Praveen Swami

Were the terrorists who stormed Mumbai non-state actors?

“Whoever they are,” Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari said last week of the terrorists who attacked Mumbai, “they are stateless actors who are holding hostage the whole world.” “I very much doubt,” he continued, asked about the arrested terrorist Mohammad Ajmal Amir, “that he’s a Pakistani.”

President Zardari’s claims have disintegrated with media reports from Pakistan confirming that Amir is indeed a Pakistani national linked to the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba. Pakistan, under intense pressure, has since begun a crackdown on Lashkar offices in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, although its seriousness of purpose is still far from clear. How events develop from here will settle the question of whether the Lashkar is, in fact, a non-state actor—or a covert instrument of the Pakistani state. In 1987, Osama bin-Laden’s ideological mentor and a professor of religious studies together founded the Markaz Dawat-ul-Irshad — the Centre for the Propagation of the Faith and its Teachings. It was to grow into an empire. Today, the Pakistan-based Jamaat-ud-Dawa runs a web of educational, medical charitable — and military — institutions on a sprawling campus at Muridke near Lahore.

Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian national who had taught Islamic studies in Amman and Riyadh, came to Pakistan in 1979 to set up the Maktab al-Khidmat (Office of Service), which helped funnel Arab jihadists arriving in Pakistan to mujahideen groups. Pakistani scholar Hassan Abbas has recorded in his seminal work Pakistan’s Drift Into Extremism that Azzam wished to revive the “lost art and science of the jihad.”

Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, born in a conservative, Punjabi family which lost 36 of its members during its Partition journey from Shimla to Lahore, was Azzam’s partner in the founding of the MDI. Like Azzam, he followed the Salafist tradition of Islam. Saeed was appointed by General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq to the state-run Council on Islamic Ideology, and was later given a position at Lahore’s University of Engineering and Technology. In 1989, Azzam was assassinated in a bombing attributed to Israel’s secret service, the Mossad. Saeed turned his attention to the emerging jihad in Jammu and Kashmir, and founded the Lashkar in 1990. Hussain Haqqani, now Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States, candidly admitted in a 2005 article that the Lashkar had been “backed by Saudi money and protected by Pakistani intelligence services.”

From the outset, the Lashkar made clear that it was not confined to Jammu and Kashmir. In an undated pamphlet likely issued around 1999, Hum Jihad Kyon Kar Rahe Hein (Why we are fighting a jihad), it argued: “Muslims ruled Andalusia for 800 years but they were finished to the last man. Christians now rule [Spain] and we must wrest it back from them. All of India, including Kashmir, Hyderabad, Assam, Nepal, Burma, Bihar and Junagarh were part of the Muslim empire that was lost because Muslims gave up jihad. Palestine is occupied by the Jews. The Holy Qibla-e-Awwal in Jerusalem is under Jewish control. Several countries such as Bulgaria, Hungary, Cyprus, Sicily, Ethiopia, Russian Turkistan and Chinese Turkistan were Muslim lands and it is our duty to get these back from unbelievers.”

Late in 1992, as communal tension began to rise across India, Saeed assigned to a trusted lieutenant the task of opening a second front — this time against India as a whole. Mohammad Azam Cheema — ‘Baba’ to his recruits, and like Saeed the son of middle class Punjabi family — first came into contact with Saeed while both men were teaching at the engineering university in Lahore.

Hindu chauvinists handed Cheema a gift in December 1992, in the form of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Lashkar operatives now reached out to Indian Islamist organisations. Indian nationals Abdul Kareem ‘Tunda,’ Mohammad Azam Ghauri and Jalees Ansari executed the first Lashkar-led operation in India on the first anniversary of the demolition, bombing several trains. Later, Indian recruits like Amir Hashim — who used the code-name Kamran — executed attacks in New Delhi, Jalandhar and Rohtak. By 1996, Cheema is believed to have been running over a dozen Pakistani agents across India, operating under fictions — the term intelligence professionals use for cover-identities. Mohammad Ishtiaq, the son of a shopkeeper from Kala Gujran in Pakistan’s Jhelum district, was, for example, dispatched to Hyderabad to build Lashkar cells in the region.

On December 13, 2001, terrorists stormed India’s Parliament. The former Pakistan President, Pervez Musharraf, under pressure, proscribed the Lashkar. He also promised an end to cross-border infiltration in Jammu and Kashmir. But the MDI and Lashkar leaders who were arrested were soon released. The MDI renamed itself the Jamaat-ud-Dawa and resumed public fundraising, recruitment and propaganda operations. Moreover, the Lashkar continued to operate freely out of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, where the proscription order did not apply.

Even as Pakistan scaled back infiltration in Kashmir — violence has fallen year-on-year since 2002 — the Lashkar’s all-India offensive escalated. Between 2004 and 2006, Lashkar-linked cells, sometimes operating in affiliation with elements of the Bangladesh-based Harkat ul-Jihad-e-Islami, attacked several Indian cities, a project that reached its climax with the Mumbai train bombings in 2006.

India’s intelligence services have long said the post-2002 offensive was commanded by a battle-hardened Kashmir jihad veteran so far known only by code-names, ‘Muzammil,’ ‘Yusuf’ and ‘Abu Hurrera.’ Muzammil specialised in using the Lashkar’s fidayeen assets in Kashmir to attack targets elsewhere in India. In September 2002, for example, he ordered the south Kashmir-based Lashkar commander, Manzoor Zahid Chaudhuri, to despatch two fidayeen to storm the Akshardham temple in Gandhinagar. Later, he put together a June 2004 plot to use fidayeen to assassinate the then Union Home Minister, L.K. Advani.

After the Mumbai bombings of 2006, Gen. Musharraf once again promised to end terrorism directed at India — but once again failed to act against the Lashkar. No clear answer just what this was has ever emerged: some analysts believe that the General wished to appease the anti-U.S. elements in the ISI by allowing jihad against Pakistan’s eastern adversary to continue, while others insist that the LeT was in a position to initiate a civil war with 20,000-odd men estimated to have passed through its military camps.

Muzammil — if that is indeed the name of the six-foot tall, long-haired and full-bearded Punjabi-speaking terror commander who operates out of Muzaffarabad, Lahore and Rawalpindi — worked hard to put a firewall between the Lashkar in Pakistan and its affiliates in India. The Indian Mujahideen, which executed a string of bombings across India in 2007-2008, was one product of his efforts. Most of the IM’s key operational figures, mainly drawn from the ranks of the Students Islamic Movement of India, had trained at Lashkar camps in Pakistan. However, the Lashkar had no direct role in the IM’s bombing campaign, nor did it commit Pakistani nationals to the attacks.

Even as the Lashkar focussed on its anti-India campaign, though, Pakistan began to descend into chaos. As jihadists battled Pakistani troops along the northwest frontier and Islamabad found itself compelled by the U.S. to take on the terror groups it had long patronised, the language used by the Al-Qaeda and the Lashkar increasingly converged. In April 2006, Osama bin-Laden issued a proclamation that denounced a “Crusader-Zionist-Hindu war against Muslims.”

Saeed’s public speeches began to draw on the same ideas. Just this May, for example, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief asserted “the Crusaders, the Jews, and the Hindus — all have united against the Muslims, and launched the ‘war on terror’ which is in fact a pretext to impose a horrible war to further the nefarious goals of the enemies of Islam.” Less than a month later, on June 12, he called on Islamabad to disassociate “itself from the war on terror and join the mujahideen to fight in Afghanistan and Kashmir.”

By targeting western nationals in Mumbai, the Lashkar has initiated the third phase of its campaign, which first focussed on Kashmir and then all of India. The Al-Qaeda, the language of bin-Laden and Saeed suggests, had an ideological and tactical influence on the decision to open this fresh front.

Did the ISI or elements in the military also play a role? No hard evidence exists to support this claim but Pakistan’s long-standing failure to crack down on the terror group has led more than one analyst to make the obvious inference that the terror group has powerful friends. Although Pakistan continues to insist that the Jamaat-ud-Dawa is a charitable group, the U.S. State department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2007 insist that it is in fact a “front organisation” for the Lashkar.

It is likely that some in the ISI see the Lashkar as an ally in their campaign against India — a campaign that sustains the hostility which informs the foundation of the Pakistan Army’s political primacy in Pakistan. In August, The New York Times reported that the U.S. had intercepted communications between Pakistani intelligence officers and the terrorists who bombed the Indian Embassy in Kabul. And many commentators have argued that the Mumbai operation could have been backed by pro-Islamist ISI elements who wished to provoke an India-Pakistan clash that would compel the eastward diversion of troops now committed to fighting the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda.

Now, President Zardari has the option of speaking the truth and acting against the Lashkar — or giving weight to charges that the banned terror group is an instrument of the state he governs.

Corrections and Clarifications

The tenth paragraph in an article "Pakistan and the Lashkar's jihad inIndia" (Editorial page, December 9, 2008) said that he [Kashmir jihadveteran so far known only by code-names, 'Muzammil,' 'Yusuf' and 'AbuHurrera'] put together a June 2004 plot to use fidayeen to assassinate thethen Union Home Minister, L.K. Advani. The UPA Government was formed on May22, 2004, so Mr. Advani was only the Leader of the Opposition.