Rawalpindi, Pakistan: In a high-security jail here, five men—all members of the Islamic militant group described by the US and India as the organizers of the terrorist rampage in Mumbai last year—were brought before a makeshift court in Pakistan’s first steps to bring them to justice.
The brief appearances on Saturday, described by a defence lawyer, were conducted in secret for security reasons in a case that Pakistan says shows its willingness to prosecute the group, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). Pakistan also says that the case will demonstrate that its military, which once backed the group as a surrogate force against India, has severed all ties.
But behind the first glimmerings of the case, sympathies for LeT and its jihadist and anti-Indian culture run deep in this country, raising a serious challenge to any long-lasting moves to dismantle the network.
Trained killer: Ajmal Kasab, 21, the only terrorist to be caught alive in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, gave accounts of training in camps in Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistan-held Kashmir, and in Manshera. Reuters / CNN IBN
The membership of LeT extends to about 150,000 people, according to a mid-level officer in Pakistan’s premier spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence. Together with another jihadi group, Jaish-e-Muhammad, the LeT loyalists could put Pakistan “up in flames”, the officer admitted.
Despite that risk, the jihadis “were good people” and could be controlled, the officer said, speaking on the condition of anonymity in keeping with the agency’s custom.
Obama administration officials say they continue to press the Pakistanis to guarantee prevention of a sequel to November’s Mumbai attacks, in which 183 people were killed in a rampage across two five-star hotels, a Jewish centre and a busy train station.
A surprise confession last week of the sole surviving attacker made clear that LeT has the capacity to quickly and inexpensively train young men from villages into intensely driven, proficient killers, a senior Obama administration official said.
The attacker, Ajmal Kasab, 21, has described receiving training in camps in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-held Kashmir, and in Manshera, a north-west town.
Kasab’s account has been largely discounted in Pakistan as being forced by Indian investigators, but many details conform to descriptions of LeT operations offered by two former members. The members, who said they had friendly relations with LeT, said that at least one LeT training camp was still operating in the hills around Muzaffarabad.
Pakistan said it had severed ties to LeT in the wake of the 11 September attacks, under pressure from the Bush administration to join its campaign against terrorism. Interior minister Rehman Malik said in an interview that the group’s infrastructure was “no more intact”.
But Obama administration officials say they are still trying to understand the state of relations between Pakistan and the group. Among the most likely versions, they say, none would tamp down hostilities between Pakistan and India.
The possibilities include that LeT remains a lever of the Pakistani state; that the group and others have realigned themselves quietly behind the interests of Pakistan and could be used covertly; and that the groups have broken away from the official security apparatus and are running independently.
A senior Pakistani official reinforced that possibility, saying the connections between Pakistan’s spy agency and LeT were so sundered that it was a matter of regret that the military could no longer control them.
A lack of control could have as devastating consequences as if the Pakistani army was still supporting the groups, two senior US officials said. “My guess is, the army did not have command knowledge” of the Mumbai attacks, one of the US officials said. “Was there a lack of discipline? It’s a very, very serious issue whichever way it is.”
The commander of the Pakistani army, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, has said in conversations with the Obama administration that he was trying to control LeT.
“They say, ‘We are being more vigilant,’ but add, ‘By the way, India has to stop messing around in Balochistan,’” a US official familiar with the conversations said of the Pakistanis, referring to a province that has been torn by a brutal sectarian struggle, in which Pakistan has accused India of financing insurgents.
The overarching goal of LeT, which operates under the front of a charity, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, is the defeat of India. It also embraces a strong anti-Israeli platform and adheres to Ahl-i-Hadith, a strain of the Wahabi sect of Islam.
On those doctrinal grounds, LeT has much in common with the international goals of Al Qaeda, terrorism experts say.
“LeT and Al Qaeda are allies in the global Islamic jihad,” said Bruce Riedel, who directed President Barack Obama’s review of Afghanistan and Pakistan policy this year. “They share the same target list, and their operatives often work and hide together.”
Among the evidence of LeT’s sophistication in the Mumbai attacks is the voice of one of the attackers’ handlers, speaking fluently in English, on what seem to be tapes of phone intercepts provided to Channel 4 in Britain for a documentary shown this month.
Malik, the Pakistani interior minister, said he had asked India for the phone numbers of the calls. It seemed unlikely that the handler was the man accused of masterminding the attacks, Zaki ur-Rehman Lakhvi, who was one of the five men who appeared in court on Saturday. Lakhvi, about 55 years old, does not speak English, according to the two former LeT members.
On the tape, the handler speaks in chilling tones as he advises the gunmen on targets at which to aim, weapons to use and what to say to hostages and the Indian authorities while staying calm under pressure.
“LeT was definitely involved, but they had outside help and assistance,” said Sajjan Gohal, a terrorism expert in the UK. “The tape suggests that the handler had military training which went beyond basic terrorist preparation.”
At one point, the handler said to a woman being held hostage at the Jewish centre, “Just sit back and relax,” and, “Maybe you gonna, you know, celebrate your Sabbath with your family.” The woman was later killed on orders from the handler.
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES