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Pakistan's failed crackdown

After the Mumbai attacks in late November 2008, heavy scrutiny fell on their alleged perpetrator, the Pakistan-backed and based militant outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). For all intents and purposes, LeT should be as good as dead. United Nations Resolution 1822 on al-Qaeda, the Taliban and their affiliates ensures that the group is now treated as "hostile" by 192 countries. Most countries in the west, including the United States, United Kingdom, France and Australia have already banned it under their own counter-terrorism laws. Most importantly, after the UN resolution last year and more recently after the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan cracked down against the LeT's front organization, Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD). The Pakistani government has closed over one hundred offices of JuD, placed key leaders like Hafiz Mohamed Saeed under house arrest, shut down at least one LeT training camp in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, and frozen the bank accounts of the JuD. JuD's office in Muridke, near Lahore, was brought under government control in late January and a Punjab state official has taken up residence in the complex to keep a check on activities there. Several schools and hospitals run by the JuD have been taken over by provincial governments (87 of over 160 schools have been shut completely).

All these measures taken thus far by Islamabad, however, may prove inadequate in uprooting  LeT from the landscape of militancy in Pakistan. The LeT, under various aliases and mutations, is prepared to stubbornly weather the fallout of its actions. Interrogation reports of Ajmal Amir, the sole captured terrorist from the Mumbai attacks, show that the assault benefited from months of planning. Given its history of stirring trouble in India, LeT was not unprepared to handle the consequences of its operation. LeT's remarkable resilience - a trait highlighted in my earlier profile of the group on openIndia (see Raja Karthikeya Gundu, "Lashkar-e-Taiba: a profile", 5 December 2008) - has come to the fore despite premature reports of its demise. 

A multi-headed hydra

On the face of it, the arrests of Hafiz Mohammed Saeed and Zaki ur-Rehman Lakhwi - the alleged mastermind of the Mumbai attacks - and other senior commanders would seriously damage LeT's planning capacity. However, Hafiz Saeed has been only the ideological head of the group for some time, the chief public promoter of its agenda. His role is analogous to that of Osama bin Laden in al-Qaeda, who has supposedly delegated most of the group's operational responsibility to Ayman al-Zawahiri. Zaki ur-Rehman Lakhwi did lead LeT's operations. He should be adequately interrogated and tried for the Mumbai attacks and several other crimes staged by the group. Similarly, Yusuf Muzammil, a LeT facilitator based in Pakistan-administered Kashmir who New Delhi seeks to extradite, must be found and brought to justice. Raja Karthikeya Gundu is a Junior Fellow at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy

But decapitation of the group's leadership may not in itself affect LeT much and is unlikely to be effective in the short to medium term. Despite the arrests of the leadership, mid-level commanders and "coordinators" of the LeT regularly speak to the press. The mid-level agents, most of whom have experience in planning and staging tactical attacks in Kashmir and recently in eastern Afghanistan, remain a real source for concern. The number of the Lashkar-e-Taiba militants detained since the start of the crackdown in the wake of the Mumbai attacks varies from fifty to two hundred, depending on the account. But most international estimates (such as the RAND Corporation estimate) of the total manpower of LeT believe it to be upwards of 1,500. Much of the rest of the LeT remains at large, potentially switching to other terrorist groups, or continuing to carry out the group's pre-determined strategy.

Shifting to Afghanistan

Even before the crackdown by the Pakistani government went into full swing with the arrest of Lakhwi in December, LeT reportedly asked its cadres to leave Pakistani territory for Afghanistan. A number of the group's recruits who had moved into the restive tribal areas of northwest Pakistan from Kashmir at the onset of the winter, were subsequently ordered to leave those tribal areas for Afghanistan. LeT is no stranger to operating in Afghanistan (some researchers argue that LeT, as a fighting force, was actually formed in Kunar province of Afghanistan in 1992, during the days of the Afghan civil war).

In recent years, the LeT is believed to have established a base in Afghanistan's Kunar province, to the north of Barg-e-Matal. The LeT joined the Taliban in a lethal attack on a US and Afghan army outpost in Wanat, in Kunar province in July 2008. The same month, the Indian embassy in Kabul was bombed, and the suicide bomber involved was identified by India as 22-year-old Hamza Shukoor, a former member of the LeT.

More money, more problems

The UN resolutions ensured that the assets of LeT were frozen, with a travel ban been placed on its top functionaries. All UN member states are banned from supplying arms directly or indirectly to the group. Of these measures, the one that would normally hurt a terrorist group most is the freezing of its assets. Although some commentators argue that cutting off funding does not stop a terrorist group given that the average terrorist attack is rather inexpensive, it is undeniable that freezing cash flows affects a group's ability to stage attacks. Training, equipping and arming recruits, paying bribes to corrupt officials to facilitate movement, etc, all require money. In some cases, a recruit's family is financially compensated if he is killed, a major incentive for recruitment among the poor. (In Ajmal Amir Kasab's case, he was allegedly told by the LeT that his family would be paid 150,000 rupees if he were to achieve "martyrdom" during the Mumbai operation).

The funds freeze should have limited LeT/JuD activities, but in the lead up to the UN ban, JuD transferred money out of most its public bank accounts. As a charity, JuD raised millions of dollars for relief work. Some of it was well spent on relief operations after the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan-administered Kashmir (£5 million raised) and after the October 2008 earthquake in Balochistan. But the rest, a sizeable chunk, went into funding terrorist operations of the likes of Mumbai. (In fact, British intelligence followed this money trail to JuD to bust the 2006 plot to blow up airliners over the Atlantic). 

Because of funding constraints and the potential for misuse by recruits on the ground, terrorist groups are generally scrupulous about accounting and documentation. There should be a wealth of evidence for Pakistani officials to find. However, JuD may have destroyed its financial records in the run-up to the crackdown. Unless Pakistani authorities gain access to all the group's ledgers and journals, the true extent of JuD's financial reach may never be known. The issue is compounded by the fact that a large number of contributors to JuD in recent years donated under the assumption that they were contributing to a charity, not knowing how their money would be used.

Even if bank accounts are frozen, cutting off funding to terrorist groups is extremely difficult. The system of hawala, which is a common money-laundering practice in south Asia, often facilitates the transferring of money by terrorist groups. Several such avenues are available to terrorist groups in south Asia due to legal loopholes and systemic weaknesses. For instance, in Afghanistan, middle east-based contractors engaged in the post-Taliban construction boom have been suspected of collaborating with "customers" who seek to transfer ill-gained money out of the country. The contractors do this by over-invoicing the customers, allowing the latter to transfer money to off-shore accounts in the Gulf. In addition, LeT's funding fronts are believed to have received close support from the notorious kingpin of the Mumbai underworld, Dawood Ibrahim, who has been under international crosshairs as a result of his links with Osama bin Laden.

Going global

Since the early 2000s, LeT's primary recruitment drives have been inside Pakistan. But the group cannot any longer function in the open in the country. In fact, since the 2002 ban of the LeT by the Musharraf government, the group does not use the name openly. But despite functioning under a plethora of names since 2002, LeT's identity was never diluted. Its cadre may now be coalescing under the banner of "Tehreek-e-Hurmat-e-Rasool" ("Movement for the Prophet's Honour"), a group which is now galvanizing political and public support in Pakistan to overturn the ban on JuD. (The Tehreek has actually been around for several months and had, in April 2008, called for Pakistan to sever relations with Denmark and Netherlands over the cartoons controversy, and also had condemned alleged American abuses of Islamic texts).

But even before the post-Mumbai crackdown, the group recruited overseas, especially among the Kashmiri and Pakistani diaspora in the United Kingdom. The LeT has been a clearinghouse for indoctrination and training for militant jihadists from several nations. It was also a successful service-offering enterprise (much like the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1970s), training recruits from all over the world to fight for other causes in various theaters of war, including Chechnya, Bosnia and Iraq. Alumni of LeT training camps include Shehzad Tanweer and Mohamed Siddique Khan, who were among the 7/7 London bombers, Richard Reid the shoe bomber, and David Hicks, an Australian al-Qaeda operative. LeT's active cadre also includes Arab recruits. Mahmoud Mohammed Bahaziq, the chief fund raiser for the group, is a Saudi national. Just four years ago, LeT boasted that it had recruited from at least seventeen nations, including Algeria, Sudan, Yemen, Iran, Chechnya, United States and the UK.

After the Mumbai attacks, several jihadist websites featured congratulatory messages to LeT. According to a SITE Intelligence group report, some of these messages were posted by people who described themselves as "wannabe members" of LeT and exhorted the group to carry out more such attacks. The JuD could potentially capitalise on this support to create sleeper cells in several nations in the months to come.

The propaganda war

One of LeT's most distinguishing aspects as a terrorist group is its remarkable ability to utilise the "new media" to spread its message and reach out via the Internet to its preferred audience - well-educated, young professionals who can be recruited or tapped for funds and other logistical support. The LeT website vanished after the Pakistan government's ban in 2002 but the JuD website, which subsequently came up, attracted a large audience. Since the December crackdown, JuD's website has been discontinued. But JuD's web presence is not totally extinct. The website of JuD's charitable foundation, Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq, which was used to attract donations online, is still functional.

Even if the Idara is not being used to raise money, it still acts as a propaganda tool for JuD in portraying itself to be only a religious charity. Similarly, JuD's ability to publish and disseminate printed material may not have been checked. The organization's relief camps in Balochistan are still functional. While the camps themselves may be providing honest relief and rehabilitation services, authorities must be wary of the way the camps are run, lest they be used as sites for indoctrination and recruitment.

Provincial authorities have taken over several schools run by JuD, appointing "special supervisors" for the schools. However, there has been little change among the teachers retained in the employ of these schools since the state does not have the resources to replace them. Given that a number of these teachers are former militants who fought in Indian Kashmir and preach the virtues of jihad to their students, the mere change of administration may not be able to prevent the indoctrination of vulnerable schoolchildren. After the earthquake in 2005, nearly four hundred orphaned and fatherless children were taken by the JuD and placed in its madrasas. In some cases, JuD allegedly paid $10,000 to 19,000 to buy boys from their parents or guardians. These children need to be traced and rehabilitated urgently.

State complicity?

By far the most contentious issue stirred by the Mumbai attacks is whether the Pakistani state or any of its organs was complicit or gave tacit support to the terrorists who planned and conducted the assault. Elements of the Pakistani army or its intelligence agency, the Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), stood to benefit if the Mumbai attacks resulted in war between Pakistan and India, since any new conflagration would derail the bilateral peace process, destabilize the democratic government of Pakistan, and halt the war of attrition with the Pakistani Taliban in northwest Pakistan. Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban, reportedly promised to halt hostilities against the Pakistan army in case of a war with India. Subsequently, a senior army official described Baitullah as a "patriotic Pakistani".

Though active duty Pakistani officers and officials have not been connected to the atrocity in Mumbai, American intelligence agents suspect that former or retired Pakistani army or intelligence officers might have played a role in the attacks. Among others, Hamid Gul, the former Director General of the ISI, has been a close supporter of LeT. The United States is believed to have forwarded a list with names of four former ISI officers to the United Nations, including Gul's, asking them to be declared "international terrorists". A top management reshuffle of the ISI, including the replacement of its chief, Lt Gen Nadeem Taj, was initiated by the civilian government of Asif Ali Zardari to reform the ISI in August and September 2008, in the wake of reports of clandestine ISI support for the Taliban in Afghanistan and the ISI's role in the Indian embassy bombing in Kabul. A detailed and independent probe into the post-retirement activities of some of these former officers could give more teeth to the crackdown.

With their outrage in Mumbai, LeT managed to establish its "brand" and can better attract disaffected youth in the region and from abroad. In the months to come, LeT is likely to operate under a variety of aliases. Its central theatre of operations is likely to become Afghanistan, instead of Kashmir. Amphibious attacks such as Mumbai may be hard for LeT to repeat, but the group is likely to use sea-based infiltration to cross borders and reach targets. Through its network of alumni, it could also plan and stage smaller attacks in Europe. The onus remains on Islamabad to make sure none of these eventualities occur.

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