Pakistan-Based Group Accused in Mumbai Attacks Flourishing Despite Ban

After a wave of coordinated terrorist attacks turned parts of Mumbai's financial district into a combat zone, officials in New Delhi, India, and Islamabad, Pakistan, grapple with the political and diplomatic fallout of India's deadliest terror attack in 15 years.
By Candace Rondeaux and Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 1, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Nov. 30 -- In January 2002, the government of Pakistan reluctantly announced that it would ban Lashkar-i-Taiba, a Kashmiri guerrilla group suspected of crossing the border into India and storming the Parliament in New Delhi, an incident that nearly triggered a war between the two nuclear-armed countries.

Almost seven years later, Lashkar-i-Taiba, or Army of the Pious, once again stands accused of helping to carry out a stunning terrorist attack in India, this time in Mumbai. The group, although technically still outlawed in Pakistan, has managed to expand its membership, its operational reach and its influence among the constellation of radical Islamist networks seeking to spark a revolution in South Asia.

Inside Pakistan, Lashkar still operates training camps for militants, runs a large charitable and social-services organization that has been embraced by Pakistani officials, and even has designated spokesmen to handle inquiries from the news media.

It has also branched out globally from its roots in the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir, opening fundraising arms in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. Some of its fighters have traveled to Iraq and East Africa. It has nurtured a mutually advantageous alliance with al-Qaeda, a longtime benefactor of its activities. One of the British suicide bombers in the July 7, 2005, London transit attacks spent time at a Lashkar-affiliated religious school in Pakistan.

"One thing that has changed is their view of their mission," said Michael Scheuer, a former CIA analyst who specializes in al-Qaeda and other radical groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan. "They're a much more international organization than they were in 2002. They're better trained, and they operate all over."

Lashkar was founded two decades ago, with sponsorship from the Pakistani military, to combat Indian troops in Kashmir, over which India and Pakistan have fought repeatedly since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. For years, Lashkar openly ran a 200-acre training complex, including a religious school, conference center and fish farms, in the village of Muridke in eastern Pakistan, outside Lahore.

The U.S. State Department declared Lashkar a terrorist organization in December 2001, days after it and another Kashmiri militant group, Jaish-i-Muhammad, or Army of Muhammad, were accused of attacking the Indian Parliament.

The Pakistani government followed suit soon after, arresting dozens of Lashkar's leaders and shuttering its recruiting offices in the country. But Pakistan refused to extradite Lashkar operatives suspected in the Parliament attack, and after international political pressure began to subside, it released the group's leadership.

To get around the ban, Lashkar renamed itself Jamaat-ud-Dawa. It began to bill itself as a charitable organization and was instrumental in delivering aid to victims of the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir.

The U.S. government classified Jamaat-ud-Dawa as a terrorist group in April 2006, calling it an "alias" of Lashkar. But the Pakistani government has not reciprocated and allows the network to raise money, run religious schools and offer social-service programs. It hosts an extensive Web site, with versions in English and in Urdu.

On Sunday, Indian officials said that the lone gunman in the Mumbai attacks to be captured has confessed to being a member of Lashkar and that the network was behind the plot. Joint Police Commissioner Rakesh Maria said the suspect told interrogators that he had received training at a Lashkar camp in Pakistan. Maria blamed the attacks on "a hard-core group" within the Lashkar network but did not provide details. U.S. counterterrorism officials also have said that there are signs that Lashkar was involved.

Official representatives of Lashkar have denied the accusations. "We condemn the loss of precious lives, and we also demand an independent investigation into this incident," Abdullah Ghaznavi, a spokesman for Lashkar, said in a telephone interview. "Whenever something happens on the Indian side, they single Lashkar-i-Taiba out for it. But the fact is it's their own obsession. It's very convenient to blame Lashkar-i-Taiba for everything."

The Indian government has accused Lashkar of continuing to sponsor attacks in Kashmir, as well as being involved in several other plots in India, including bombings in the southern city of Hyderabad in August 2007.

In an interview in Pakistan, a Lashkar operative speaking on the condition of anonymity said commanders of the group have ordered followers to go underground in recent days, anticipating a crackdown by the Pakistani government. But he denied that they had played a role in the Mumbai massacre. "Whenever we have attacked, we have targeted military or government installations," he said.

The operative acknowledged that Lashkar still has thousands of members and trains fighters in camps in Kashmir, on both sides of the Indian-Pakistani line. Analysts said Lashkar also operates training camps in northern Pakistan, near Gilgit, as well as in the tribal areas along the Afghan border.

It is difficult, analysts said, to pinpoint the extent of the relationship today between Lashkar and Pakistan's main spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI. Some said the ISI severed support for Lashkar after its operatives were suspected of involvement in an assassination attempt on then-President Pervez Musharraf in 2004. But officials in India have been more skeptical.

Shaun Gregory, a professor of international security and a Pakistan specialist at the University of Bradford in England, said that in contrast to its operations against the Taliban, al-Qaeda and networks of foreign fighters along the border with Afghanistan, the Pakistani military has taken a hands-off approach with Lashkar.

Unlike those groups, he said, Lashkar does not pose a threat to the Pakistani state, so its training camps are tolerated. "Lashkar-i-Taiba understands where its bread is buttered," he said.

Gregory and other analysts noted that Lashkar is riven by factions; although some leaders may have been opposed to a spectacular attack on Mumbai, other members may have seen it as a catalyst for sparking an all-out war in the Asian subcontinent, a longtime goal.

Some Indian and U.S. officials have said that they doubt Lashkar was capable of pulling off the Mumbai attacks on its own and may have worked in tandem with sympathetic groups, including Muslim radicals in India. Another partner may have been Dawood Ibrahim, the fugitive boss of a Mumbai crime syndicate who was blamed for a series of bombings in the city in 1993 that killed more than 250 people.

"What we've already seen is a nexus between Lashkar-i-Taiba, Jaish-i-Muhammad and Dawood Ibrahim -- between terrorism and organized crime, if you will -- that's been able to work very effectively together in India," said Scheuer, the former CIA analyst.

Whitlock reported from Berlin. Special correspondents Shaiq Hussain and Haq Nawaz Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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