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'The biggest threat from Lashkar is to India'

Last updated on: March 11, 2010 16:04 IST

'LeT was emboldened by the success of Mumbai attacks'

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On November 26, 2008, ten terrorists recruited and trained by Pakistan-based terror outfit Lashkar-e-Tayiba gunned down 166 innocent civilians in Mumbai.

Intelligence agencies believe that the LeT also played a role in staging the terror strike in Pune on February 13, which killed 17 people, including two foreigners.

In his book Lashkar-e-Taiba, From 9/11 to Mumbai, author Stephen Tankel, visiting Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a PhD Candidate of the Department of War Studies at King's College in London, points out that the 60-hour terror siege on Mumbai had catapulted the LeT to international notoriety.

In an interview with rediff.com's Vicky Nanjappa, Tankel warns that though LeT's terror network is spreading beyond South Asia, India continues to remain its favourite target.

Post the 26/11 attack on Mumbai, what changes do you notice in the pattern of the Lashkar-e-Tayiba? Has it become stronger or has the Pakistan government initiated action to weaken the outfit?

The LeT is clearly still capable of operating, as is evidenced by its alleged involvement in the attempted attacks in Denmark and Bangladesh, as well as those in India. The target set -- including Western and Indian interests -- and the scale of these attempted attacks suggest that the group has been emboldened by the success of the Mumbai attacks.

Some LeT members have also suggested that the group benefited in terms of recruitment as well as fundraising, following the Mumbai attacks, and it is clear that the Lashkar did not pay a particularly high cost at home. That is not to suggest that there were no consequences, but these were minimal, compared to the scale and impact of the Mumbai attacks.

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Image: A girl writes a message dedicated to the victims of the Mumbai terror attacks on a message board and (inset) Stephen Tankel
Photographs: Jayanta Shaw/Reuters
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'LeT not taking orders from Al Qaeda'

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Is Pakistan in a position today to let go of the Lashkar-e-Tayiba? Do they continue to permit training camps to operate or has some action been initiated to crack down on the outfit post 26/11?

The amount of pressure put on the group varies, depending on the different dynamics. However, Pakistan has yet to take any significant steps that suggest it is prepared to dismantle the LeT's military infrastructure. It has restricted Lashkar's above-ground organisation, the (front outfit) Jamaat-ud-Dawa, but this has not stopped the JuD from operating. In short, at the very least, Pakistan continues to provide passive support to the LeT, meaning it allows it to operate. This is due to a lack of will and the capability to dismantle the group, which remains a perceived asset vis-a-vis India, as it is one of the few outfits that does not launch attacks in Pakistan.

It was evident that the Lashkar was helping Al Qaeda operatives by providing them with safe houses following the United States' strikes in Afghanistan. How does the alliance between the two outfits work now?

The two still collaborate when there is mutual interest or need, but both remain independent actors. The LeT is not taking orders from Al Qaeda. From what I've heard, there is still occasional distrust by the Al Qaeda because of Lashkar's long-standing relationship with the Inter Services Intelligence. And, of course, the LeT continues to try to maintain the facade that it is purely focused on Kashmir. Despite these factors, the collaboration appears to have increased in recent years, particularly since Lashkar's entrance into the Afghan theatre a few years ago.


Image: Firefighters examine the German Bakery blast site in Pune
Photographs: Reuters
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'LeT is a threat beyond South Asia'

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Is the Lashkar a cause of worry only for India and Kashmir, or is it a threat to the rest of the world?

I view the LeT as a threat beyond the South Asian region, though I would suggest that the biggest threat from LeT remains to India. My sense is that any previous assumptions by the West, that the LeT was a purely parochial actor that posed no threat to countries outside South Asia, evaporated in the wake of the Mumbai attacks. And the more we learn about the group's transnational reach, the more cause there is for concern.

This does not mean that the LeT is going to start launching attacks all over the world tomorrow. It primarily uses transnational operatives for support purposes. However, the existence of its transnational networks, which span several continents, means that the capabilities exist for them to be used to execute or support attacks in a number of countries. And it is not as if they have never been used for this purpose -- Lashkar's transnational operatives have been involved in attacks in Western countries since 9/11.

What steps do you think the Lashkar is taking to wage global jihad?

The LeT is still not doing as much as it could to wage a global jihad, but it is doing more than it used to do. It opened a front in Afghanistan, it is including Western interests in its target set in South Asia and its operatives have been involved in attacks in Western countries. It collaborates with the Al Qaeda in Pakistan and serves as a gateway for reaching Al Qaeda as well as other affiliated groups interested in the global jihadi agenda.

Image: Villagers at the funeral of a LeT militant killed by the Indian Army in Sopore.
Photographs: Danish Ismail/Reuters
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'LeT continues to prioritise jihad against India'

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Does the Lashkar still continue to fund operations in Iraq?

I've heard competing claims about this and could not say with any degree of certainty.

Could you tell us about the Lashkar's global programme? How dangerous is the outfit today for the world?

Lashkar began as a transnational actor -- its militants fought in places like Bosnia-Herzegovina and Tajikistan. So it has always had a pan-Islamic agenda. Its leaders continue to prioritise the jihad against India, and I do not foresee the group forsaking this fight.

But neither liberating Kashmir nor destroying India was ever the apotheosis of the group's rationale for jihad. For LeT, the road to reestablishing the Caliphate still runs through South Asia, but it does not end there. The group has been, and continues to be, involved in violence directed against countries outside South Asia. This appears to be increasing and, as I said, its transnational reach means we need to take this apparent expansion seriously.


Image: Arms and ammunition seized from LeT militants displayed at Kupwara in Kashmir.
Photographs: Danish Ismail/Reuters
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'Achieving both peace and justice can be difficult'

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What is the Lashkar worth today in terms of funds and what are their primary sources of funds?

Estimating its net worth is difficult, but it is almost certainly the richest Pakistani militant group. Historically, much of its money has been raised locally -- from monetary donations, tuition for its schools, the sale of propaganda, the sale of hides donated for Eid and other business ventures. It also raises significant amounts of money from the Gulf and large sums from the United Kingdom as well as other European countries.

What suggestions do you have for the Indian government to deal with the Lashkar threat?

I think it's important to accept that getting Pakistan to dismantle Lashkar is going to be a slow process, as well as a potentially messy one. One of the things the government in Delhi will need to decide is whether it is more interested in pursuing peace or justice. As is often the case with demobilising militant groups and ending conflicts, it can be difficult to achieve both.

I hope I'm wrong, but the ground does not appear fertile for fruitful negotiations of the sort that could lead to begin the process of dismantling Lashkar. So in the short term, we're probably talking more about how to protect against the threats from LeT violence and reduce the group's lethal capabilities. Obviously, increasing India's capabilities in terms of homeland security and counter-terrorism are important components.

Working to dismantle Lashkar's international networks is clearly important too. These networks not only threaten the West, they also enable Lashkar to execute and support attacks against India. Money and recruits used to support or execute attacks in India come not only from South Asia, but also from countries in the West and the Gulf.

The LeT also uses countries in the Gulf as a logistical hub. So a sustained focus on intelligence sharing and counter-terrorism cooperation with other countries in these regions to take these networks apart should be a top priority. This would enable progress to be made against the group, in the absence of Pakistan's unwillingness to take action on its own.

Image: Hafiz Saeed, chief of the banned Jamaat-ud-Dawa and LeT founder, outside a Lahore court.
Photographs: Mohsin Raza/Reuters
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'Pak could do a lot more to dismantle the Lashkar'

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How dangerous or important is Ilyas Kashmiri to the rest of the world? Should his threats to international players planning to compete in the Indian Premier League and Commonwealth Games be taken seriously?

Kashmiri is the operational commander of Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, which has been involved in a number of terrorist attacks against India, often through its Bangladeshi branch HuJI-B. He is also very close to the Al Qaeda. In short, Kashmiri is clearly a dangerous actor.

That said, while I don't think it is wise to dismiss terrorist threats, I also think it is unwise to let them dictate policy. Rigorous counter-measures should be taken to protect those who choose to compete in the Indian Premier League and Commonwealth Games, but I would think that, in the absence of clear evidence of an impending attack that Indian security services believe they cannot disrupt, the games should go on.

Is the Pakistan government dealing honestly with the Lashkar? If the US is serious about its war on terror, why do you think they are not exerting more pressure on Pakistan to wipe out terrorism from its soil?

It is well established that Pakistan could do a lot more than it is doing to dismantle Lashkar, though I do think it is important to distinguish the civilian government from the army and the ISI. My sense is that the US is exerting pressure on Pakistan, but of course there are limits to what that pressure can accomplish.

Clearly, the US has had more success getting Pakistan to move against some groups than others. Not surprisingly, Pakistan has moved more swiftly and powerfully against those groups that provide less perceived utility in terms of its national interests and are viewed as a greater threat to the state. It's also probably fair to say that the US perceives dealing with some groups in Pakistan as higher priorities than others, though I do believe that dealing with Lashkar has become a higher priority in recent years, especially since the Mumbai attacks in 2008.


Image: Students at a school at the Jamaat-ud-Dawa charity's headquarters, in Muridke near Lahore
Photographs: Mohsin Raza/Reuters
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