There is some indication that the India-Pakistan dialogue, frozen since the terrorist attack in Mumbai in November 2008, is set to resume. However, there is also, more ominously, intelligence that the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and other Pakistan-based militant groups are planning the next big-ticket terrorist attack against India.
The LeT, arguably the most lethal among the mélange of India-oriented terrorist groups based in Pakistan, has regrouped rather well, despite the global censure in the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Mumbai on November 26, 2008 (26/11). While it continues to maintain a relatively low profile in Pakistan’s heartland Punjab (where it is headquartered), its paraphernalia in Sindh, Balochistan, the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Waziristan are both intact and visible. Crucially, recent intelligence indicates, the LeT’s infrastructure in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK), is, in fact, expanding rapidly. While Islamabad’s sham ‘crackdown’ against the LeT after the carnage in Mumbai led to a momentary displacement of its mobile training camps, the outfit has, in the months since then, reorganized rather effectively, especially in PoK – the launching ground for the Kashmir jihad.
Along with the Lashkar, all the other militant groups waging the Kashmir jihad are currently active in PoK. According to the latest assessment of the Multi-Agency Centre (MAC), the nodal agency for all terror-related intelligence under the Union Ministry of Home Affairs in New Delhi, there are 34 ‘active’ and eight ‘holding’ camps operational across the border in Pakistan. The Northern Areas (Gilgit-Baltistan) and Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) have 17 ‘active’ and four ‘holding or dormant’ camps each, according to the MAC assessment, based on inputs from different security agencies. An official disclosed that approximately 2,200 militants are present in these camps. After 26/11 many of these camps had emptied out or relocated. While some are currently back to their original status, new ones have also been formed. According to the MAC assessment, among the 2,200 militants in the 42 terrorist training camps in Pakistan, roughly 300 are affiliated to the Lashkar-e-Toiba, some 240 to Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), and around 130 to the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI), while the rest are reportedly of "mixed" allegiance.
- In PoK, the camps are located in Tattapani, Garhi Dupatta, Barnala, Sensa, Forward Kahutta, Peer Chinasi, Shavai Nallah, Bhimbher, Kotli, Skardu, Abdullah Bin Masud, Nikial, Gulpur, Samani and, Jhandi Chauntra, among others.
- Within the militancy-wracked NWFP, there are several seminaries which also function as terrorist training camps in the mountainous Manshera region. These include Jangal Mangal, Shinkiari, Andher Bela, and Jalo Gali. Elsewhere in the Frontier, there are camps located in Oghi, Boi, and Attar Shisha.
- Furthermore, there are also camps situated at other locations within Pakistan, including Muridke, Sialkot, Beesian, Garhi Habibullah and Jalogali.
- The Indian Army chief, General Deepak Kapoor, had stated, on March 25, 2009, that the LeT was attempting the biggest ever push of around 300 terrorists over the Line of Control (LoC) into India. "There are at least 300 militants waiting to crossover to our side over LOC," Kapoor said.
- "Terror infrastructure in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Pakistan remains intact and infiltration attempts by terrorists are continuing," Defence Minister A. K. Antony said in a written reply to a question in Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Parliament) on July 15, 2009.
PoK Police has claimed that the outlawed Jama’at-ud-Da’awa (JuD, the LeT front) is expanding its operations and recruitment in the region. A confidential report submitted to the Federal Government has revealed it had purchased 65 kanals (a kanal is equal to 0.125 acres or 605 square yards) of land in the Dulai area of Muzaffarabad, the PoK capital, to construct a mosque, a school and a dispensary, Daily Times reported on July 1. The PoK Inspector General of Police Javed Iqbal told a private TV channel that his force was ‘closely monitoring’ the group’s activities.
Outlawed groups, including the LeT and JeM, are expanding operations and recruitment in PoK, according to the region’s Police. According to a BBC report of June 30, a detailed assessment, submitted by the Police to the PoK Cabinet on March 25, 2009, states that three banned groups – Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), JeM and LeT – are active in Muzaffarabad. This is clear evidence (from within) of Pakistan’s deceit and the fake crackdown it organized after 26/11. The HuM and JeM are reportedly planning to open madrassas (seminaries) in Muzaffarabad, where the LeT is already operating a madrassa. "No officials are allowed to enter these premises to gather any sort of information...We fear these madrassas may be a cover for furthering militant activities," the BBC quoted the report as saying. However, Hafiz Abdur Rehman Makki, the Jama’at-ud-Da’awa deputy chief, told BBC that his group had not purchased any properties in PoK or been involved in any quarrel with locals.
- The Police report is believed to have mentioned how militant groups are increasing in size and number across PoK. It especially mentioned Neelum District, where the groups are said to be the most powerful.
- The report states the militants are involved in the logging of trees, the most lucrative commerce in the region. The militants have also reportedly set up offices at Kandal Shahi market in Neelum, where they have become a major law and order problem. For instance, the report mentioned an incident (no date or other details were given) which led to the killing of some locals and a resulting stand-off with the militants. "The situation was only resolved by the intervention of the local administrator and senior army officials," the report stated, adding that authorities should take up the matter with the "intelligence agency responsible for the militants".
Intelligence inputs and information revealed by some recently arrested militants in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) have indicated that the hitherto unaffected Tauheed hills, an isolated forest area of Muzaffarabad, has become a new militant hub, especially for recently inducted cadre of the LeT and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) outfits, Daily Excelsior reported on July 17, 2009. The camps here, being run with clandestine support of the Pakistan Army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), are being used for training militants in the handling of sophisticated weapons and explosive devices. Sources indicate that at least 200 militants each of the LeT and HM are receiving training from commanders of the two groups in Tauheed hills, located about 40 to 50 kilometers north-west of Muzaffarabad. According to Intelligence inputs, youth from Pakistan’s NWFP and Peshawar areas were among the trainees in various PoK camps, including Tauheed hills.
''Trust me, the ISI has other hits in mind,'' US analyst Ralph Peters remarks, echoing reports from various quarters in India about another and imminent terrorist attack. The United Nations (UN) has also indicated that the LeT is planning to target India again. "LeT tactics are quite obvious. It is trying to increase tensions between India and Pakistan at a time when they and their associates are particularly under pressure in western Pakistan," said Richard Barrett, Coordinator of the UN Security Council’s Al Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions Monitoring Committee, in New York on July 15. "They may do that again," Barrett asserted, adding that "this is the real risk".
Seven months since 26/11, intelligence reports indicate high probabilities of another attack on India. Sources disclose that there is specific intelligence which points directly to the LeT. Apart from Hindu targets (temples, right-wing politicians, offices of right-wing groups, etc.), intelligence sources in New Delhi said States in south India are particularly vulnerable, because the LeT is known to be working on plans to attack soft targets in these States.
Official sources also revealed that six terrorist plots by the LeT have been foiled since 26/11. Of these, two were thwarted in Jammu and Kashmir and one module had targeted the national capital, New Delhi.
Notwithstanding significant global censure and scrutiny, the LeT leadership at Muridke and Lahore and its operational commanders in PoK are undoubtedly planning another spectacular attack in India. Intelligence sources said Zarar Shah and Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, the LeT leaders currently ‘in prison’, have unimpeded access to communications, facilitating the planning process. The bogus crackdown against the outfit in PoK and elsewhere has done nothing to diminish its operational capabilities. In fact, Indian security agencies have identified new LeT modules in Nepal and Bangladesh as well as in India, a clear indication of augmenting Lashkar capabilities, as well as of potential terrorist attacks on Indian soil. Crucially, all of this is clearly happening under the tutelage of the outfit’s handlers in Pakistan’s security agencies, including the ISI.
Intelligence available with the home ministry suggests that the next terrorist attack in India could even be executed from the air. Among the plausible targets for the Pakistan-based terrorist groups, including the LeT, are key defence establishments, including the INS Viraat, India’s lone aircraft carrier, and VVIPs. One of the many intercepts recently made by a central intelligence agency indicated that top Lashkar leaders, including its communications cell chief Zarar Shah, had been analysing India’s helicopter charter services, especially those in south India. The intercept reportedly suggested that the LeT was considering using a chartered flight, among other available options, to launch attacks. The intercept also indicated that a hired/hijacked charter flight could be used to target airports and VVIPs. The ministry has consequently alerted around 100 operators of air charter services across the country.
Further, at least 15 militants are reportedly being trained in PoK to target the 450 MW Baglihar Hydroelectric Power Project (built on River Chenab in Ramban District of J&K) and a secret tunnel is being dug from Sialkot to connect PoK with J&K, two arrested LeT militants revealed, on July 12, 2009. The two terrorists, Mohammad Shafakat and Mohammad Adnan, were arrested from the Shamashabari forest in Kupwara District. The duo, residents of Chinchawatni revenue division in Sahiwal District of Punjab in Pakistan, also said the secret tunnel must have been completed by now. Adnan later revealed to Times Now that teenagers from poor households are being brainwashed to wage Pakistan's proxy war against India. Adnan said he was 18 years-old and that there were 20 to 30 boys in his group who were trained along with him at Muzaffarabad.
There is also some evidence that militant groups are using the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad trade route for hawala transactions intended for their cadre in J&K. A July 10, 2009, report indicated that a leading businessman in Srinagar, the J&K capital, had been arrested by the Police for alleged hawala payments to over-ground workers of a militant outfit, in lieu of goods received from PoK via the Kaman Bridge. Police sources said the businessman paid Rs 1,000,000 in three transactions. The Police are also examining records of eight other businessmen, who they suspect made similar hawala payments. Cross-LoC trade, which currently operates on a barter system, came under the Police scanner after the arrest of over-ground workers of a militant group in Sopore, who subsequently confessed they received Rs 1,000,000 from a Srinagar businessman in three different instalments. Sources said the trader received consignments worth Rs 3,000,000 from Chikoti in Muzaffarabad, but sent goods worth Rs 2,000,000 to PoK. The trader was instructed by his Pakistani counterpart to hand over the remaining Rs 1,000,000 to the over-ground workers.
While Pakistan has initiated some action against renegade militant groups like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which direct their ire against Islamabad, jihadi groups that target India have escaped state action, despite the global pressure. In fact, the US has, to a significant extent, winked at this duplicity, on the logic that groups like the LeT and JeM are not targeting the US. This is clearly an irrational perception, since the militant groups in Pakistan – be it the TTP, Al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, LeT, JeM, or others – have the same ideological worldview, and are integrally interlinked. These linkages and common ideological ground underpin the essential logic and dynamic of their operations. Appallingly, the current US administration has failed to exert adequate pressure on Pakistan to bring to justice the Lashkar operatives, including outfit chief Hafiz Mohammed Saeed and Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, who orchestrated 26/11, despite the fact that three Americans were killed and two injured in the attack. Significantly, Juan Zarate, the Deputy National Security Adviser for counter-terrorism in the Bush administration, had told Chicago Tribune in March 2009 that "We are and should be concerned about the threat LeT poses, given its global network… It doesn’t just reside in South Asia. It is an organisation that has potential reach all over the world, including the US." Bruce Riedel, chairman of the Obama administration’s Pakistan-Afghanistan strategy review team, stated that he believed a "global jihadist syndicate" of disaffected young Pakistanis was the most likely mechanism for launching an attack on US soil. Clearly, the US engagement with Pakistan on prosecuting the war on terror without any action on groups like the LeT will prove fruitless.
Amidst all this, a significant incident in PoK brought the region into sharp focus. On June 26, 2009, a suicide bomber killed two soldiers when he blew himself up near an Army vehicle, in the first such attack in PoK. The military stated that another three soldiers were injured in the early morning bombing at the Army barracks at Shaukat Lines in Muzaffarabad, the PoK capital. The junior section of the Army Public School, several other educational institutions, and the 5-AK Brigade headquarters are located in the area where the attack took place. The 18-year old suicide bomber has since been identified as Abid, a TTP militant from Waziristan. Muzaffarabad is now getting a taste of its own medicine.
Hakimullah Mehsud, a deputy of the TTP chief Baitullah Mehsud, told AP that the attack was launched to prove that Baitullah had not been weakened by more than a week of military strikes on his suspected hideouts in South Waziristan Agency. "We are in a position to respond to the Army’s attacks, and time will prove that these military operations have not weakened us," Hakimullah declared. A Police Officer told Dawn on June 27 that the Army installation had probably been attacked to give a message to the authorities that militants could expand their area of operation and hit Security Forces anywhere. The barracks fall under the 5-AK Brigade of the Azad Kashmir (AK) Regiment which is reportedly taking part in the operation against militants in Swat and adjoining areas.
The first suicide bombing on the Pakistan Army in PoK was certainly not anticipated by authorities. None of the militants groups in PoK, which concentrate largely on India and remain Islamabad’s strategic assets, have ever launched attacks on Pakistani targets. More importantly, groups like the LeT and JeM are believed to have operational links with the TTP. There is a strong possibility that the TTP has now decided to up the ante by targeting the Pakistan Army in PoK to generate instability in a region that is crucial for Pakistan in its terrorist campaign and proxy war against India. The underlying idea is to try and open another front for Islamabad in PoK, in order to ease the pressure in FATA and the Frontier. However, the TTP would incline to calibrating its operations in PoK, in order not to invite hostility from its jihadi brethren in the region. Islamabad, consequently, is not expected to be unduly troubled by the suicide bombing in Muzaffarabad.
Nevertheless, political groups like the United Kashmir People’s National Party have called on Pakistani authorities to take pre-emptive measures to stop the spread of Talibanisation in PoK. There is also some evidence that militants from PoK are fighting in the NWFP and Tribal Areas of Pakistan. For instance, 34-year-old Muhammad Owais and 30-year-old Ubaidullah, of the militant group Ghazi Force (named after the slain Lal Masjid cleric Ghazi Abdul Rasheed and active primarily in the Hangu District of NWFP) were arrested by the Islamabad Police on July 13, 2009. The two are accused of recruiting young men from Islamabad and PoK for training at terrorist camps.
There is little evidence of coherent action against the terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan, and state agencies remain deeply embroiled with a number of terrorist proxies, even while they fight groupings that have turned renegade, and that are now attacking targets within the country. Pakistan’s continuing support to externally oriented terrorist formations, however, is creating the very spaces within which groups that target Islamabad flourish. Unless the Pakistani state entirely abandons the instrumentalisation of jihadi terror as a strategic tool, neither the country nor the wider region can hope for any possibilities of peace.
Kanchan Lakshman is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management; Assistant Editor, Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal