Mumbai: Pakistan’s moment of opportunity

Shaun Gregory
3 December 2008

The government and leading institutions of Pakistan have been placed in a difficult position by the Mumbai events. The statement by a United States official that the Pakistan-based terrorist organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure) was most likely responsible for the armed operation of 26-29 November 2008 would appear to confirm India's early assertions that the attacks were planned and launched from Pakistan. But even if Indian Islamist ("homegrown") terrorists with intimate knowledge of the city contributed to the attacks, this would not cease the pressure on Islamabad.

Shaun Gregory is professor in the department of peace studies at the University of Bradford, northern England, and head of the Pakistan Security Research Unit there. He is the author of Pakistan: Securing the Insecure State (Routledge, 2008)

"Pakistan on edge" (24 September 2006)

"Pakistan: farewell to democracy" 29 October 2007)

"Musharraf: the fateful moment"(16 November 2007)

"Pakistan's political turmoil: Musharraf and beyond" (27 August 2008)

"The Pakistan army and the Afghanistan war"(25 November 200The circumstantial evidence is that the Pakistan army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have for decades supported terrorist groups and engineered acts of terror as an instrument of state policy, in relation both to their regional objectives and to their internal problems (such as the struggle with Shi'a groups supported by Iran). The army and the ISI created or co-opted a number of terrorist organisations in the early 1990s to prosecute the struggle for Kashmir, and built an infrastructure of camps mainly in "Azad" ("free") Jammu & Kashmir (AJK) to support this initiative. Beyond that the Pakistan army and ISI supported terrorist groups inside India, in states around India, in the south Caucusus, and as far afield as Algeria.

Two of the groups with the closest relationship with the Pakistan army and ISI through the 1990s and into the early 2000s were Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (Army of Mohammed / JeM). Both of these have been responsible for high-profile and daring attacks on India - including the attack on the Indian parliament in Delhi in December 2001 which bears striking similarities to the Mumbai attacks. The LeT and JeM were trained in insurgency and urban warfare by the Pakistan army and ISI, and this may in part explain the tenacity and skill with which the Mumbai attackers fought.

The tracks of influence

In reacting to the Mumbai attacks the Pakistan government has mounted two defences: the first that after the December 2001 attacks on the Indian parliament, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed were banned by then-president Pervez Musharraf, and linkages between these two groups and the Pakistan army and ISI were severed; the second that there are no links between the Mumbai attackers and any element of the Pakistan state. While the evidence is not yet clear, and the full story of the attacks may never be publicly known, it is already evident that both strands of Pakistan's defence are beginning to unravel.

Pervez Musharraf did indeed publicly ban the LeT and JeM in January 2002. But the LeT was allowed to continue to operate under the wing of its political arm, the Markaz Dawat-ul Irshad (MDI)], renamed as the Jamat-ud Dawa (JuD). The MDI/JuD is based in Muridke, outside Lahore, from where it operates a network of offices across Pakistan involved in publishing, fundraising, and developing its political objectives. The MDI/JuD also runs more than 200 secondary schools and at least eleven madrasas through which the LeT is assured of a steady flow of recruits. It is also understood to have a presence in the United States, Britain, Australia, Iraq and Spain.

It is clear now that the LeT training camps in Azad Jammu & Kashmir were not closed down after 2002, though some camps were moved to the Sindh and Balochistan. It is known that at least one of the perpetrators of the coordinated bombings in London on 7 July 2008 passed through LeT camps in AJK shortly before the attacks. There are also deep links between the LeT and al-Qaida that can be traced to the late 1980s.

Also in openDemocracy on the Mumbai atrocity:

Kanishk Tharoor, "What to make of the Mumbai attacks" (27 November 2008)

Saskia Sassen, "Cities and new wars: after Mumbai" (29 November 2008)

Paul Rogers, "The lessons of Mumbai" (1 December 2008)

Meenakshi Ganguly, "After Mumbai: India's democratic test" (2 December 2008)


The earthquake on October 2005, centred in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, profoundly affected the MDI/JuD's fortunes. LeT cadres - fearing media scrutiny and international intelligence attention - were redeployed: some to Bangladesh, and some to Pakistan's northern areas of Balti and Gilgit. Some too found their way to Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province/FATA tribal areas, where they consolidated links to the Taliban and to al-Qaida. The JuD - like Hamas to which it is linked through the ideologue Abdullah Azzam (the Palestinian jihadi who was assassinated in 1989) - positioned itself as a source of welfare to those affected by the earthquake and appears to have siphoned off aid revenues(both Pakistan-raised and international) to help the earthquake victims.

The MDI/JuD leader Hafiz Muhammed Saeed is often arrested - and just as quickly released - in the wake of LeT violence. He is a regular speaker at events in Pakistan, mixes with some members of the army, government and parliamentary representatives, and gives interviews to the media. The Sunni MDI/JuD is also understood to receive support from Saudi Arabia. All the indicators are that under this cover the LeT is as powerful as at any point in its history and its connections with to the Pakistani army and ISI are as strong as ever.

A state against the wall

This evidence does not of itself convict the Pakistani state of direct involvement in the Mumbai attacks. To establish that fact operational links would need to be proven between the attackers and the Pakistani state. Moreover by "state" it would be important to establish whether only the Pakistan army/ISI was implicated or whether the involvement also extended to the civilian leadership, which does not control the Pakistan army/ISI. This distinction raises the possibility that the attacks were supported by the army/ISI to undermine President Asif Ali Zardari and sour warming Indian-Pakistan relations.

The potential problem for Pakistan is that any thread between the Mumbai attackers and Pakistan army/ISI is unlikely to remain secret. The Mumbai attacker who was taken prisoner, and other suspected terrorists who may yet be detained, could provide clues here. There is also an abundance both of material evidence (such as the unused weaponry and communications equipment carried by the terrorists) and intelligence evidence (from United States electronic monitoring, for example). The US's unusual decision to publicly implicate Pakistan's ISI in the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul in July 2008 makes clear two things: Washington knows that Pakistan has continued to use terrorism as an instrument of state policy under Musharraf's successor as army chief-of-staff, General Afshaq Kiyani; and it is no longer keeping silent about such knowledge in deference to Pakistan's importance in the "war on terror".

The Pakistan army and ISI cannot therefore anticipate avoiding responsibility for the Mumbai attacks if they had a hand in it. Any defence of blaming "rogue" elements within the ISI and Pakistan army will not serve to deflect the anger of India, the United States and the international community - not least because Musharraf made it clear in 2006 that the ISI was a disciplined force doing what the army told it do.

A decisive moment

The Pakistan state - by which is meant here primarily the army and the ISI - thus faces a moment of crisis. But this is also a moment of opportunity. Pakistan has been asked to cooperate fully with India and the United States in the investigation of the Mumbai attacks, and to hand over named individuals - including the JuD/LeT leader, and the Karachi-based gangster Dawood Ibrahim, an Indian national implicated in many terrorist attacks within India.

If Pakistan complies with these requests - whether or not it is complicit, and in a way consistent with the country's own laws and constraints - it would send the strongest possible signal to the international community of Pakistan's rejection of its use of terrorism in the past and its determination to end state support for terrorism in the future. Moreover, it would demonstrate to the world that the Pakistan army and ISI are now willing to subordinate themselves more fully to the democratically elected civilian leadership of Pakistan - which clearly wants to normalise relations with India - and to open a new chapter in civil-military relations.

Pakistan's failure to meet these requests, and obfuscation in the investigation of the Mumbai attacks, will only strengthen the views of Pakistan's critics and will have a negative impact on United States policy towards Pakistan. The fires of Mumbai provide Pakistan with a clear moment to begin to cleanse itself of its self-destructive embrace of terrorists and terrorism. The friends of Pakistan around the world will be hoping that President Zardari, prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, and above all General Kiyani, will seize this opportunity.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData