US Fear Of The LeT
- Could match Al Qaeda’s capabilities for global terror, even replace it
- The Headley episode has shown that there could be sleeper cells in the US
- Said to be present in 17 countries now
- Its members are adopting an anti-western agenda
- Has stronger societal roots than even Al Qaeda, therefore better suited to recruit jihadists and do fundraising across the Islamic world
- Strong demands that the US should act against Lashkar even if Pakistan is unwilling
For years, the United States wished away the Lashkar-e-Toiba as an Indian concern, erroneously believing that the militant group based in Pakistan lacked the capability and ambition to launch minatory attacks thousands of miles away. But, in a belated awakening, Washington is now gradually realising that the Lashkar poses a mortal threat to its interests as well. Prompting the rethink here is the infamous case of David Headley, which stoked fears about LeT sleeper cells in the US. The indisputable evidence of LeT fingerprints on a spate of plots—from Afghanistan to Denmark and Bangladesh—has elicited an acknowledgment in Washington that the LeT perhaps possesses an ability to spread global terror matching Al Qaeda’s.
This changing perception has been expressed through a string of events in the past few months. In March, US officials voiced their concerns about the LeT and its founder, Hafeez Mohammed Saeed, in meetings with their Pakistani counterparts, particularly underlining the grroup’s links with the isi. As early as last November, President Barack Obama wrote a letter to his Pakistani counterpart, Asif Ali Zardari, mentioning the LeT among the militant groups against whom his government should act. Since then, voices against the LeT have only burgeoned. For instance, Admiral Robert Willard, commander of the US Pacific Command, talked about the LeT’s “dangerously” expanding influence at a congressional hearing on March 26. He said, “Right now our concern is the movement of LeT, the terrorist group that emanates from Pakistan that was responsible for the Mumbai attacks, and specifically their positioning in Bangladesh and Nepal, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.”
Admiral Willard isn’t the only official keeping tabs on the LeT’s growing tentacles. At a US senate intelligence committee hearing in February, director of national intelligence Dennis Blair said LeT is now “becoming more of a direct threat” and is “placing Western targets in Europe in its sights”. Its “willingness to attack Jewish interests and locations visited by Westerners,” Blair said, “raise[s] concerns that either the group itself or individual members will more actively embrace an anti-Western agenda.” It’s little wonder that Daniel Benjamin, coordinator for counter-terrorism at the state department, admitted in a January speech at the Cato Institute: “Very few things worry me as much as the strength and ambition of LeT.”
Even some members of Congress are perturbed. In March, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia held for the first time a specific hearing on LeT’s growing ambitions. Among those who testified before lawmakers was Marvin Weinbaum, a South Asia expert at the Middle East Institute, who told Outlook, “The very fact that there was a hearing on LeT is all the evidence you need that Congress has got the message.” Weinbaum told lawmakers that Washington’s focus on Al Qaeda has prevented it from taking into account those organisations capable of replacing and even surpassing it as a terrorist threat worldwide. The LeT is the leading candidate for such a role. “It exceeds Al Qaeda in its capacity for recruitment and fundraising across the Islamic world. Unlike Al Qaeda, LeT has strong societal roots and enjoys the protection of the state,” explains Weinbaum, pointing out that the group now has a presence in 17 countries.
Others, though, say Washington has been keeping quiet tabs on LeT since 9/11. For instance, K. Alan Kronstadt, a South Asian affairs expert at the Congressional Research Service, points out that soon after the Indian Parliament was attacked in December 2001, the Bush administration branded the LeT as a ‘Foreign Terrorist Organisation’. The following year Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah was nabbed from an LeT safehouse in Faisalabad. Kronstadt, therefore, says, “LeT was shown to have close ties to Al Qaeda...and so at this point became itself a focus of US counter-terrorism attention.” Similarly, Bruce Riedel, a terrorism expert who reviewed Obama’s Af-Pak policy, says the Lashkar “has been America’s problem for over a decade since it aspires to create war between India and Pakistan, a war that would be devastating to our interests. It certainly has been our problem since Mumbai when it killed American citizens.”
Yet, nearly nine years after 9/11, America has failed to goad the Pakistani military leadership into severing ties between the isi and LeT, a link which has decidedly boosted the group’s striking capabilities. Pakistan did arrest seven LeT operatives who allegedly masterminded the Mumbai massacre, but doubts persist whether they will be fully prosecuted. As Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation says, “Pakistan does not necessarily have a stellar record in bringing to book terrorists who have acted against India.”
Pakistan’s reluctance to disable the LeT is the reason why Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace thinks the US and its allies should act against the LeT if Islamabad does not. As Tellis told lawmakers in his deposition, “Doing so may be increasingly necessary not simply to prevent a future Indo-Pakistani crisis, but more importantly to protect the US, its citizens, its interests, and its allies.” He wants the US to stop pretending that LeT is an actor independent of the Pakistani state.
Many in Washington, says Kronstadt, are mulling the question: Is LeT still a part of the Pakistani army’s strategy to counter India? “Is the leadership of Pakistan’s security institutions willing to recognise the severe costs of manipulating religious extremism as a foreign policy tool? There has been some stark progress regarding the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and now the Afghan Taliban, but the jury seems to be out on India-oriented groups,” argues Kronstadt.
Curtis, however, has no doubt about Islamabad’s persisting patronage of LeT, citing the anti-India public rallies LeT founder Hafiz Saeed has been allowed to hold recently. She explains, “Pakistani military hardliners are reluctant to rein in a group they believe is helpful in undermining Indian influence and power in the region. These hardliners believe it’s possible to calibrate the activities of the LeT in a way that keeps India off kilter yet does not provoke Indian military retaliation against Pakistan.”
Perhaps Washington realises the need to defang the LeT before it becomes an unbridled monster. For instance, at the congressional hearing, member of the US House of Representatives Gary Ackerman urged fellow lawmakers to take up the battle cry against LeT. “This group of savages needs to be crushed,” he told them. “We’re not doing it, and we’re not effectively leading a global effort to do it. And we’re going to regret this mistake. We’re going to regret it bitterly.”