The long arm of Lashkar

Published : May 07, 2004 00:00 IST

Arms and ammunition recovered from a killed Lashkar-e-Taiba operative in Malru on the outskirts of Srinagar on April 14. - RAFIQ MAQBOOL/AP

Arms and ammunition recovered from a killed Lashkar-e-Taiba operative in Malru on the outskirts of Srinagar on April 14. - RAFIQ MAQBOOL/AP

The arrest in Iraq of a member of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is waging a `jehad' in Jammu and Kashmir, confirms Pakistan's links with international terrorism, even if the U.S. would like to pretend ignorance about it.

THERE are several good reasons why people ride horses and camels rather than tigers, all of them obvious to anyone who is not a counter-terrorism expert in the administration of United States President George W. Bush.

Arrests made earlier this month near Baghdad have blown the lid off the links between the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba and Islamist groups who have joined the nationalist resistance to the United States occupation of Iraq: evidence that ought to cause at least some embarrassment to the U.S.' South Asia diplomatic establishment, currently in the throes of a syrupy dtente with Pakistan. Parts of the deal are well known. The U.S. has overlooked, for example, Pakistan's nuclear proliferation record in return for its cooperation in fighting the Taliban. From India's point of view, one part of this sordid arrangement constitutes a serious threat: the U.S. also seems to have given Pakistan's military considerable freedom to continue its support to officially-authorised jehadis. If nothing else, the arrests have once again shown that terror, like chickens, comes home to roost.

In March - and possibly even earlier - U.S. forces arrested Pakistani national Dilshad Ahmad, a long-time Lashkar operative from the Bhawalpur area of the province of Punjab. Ahmad had played a key role in the Lashkar's trans-Line of Control operations, serving between 1997 and 2001 as its commander for the forward camps from where infiltrating groups of terrorists are launched into Jammu and Kashmir with Pakistani military support. Ahmad is believed to have made at least six secret visits to Lashkar groups operating in Jammu and Kashmir during this period. Although there are no verifiable records of Ahmad actually having carried out terrorist acts in India, he authored several articles on the fitfully-functioning Lashkar web site, one describing in particularly macabre detail the merits of severing Indian soldiers' limbs from their bodies.

A close associate of Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi, the second-in-command in the Lashkar military hierarchy, Ahmad had for a long time played a key role in shaping the organisation's ideological and military agenda: a fact that raises obvious questions about his work in Iraq. In 1998, he addressed a major Lashkar-e-Taiba conference in Muridke, arguing for the need to extend the organisation's activities outside Jammu and Kashmir. Ahmad is believed to have played a key role in building the infrastructure for the dozens of Lashkar cells that have since carried out bombings in several major Indian cities. At least four other Lashkar operatives are known to have been arrested in the intelligence-led operation that ended in Ahmad's arrest, but nothing else is available publicly on their intentions or origins. U.S. officials had kept a tight lid on news of the arrests until it was first reported in The Hindu on April 1.

FOR the U.S. the arrests are a potentially embarrassing election-time reminder that the Lashkar-e-Taiba, proscribed by all major Western capitals including Washington, continues to operate freely in Pakistan. In January, as politicians across the subcontinent prepared for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Islamabad, Pakistan took stern measures to put a lid on the Lashkar-e-Taiba's anti-India polemic. The Lashkar's web site was shut down, and its overall political and religious chief, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed was barred from addressing a rally in the town of Multan. Soon after SAARC, however, the restraints on the Lashkar were lifted. In February, Saeed was allowed to travel to Islamabad to attend the funeral prayers organised by Pakistani bureaucrat-businessman Zahoor Ahmad Awan, whose son, a Lashkar operative, was killed by Indian troops. Saeed told the assembly that the fighting in Jammu and Kashmir was "the greatest jehad in the entire history of Islam".

As important, the Lashkar has again been given considerable freedom to continue building its military infrastructure. In the build-up to the Id festival this month, the organisation, now operating under the new label of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, was reported to have raised Rs.780 million from the sale of hides of sacrificial animals donated by followers. The Lashkar proclaimed, through advertisements and announcements by loyal clerics, that the proceeds would be used for the benefit of "mujahideen who have sacrificed their lives for Islam" and for "the parents, widows and children of martyrs who waged jehad in Kashmir and Afghanistan". Although this activity seems in express violation of the Pakistan government's ban on raising funds for jehad-related activities, no real action seems to have been taken against those involved. Two Lashkar cadre were briefly detained in Karachi during the fund-raising drive, a purely token gesture. The web-site, packed with fundamentalist calls to violence, is up and running again.

Such activity has serious consequences for India. Police authorities in New Delhi recently arrested three members of a Lashkar squad tasked to attack Indira Gandhi International Airport. The organisation has also been active in targeted attacks on candidates contesting the Lok Sabha elections in Jammu and Kashmir, and has issued warnings to voters not to exercise their franchise. According to police officials in Jammu and Kashmir, a little over half of all terrorist acts in the State are now committed by the organisation. This escalating military activity is part of a pattern. Pakistan formally banned the Lashkar-e-Taiba in the wake of the 2001-2002 near-war with India, but soon allowed the organisation to resume operations under a new label, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa. The Jamaat-ud-Dawa is on the Pakistani terrorism watch-list, but publicly collects funds and recruits cadre. Similarly, despite claims that the Jaish-e-Mohammad was behind an assassination attempt directed at Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, its leader Masood Azhar is at liberty.

IN other words, Pakistan seems willing to temporarily close the terror tap - cross-border infiltration is at an all-time low, and violence levels in Jammu and Kashmir have fallen substantially. It is equally clear, however, that Pakistan's military establishment is not willing to seal the pipeline that feeds these taps just yet. Washington's tolerance seems to be driven by Musharraf's claims that he cannot take on the entire religious Right without provoking a major backlash. As a result, Pakistan's military establishment has been able to keep the infrastructure of anti-India terrorism intact. It is worth noting that this infrastructure has, historically, imposed great costs on the U.S. itself. General Zia-ul-Haq's diversion of Afghan war equipment for jehadis in Jammu and Kashmir helped build the Lashkar-e-Taiba in the first place, as well as several other groups hostile to the U.S., like Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Jehadi groups seem to have respected the unspoken U.S.-Pakistan deal - a romance that obviously cannot speak its name - this time around. Although Lashkar cadre were in the past believed to have fought in northern Afghanistan and Chechnya, no similar global activity was noticed until the recent arrests. The Lashkar's house journal, Majallah al-Dawa, has been relatively restrained in its criticism of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. In the current issue of the magazine, Saeed calls on believers to "never to make friends with Jews and Christians". There is, however, no express call for jehad directed at the U.S. By contrast, Majallah al-Dawa's position on India is more aggressive. One article claims that Indian Muslims have come to realise that "without migration and jehad there is no future"; another, in a recent issue, asks Pakistani schoolchildren to join the jehad and advises them on how to identify Indian soldiers to be attacked.

For anyone familiar with the history of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, its involvement in Iraq is no surprise. Nor, sadly, is the U.S.' unwillingness to take a principled position on forcing Pakistan to disband terrorism-related infrastructure. In January 1999, the Delhi Police arrested Lashkar operative Syed Abu Nasir on charges of attempting to bomb the U.S. consular office in Chennai. The U.S. sent Federal Bureau of Investigation personnel to question Nasir, but refused to pressure Pakistan despite their own experts' finding that he was telling the truth about his intentions. Again, in August 2001, after the Delhi Police arrested four men believed to have planned to blow up the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, the U.S. responded dismissively, claiming Indian accounts of the plot were "overblown". This confidence, however, did not stop the embassy from asking for enhanced perimeter security from the Delhi Police. After a 2002 attack on its consulate in Chennai, the U.S. quietly helped India secure the extradition of Jaish-e-Mohammad-linked mafioso Aftab Ansari, but did nothing to impel Pakistan to shut down the organisation's camps or arrest its leadership.

"As long as someone has a gun in his hand," says a senior Indian military official, "he decides when he wants to use it, not you. If someone is walking around with a gun, and you want to stop him from using it, the only really sure-fire solution is to take it away." With an election to win, and little reason for voters to help it do so, the Bush administration does not mind who is wandering the world carrying guns, just as long as there is a chance one of them might be pointed at Osama bin Laden.

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