Pakistani Militants At Center Of Probe
India, Its Archrival Vow to Cooperate Amid High Tension

By Craig Whitlock and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 29, 2008

BERLIN, Nov. 28 -- Pakistani militant groups on Friday became the focus of the investigation into the attacks in Mumbai as India and its archrival Pakistan jousted over who was responsible. Both sides pledged to cooperate in the probe, but tensions remained high amid fears the conflict could escalate.

Pakistan initially said Friday that it had agreed to send its spy chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, on an unprecedented visit to India to share and obtain information from investigators there. Later Friday, however, Pakistani officials changed their minds and decided to send a less senior intelligence official in Pasha's place, according to a Pakistani source who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

It was unclear what prompted the reversal, but the Pakistani source said the Islamabad government was "already bending over backwards" to be cooperative and did not "want to create more opportunities for Pakistan-bashing." Pakistan's defense minister, Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar, told reporters in Islamabad, "I will say in very categoric terms that Pakistan is not involved in these gory incidents."

Meanwhile, Indian authorities ramped up their accusations that the plot had Pakistani connections. "Preliminary evidence, prima facie evidence, indicates elements with links to Pakistan are involved," Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee said at a news conference in New Delhi. Other Indian officials echoed the statement, but none provided details.

Evidence collected by police in Mumbai, along with intelligence gathered by U.S. and British officials, has led investigators to concentrate their focus on Islamist militants in Pakistan who have long sought to spark a war over the disputed province of Kashmir. India and Pakistan have already fought two wars over Kashmir, the battleground between Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan that each country claimed soon after India's partition in 1947.

A U.S. counterterrorism official said additional evidence has emerged in the past 24 hours that points toward a Kashmiri connection. "Some of what has been learned so far does fall in that direction," the official said, declining to offer specifics.

"We have to be careful here," said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "When you posit a Kashmiri connection, that puts Pakistan on the table. That is huge, enormous, but what does it mean? It can be anything from people who were [initially] in Pakistan, to maybe people who used to be associated with someone in the Pakistani government, to any gradation you could find."

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, who has sought a rapprochement with New Delhi, rejected widespread suspicions in India that Pakistani intelligence services may have supported the Mumbai gunmen. "The germs of terrorist elements were not produced in security agencies' labs in Pakistan," he said Friday.

Analysts said Pakistan's pledge to assist in the investigation and send its spy chief to India was a sign of the high stakes involved. When armed Kashmiri militants tried to take over the Indian Parliament in December 2001, the fallout was immediate, as both countries responded with a massive military buildup along their shared border.

"A Pakistani link here would be so utterly damaging, all the way around, to Indo-Pakistani relations," said Shaun Gregory, a professor of international security at the University of Bradford in England and a specialist on Pakistan. The decision to dispatch Pasha to India, he said, "does signal a determination on Pakistan's part to clarify that even if there's a Pakistani link here, that it had nothing to do with the government."

A senior Pakistani official said the idea for Pasha's visit came during a telephone conversation Friday between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani. Singh, who had previously blamed the Mumbai attacks on groups "based outside the country," offered to provide evidence to Gillani.

"One way to ensure that" was to send Pakistan's intelligence chief, the Pakistani official said. "If there is evidence, share it."

Although privately angered by the implication of Singh's public remarks that Pakistan may have been involved, Gillani's government has emphasized that Pakistan, too, has been victimized by terrorists and that the two countries should work together against the threat.

Tensions between India and Pakistan have remained raw since July, when a suicide bomber targeted the Indian embassy in Kabul, killing 58 people, including the Indian defense attache to Afghanistan. U.S. intelligence officials later said there was evidence that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency had sponsored the attack. Pakistan's government denied involvement.

Gregory, the British analyst, said Pakistan had a clear motive for the embassy bombing because it has grown alarmed at rising Indian influence in Afghanistan. But he said he doubted that Pakistan's military or intelligence services would have foreseen any benefit from what has transpired in Mumbai. "I cannot see, at this point, any conceivable advantage for the Pakistani state in this attack," he said.

U.S., British and Indian counterterrorism officials and analysts said that Lashkar-i-Taiba, an Islamist network based in Pakistan, remained a primary suspect in the Mumbai disaster. They cautioned, however, that any number of other groups, including Muslim radicals from India, could have played a role.

Shortly after the attacks began, an organization calling itself the Deccan Mujaheddin asserted responsibility in e-mails to Indian media. But authorities said they had never heard of the group and questioned whether it was a front for others.

Lashkar-i-Taiba, which means Army of the Pious, was founded as a guerrilla group to fight the Indian army in Kashmir and received support from Pakistan's military and intelligence agencies as a proxy force. Under pressure from the United States, the Pakistani government banned the group after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but analysts said it continues to enjoy the backing of some Pakistani politicians and security officials. It also has operated joint training camps in Pakistan with al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

The tactics involved in the Mumbai attacks have been embraced before by Lashkar-i-Taiba. The group has routinely trained gunmen -- called "fedayeen," or fighters who volunteer to sacrifice themselves in battle -- to carry out operations in Kashmir and elsewhere in India.

Ashley J. Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington who formerly served at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, said if India can prove Lashkar-i-Taiba was culpable, "then the stress on the relationship becomes really acute."

Lashkar was one of the groups that Pakistani intelligence "favored for all its dirty work in Kashmir and elsewhere," Tellis said. "The whole question of Pakistan's involvement itself is difficult because there are so many 'Pakistans.' . . . There is the intelligence agency, the army, the civilian government. I cannot imagine that the civilian government would have anything to do with an operation like this."

Indian officials said that at least some of the gunmen arrived in Mumbai by boat and that the group included Pakistani nationals, although they did not offer firm evidence to back up that assertion.

Other Indian officials said Friday that two of the gunmen were British citizens of Pakistani descent. British officials said they were investigating the report but had been unable to corroborate it. Meanwhile, a team of counterterrorism officials from Scotland Yard left for India to assist in the investigation.

The FBI has also sent a team of about half a dozen investigators to India, although government sources said it was not clear the extent to which the Indians would allow the U.S. agents to participate. The FBI maintains a permanent office at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, and the agents will operate as part of the existing "country team."

DeYoung reported from Washington.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company