Raising the spectre of a renewed conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, a US study has warned that Islamabad may well turn to trusted Pakistani militant groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), to do its bidding.
For the past two decades LeT, the group behind the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks that killed 166 people, has steadily emerged as one of Pakistan's most lethal and capable militant proxy groups, according to the study.
Titled "The Fighters of Lashkar-e-Taiba: Recruitment, Training, Deployment and Death," the 61-page report by the Combating Terrorism Centre at the US Military Academy in
West Point, New York is primarily focused on LeT and its integration into Pakistani society.
Once the primary battleground for jihad in South Asia, "over the last decade the fight in Kashmir just hasn't been as relevant for jihadist actors" with US and international troops in Afghanistan providing "a visible and seductive target" for militant groups, it said
It was difficult to predict the directional priorities of Pakistan-based militant groups after the US reduces its role in Afghanistan, especially in light of the internal security challenges faced by Pakistan and the state's own shifting threat priorities, the report said.
But "historical precedent suggests that some of these militant groups will reorient to and invest more broadly in the conflict in Kashmir," said the study.
"The series of skirmishes between Pakistani and Indian forces along the Line of Control in Kashmir in January have brought the potential for renewed conflict in Kashmir into sharp relief," said the report wondering "whether this incident was isolated or a harbinger of more violence to come" between the two neighbours.
"Should elements of Pakistan's security establishment view it in their interest to spoil peace or reignite conflict in the region... they will likely turn to trusted Pakistani militant groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), to do their bidding," the report warned.
This could be due "potentially to serve as a release valve for domestic challenges or to redirect the actions of militants actively waging war against Islamabad," it said.
"While the group has historically been used by Islamabad as an agent of regional foreign policy ... a steady array of incidents tied to the group over the last decade strongly suggest that LeT's interests are evolving and that its operations in the future might be less constrained," the report said.
The Mumbai terrorist attacks left "some to question whether Mumbai was an outlier or a sign of a broader strategic or ideological shift taking place within the group, with more, similar international attacks to come," the report said.
Western counterterrorism investigators have been particularly troubled by LeT's recent attack history, its links to several international terror plots, the group's transnational footprint, the accessibility of its infrastructure in Pakistan and the two-decade-long spillover associated with its training camps, it said.
The group's active recruitment of US and European citizens and the discovery of a number of LeT operatives and cells based in both places, the report said, "have led some researchers to conclude that a threat to the US homeland by this organization (or an associated splinter group or LeT-trained element) can no longer be ruled out."
"Even if this is not the case and the group maintains a more limited operational focus on Kashmir and India in the years to come, its attack on Mumbai raises the spectre that future attacks orchestrated by the group in that region may be more hybrid in nature or international in flavour-helping LeT to draw world media attention to its cause," the report concluded.
The Pakistan government insists that Pakistanis are not engaging in acts of terrorism in India or elsewhere. But the West Point report suggests that "while few entertain these claims as credible, our database indicates that this claim is false."