By Abdullah Muntazir
There is a debate going on in the west on the issue of a possible threat from Lashkar-e-Taiba – A Jihadi group fighting against Indian occupation of Kashmir and blamed for Mumbai attacks in 2008 – to the western interests. There is no doubt Lashkar hates United States for a number of reasons. Apart from the widespread anti-America resentment in almost all Islamic groups across the globe, the group has some of its own reasons to dislike US. US declared Lashkar-e-Taiba a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) a few months after 9/11 without any substantial reason. The group until then never attacked or planned any attack on US interests. Its focus was totally on Kashmir against Indian forces.
The group believes that by declaring it terrorist organization US wanted to please India and press Pakistan to back off from freedom struggle in Kashmir. Despite its anger the group refrained from attacking US interests in the region but US was not satisfied with its own measures by putting Lashkar on FTO list of the State Department and went to UN Security Council in 2005 for international sanctions against the group. Eventually UNSC put the group in the list of Al-Qaeda and Taliban affiliates and asked the member countries to freeze its assets and impose embargo onpurchase of weapons while its members were banned from international travelling. These sanctions could not affect the group in Pakistan as technically it was not active in Pakistan anymore after January 12, 2002 when the then president of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf banned the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad, Sipa-e-Sahaba, and Tehreek-e-Jafria.
US also tried its best to put the name of Jamat-ud-Dawah – a charity and preaching Islamic organization accused of being a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba – in the same UNSC list. Nevertheless, China blocked these moves repeatedly until December 10, 2008 when china, on the request of Pakistan, withdrew its technical hold and Jamat-ud-Dawah and the names of its some prominent leaders were included in the list of banned entities. Jamat-ud-Dawah denies any links with Lashkar and interestingly it took US almost five years to conclude that Jamat-ud-Dawah is an alias of Lashkar-e-Taiba. Lashkar was declared FTO in 2001 while US included the name of Jamat-ud-Dawah in the lists of aliases of Lashkar-e-Taiba in 2005.
In short, Lashkar has obvious reasons to be an anti-American Jihadi group but we will have to see whether this so-called anti-Americanism is ever translated into a practical action or it is just rhetoric in the west on the provocation of some Indian lobbies active in the west – particularly in the United States.
For a number of reasons I believe that Lashkar-e-Taiba is not a direct or indirect threat to western interests. Here are these reasons;
Although the group advocates revival of Khilfphah in the Muslim world but at the same time, it also believes in Pakistani nationalism from an Islamic context. For Lashkar, there are only two states on the world map based on ideology, which are Israel and Pakistan. Pakistan came into being exclusively on the base of Islam while Israel is Jewish state. Lashkar believes that protecting Pakistan is like protecting Islam. No transnational pan-Islamic Jihadi group honors geographical borders. For them these borders are un-Islamic and it is sinful to willingly accept these ‘un-Islamic lines’ drawn on the ‘land of Allah’. On the other hand, Lashkar believes Pakistan is a ‘gift of Allah’. Due to this pro-Pakistan ideology, the group naturally becomes closer to Pakistani security establishment. It thinks in the same line as Pakistani armed forces think –India is the number one enemy of Pakistan. It was quite rational for Pakistani security establishment to rely on Lashkar-e-Taiba for freedom of Kashmir. The group has successfully engaged Indian armed forces in Kashmir for almost 15 years along with other Jihadi groups fighting in Kashmir.
There was tremendous pressure on the group after 9/11 to join Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan to fight against US and NATO forces but the group did not want to create problems for its sympathizers in Pakistani state institutions, therefore it openly declined this popular demand of fighting America. Instead of shifting its focus from Kashmir to Afghanistan, the group expanded its operations from Kashmir to inside India. India accuses Lashkar for attacking dozens of high value targets inside its border including attacks on Mumbai, Indian Military Academy, Red Fort, Akshardham Temple, nuclear institute in Bangalore, Mumbai train attacks in 2006 and others. With its high profile attacks on Indian interests, it appealed the young Indian Muslims who are annoyed by dominating Hindu extremists. Massacres of more than five thousand Muslims by Hindu extremists in Indian state of Gujarat poured oil on fire and provided Lashkar with a great opportunity to exploit the Indian Muslim youths. Pakistani security establishment had/has no problem with Lashkar’s anti-India agenda because India is always suspected for its covet activities in FATA and Baluchistan.
Lashkar has ‘sacrificed’ more than five thousand ‘mujahedeen’ in Kashmir. For Lashkar, it will be betrayal to the souls of those five thousand plus martyrs if it leaves the ‘mission Kashmir’ uncompleted and indulges itself in a battle which is already saturated as far as the number of Jihadi groups are concerns. Lashkar believes that by attacking nations other than India will damage its Kashmir campaign.
Popularity graph of Lashkar in occupied Kashmir and Pakistan is on its peak. There was a time when Al-Qaeda was the mentor for all Jihadi groups and Osama bin Laden was one of the most beloved people in Pakistan. However, suicide attacks inside Pakistan became counterproductive and as result, Al-Qaeda and Taliban are deprived off their good reputation in Pakistan. However, this is not the case with Lashkar. It has an ideology that forbids attacking Muslim states. Therefore, Lashkar not only refrained from attacking Pakistani interests but it discouraged other groups too.
Due to its pro Pakistan ideology and policies, it has deep roots in Pakistani society. It is now able to work as a pressure political group in a number of areas in central and northern Punjab. Although it openly denounces democracy but covertly, it supports candidates of its choice. They can be from any political party. Lashkar knows very well that if it started a global Jihadi campaign it will no longer enjoy such a political advantage in Pakistan.
The group very well appreciates its weaknesses and strengths. It is not capable of challenging the whole west. Not only it will be fool enough to create more and more enemies but it will also invite the wrath of Pakistani security establishment, which is not tolerating Al-Qaeda at any cost, although it views Taliban from a different angle. For Pakistani security establishment Taliban are potential allies in the future but Al-Qaeda is ‘an enemy’. The simplest definition of Al-Qaeda is ‘anyone who attacks the west and has an Islamic origin’. Therefore, if Lashkar starts attacking western targets, Pakistan will obviously consider it Al-Qaeda.
Another reason that Lashkar cannot become ‘Next Al-Qaeda’ is that Al-Qaeda itself does not trust Lashkar. It blames Lashkar as a ‘B’ team of ISI. Due to Lashkar’s reluctance in fighting against US, some of its member defected and tried to join Al-Qaeda but they were considered ‘planted’ people and could not win trust of seniors of Al-Qaeda leaders. One such fighter once told the author of this report, “We are never allowed to see the people of higher ups because they don’t trust us due to our Lashkar background.” While one cannot rule out Lashkar’s support for Afghan Taliban, it seems unlikely that Lashkar and Al-Qaeda can cooperate with each other in current circumstances. Most of the experts in the west quote the example of arrest of Abu Zubaida –a senior leader of Al-Qaeda – from a safe house of Lashkar-e-Taiba but these experts ignore that this arrest was the end of a short love affair between the two groups started right after 9/11. Lashkar was reportedly trying to evacuate ‘Muslim brethrens’ from the war zone but Al-Qaeda members blamed it for betraying and ‘selling’ Abu Zubaida to ISI and US.
Some analysts present David Headley’s case –an American citizen with alleged links with Lashkar as well as CIA –as a catalyst to prove that Lashkar has now global reach and next time a Mumbai style attack may occur ‘not in India but in Manhattan’. A question arises that why these experts and analysts ignore the fact that David Headley was working with Lashkar-e-Taiba since 2003. It was very easy for Lashkar to use Headley and his contacts in US to plan and execute an attack on American soil. Headley’s plea agreement clearly shows that an attack on US or other western countries was never even discussed. Headley only confessed to plan an attack on Danish newspaper. It is an exceptional case as the Danish newspaper committed a crime against the whole Ummah and anyone at anytime can go at any extreme in this cartoon-controversy.
There is a need to view Headley case from another perspective. While Al-Qaeda uses all its available human resource against western targets, Lashkar-e-Taiba succeeded in utilizing a western human resource against its prime enemy India. Think for a while that if David Headley was affiliated with Al-Qaeda what would have happened? A man with American passport, travelling freely across the world, having blessing of some US intelligence agencies –Al-Qaeda would have loved to use him against Pentagon or CIA headquarters or NATO headquarters in Brussels instead of asking him to scout Mumbai.
Virginia Jihad Network also proves that Lashkar is not interested in attacking US or the west. In this case, some American Muslims with Pakistani and Arab origins were allegedly involved in helping Lashkar-e-Taiba for its war against India. US had to enact an old law to convict them because they were not found guilty of harming US citizens. US government accused them that they were trying to harm a US ally. The sentencing of half dozen Muslims was highly criticized by human rights groups.
Pakistani experts on militancy also disagree with the hypothesis of a section of western press and US politicians that Lashkar-e-Taiba is a global threat. These Pakistani experts are not ready to buy the ideas that Al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba are one and same, and that ‘Lashkar is next Al-Qaeda’. Hamid Mir, a leading Pakistani journalist who interviewed Osama Bin Laden more than twice, while commenting on the article of Newsweek magazine in which Lashkar is presented as Next Al-Qaeda, said, “The author of the Newsweek’s article deliberately ignored certain facts to prove his point. Hafiz Muhammad publically condemns suicide bombings and killings of innocent non-Muslims while al-Qaeda does not condemn suicide bombings or killings of innocent people. Jamat-ud-Dawah works in rural Sindh province to help Christians and Hindus but the author of the article mentioned only its relief activities in Kashmir. Lashkar is not like Al-Qaeda.”
Another leading Pakistani journalist and expert on militancy Amir Zia, who works with SAMA TV and News Line Magazine, while talking to the author of this article, said, “Lashkar always remained a Kashmir focused group. It fights against Indian atrocities in Kashmir and tries to attack only military targets. After Mumbai attacks this perception prevailed that this group may become a threat to the west but for me it agenda is limited to Kashmir and India”
Defense analyst and a professor at renowned Quad-e-Azam University Islamabad commented on the issue from a different angle and said “It will be premature to say that Lashkar is a bigger threat than Al-Qaeda. The situation is a bit complex. The group is in evolution process. It works in different forms. It also works in the name of Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation to focus on relief activities. There can be some nexus between some old members of the group but as a whole, the group is not focused on the west. It tries to adopt same line as that of the government of Pakistan. Hafiz Saeed now has started to take up political issues between the two countries.”
Indeed Lashkar is a real threat to India and it is capable of bringing India and Pakistan to war. This indirectly may affect US interests in the region, as it wants Pakistan’s total focus on its western border. Pakistan can use its influence to keep this group away from any Mumbai style attacks inside India but trying to crush this ‘bunch of savages’ as demanded by anti-Pakistan US senator Gary Ackerman may become counterproductive.
Lashkar is not occupying any specific territory just as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan did in Sawat and Waziristan. It is impossible to launch a military operation against the group in Pakistan. If India with its hundreds of thousands of troops stationed in Kashmir could not control a few thousand fighters of Lashkar, how can Pakistan control millions of its supporters across the country? The government of Pakistan can only take administrative measures which it has already taken by arresting 7 top commanders of Lashkar and trying them in an anti terror court.
During current strategic dialogue, US officials demanded actions against Lashkar and its leaders. US are very much concerned on the issue. Nevertheless, Pakistan will have to think of its own interests. While Pakistan cannot support a militant group but it also cannot create another Tehreek-e-Taliban in Pakistan. The strategy of crushing the militants is no longer working and the world is compelled to find ways to peruse Afghan Taliban for dialogue.
Although Pro India senator Gary Ackerman is trying to convince US policy makers that resolution of Kashmir issue will not satisfy Lashkar-e-Taiba but the reality is that Kashmir resolution will end the reasons for Lashkar and other groups fighting in Kashmir to take up arms. On January 17, 2009, Lashkar itself made it categorically clear that it will lay down arms if Kashmir issue is peacefully resolved. Its spokesperson Dr. Abdullah Ghaznavi had said “Our struggle is only confined to Kashmir and we have no relations or association with armed groups operating at international level. We have no global agenda. We just want freedom of Kashmir and if it comes peacefully we will welcome it. We don’t see armed struggle as the only way to achieve our goal. If the world listens to our cries and play its role in resolving the Kashmir issue there would be no reason for is to fight.” (Greater Kashmir)
One can argue that it is just a political statement of Lashkar to mislead the world opinion. Of course, it can be a political statement but if Kashmir issue is resolved then groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba will no longer enjoy sympathies of Pakistan. If the west really wants to contain Lashkar, it should ask India to come out of the fear that if it gives up Kashmir the whole India will disintegrate. A nation of more than a billion citizens should not be fearful from giving people their due rights. Boiling Kashmir will spoil the Indian dreams of becoming a permanent member of UNSC. For its growth and prosperity, India must adopt a conflict free policy in the region. This will make the Indian market secure for the western investors. So the west in general, and US and UK in particular, should come forward and help India in resolving Kashmir issue instead of pressing Pakistan for no long-term benefits.
The author of this report is an expert on militancy and regional security.