Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba
Rs 550 pp 385
A few months after the 9/11 attacks, a French convert to Islam named Willie Brigitte attended a terrorist training camp in the mountains of Pakistan. His fellow recruits were Pakistanis and Afghans, as well as men from Somalia, Britain and the Gulf states. The camp was run by the terrorist organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), but some of the instructors were Pakistani soldiers on detachment, and military material was dropped from army helicopters.
Several times, officials came to the camp to check that no foreign jihadis were present. When this happened, Brigitte and the other itinerant foreigners would be tipped off in advance and hide out in the woods surrounding the camp.
When LeT was finally banned in 2002 under American pressure, it had already shifted its financial assets into a charitable trust at the instigation of the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence. Its military wing would only be used for operations against India in Kashmir — which was permitted. Yet before long they were organising other terror attacks, including the 2008 massacre in Mumbai that killed 166 people.
In Storming the World Stage, Stephen Tankel provides the most detailed and impressive account yet of the development of this organisation, created initially under Pakistan’s aegis but now increasingly a thorn in its side. It began as an outfit in the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan in the early 1980s and, after many splits, became a significant force in Pakistan. Because it followed the Ahl-e-Hadith (a comparatively small school or sect which wants a pristine version of Islam) the ISI thought it would be a more pliant proxy than some other more mainstream militant groups. As part of this arrangement, LeT had to swear never to turn its guns on the Pakistani state.
Although it remains a semi-detached creature of the ISI, LeT has grown into something unlike its terrorist competitors. It has a talent for running safe houses and getting people out of fixes. According to its leader Hafiz Saeed: “Since our life revolves around Islam, therefore both dawa and jihad are essential, we cannot prefer one over the other.” By ‘dawa’, he means social service, charity and religious proselytising. And this is at least as large a part of his organisation’s purpose as fighting against what he calls, “the evil trio, America, Israel and India.”
The result is a empire consisting of a large vegetable farm near Lahore with shops, mosques, science and language schools (including a girls’ school), student hostels, a computer lab and a teaching hospital. Then it has an internet radio station — Radio al-Jihad — and a well-developed mobile medical service which has been invaluable at times like the 2005 earthquake, or when reams of refugees fled from Swat. Wrestling, swimming, martial arts and mountain climbing are part of the curriculum, and the muscular culture extends into the classroom. In one textbook, ‘c’ is for cat becomes ‘c’ is for cannon, and ‘g’ is for goat becomes ‘g’ is for gun.
What should Pakistan’s leaders do about this scenario, where a terror group that wishes to fight unbelievers “until Islam emerges victorious” operates in plain sight? Using Kashmir as a bridgehead, it hopes to restore Muslim rule in the subcontinent. Saeed is dead serious in his ambitions. In May, he led a rally to condemn the US for the killing of the al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Another LeT luminary argues (on the basis of slim textual authority) that the Prophet Muhammad singled out India as a special target for jihad, since Hindus are “the worst of the polytheists.”
The substantial power of the LeT stems from the strategy pursued by the Pakistani military over several decades. It has three prongs. The first is, in its way, logical: that Pakistan should acquire and maintain nuclear weapons to offset India’s conventional advantage on the battlefield. The second is ‘strategic depth’ — namely that Islamabad should, as far as possible, run ‘assets’ in Afghanistan so as to ensure Pakistan is never encircled by India. Perhaps this interventionist strategy made sense once upon a time, but increasingly it has promoted regional instability. The third is to encourage insurgency in Kashmir so as to ‘bleed’ India. LeT — and the accompanying carnage — has been a central aspect of this strategy.
Pakistan is a large country, with many different interest groups. The army’s violent and blundering foreign policy has not been endorsed by Pakistani voters, although it has become an article of faith and is quickly impressed upon whichever civilian politician happens to be in government. As an ISI officer told Tankel, “Who benefits if we go after the Lashkar? India. And who pays? Pakistan.” So the threat remains.
Patrick French is the author of India: A Portrait. A version of this review first appeared in London’s Sunday Times