Gates: Al-Qaeda has assembled a 'syndicate' of terror groups

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 20, 2010; 10:28 AM

NEW DELHI -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Wednesday that al-Qaeda was using proxy terrorist groups to orchestrate attacks in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan as part of a broader strategy to destabilize the region.

In a press conference after two days of meetings with Indian officials, the Pentagon chief said al-Qaeda had formed a "syndicate" of terrorist groups with Taliban factions in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as Lashkar-i-Taiba, a Kashmir separatist network blamed for the 2008 Mumbai hotel attacks that killed 165 people.

"What we see is that the success of any one of these groups leads to new capabilities and a new reputation for all," Gates said. "A victory for one is a victory for all."

U.S. intelligence officials have said jihadi groups in the region are cooperating more closely than ever and that it has become increasingly difficult to sort out who, exactly, is responsible for many high-profile bombings, including the Dec. 30 suicide attack on a CIA base in eastern Afghanistan.

But Gates warned that it would be a mistake for the United States and its allies in South Asia to concentrate on eliminating a particular network while ignoring the others. "It's dangerous to single out any one of these groups and say if we could beat that group that will solve the problem," he said. "Because they are, in effect, a syndicate of terrorist operators."

Gates said all of the factions were working under the umbrella of al-Qaeda, which he accused of "orchestrating" attacks throughout the region. He said al-Qaeda's approach was intended not just to destabilize the Afghan and Pakistani governments but also to provoke a conflict between India and Pakistan. The two countries have already fought four wars since declaring independence in 1947 and have since become nuclear powers.

During his two-day visit to New Delhi, which included a side trip to tour the Taj Mahal, Gates repeatedly praised the Indian government for not taking military action against Pakistan after the Nov. 26, 2008, attacks in Mumbai. Although the Pakistani government denied any involvement, suspicions linger in India that the gunmen received training or guidance from the Pakistani military or intelligence services.

U.S. officials have said there is evidence that Lashkar-i-Taiba, or Army of the Pious, is scouting other targets for attack in India. And Gates said he worried how India might respond if there was a repeat of the bloodshed in Mumbai.

"I think it's not unreasonable to assume that Indian patience would be limited were there to be further attacks," he said.

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