Prosecution of jihad commanders indicted by U.S. could spark war within Pakistan, authorities say

Pakistan has rejected calls by the United States to prosecute intelligence officers and top Lashkar-e-Taiba commanders indicted by a federal court for their role in the November, 2008 attack on Mumbai, a highly-placed diplomatic source has told The Hindu.

In meetings last month with Hillary Clinton, the United States Secretary of State, Pakistani officials said that action against the Lashkar could spark off a war within Pakistan.

“They said there were thousands, of trained cadre with the Lashkar who would become impossible to control if their leaders were arrested,” the source said. “Instead, they said they would maintain strict watch over the Lashkar, and slowly work to dismantle its military capabilities.”

Pakistani officials also protested against what they see as increasingly intrusive Central Intelligence Agency operations targeting the Lashkar — operations which, earlier this year, sparked off a showdown that ended with the arrest of an American intelligence contractor Raymond Davis, on charges of murdering two men in Lahore.

David Headley, a Lashkar agent who conducted reconnaissance for the Mumbai attacks, told a Chicago court last week that his operation was funded and facilitated by an intelligence officer he knew as “Major Iqbal.”

Rehman Malik, Pakistan's Interior Minister, however, dismissed Headley's testimony, saying he was a “criminal and a convict.” “This man has no credibility and cannot be trusted,” Mr. Malik said.

Last year, Pakistan had sent India a dossier with 51 questions related to Headley's interrogation by India's National Investigation Agency. Pakistan's Federal Investigation Agency has not, however, sought permission from the United States to question Headley, nor sought his extradition — suggesting the organisation does not intend to pursue his testimony.

Key leaders

Key among the Lashkar commanders indicted by the United States is the organisation's head of transnational operations, Sajid Mir. Long wanted for acts of terrorism involving Australia and France, Mir is the Lashkar's link to dozens of western citizens trained at its camps.

Mir, who trained and tasked Headley, is alleged to have guided the execution of hostages at Chabad House in Mumbai. Last week, The Hindu had revealed that he is still living in his home near the Garrison Golf Club, on the Airport Road in Lahore.

Muzammil Bhat, who holds charge of the Lashkar's armed operations after the 2009 arrest of his immediate superior, Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi, has also been claimed by Pakistan to be evading arrest — but was located by Canadian journalists, Adnan Khan and Michael Petrou, at a safehouse near Muzaffarabad in 2009.

Bhat's immediate subordinate, still known only by the code-name Abu Qahafa and also indicted by the United States for his role in attacks, has also not been located by the FIA.

Legal proceedings against Lakhvi and his subordinate Mazhar Iqbal, the two major Lashkar commanders held for their alleged role in the attacks, has been stalled over procedural issues for several months. The Lahore court where their case is being heard has refused to allow voice samples to be gathered for matching against tapes of intercepted conversations between the Mumbai attackers and their commanders in Karachi.

Pakistan, United States government sources say, has provided assurances that it will rein in the Lashkar, limiting its ability to carry out military operations as it slowly undermines its military capabilities.

Those assurances, though, have been met with scepticism in New Delhi, where intelligence officials say Pakistan has a long record of resiling on similar commitments. Following the December 13, 2001 attack on India's Parliament, Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's then-president, proscribed the Lashkar and Jaish-e-Mohammad.

Leaders of both groups, however, were released soon after — and the organisations conducted fresh strikes on India.

After the Mumbai train bombings of 2006, Gen. Musharraf personally promised Prime Minister Singh to end terrorism directed at India — but once again failed to act against the Lashkar.