Pakistan Detains Extremist Leader

By Joby Warrick and Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 10, 2008

For the second time in a decade, suspected Pakistani terrorist leader Masood Azhar was placed under house arrest yesterday after being linked to attacks in India. His detention, announced by Pakistan's Defense Ministry, was intended to show the country's resolve in hunting for the organizers of last month's deadly rampage in Mumbai.

Yet in the U.S. and Indian capitals, the news of Azhar's arrest drew mostly scoffs. As officials in both countries noted, Pakistan never bothered to charge the Kashmiri extremist when it detained him in connection with a deadly attack on India's Parliament in December 2001. A Pakistani judge freed him 11 months later.

The Azhar saga accounts for some of the skepticism that has surrounded Pakistan's efforts to crack down on extremists in the wake of the Nov. 26 terrorist rampage in Mumbai. Promises by Pakistani leaders to roll up militant groups have been undercut by a history of "catch-and-release" in its dealings with prominent extremists, and also by its past ambivalence -- if not outright support -- for groups that openly advocate terrorism.

The emerging response is serving as a test of whether the U.S.-backed government in Pakistan is serious about taking on the armed Islamist groups it helped create, and if the country's powerful military and spy service will allow civilian officials to do so. Whether India believes Pakistan is helping in the investigation of one of the worst attacks on its soil in years could determine whether the two nuclear-armed nations continue a halting peace process or move closer to confrontation. Pakistan's reaction to the Mumbai assault could also prove pivotal as it confronts an escalating threat from groups that it once nurtured as weapons against enemies in India and Afghanistan but that have now turned their fire inward on Pakistan.

Under intense pressure from India and the Bush administration, Pakistan in recent days has staged a series of raids on training camps linked to Lashkar-i-Taiba, the Kashmiri-based group said by India to be behind the Mumbai siege. Pakistani officials detained Lashkar commander Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi as well as Azhar, the founder of the militant group Jaish-i-Muhammad.

Yet Pakistan has balked at turning over suspects to India and has declined to release the names of most of the 22 people it has reportedly rounded up since the raids began Sunday. Despite encouraging rhetoric from senior Pakistani leaders, U.S. officials say it is not yet clear that Pakistan's government is willing, or able, to crack down on the country's anti-India extremist groups, some of which are linked to al-Qaeda.

While U.S. officials applauded the Pakistani efforts -- especially the arrest of Lakhvi -- they have not been able to independently confirm anything about the other detainees, including "whether they are, in fact, Lashkar members," said one senior U.S. counterterrorism official who is closely monitoring Pakistan's response.

"It remains to be seen," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities. "There have been instances in the past where the Pakistanis arrested extremists after terrorist attacks on India but released them several months later, after the international pressure eased up."

Also unclear, according to U.S. officials and private analysts, is whether the government of newly elected President Asif Ali Zardari can move effectively against the insurgents without the full support of the military and the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, which have undermined similar attempts in the past.

"The writ of the state is eroding," said Kamran Bokhari, director of Middle East analysis for Stratfor, a private intelligence company. "It's not just an issue of intent, but an issue of capability. Can these guys deliver?"

Zardari has described the Mumbai gunmen as "criminals, attackers and murderers," and there were signs that his administration was ready to match rhetoric with action. Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, who flew to Islamabad for high-level talks immediately after the Mumbai assault, found senior Pakistani officials sobered and awakening, perhaps for the first time, to the magnitude of the problem they face, according to sources close to the admiral. While recognizing that they have to take decisive action against extremists, sources said, the Pakistanis also realize that a domestic backlash, both politically and in terms of terrorism, is the inevitable result.

U.S. officials have been pressing Pakistan to take aggressive measures in a series of private meetings and public events. Gen. David H. Petraeus, former U.S. commander in Iraq and now head of the U.S. Central Command, said in a speech yesterday that insurgent havens in Pakistan remain a "significant concern," adding that the Mumbai siege "highlights the extent of the challenges Pakistan faces."

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