Inside Lashkar HQs in Pakistan, where Hafiz Saeed trained 26/11 attackers
Two weeks after 10 gun-wielding terrorists brought India’s financial capital to its knees, I was dialling the headquarters of the Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan’s Muridke, a short drive out of the city of Lahore. By then, it was clear that the LeT was behind the attacks that killed and maimed large numbers of people. By then, Ajmal Kasab, the lone terrorist to be captured alive, had told his interrogators about his training in Muridke. He also gave details of his interactions with the Lashkar founder, Hafiz Saeed.
I had a visa to Pakistan and the only story worth telling was from Ground Zero. No Indian journalist had been allowed into the sprawling complex on the outskirts of Lahore. And so, I was dialling Abdullah Muntazir’s number. Publicity is vital oxygen for terror groups but Muntazir was not taking calls from an Indian number even though he was the person in charge of speaking to the international media. He had guided a group of foreign journalists through the complex at which Kasab had trained but no Indian was part of that entourage.
Was I being unreasonable in thinking that the Lashkar – which by then had changed its name to Jamaat-ud-Dawaah – would open its gates to an “enemy” journalist? After reaching Lahore, I called Muntazir from a local number but hit a dead end. He would not take calls.
Full coverage: 10 years since 26/11 Mumbai attacks
The next day I went to have lunch with a powerful former minister in the Nawaz Sharif government. I had met him several times over the years; I mentioned that I wanted to visit the LeT headquarters. I was surprised when he said: “I’ll try and help out. They owe me one. They have often called for help when their associates have been picked up the police.” The nexus between the state and non-state actors was clear. A former minister was conceding the connection. He picked up his phone and called someone. Even before I finished lunch with the former Pakistan minister, a group of men was waiting in the anteroom.
The same Muntazir who refused to take my calls was soon guiding me through the headquarters. “We can’t say no to you,” the group had told the former Pakistan minister.
“You are in an educational complex and the Jamaat-ud-Dawaah is a charitable organisation, but you are from India so it will take you time to change your mind,” Muntazir said the following morning, as he guided me through the complex where Kasab had trained.
The guided tour took me through a neatly laid out 60-bed hospital, schools for boys and girls, a madrasa, a mosque, an extravagantly large swimming pool and a guest house.
I did not go there thinking I’d see firing ranges or target shooting in progress, but the tour itself was surreal. As I walked through the neatly trimmed lawns, passing the hostel, mosque, and the hospital, the conversation was dotted with words such as terrorism, Lashkar, and in my case, Kashmir. Apart from Muntazir, I had another guide: Khalid Waleed, the son-in-law of Hafiz Saeed.
Even though the gates were opened to dispel the impression of Muridke being the training camp that “India has made it out to be”, the conversation was not about the school syllabus but wholly about how India was the enemy.
Muntazir and Waleed did not deny the fact that Kasab ‘schooled’ in Muridke.
So, did Kasab study here, in Muridke, I asked, pointedly?
“Even if he did, we are not responsible for what any one of our students does after passing out.”
Do you support the Lashkar-e-Taiba?
“We used to.”
You used to?
“Yes, we were like-minded but the group was banned after Indian propaganda following the attack on its Parliament which was done by the Jaish-e-Mohammad and not the LeT. We use to provide logistical help to the Lashkar, collect funds for them and look after their publicity.”
Did you also provide them arms?
“They must have bought weapons with the money we gave them. They were obviously not using the money to buy flowers for the Indian army.”
Do you consider India an enemy?
“Without a doubt.”
“Your Amir, Hafiz Sayeed, has given calls for jihad.
“He supports the freedom movement in Kashmir. We think it is right. It is ridiculous to call him a terrorist. Even when a thorn pricks India, the whole world stands up.”
Does the ISI support you?
Ten years after 26/11, Saeed continues to be a free man. Only last month, the JuD was removed from the list of banned organisations.
Pakistan has steadfastly refused to investigate the various dossiers given to it by India, and the trial underway in an anti-terrorism court has been marked with repeated adjournments.
Dealing with LeT and its founder. Saeed, has been a vexed issue for the United States of America, too. It announced a $10-million bounty for Saeed in 2012 but has no answers for why the bounty has not been executed in six years, especially when the ‘professor of terror’ has been openly giving provocative speeches, threatening not just India, but the US as well. The US ambassador to India, Kenneth Juster, declined a comment on the matter.
America was also not keen on extraditing Pakistan-born American terrorist David Coleman Headley, who made elaborate videos of the targets that were attacked. All videos were given to his handlers and when interrogated by India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA), Headley said: “Every major action of the LeT is done only after the approval of Hafiz Saeed.” He also told the FBI and the NIA that 26/11 was possible only due to the full support of the ISI.
The families of Mumbai’s victims can only draw some solace from the fact that Ajmal Kasab was tried, convicted and hanged. The question of Pakistan allowing its soil to be used by terrorists, still hangs in balance. The Lashkar has the support of more than just ministers it can reach out to.