Network of Pak militants is robust after Mumbai siege

Ten months after the devastating attacks in Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants, the group behind the assault remains largely intact and determined to strike India again, according to current and former members of the group, Lashkar-e-Toiba, and intelligence officials.

Despite pledges from Pakistan to dismantle militant groups operating on its soil, and the arrest of a handful of operatives, Lashkar has persisted, even flourished, since 10 recruits killed 163 people in a rampage through Mumbai, India’s financial capital, last November.

Indian and Pakistani dossiers on the Mumbai investigations, copies of which were obtained by ‘The New York Times’, offer a detailed picture of the operations of a Lashkar network that spans Pakistan. It included four houses and two training camps in Lahore that were used to prepare the attacks.

Among the organisers, the Pakistani document says, was Hammad Amin Sadiq, a homeopathic pharmacist, who arranged bank accounts and secured supplies. He and six others begin their formal trial on Saturday in Pakistan, though Indian authorities say the prosecution stops well short of top Lashkar leaders.

Indeed, Lashkar’s broader network endures, and can be mobilised quickly for elaborate attacks with relatively few resources, according to a dozen current and former Lashkar militants and intelligence officials from the US, Europe, India and Pakistan.

In interviews with ‘The Times’, they presented a troubling portrait of Lashkar’s capabilities, its popularity in Pakistan and the support it has received from former officials of Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment.

Pakistan’s chief spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate helped create Lashkar two decades ago to challenge Indian control in Kashmir, the disputed territory that lies at the heart of the conflict between the nuclear-armed neighbours.

Bridge

A senior American intelligence official said the ISI was believed to maintain ties with Lashkar. Four Lashkar members, interviewed individually, said only a thin distance separated Lashkar and the ISI, bridged by former ISI and military officials.

One highly placed Lashkar militant said the Mumbai attackers were part of groups trained by former Pakistani military and intelligence officials at Lashkar camps. Others had direct knowledge that retired army and ISI officials trained Lashkar recruits as late as last year.
“Some people of the ISI knew about the plan and closed their eyes,” said one senior Lashkar operative in Karachi who said he had met some of the gunmen before they left for the Mumbai assault, though he did not know what their mission would be.

The intelligence officials interviewed insisted on anonymity while discussing classified information. The current and former Lashkar militants did not want their names used for fear of antagonising others in the group or Pakistani authorities.

But by all accounts Lashkar’s network, though dormant, remains alive, and the possibility that it could strike India again makes Lashkar a wild card in one of the most volatile regions of the world.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars since they were created by the bloody partition of British India in 1947. Whether they begin again the long journey toward peace or find themselves eyeball to eyeball, nuclear arms at the ready, depends in no small measure on the actions of this shadowy group.

A new attack could reverberate widely through the region and revive nagging questions about Pakistan’s commitment to stamp out the militant groups that use its territory.
It could also dangerously complicate the Obama administration’s efforts in Afghanistan. Success there depends in part on avoiding open conflict between India and Pakistan, so that Pakistan’s military can focus on battling the Taliban insurgents who base themselves in Pakistan.

The dossiers show that at the level of the police, the two countries can cooperate, and have exchanged DNA evidence, photographs and items found with the attackers to piece together a detailed portrait of the Mumbai plot.

But the files are laced with barbs and recriminations, reflecting the increasingly acid tenor of their relations. Despite pledges to work together to fight terrorism, the Pakistani and Indian intelligence services are not on speaking terms, according to officials in both countries and the US.
The gaps heighten the risks of a new attack substantially, American officials fear. “The only cooperation we have with the Pakistanis is that they send us their terrorists, who kill our people, and we kill their terrorists,” a senior Indian intelligence official said.

Brazen planning

The Pakistani investigation concludes “beyond any reasonable doubt” that it was Lashkar militants who carried out the Mumbai attacks, preying on their victims in a train station, two five-star hotels, a cafe and a Jewish centre over three days starting last Nov 26.

According to testimony by the only surviving attacker, Ajmal Kasab, 22, Lashkar recruits were vetted and trained around the country, including at well-established camps in Muzaffarabad, in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, as well as in Mansehra, in North-West Frontier Province.

Pakistani authorities have arrested seven men linked to the Mumbai attack, including Sadiq and Zaki ur-Rehman Lakhvi, a man well known as the chief of operations for Lashkar. They are searching for at least 13 other suspects. But their investigation has come up short of the founder of Lashkar, Hafiz Saeed, the man Indian and Western officials accuse of masterminding the attacks.

In June, a Pakistani court freed Saeed from detention, declaring that it did not have enough evidence to hold him.

Under continuing pressure, Pakistani authorities this month confined his movements once again. But they say they have no new evidence against him.

Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s interior minister, said that there was simply not enough evidence to charge Saeed with a crime, and that all the evidence pointed to Lakhvi as the mastermind. “Lakhvi was the head, and that is why he has been taken into custody,” Malik said. “He has been charged and now they are all under trial.”

Indian officials say they have sent Pakistan a six-page summary of evidence of Saeed’s complicity in the Mumbai attacks, a copy of which was given to ‘The Times’. The document, based on India’s own intelligence and testimony from Kasab, quotes Saeed giving detailed instructions to the group that carried out the attack.

“One Hindustani boat has to be hijacked for going to Bombay from Karachi,” the document says, using Mumbai’s former name. Saeed also told the group that it should aim to begin the assault around 7.30 pm. “At this hour there is considerable crowd at the places of our target,” the document quotes him as saying.

Pakistani officials and legal experts say the evidence is not as clear-cut as India says. The case against Saeed rests almost entirely on the testimony of Kasab, the surviving attacker, and serious questions remain about the way the Indian police obtained his statements, they say.

Meanwhile, despite promises to crack down on terrorists, Pakistan’s government has taken few concrete steps. The former director of Pakistan’s elite national investigative force was appointed to lead the country’s new counter-terrorism body in January. But it took seven months to get any money to get the agency moving, and only now is it beginning to hire staff members and flesh out its mission, law enforcement officials said.
Cracking down on Lashkar and other groups linked to the Kashmir struggle, and who do not explicitly seek to overthrow Pakistan’s government, was not urgent, they said. “I have many other things that are higher priority now,” said one senior police official in Punjab, the province where DNA tests pinpointed the families of the Mumbai attackers, according to the dossier. “Why would a case in Mumbai be so important when Pakistan is the front line of the war on terror?”

Links to intelligence agencies

Since the Mumbai attacks, “our funds increased and more people wanted to join us,” a senior Lashkar operative in Karachi said. A mid-level ISI officer told ‘The Times’ that Lashkar’s membership extended to 1,50,000 people.

“Hafiz Saeed is the army’s man,” said Najam Sethi, an analyst and newspaper editor in Lahore. He and other analysts said the ISI was in no hurry to discard a group it helped create for a covert war against India.

“They have not abandoned it altogether,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a military analyst in Lahore. “It is not a total reversal; it is a realisation that this is not advisable at this time.”
Senior ISI officials disputed the view. While acknowledging that the ISI had worked closely with Lashkar-e-Toiba in the past, they said things were different now.
Even as new details emerge about the Mumbai attacks, senior American military, intelligence and counter-terrorism officials express grim certainty that Lashkar is plotting new attacks.

If there is one thing on which intelligence agencies on both sides of the border agree, it is that the consequences of a new attack by Lashkar could be devastating.

“We do fear that if something like Mumbai happens in India again, there might be a military reaction from the Indian side and it could trigger into a war,” said a senior intelligence official in Pakistan. “Right now we cannot guarantee that it will not happen again, because we do not have any control over it.”

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