LeT: Nebulous but Dangerous

14 MINS READNov 15, 2006 | 05:00 GMT
By Fred Burton In a slightly new twist on what is becoming an old tale, India's airports were placed on high alert this week after being threatened with terrorist attacks, and Pakistan's airports followed suit. One of the threats, which according to media reports was disclosed by the FBI, came in an email that discussed the possible hijackings of aircraft leaving India for the United States and Europe — a situation that immediately brings to mind a plot, attributed to al Qaeda, that was disrupted by British authorities in August. Another threat was found in a letter, handwritten in the Tamil language and found by a janitor at Tiruchirapalli Airport, saying 10 suicide bombers would carry out attacks in airports in Tiruchirapalli, Madurai and Coimbatore in the southern Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Though al Qaeda has never issued a specific warning, describing the location or methods to be used in a pending attack, these threats very well could be credible in a larger sense, when the recent history of terrorist strikes in India is taken into consideration. After all, the July 11 train bombings in Mumbai, which killed more than 200 people, were preceded, and followed, by a number of warnings and hoaxes directed against trains (though, intriguingly, all of those were against trains in places other than Mumbai). Such a spate of warnings can work very much to the advantage of a militant group: In "pinging the system," they can both gauge the responses of authorities (to determine where an actual strike might be most effective) and induce "alert fatigue," which weakens watchfulness and defense systems over time. Having observed this pattern previously in India, and given the large numbers of potential targets and actors, it would be difficult to argue that the threats received this week are not, on some level, credible — though, following the Mumbai train pattern, it is likely an attack might come against an airport that was not mentioned in the alerts, or perhaps another target entirely. New Delhi has no choice but to treat the threats as though they are legitimate, of course. The real question is how to trace the threats and potentially pre-empt a forthcoming attack — which means identifying the group responsible. The fact that the target set is, again, in the public transportation sector, and that multiple strikes were mentioned, would seem at first to fit the al Qaeda/jihadist pattern. However, the fact that the threat letter was written in Tamil — indeed, the fact that a written warning was issued at all — and that the targets named were in India, all signal that these threats did not emanate from Osama bin Laden's organization directly. Numerous other militant groups, including Kashmiri outfits and Naxalites, have carried out violent attacks in India and logically can be placed on the suspect list for these threats. However, if recent history is any indication, New Delhi likely will focus intensely on one group in particular: Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) (which translates as "Army of the Pure"), a Kashmiri militant group that has demonstrated an ability to strike deep within India. In fact, New Delhi has spoken of the LeT as its bogeyman du jour since the December 2001 shooting attack at its Parliament building — blaming it for a wide variety of attacks, including the July train bombings in Mumbai, that encompass a tremendous variety of tactics, targets and geographic locations. The problem is that it has become almost as difficult to speak of the LeT as a cohesive group as it has to speak of al Qaeda, and for largely the same reasons. Both groups have been "disrupted" and driven underground, but the circumstances of their existence have not necessarily made them less dangerous. Strange as it may sound, they have become both more shadowy and more prominent simultaneously. LeT: A Brief History For terrorism purists, the mere mention of LeT's name is problematic: The organization, funded and trained by Pakistan, was labeled a terrorist group early in the U.S. war against jihadists, and it no longer claims responsibility for attacks in its own name. Instead, the LeT has splintered — or actively attempted to create the impression that it has splintered — into a number of smaller groups that appear to operate with great autonomy and to use a variety of names, likely in efforts to keep security authorities confused. (This fits with the pattern that al Qaeda used prior to, and shortly after, 9/11: denying responsibility for attacks and claiming them in the name of other groups. In recent years, of course, al Qaeda has bent the other direction — sometimes claiming attacks that clearly were committed by other, regional actors, and at others allowing smaller groups to use the al Qaeda brand name — as it sought to transform itself into a grassroots movement.) At any rate, the Indian government and press continue to keep the LeT name alive and to link the group to nearly every serious terrorist attack, threat and foiled plot in the subcontinent. The LeT is believed to have been formed in 1990 in Afghanistan's Kunar province. Its presence in India's Jammu and Kashmir state was first recorded in 1993. The group's stated goal is to overthrow Indian rule over the contested Kashmir region, though some Indian sources claim the group has a wider agenda of uniting all Muslim-majority regions through South and Central Asia. Indian sources say the LeT has (like al Qaeda) named the United States and Israel as targets, alongside India, but the group has never been shown to have struck at U.S. or Israeli assets independently. The group evolved as the military wing of Markaz Dawa wa al-Irshad (MDI), a radical Wahhabi organization founded by engineering professor (and later Islamist ideologue) Hafiz Mohammed Saeed. It found a natural sponsor in Pakistan. At one time, Pakistan openly ran militant training facilities on its side of the Line of Control through Kashmir, and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) played an active role in formulating the operations of groups that targeted India. The LeT, with funding and other assistance from the ISI, is believed to have carried out dozens of attacks — using both firearms and explosives, in a number of different tactical scenarios — against Indian targets over the years. Those attacks culminated in the December 2001 attack at the Parliament building in New Delhi. At least up to that point, the LeT was thought to have a well-established and military-like structure, with Saeed as its "emir," or supreme commander. The top policymaking body included the emir and his deputies, a finance chief and others with executive functions, while authority at the field level was distributed from chief commander to divisional commanders, district commanders, battalion commanders and so forth. The organization's physical infrastructure was said to be considerable: a 200-acre headquarters compound at Muridke (near Lahore) comprising a fish farm, a market, a hospital, madrassas and other facilities. The LeT operated several media mouthpieces — a Web site and various monthly and weekly publications written in Urdu, Arabic and English. It also ran schools and health services (such as blood banks and mobile clinics) in Pakistan, with a network of branch offices to collect donations and provide other forms of support. Point of Disruption However comfortable and well-documented the leadership and decision-making processes may have been at one point, the LeT underwent a drastic change after the 2001 Parliament attack. In that strike — which was similar to an assault at the Kashmir state assembly in Srinagar, just two months before — gunmen wearing military fatigues, who apparently had used a fake identity sticker to get past security checkpoints, broke into the area before the government building while the legislative body was in session. One of the attackers, with explosives strapped to his body, blew himself up; the other four were killed in the protracted gun battle that ensued. Six policemen and a gardener also were killed. Under pressure from the United States and Britain, both of which quickly labeled the LeT a terrorist organization, Islamabad reinvented its relationship with the organization. The ISI severed direct links with the group, which began to splinter into more autonomous groups operating under several names (Lashkar-e-Qahar, al-Arifeen, al-Mansoorain, Al-Nasireen and Al-Qanoon, for example). With the post-9/11 pressure from Washington and London, Islamabad had no choice but to act — but it also needed to retain the geopolitical leverage against its nemesis, India, afforded by the militant groups. Thus, the Musharraf regime outlawed both the LeT and MDI but allowed an MDI successor organization, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, to exist as a "nonprofit" group that collects donations and engages in social, cultural and humanitarian activities. MDI founder Saeed is the leader of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, and the organization has taken over — and expanded on — many of the social services previously offered by LeT. Though it is possible that special cells within the ISI still dispatch liaisons on occasion to have tea with "former" LeT operatives and "suggest" future operations, the net effect of the changes was to drive the militant organization underground and make its financial and organizational links to Islamabad much harder to trace. (The Musharraf government does, however, retain enough contact with LeT-linked figures to suit the political needs of the moment. For instance, to offset political pressure following the July 11 bombings, officials placed Saeed under house arrest in August — only to free him again in mid-October.) Like other Islamist militant groups, LeT is thought to fund its activities through a variety of sources, including charitable organizations scattered through the Muslim world and hawala exchanges. There have been suspicions that its networks spread into the West: In the United States, 11 men convicted on federal charges — who have become known as the "Virginia Jihad Network" — were thought to have trained in LeT camps in preparation for waging war against India. And several of the suspects arrested by British authorities following the Aug. 10 disruption of a plot involving transatlantic airline flights were Pakistani nationals thought to have ties to LeT. The criminal underworld may provide significant sources of financing for the LeT as well. A prominent Indian mobster, Dawood Ibrahim, is believed to have planned the group's March 12, 1993, attacks in Mumbai. In those strikes — which claimed 247 lives, making them the most deadly terrorist attacks in Indian history — more than a dozen improvised explosive devices and grenades exploded at the city's stock exchange, several hotels, markets, an airport and other targets. Tracing the Network The LeT is widely networked. Members of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), along with sympathizers in Bangladesh and elsewhere, are believed to act as local guides and provide safe-houses for operatives deploying from Kashmir or Pakistan. Bangladesh — where the government for the most part turns a blind eye to the activities of Islamist militant groups — may well serve as a safe-haven. LeT operatives likely mask their meetings with authorities in Pakistan by routing their travel from India through Bangladesh or sneaking across the border to Nepal, and thence to Kashmir or other key locales. LeT has shown a capability to strike far from Kashmir. Attacks have occurred in New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Varanasi, Kolkata, Gujarat and elsewhere. Significantly, LeT's strategic goals overlap with those of al Qaeda in many ways, and the group shares al Qaeda's beliefs in a radical strain of Wahhabi/Salafi ideology. This makes the Kashmiri movement a useful vehicle for furthering the goals of the better-known jihadist organization — if it can be properly harnessed. This, of course, is where the organizational lines begin to grow blurry, to the point of being meaningless. Bin Laden clearly has placed India in al Qaeda's targeting scopes, having espoused the cause of Kashmiri Muslims and referring in an April 2006 recording to the "Crusader-Zionist-Hindu war against Muslims." Moreover, the subcontinent is a strategic linchpin in the grand U.S. geopolitical strategy (used as a lever for containing China), and its economy has become linked to that of the United States in significant ways. From bin Laden's standpoint, the financial centers in cities like Mumbai and Bangalore constitute politically and economically meaningful targets, within convenient striking distance. Only days after the train bombings, al Qaeda claimed to have established itself in Jammu and Kashmir — a claim the Indian government deemed credible — and it is known to have been actively recruiting among Kashmiri groups formerly controlled by Islamabad. But to say that the LeT is controlled by al Qaeda, or even learning most of its current tactics from it, might be going too far. To be fair, both groups seem to have learned from each other over time: LeT's use of government decals to slip past security in the 2001 Parliament attack, for example, far predates the use of similar tactics by al Qaeda cells in Saudi Arabia. The multiple target strikes in the 1993 Mumbai attacks also serve as a precedent. Historically, the LeT has struck the same types of targets al Qaeda has chosen in its war against the United States: government sites, economic symbols (as signified by the Mumbai Stock Exchange hit) and transportation systems, as well as "soft targets" like cinemas and places of worship. However, unlike al Qaeda, the LeT and its successor groups thus far have shown little interest in striking directly at the West. Rather, they seem particularly focused on fighting India's Hindu majority, stirring up sectarian strife and reprisal attacks in hopes of producing high body counts and weakening the government in New Delhi. Looking Ahead Whether or not that focus will shift remains an open question, but it is possible that the recent threats to Indian airports are a sign of things to come. The Muslim-Hindu attacks and counterattacks triggered by LeT are a significant issue for New Delhi, but thus far the violence has not reached a level that India — with its vast geography and tremendous population — is not able to absorb. The Western technology companies and other multinationals that have made India a strategic hub for business have not moved their operations elsewhere as a result of sectarian strife. The July strikes in Mumbai left many feeling vulnerable, however. The city of 16 million is an important hub for the finance and shipping industries, and home to numerous foreign businesses. In light of the general poverty, putting high-tech or sophisticated security measures in place would be possible only for specific, critical locations, leaving a great deal of infrastructure vulnerable. Moreover, due to the economic linkages, the effects of such a shift would be felt in the United States, Britain and other countries the Islamists consider their enemies. Raising a terror alert for critical infrastructure, such as airports, is one way of potentially maxing out Indian security forces, leaving other targets unprotected. It also could be a ploy to mask a terrorist group's true targets, or an alternative way of striking at the national economy. The economic impact from the 9/11 attacks, which shut down U.S. air travel for days, needs hardly to be mentioned in this respect. Whoever receives the blame — or takes the credit — for issuing threats and/or carrying out attacks, the fragments of LeT pose the same kind of danger to India as the group as a whole. Obviously, it cannot be known whether a terrorist group will strike at an Indian airport, but given the large number of potential targets, and potential actors, we believe an attempt is more rather than less likely to be made. If and when that time comes, one thing is all but certain: Al Qaeda and LeT will be deemed responsible. No matter how disrupted the organizations may have become, perceptions linger that al Qaeda and LeT are powerful, cohesive actors in South Asia. And the longer that perception lingers, the more indistinguishable the two groups are becoming in the public mind.

Article Search

Copyright © Stratfor Enterprises, LLC. All rights reserved.

Stratfor Worldview


To empower members to confidently understand and navigate a continuously changing and complex global environment.