Possible role of Kashmir-focused groups may hinder Times Square terrorism probe

Three more people are in custody after raids related to the failed bombing May 1 in Times Square. Their arrests follow that of Faisal Shahzad, who is suspected of carrying out the attempt.
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 7, 2010

KARACHI, PAKISTAN -- Faisal Shahzad's path from suburban Connecticut to bombmaking training in Pakistan's mountains may have wound through a mosque on a ragged corner of this metropolis, Pakistani officials say. The suggestion highlights the nation's complex militant web -- but could also form an obstacle to a terrorism investigation spanning two continents.

A man who guided Shahzad from Karachi to the country's northwest, Pakistani officials say, was arrested this week at the mosque, which is affiliated with Jaish-i-Muhammad. The al-Qaeda-linked group is one in a mosaic of domestic jihadist organizations that were created or cultivated by Pakistan's intelligence services to antagonize Indian troops in the disputed region of Kashmir but have gone increasingly rogue.

U.S. officials say they are worried about these militant groups based in Punjab province, many of which are banned but still operate freely. The most prominent among them is Lashkar-i-Taiba, suspected in a deadly 2008 siege in Mumbai. The group has changed its legal name, but its leaders remain free.

Some elements in Pakistan's security establishment continue to view such groups as assets against India, and Punjabi politicians court them for political support. It is uncertain whether Pakistan would take aggressive action against the organizations, even if they are found to be definitively connected to the Times Square bombing attempt.

"There's never been any clampdown on any of these groups that were fighting in Kashmir. That's not just Lashkar, it's everyone," said Ahmed Rashid, who has written extensively on militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan. "That's a problem."

Pakistani authorities are looking into whether the groups are connected to the New York case, although developments in the investigation remain murky. On Thursday, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said he did not think Shahzad acted alone, as some Pakistani officials have suggested.

In addition to the arrest this week of Mohammed Rehan -- described variously by officials as a prominent Jaish-i-Muhammad leader and Shahzad's suspected "motivator" -- one Karachi intelligence official said as many as 30 people were detained Thursday for questioning by Pakistani and U.S. authorities. All were associated with Jaish-i-Muhammad, Lashkar-i-Taiba and another banned sectarian group, Sipah-e-Sahaba, the official said.

A second intelligence official said that at least 16 people affiliated with those militant organizations have been detained in recent days in Karachi and in the northwestern city of Peshawar.

Pakistani officials say publicly that they have established no concrete links between Shahzad and any militant organization. U.S. officials say evidence points to the involvement of the Pakistani Taliban, a predominantly Pashtun group based in the Afghan border region whose anti-state agenda traditionally did not overlap with that of Kashmir-focused organizations. It initially asserted responsibility for the bombing attempt, but a spokesman later denied involvement.

Militant groups converge

As state support for anti-India militant groups has waned, the aims of the Pakistani Taliban and the Kashmir-oriented groups have increasingly converged. Militant groups of various stripes have intermingled, and Punjabi fighters have become valuable bridges between Pakistan's mainland and the rugged, restricted border where guerrilla training takes place.

Five Northern Virginia men arrested late last year and charged with terrorism in Pakistan came in contact with Jaish-i-Muhammad while on a journey they had hoped would take them to North Waziristan, a haven for the Taliban and al-Qaeda, Pakistani authorities say.

Jaish-i-Muhammad has been implicated in several prominent terrorist acts in South Asia, including an attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001 and the killing of journalist Daniel Pearl. It was banned in Pakistan in 2002.

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