

India still expects Headley to be extradited.

Indian officials can continue to assert that they are making efforts to extradite Headley, and they may well be doing so. But given that he has made, what I understand to be, a legally binding plea arrangement with the US to avoid extradition, it is difficult to imagine how he can be extradited.

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'Rana's extradition will prove elusive'

Image: Tawwahur Rana

What about seeking the extradition of Rana?

My understanding is that he is currently appealing against his conviction, so that complicates the issue at present. I can't speak about how this issue will play out in the future, though I believe that arranging Rana's extradition will prove elusive for Indian authorities.

You have been in India for nearly three weeks and are studying an important subject. How has your experience been so far?

A lot of my discussions have revolved around foreign policy and security. I have found the bureaucratic and political classes to be more open about these issues than in the past. To me, this is a healthy trend.

What does the United States think about India's position on various foreign policy issues?

I am struck by the increasing use of the term realist to describe how Indian policymakers are engaging internationally. To me, that's in line with how the United States views the world, but it also means that US policy makers need to understand that  India will act in its national interest.

Overall, my sense is that cooperation is good across a number of areas and could become even deeper. But that does not mean there won't be areas where the two countries diverge, which is something policy makers in both countries and especially the US will need to accept.

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'Dawood is likely to sell out LeT'

Image: Dawood Ibrahim

You were in Pakistan before coming to India. What are the great challenges facing these two countries?

From a security perspective, India's greatest challenge at present is not a conventional conflict with either Pakistan or China. Rather, internal security issues pose perhaps the greatest challenge, though of course in the case of jihadi violence there are apparent links with Pakistan.

But neither the Indian Mujahideen nor the Naxals nor any other internal security challenge for that matter poses an existential threat for Pakistan. They are all manageable, though of course India is wise not to ignore them. More broadly, these internal security challenges are in some ways symptoms of wider challenges in the areas of governance and economic security, which India continues to confront.

Having spent last summer conducting research on the jihadi threat to Pakistan, I believe the threat there is more dire. I do not believe jihadis in Pakistan can overthrow the State or that they pose an existential problem in their own right. Rather, their existence, influence and a persistent level of violence makes it all the more difficult for Pakistan to confront a host of other pressing challenges.
There is much talk about the nexus between Dawood Ibrahim's gang and the Lashkar-e-Tayiba. What did you make of that while you explored this subject?

I view this as an ad hoc alliance. Criminals like Dawood Ibrahim and those who work for him are interested primarily in material gains, and they are likely to sell out an LeT operative or reveal LeT's plans if arrested in India. So, Dawood's network may be used for running a fake currency racket or smuggling arms, but I would not see this as a tight alliance.

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'No one seemed to know about Sajid Mir'

Image: The Taj Mahal Hotel, during the 26/11 attack

Would you say the 26/11 terror attack was a self contained one?

Everything in the open source suggests this was planned and executed by people coming from Pakistan, but that does not mean there was no indigenous support given either knowingly or unknowingly.

There is no evidence of this, but we just don't know. I would reiterate that what we do know points to the LeT planning this in Pakistan and sending Pakistani operatives to conduct surveillance and then carry out the attack.

What about Sajid Mir? Does he exist for real?

He is a man with trans-national interests. After the 26/11 attacks in 2008, I did ask around about Mir. In Pakistan, he was being referred to as a maulvi connected to the Ahl-e-Hadith movement, who does not like the Lashkar. That was another Sajid Mir and that's who people meant. But that was not the guy I was looking for.

No one seemed to know about Sajid Mir, the LeT operative, at the time, at least not anyone I could find who would speak about it. I was interested in him because of his involvement in attempted attacks earlier in the decade. But until 26/11, he did a very good job of staying under the radar.
What about the 'majors' whose names cropped up during the investigation into the 26/11 attack?

Everything in the open source suggests they were from the Inter Services Intelligence, but I have no additional information about them or where they are now. I would not expect the Pakistani security establishment to hand them over and it's unlikely that we will learn much about them.

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'Saeed still has significant influence in LeT'

Image: Hafiz Saeed

Hafiz Saeed and Osama bin Laden are both big names in the world of terror. How would you compare the two?

Saeed remains on-side as far as the Pakistani security establishment is concerned. He travels relatively free around Pakistan and lives in a nice house. When Laden was alive, he was locked up in Abbottabad. This is a big difference, and it impacts how far each of the two men were willing to push the envelope.

I would also suggest that Saeed still has significant influence in the LeT and is viewed as necessary to keep that group intact, so the likelihood of his being handed over by Pakistan is pretty slim. Doing so would also be seen as a major betrayal by the jihadi groups in Pakistan.

Do you see the Lashkar going global?

It has already expanded though it still remains influenced primarily by regional factors. If the Afghan jihad declines after the troop pullout in 2014 and the Kashmir movement fails to regenerate, then the question of the Lashkar's way forward would arise. Some in Lashkar might go global. Others might favour a further expansion of jihad against India. And still others might look to deepen their involvement in politics in Pakistan.

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