LeT stays robust after 26/11

LeT stays robust after 26/11
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First Published: Wed, Sep 30 2009. 09 08 PM IST

Mastermind and the war camp: LeT founder Hafiz Saeed (in white) seen with his aides and a police officer at his residence in Lahore on 2 June. KM Chaudary / AP
Mastermind and the war camp: LeT founder Hafiz Saeed (in white) seen with his aides and a police officer at his residence in Lahore on 2 June. KM Chaudary / AP
Updated: Wed, Sep 30 2009. 09 08 PM IST
Karachi, Pakistan: 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-Taiba (LeT), and a range of intelligence officials.
Mastermind and the war camp: LeT founder Hafiz Saeed (in white) seen with his aides and a police officer at his residence in Lahore on 2 June. KM Chaudary / AP
Despite pledges from Pakistan to dismantle militant groups operating on its soil, and the arrest of a handful of operatives, LeT has persisted, even flourished, since 10 recruits killed 163 people in a rampage through Mumbai 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 LeT network that spans Pakistan.
Among the organizers, 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 LeT leaders.
Indeed, LeT’s broader network endures, and can be mobilized quickly for elaborate attacks with relatively few resources, according to a dozen current and former LeT militants and intelligence officials from the US, Europe, India and Pakistan.
In interviews with The Times, they presented a troubling portrait of LeT'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 directorate, or ISI, helped create LeT two decades ago to challenge Indian control in Kashmir. Pakistani officials say that after 9/11 they broke their contacts with the group. No credible evidence has emerged of Pakistani government involvement in the Mumbai attacks, according to an American law enforcement official.
But a senior American intelligence official said the ISI was believed to maintain ties with LeT. Four LeT members, interviewed individually, said only a thin distance separated LeT and the ISI, bridged by former ISI and military officials.
One highly placed LeT militant said the Mumbai attackers were part of groups trained by former Pakistani military and intelligence officials. Others had direct knowledge that retired army and ISI officials trained LeT recruits as late as last year.
“Some people of the ISI knew about the plan and closed their eyes,” said one senior LeT 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 LeT militants did not want their names used for fear of antagonizing others in the group or Pakistani authorities.
But by all accounts LeT’s network, though dormant, remains alive, and the possibility that it could strike India again makes LeT a wild card in one of the most volatile regions of the world.
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.
Pedestrians in Millat Town, a dusty, middle-class suburb on the eastern edge of Karachi, where the LeT is said to have organized the Mumbai attacks. Michael Kamber/ NYT
Even so, American diplomatic efforts to improve India-Pakistan relations have been stillborn. Meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, the two sides failed to restart talks last weekend, with India demanding greater steps by Pakistan to prosecute those responsible for the Mumbai attacks. 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 acid tenor of their relations.
“The only cooperation we have with the Pakistanis is that they send us their terrorists, who kill our people, and we kill their terrorists,” said a senior Indian intelligence official in an interview.
The Pakistani investigation concludes “beyond any reasonable doubt” that it was LeT 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 26 November.
According to testimony by the only surviving attacker, Ajmal Kasab, 22, LeT 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.
A core group, the 10 chosen for the Mumbai assault, was eventually moved to Karachi and its suburbs, where the real drilling began and where Pakistani investigators later retraced the plotters’ steps. Beginning as early as May 2008, the group trained and planned while living in various neighbourhoods in and around Karachi.
At one water sports shop, they bought inflatable boats, air pumps, life jackets and engines. One of their training camps, with five thatched rooms and a three-room house, was located near a creek, where they conducted water drills in the open.
At the other camp, which they named Azizabad, the group and their trainers set up a classroom.
Using handwritten manuals, the recruits were trained how to use mobile phones to keep in contact with their handlers during the attack. They pored over detailed maps of the Indian coastline, plotting the course they would take to Mumbai. They learned how to use global positioning devices.
Working from Millat Town, a dusty, middle-class Karachi suburb on the eastern edge of the city, Sadiq organized the cadre. Neighbours described him as quiet and pious, riding around the streets with his two young sons perched on his motorbike. The Pakistani dossier says he was a committed LeT militant.
In an interview, his uncle, Lala Yasin, said the same, adding proudly that Sadiq was willing to do anything to liberate Kashmir from India’s grip.
A limited crackdown
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 LeT. They are searching for at least 13 other suspects. But their investigation has come up short of the founder of LeT, Hafiz Saeed, the man Indian and Western officials accuse of masterminding the attacks.
In June, a Pakistani court freed Saeed from detention, declaring it did not have enough evidence to hold him.
Under continuing pressure, Pakistani authorities this month confined his movements once again. Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s interior minister, said that there is simply not enough evidence to charge Saeed with a crime, and that all the evidence pointed to Lakhvi as the mastermind.
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 New York 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.
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.
Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the organization Saeed now leads, bills itself as a charity and denies any links with LeT. Abdur Rahman Makki, Saeed’s deputy and brother-in-law, called any accusations against Saeed baseless.
Yet he was not shy about admitting that Saeed, a fiery preacher, regularly exhorted young people to fight in Kashmir. “Hafiz Saeed always speaks and discusses about the jihad that is mentioned in the holy Koran,” Makki said. “Not only Pakistanis, any Muslim has the duty to support the oppressed Kashmiris.”
All parts of India where Muslims are a majority must be freed, he said. 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 counterterrorism 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 LeT and other groups linked to the Kashmir struggle, and who do not explicitly seek to overthrow Pakistan’s government, was not urgent, they said.
Links to intelligence agencies
For Pakistani authorities, the political problems posed by arresting Saeed, or undertaking a broader crackdown on LeT, may outstrip the legal ones. The organization and its cause—to “free” Kashmir—remain close to the hearts of the Pakistani public as well as the military and intelligence establishment.
Since the Mumbai attacks, “our funds increased and more people wanted to join us,” a senior LeT operative in Karachi said in an interview. A mid-level ISI officer told The Times this year that LeT’s membership extends to 150,000 people.
Despite official denials, Pakistan’s spy agency, the ISI, maintains links to LeT, though the current level of support remains murky, according to the senior American intelligence official interviewed by The Times, as well as Pakistani analysts, retired military officials and former LeT members.
“Hafiz Saeed is the army’s man,” said Najam Sethi, an analyst and newspaper editor in Lahore, Pakistan. He and other analysts said the ISI was in no hurry to discard a group it helped create for a covert war against India.
Senior ISI officials disputed the view. While acknowledging that the ISI had worked closely with LeT in the past, they said things were different now.
“Prior to 9/11, we had a very strong contact with LeT, even on the leadership level,” one senior Pakistani intelligence official said in an interview. “But after 9/11, we broke our contacts with not only LeT but also the Taliban.”
A senior LeT militant said the group was divided, with the operational wing, led by Lakhvi, chafing for more attacks on India, and the spiritual wing, led by Saeed, advocating a more cautious approach.
The senior Pakistani intelligence official said that some within LeT might aspire to a more ambitious agenda, and suggested that parts of the group might have acted on their own.
“Lashkar went rogue,” the Pakistani intelligence official said. “Perhaps LeT or dissident factions wanted to emerge as a global player,” like al-Qaeda.
New attacks expected
Even as new details emerge about the Mumbai attacks, senior American military, intelligence and counterterrorism officials express grim certainty that LeT is plotting new attacks.
The US warned Indian officials earlier this year about a Mumbai-style attack by LeT against multiple sites in India, according to a senior defence department official and a senior American counterterrorism official.
The counterterrorism official said the information, gleaned from electronic intercepts and other sources, was not specific and apparently did not result in any arrests. But it was significant enough for American officials to alert their Indian counterparts.
Pakistani officials, however, say they have been kept in the dark. “We heard that the Americans have warned the Indians that something in Mumbai might happen, but no one informed us,” a senior Pakistani intelligence official said.
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES
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Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker in Washington contributed to this story.
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First Published: Wed, Sep 30 2009. 09 08 PM IST