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'Headley's arrest changed US' perception about LeT'

By Aziz Haniffa
March 12, 2010 03:49 IST
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Lisa Curtis, erstwhile Central Intelligence Agency South Asia analyst and ex-senior Congressional staffer on the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said that the arrest and findings from the investigation of Chicago-based Pakistani-American Lashkar-e-Tayiba operative John Coleman Headley, has awakened US officials to the gravity of the threat of the LeT and other Pakistan-based terrorist groups.

Appearing before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on South Asia, which convened a hearing on the LeT and the Growing Ambition of Islamist Militancy in Pakistan, Curtis, said the arrest of Headley in the US in October 2009 "provided a major breakthrough in the Mumbai attack probe and shed fresh light on the operations and objectives of the LeT."

Curtis, currently, Senior Research Fellow and head of the South Asia Program as the conservative Washington,DC-based think tank, The Heritage Foundation, told lawmakers, "The findings from the Headley investigations have awakened US officials to the gravity of the international threat posed by Pakistan's failure to crack down on terrorist groups, including those that have primarily targeted India."

She noted that US officials "had previously viewed the LeT solely through an Indo-Pakistan lens rather than as an urgent international terrorist threat," and predicted that the Headley investigations "appear to be changing the way the US government views the LeT."

Curtis said recently the Obama Administration's point man for Counterterrorism, Daniel Benjamin, had said that the Headley investigations show "the LeT has global ambitions and is willing to undertake bold, mass-casualty operations."

She argued that "most troubling about the Headley case is what it has revealed about the proximity of the Pakistani military to the LeT," and noted that a retired Pakistani army major, Abdul Rehman Hashim Syed, was Headley's handler, and Ilyas Kashmiri, a former commander with Pakistan's elite Special Services Group, and now leader of the Harakat-ul-Jihadi-Islami, "as the operational commander behind the Mumbai attacks."

Curtis acknowledged that "while the allegations do not specify that serving Pakistani army or intelligence officials were involved in the attacks, they reveal that the Pakistani army's past support and continued facilitation of the LeT contributed to the terror group's ability to conduct the assaults."

"The degree of control that Pakistani intelligence retains over LeT's operations remains an open question," she said, and spoke of how "some Pakistani officials claim that Al Qaeda has infiltrated the LeT, implying that Pakistani officials were not involved in the planning and execution of the Mumbai attacks, and that elements of the LeT were 'freelancing.'"

But, Curtis asserted that "regardless of whether the Pakistanis did or did not have control of the group that carried out the Mumbai attacks, they are now responsible for taking actions that seek to ensure the LeT and its affiliates are incapable of conducting additional attacks."

She said that "the appearance of LeT leader Hafez Muhammad Sayeed at a public rally casts grave doubts about Pakistan's commitment to reining in the group's activities."

Curtis slammed Washington's myopia all these years of viewing the LeT primarily through an Indo-Pakistani lens and calculating that the group did not pose a direct threat to US interests.

She said, "LeT leaders themselves view the group as part of a global jihad movement and seek not only to undermine India but also attack any countries they view as threatening Muslim populations."

Curtis said that even after the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament, "US officials tended to view the LeT and the Jaish-e-Muhammad as less threatening to US interests than Al Qaeda, despite well-known links between these groups and international terrorism."

She said that "the revelations from the Headley investigations that the LeT in coordination with the Harakat-ul-Jihadi-Islami planned to attack the US Embassy and the Indian High Commission in Bangladesh around the one-year anniversary of the 2008 Mumbai attacks should help convince US officials that LeT ambitions including hitting US targets."

Curtis pilloried the failed US policy "to not insist Pakistan shut down the LeT long ago," and informed lawmakers how US officials "have shied away from pressuring Pakistan on the LeT in the interest of garnering Pakistani cooperation against targets the US believed were more critical to immediate US objectives, that is, Al Qaeda shortly after 9/11 and the Afghan Taliban more recently."

But, she warned that "overlooking the activities of LeT in Pakistan is equivalent to standing next to a ticking time bomb waiting for it to explode."

"Furthermore, given that the LeT has cooperated with Al Qaeda and shares a similar virulent anti-west Islamist ideology, it makes little sense to believe one can dismantle Al Qaeda without also shutting down the operations of the LeT."

Curtis said it was imperative that the US "closely monitor Pakistani actions to dismantle the LeT. Merely banning the organization has done little to degrade its capabilities."

She also said it was important that Washington "avoid conveying a message that the US is more interested in some terrorist group than others, which only encourages the Pakistani leadership to avoid addressing the issue of confronting the LeT."

Curtis also said it was also important to assure "the Pakistani leadership that the US will monitor closely India's military posture toward Pakistan as it dismantles groups like the LeT".

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC