Ten years ago, the Indian financial capital Mumbai, saw its worst terror attack in the city’s history, and perhaps the country’s history. The attack carried out by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operatives from Pakistan went on for four days, starting on 26 November, and left over 160 people dead.
One of the terrorists, Ajmal Kasab, was caught alive, and revealed in subsequent investigations how the LeT planned, organised and executed the deadly act. Ten men had arrived from Pakistan via sea, disembarking from Karachi city, and landing on a beach in Mumbai.
The Indian authorities hanged Kasab, the lone survivor of the attack in 2012. The Americans also caught another person involved in the attacks, David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani-origin American, who confessed that he had done reconnaissance missions in Mumbai prior to the attacks, and had shared this information with those organising the attacks. Headley is currently serving a 35-year sentence in an American prison.
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While the Indians and Americans have been able to punish the perpetrators, Pakistan– which serves as the headquarters for terrorist group LeT– has done very little to punish those involved, despite international and domestic pressure.
Different Names, Same Organisation
On paper, LeT is banned in Pakistan since 2002, but it operates under different names today in the country and continues to find recruits, carry out cross-border terrorism from Pakistan and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, and expand its footprint in Pakistan without much hindrance.
Right after the Mumbai attacks, in December 2008, Pakistan arrested the mastermind behind it, Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi. Lakhvi was kept behind bars until 2015, when the courts ordered his release due to insufficient evidence presented against him.
Lakhvi is said to be in charge of LeT in Pakistan and is a close associate of Hafiz Saeed, who founded LeT in the late eighties. Hafiz Saeed publicly disassociated himself from LeT and launched Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), which he professes is a charity organisation. However, both local and international authorities believe JuD is a front for LeT. The United States has even offered a $10 million reward for information that can lead to Saeed’s conviction for the Mumbai attacks.
Post 26/11, JuD came under international scrutiny too and was designated a global terrorist group by the United Nations. Following this, Pakistan also took some cosmetic measures against it; but the group once again relaunched under a new name called Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation. Even that has been exposed and since then it is suspected to have come up with another new name called Tehreek-e-Azadi Jammu and Kashmir.
But Why Does Pakistan Fail to Contain This Movement?
Many point to its linkages with the Pakistan military. It is suspected that LeT enjoys support from the so-called parallel shadow government, and the real policy makers of the country: the Pakistan Army. Therefore, evidences against the group are rare to come by, and there is very little that the civilian authorities can do, even if they want to take action against the group.
In 2015, Tariq Khosa, the former head of Pakistan’s leading civilian law enforcement agency called the Federal Investigation Authority, wrote how there was enough evidence that his organisation had uncovered against the LeT operating from a camp near the city of Karachi. Despite that, no one in Pakistan has been convicted to date in the Mumbai attacks trials, which continue to linger on without any meaningful progress for the last nine years.
In an interview this year, when Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif posed a question to the reporter asking why the Mumbai attack trials had not concluded and why militants were being allowed to cross the border and kill people, Pakistani courts initiated a treason case against the former premier and the journalist who published the interview, for defaming national institutions.
LeT is not the only Indian-focused militant group on Pakistani soil. There are others like Hizbul Mujahideen and Jaish-e-Mohammad too. Why do these groups exist?
Observers say it is to serve the strategic foreign policy purposes of the Pakistani military which wants to keep the Kashmir conflict militarised, so that the Armed Forces’ relevance and dominance in Pakistan continues to remain unchallenged – because as long as there is a conflict with the next-door neighbour, the Pakistan army will be able to justify its budgets, its interference in political matters and its human rights abuses in the name of security.
Recently, the military has also started using the LeT’s charity wing, JuD, for domestic political purposes. The JuD launched the Milli Muslim League (MML), and its backed candidates contested the recent general elections.
While a former military general alluded that the group was introduced to politics to mainstream militants, the real reason many believe they were introduced in Punjab, Pakistan is to dent the vote bank of the last ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz faction (PMLN). The military believes the PMLN is harmful for its interests as it wants to normalise relations with India.
The Modus Operandi of LeT, JuD etc
But it is not just state support the LeT seems to enjoy in Pakistan. The group also seems to enjoy popularity among the population, partly because it can operate freely in many parts of the country, but mainly because these regions are areas where vulnerable Pakistanis are looking for subsistence, given lack of income, and at times, due to circumstances that have forced them to look for help. Also, the local Pakistani media reports on the movement favourably, projecting it as a welfare organisation.
I have followed the group closely during my reporting missions in the country and have seen how they run a strong network of charity organisations. In one such reporting trip to South Punjab, I saw Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation, one of the fronts of LeT, helping out the flood-affected by bringing them food and providing them shelter. When I asked one of the organisers about their motive behind the help, the organiser told me it was to find recruits among this population for their movement, adding how many households in such rural populations had large families, with too many children.
“Next year, when such affected families are back on their feet and do not need our help anymore, we come back and ask them to help us by dedicating one of their children to our movement. They want lesser mouths to feed so we offer to take their child under our wing, and since we are an Islamic organisation, they know this will also earn them a reward from Allah.”Organiser, Falah-e-Insaniat
When I had first learnt of how they were brainwashing youngsters in this manner, I had mentioned it to a serving Pakistani military intelligence official that I knew as a source.
But what he responded with shocked me. LeT, JuD etc or whatever name they may have, he told me, “these are external looking militant organisations”, and apparently as long as that was the case, the military seems to be okay with them, he had explained.
Coming Back to Bite Pakistan
But this policy of allowing “external-looking” militancy to continue to exist has come back to haunt the country. In recent times, many former LeT operatives have joined other terrorist organisations like the ISIS, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi etc, and now consider Pakistan a target too and have carried out terror attacks on Pakistani soil.
Pakistan’s policy makers must realise that by allowing such groups to continue operating in the country and thinking the country will remain safe from them is not the way forward.
The Pakistani military repeatedly says it is committed to fighting terrorism and bringing peace. But if that is true, one of the right steps in that direction should include an actual crackdown against groups like the LeT. To start with, Pakistan should punish those involved in the Mumbai attacks and then also dismantle its infrastructure in the country. Otherwise, its commitment to peace in the South Asian region looks doubtful.