Mumbai attacks test ability of Pakistan to curb militants

Posted in India , Pakistan | 04-Dec-08 | Author: Jane Perlez and Somini Sengupt| Source: International Herald Tribune

Demonstrators demanded better security in Mumbai on Wednesday.

LAHORE, Pakistan: Mounting evidence of links between the Mumbai terrorist attacks and a Pakistani militant group is posing the stiffest test so far of Pakistan's new government, raising questions whether it can — or wants to — rein in militancy here.

President Asif Ali Zardari says his government has no concrete evidence of Pakistani involvement in the attacks, and American officials have not established a direct link to the government. But as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice landed in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad on Thursday morning, pressure was building on the government to confront the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which Indian and American officials say carried out the Mumbai attacks.

Though officially banned, the group has hidden in plain sight for years. It has had a long history of ties to Pakistan's intelligence agencies. The evidence of its hand in the Mumbai attacks is accumulating from around the globe:

A former Defense Department official in Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that American intelligence analysts suspected that former officers of Pakistan's powerful spy agency and its army helped train the Mumbai attackers.

According to the Indian police, the one gunman who survived the terrorist attacks, Azam Amir Kasab, 21, told his interrogators that he had trained during a year and half in at least four camps in Pakistan and met at one of them with Mohammad Hafeez Saeed, the Lashkar-e-Taiba leader.

And according to a Western official familiar with the investigation in Mumbai, another Lashkar leader, Yusuf Muzammil, whom the surviving gunman named as the plot's organizer, fielded phone calls in Lahore from the attackers.

Many of the charges against Lashkar originate from investigators in India, which has long been at odds with Pakistan. The United States shares an interest with India in shutting down Pakistani militant groups that pose threats to its soldiers in Afghanistan.

Today, Lashkar-e-Taiba, meaning "army of the pure," operates openly in Lahore. Its militant wing, Western officials say, has used camps in Pakistani-administered Kashmir and Pakistan's tribal areas to change from a group once focused primarily on Kashmir into one now determined to join the ranks of a global jihad. The Mumbai attacks, which included foreigners among its targets, seemed to fit the group's evolving emphasis.

The 63-year-old Saeed lives in a large compound that includes a cream-colored mosque that faces a bustling commercial street. A sign outside says Center of Qadsisiyah, a triumphant reference to the place where the Arabs defeated the Persians in the seventh century.

A spokesman for Saeed, Yaya Mujahid, denied in an interview on Wednesday that Saeed was involved in the Mumbai attacks, and described the Indian demand that he be turned over along with 19 others as "propaganda."

"India wants him because he exposes India on Kashmir and on water closure," Mujahid said, referring to Pakistani complaints about India cutting off water sources to Pakistan.

The group's public face, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, runs Islamic schools and charity works and maintains a 75-acre campus about 15 miles north of Lahore, at Muridke, he said. Since 9/11, he added, "the scene has changed and the relationship is not so good with the establishment."

According to Western intelligence officials, Lashkar was formed in 1989 with the assistance of Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, with Saeed as its head collaborator.

How far that relationship extends today remains a topic of intense debate, Western officials said. Critics of the ISI in Pakistan maintain that the Pakistani intelligence agency still protects it.

Though established as a proxy force to fight India in Kashmir, Lashkar has since turned itself into a transnational group, officials say. Today it has cells in Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan's tribal areas, and a few of its fighters have even turned up in Iraq, officials said.

Whether the group has come under the influence of Al Qaeda is uncertain.

"We're not saying there's a direct hand in it but you have to think there's some learning going on, emulation going on, there are influences or contacts of some kind," a senior American official said.

Accounts from the captured gunman in Mumbai as well as those from another former Lashkar fighter who spoke with The New York Times provided glimpses of its recruitment methods and how the Mumbai attacks were planned.

According to Rakesh Maria, the chief of the crime branch of the Mumbai police, the surviving gunman, Kasab, came from a village called Faridkot, in Punjab. The son of a laborer, he dropped out after fourth grade and moved to Lahore to join an older brother and make a living as a day laborer.

There, he told investigators, he was recruited into Lashkar, according to Devan Bharti, a deputy police commissioner in Mumbai.

One of the camps he attended was in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir, where Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the Lashkar affiliate, did relief work after a big earthquake in 2005, Bharti said.

There were roughly 25 people, sometimes more, in each camp. Whether some of them were being prepared for other attacks on other targets, in India or elsewhere, is not known. "We can't rule it out," Bharti said.

He received training in handling arms, navigating the sea and survival techniques. He was shown Google Earth maps and video images of his targets. At one of the sessions, he told interrogators, Saeed, the Lashkar leader, gave a motivational speech, covering a host of pan-Islamic grievances from Palestinian territory to Iraq to Kashmir.

A GPS navigational device was found on the boat that the gunmen used to get close to Mumbai, before killing its captain and abandoning it in the Arabian Sea. They left Karachi on Nov. 23.

He knew only limited information about his co-conspirators, Bharti said. He did not know whether there were plans to attack other targets. "He was only a foot soldier," Bharti said.

He was given an AK-47, a pistol, grenades and 5,400 rupees, about $110. The police said they were still looking into whether the gunmen had collaborators who helped them plot the attack beforehand, or during the day of the siege. The police dismissed earlier reports that they had rented rooms earlier and positioned weapons.

Bharti said that the information Kasab had provided so far had checked out, including his most recent tip: that he and a partner, Ismail Khan, had abandoned a bag with two 8.8-pound bombs at Victoria Terminus, also known as Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the railway station where they began their killing spree. The police recovered the bag on Wednesday.

But much remains unclear or unknown about him. A strict practice among the trainers of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the former Lashkar fighter told The Times, was a system of changing the names of the members every few months, so that everyone had layers of names that were discarded over time.

That system was intended to make it very difficult to identify members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, and is a likely explanation why Pakistani investigators have had little luck in finding Kasab's family in Faridkot.

The former fighter, who comes from the tribal areas of Pakistan, said he joined Lashkar-e-Taiba in 2000, stayed for eight months, then switched to another group, Jaish-e-Muhammad, for "ideological reasons."

He said that retired Pakistani Army officers impressed with Lashkar's ideology joined its ranks as volunteers. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to be identified to his former associates.

According to the former fighter, some members of Lashkar moved to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, particularly the Mohmand region, close to the city of Peshawar.

The group focused on waging war against India, he said, but was also committed to wider goals, among them the creation of an Islamic state in south and central Asia.

At its start in 1989, Osama bin Laden was widely reported to have been a financial supporter. Since 2002, Lashkar trainers have worked closely with Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, according to Seth Jones, an expert on militant groups at the RAND Corporation who has spent time in Afghanistan.

Their presence had increased in Afghanistan in the last year, Jones said. "They have had small numbers of fighters embed with local Afghan units on the ground such as the Taliban to gain combat experience and improve their tactics, techniques and procedures."

Lashkar was banned under strong American pressure in 2002. Since then, Saeed disassociated himself from Lashkar, said his spokesman, Mujahid. Lashkar was now an "operational wing" to fight in Kashmir — its fighters no longer under Saeed's control.

Asked if he knew the operational commander of Lashkar, Mujahid waved his hand dismissively, and said he was in Kashmir.

He also denied even knowing the name of Muzammil, the man identified by the Indian authorities as the person in charge of the Mumbai operation.

"Everyone who was interested in Kashmir, went to Kashmir," he said. "They are doing there what they have to do."