The latest US export to India: Lashkar terrorists. After a hiatus of four years, Lashkar-e -Tayyeba is once again back to recruiting Western Muslims for the Pakistan terror outfit’s jihad against India.
The arrest of Lashkar recruit, David Coleman Headley, just as he was boarding a flight to Mumbai is the second time a Lashkar cell has been unearthed this year in the United States. Headley’s confession indicates Lashkar won him over with a pan-Islamic agenda but really wanted him for its war on India.
US law enforcement agents swooping down on a Lashkar cell became an almost annual event after 9/11. The biggest module to be rolled up was the Virginia jihad network in 2004 which saw 10 arrests. Until this year, it was also the last such bust.For a few years, Lashkar’s operations in the US were on ice. RAW’s former Pakistan expert, B. Raman, says, "After such a major
It may have helped that Pervez Musharraf also decided to put a lid on Lashkar’s work during those years. The interregnum was short-lived. As the FBI’s intercepts of Headley make clear, Lashkar began trawling for foreign jihadis by 2006.
It is seems evident that what attracted them to Headley was his appearance.
Only half-Pakistani, he could pass as a white American. His Pakistani handlers had him take his mother’s maiden name to muddy his profile further.
“The previous Lashkar recruits in the US were allowed to keep their Muslim names. This is a new modus operandi,” says Raman. In the past, Lashkar has used mountain passes, Indian Muslims and boats to gets its fighters into India. It now seeks to strike from a Western flank.
Most Indian analysts say Lashkar, reflecting its close relationship with the Pakistan military’s Inter-Services Intelligence, remains obsessed with India. Its international network of funding and recruitment is a global means to a local end. Western counterterrorism officials agree.
Says one New York-based official, “I can’t say if they are moving away from target India — I would doubt it — but some think they are poised to expand.”
Rhetorically Lashkar is pan-Islamicist and indistinguishable from Al Qaeda.
Mohammed Hafiz Sayeed, its founder, has often declared his desire to “plant the flag of Islam” in “Delhi, Jerusalem and Washington.” Lashkar maintains a network of terrorist training camps in Pakistan which are open to foreign jihadis.
Most militants arrested around the world with reported links to Lashkar, say Indian officials, have only done a stint in a camp. Only a handful, such as Headley, are recruited into the Lashkar’s ranks — and they are directed at India.
It is Lashkar’s function as the gateway to terror training that troubles other countries the most. Reports abound of militants from many Arab countries, other South Asian countries and the West training under Lashkar’s aegis.
Says the New York-based official, “They have been identified as providing training to Western wannabe jihadis.” And no one doubts why Pakistan turns a blind eye to Lashkar’s camps: because it is seen as an instrument to pressure India.
However, Lashkar is not immune to the contradiction of preaching global jihad while serving as a proxy in a national rivalry. While its leadership has carefully avoided any attack on the West at the behest of the Pakistani military, the Lashkar’s rank and file make no such distinction.
Even Headley grumbled Lashkar had “rotten guts” because it shied from attacking the West. Unsurprisingly, the odd Lashkar man takes to the path of global jihad, a la Al Qaeda.
The French Islamicist Willie Brigitte who tried to set up a Lashkar cell in Australia was an example of a fighter who thought globally.
France’s former counterterrorism magistrate, Jean-Louis Brugurie, who interrogated Brigitte, recently said, “Lashkar is no longer a Pakistani movement with only a Kashmir political or military agenda…Lashkar has decided to expand violence worldwide.”
The distinction between Lashkar, the Taliban and Al Qaeda is blurring. Terrorism commentator Bill Roggio says, “I view it like the Mafia. You have the families. They all do their own thing. But they’ll work together when they need to.”
Some believe Lashkar has already crossed the line. For example, it issued a little noticed 2007 death sentence against Pope Benedict. Says South Asia expert Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation, “We can no longer deny that Lashkar is an international threat. There is a report they may have planned an attack on a US mission in Bangladesh.”
A turning point was the attack on the American Jewish guesthouse during 26/11. “Until then, Lashkar had studiously avoided attacking American targets in or outside the US,” says Raman.
Rohan Gunaratne, author of Inside Al Qaeda, argues the attack was a fallout of Islamabad’s attempts to distance itself from Lashkar. If so, this is a Catch-22: the more the world gets Pakistan to turn on Lashkar the more Lashkar will turn to Al Qaeda.
Headley will not be the last Lashkar attempt at a profiling-resistant terrorist. But by present trends, and as the US involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan becomes more bloody, it will not be long before Lashkar cells in the US no longer distinguish between Target India and Target USA.
(With inputs from Rohan Koshy)