Emphasizing the Lashkar-e-Taiba's (LeT) clout and survival capabilities in South Asia, Admiral Samuel Locklear, Commander of the US Pacific Command (PACOM), observed, on April 9, 2013, "LeT remains one, if not the most operationally capable terrorist groups through all of South Asia. LeT was responsible for the November 2008 attack in Mumbai, India, that killed over 160 people, including six Americans, and has supported or executed a number of other attacks in South Asia in recent years."
Significantly, the Combating Terrorism Centre (CTC) at the US Military Academy, West Point, published a paper, "The Fighters of Lashkar-e-Taiba: Recruitment, Training, Deployment and Death", on April 4, 2013, based on the biographies of 917 LeT militants killed in the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) between 1989 and 2008. Unsurprisingly, the report found that 94 percent of the selected LeT militants listed J&K as the 'fighting front'. The vast majority of the LeT fighters was from Pakistan and was killed in the Districts of Kupwara, Baramulla and Poonch in J&K. According to J&K Police data, out of 184 identified foreign terrorists killed in the State (a total of 568 foreign terrorists were killed in the State since 1998), more than half, (96) belonged to the LeT.
Partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management indicates that a total of 1,791 people, including 1,305 terrorists, 274 Security Force (SF) personnel and 212 civilians died in 710 incidents of killing connected with the LeT, since 2001 (data till May 5, 2013). The group, along with the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM), has been responsible for the greatest proportion of violence in the State.
LeT has remained active outside Kashmir as well. Out of the 45 prominent terror attacks witnessed outside theaters of violence in J&K and the North East since August 14, 2000, the LeT was alleged to be involved in no less than 17 incidents, which resulted in at least 630 fatalities. Though the outfit had established linkages and operational capabilities across India much earlier, disclosures by the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) suggest that the February 13, 2010, Pune German Bakery blast (in which 17 people were killed and 60 others sustained injuries) was the first act of terror in which LeT coordinated with the Indian Mujahiddeen (IM). Maharashtra ATS Chief Rakesh Maria observed, "We proved in court that the LeT and IM joined hands for the first time to create terror in India." IM's parent group, the Student's Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) had, however, been cooperating and coordinating with the LeT, among other Islamist terrorist formations in India, since the late 1990s.
The LeT has also continuously attempted to make its presence felt elsewhere in India's immediate neighbourhood, though primarily, in the past, with the aim of targeting India. Of late, however, the group has emerged as a force multiplier to militant outfits operating in Afghanistan. It has established bases in the Afghan Provinces of Kunar, Nuristan, Nangarhar, Wardak, Laghman, Paktia, Paktika, Khost, Kabul and Kandahar. The LeT has already been responsible for several attacks on Indian establishments, Coalition and Afghan Forces in Afghanistan. Indeed, on August 30, 2012, US Treasury Department designated eight LeT leaders - Sajid Mir, Abdullah Mujahid, Ahmed Yaqub, Hafiz Khalid Walid, Qari Muhammad Yaqoob Sheikh, Amir Hamza, Abdullah Muntazir and Talha Saeed - as terrorists, holding them accountable for attacks on Coalition and Afghan forces in Afghanistan as well as for the November 26, 2008, (26/11) Mumbai (Maharashtra, India) attacks. Again, on April 15, 2013, Coalition and Afghan Special Operations Forces arrested a "senior LeT leader" (name not disclosed) in the Andar District of Ghazni Province. Sources indicated that he had "planned and participated in multiple attacks against Afghan and Coalition forces throughout Kunar, Kandahar and Ghazni provinces" and "was actively planning a high-profile attack at the time of his arrest."
In October 2010, while cautioning India about LeT, the then Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Leon Panetta warned India about the increasing LeT presence in southern and eastern Afghanistan.
The LeT had also made inroads into Bangladesh and had primarily been using it as a launch pad for attacks against India. Several LeT cadres, who were operating in India and Pakistan and had taken shelter in Bangladesh, have been arrested by Bangladeshi enforcement agencies, but the degree of penetration the organization had established in Bangladesh was discovered by the April 8, 2010, arrest of the LeT organizer in Bangladesh, Mobashwer Shahid Mubin alias Yahia, a Pakistani national. Intelligence sources said Yahiya was recruiting local youths for LeT and carrying funds assigned by top LeT leaders for its activities in Bangladesh. Yahia reportedly also looked after the interests of different local and foreign militant organisations as an ISI agent. Significantly, the revelations by Pakistani American David Coleman Headley and Pakistani-Canadian Tahawwur Rana in the US had enabled Bangladeshi authorities to thwart a LeT design to attack the US Embassy and the Indian High Commission in the capital city of Dhaka in 2009. Meanwhile, stressing the outfit's role in the current turmoil within Bangladesh, the country's Home Minister Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir disclosed, on February 27, 2013, that the LeT remained active in Bangladesh and law enforcement agencies were tracking down their networks and keeping them under sharp security vigil. "It is the moral and legal obligation of the Government to uproot them totally," he added further.
The LeT also has also established a strong presence in the Maldives. Various media reports suggest that the Pakistan-based Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq (IKK), one of the identities under which LeT operates, reached the Maldives in the wake of the December 2004 Tsunami under the guise of providing humanitarian aid to affected populations. In 2006, evidence emerged that Dhaka-based LeT 'commander' Faisal Haroon had explored plans to use the islands in Maldives as a logistical base. February 2010 reports, quoting the Indian Intelligence Bureau (IB), claimed that the LeT had nearly 1,000 operatives active in the Maldives. Indeed, disclosures by a Maldivian national, Asif Ibrahim, arrested in Kerala as far back as in April 2005 indicated that a shadow outfit, Jamaat-e-Muslimeen, was working as a cover for LeT and operations connecting Maldives and Kerala were being carried out in the name of this front. Further, Moosa Inas - who had been charged in the case relating to the Sultan Park, Male, blast of September 29, 2007, in which 12 foreign nationals were injured - had travelled in connection with the Male explosion to Thiruvananthapuram in the Indian State of Kerala in December 2005.
Nepal has, for long, been a critical base for LeT operatives targeting India. Reconfirming the group's presence in that country, arrested LeT operative Abu Jundal, on June 30, 2012, revealed that his arms training was started in Nepal in 2004 by LeT terrorist Mohammed Aslam alias Aslam Kashmiri, a resident of Rajouri District in J&K. On July 6, 2012, Jundal, further told interrogators that Abu Hamza had entered India through Nepal and executed the December 28, 2005, Indian Institute of Science (IISc, Bangalore, Karnataka) attack and then escaped to Pakistan through the same porous route. Investigators also learnt that the Karnavati Express blast at Ahmadabad Railway Station (Gujarat) on February 19, 2006, failed due to insufficient training given to the LeT operatives in Nepal.
The LeT's presence in countries across South Asia has been acknowledged by US diplomatic sources. A January 3, 2009, secret cable sent from Islamabad (disclosed by Wikileaks in its November 30, 2010, release) quoted the then U.S. Ambassador in Islamabad, Anne W. Patterson, stating,
...we believe there are still LeT sleeper and other cells in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan, as well as many law enforcement leads which need to be pursued. To prevent another potential attack, we need to keep channels of cooperation and information sharing open. We are concerned that the Indians´ premature public dissemination of this information will undermine essential law enforcement efforts and forestall further Indo-Pak cooperation. Our goal is not only to bring the perpetrators of this attack [26/11 Mumbai attacks] to justice, but also to begin a dialogue that will reduce tensions between India and Pakistan.
On January 5, 2009, India shared a 55-page dossier of information with diplomats of 14 countries whose citizens were killed in the 26/11 attacks.
LeT linkages also existed with the now-defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has also been used by the LeT to target India. Based on research by the Presidential Research Unit, the Sri Lankan Presidential Secretariat, on July 3, 2009, disclosed that military links between the LTTE and the LeT went back to as early as 1992, when LTTE leader Sathasivam Krishnakumar alias Kittu had negotiated an arms deal with the terrorists based in Peshawar (Pakistan). The study noted that intelligence sources were aware that LTTE's links with LeT continued and there were 'substantiated reports' of the LTTE and LeT exchanging terrorist expertise, LeT supplying arms to the LTTE, and both carrying out joint training. Investigators on June 29, 2012, revealed that LeT militant Faiyaz Kagzi, an accused in the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, had given bomb-making training in the Sri Lanka capital, Colombo, in 2008 to German Bakery blast accused Mirza Himayat Baig. Baig was sentenced to death on April 18, 2013.
While all the South Asian countries thus register some presence and activities of the LeT, the group has entrenched roots in Pakistan, where it has flourished under the protection of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The CTC report inferred, on the basis of information gathered about the recruitment base of LeT cadres, that there is probability of an overlap between Pakistan Army recruits and LeT militants:
It is noteworthy that there is considerable overlap among the Districts that produce LeT militants and those that produce Pakistan army officers, a dynamic that raises a number of questions about potentially overlapping social networks between the Army and LeT.
Significantly, Abu Jundal's disclosures confirm that the Pakistan Government has failed to take action against LeT because it remained loyally 'pro-Pakistan'.
Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy at Brookings Institution, notes that LeT, in the aftermath of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, matured "from a Punjabi-based Pakistani terror group targeting India exclusively, to a member of the global Islamic jihad targeting the enemies of al Qaeda: the Crusader West, Zionist Israel, and Hindu India". The LeT now constitutes an enduring threat, not only to India, but to the world at large. Unless coordinated action is undertaken by all countries afflicted or threatened by this terrorist formation, given the complexity and spread of its networks, it will be a difficult task to neutralize its growing menace.
(The writer Sanchita Bhattacharya is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management)
(The view expressed in the article is of the author and not India Blooms News Service)