Praveen Swami

Has Pakistan set new limits that the Lashkar-e-Taiba should not cross in its jihad against India?

A CALENDAR adorned with an image of Ganapati and a poster of a zebra punctuated the bleak, white walls of the one-room Lashkar-e-Taiba safehouse in suburban Mumbai. But after five nights at sea, on a fishing boat headed south across the Indian Ocean from Karachi, the spartan room looked to Lashkar operatives Jamil Ahmad Awan and Abdul Majid Araiyan like a luxury hotel.

Just after midnight on March 3, we now know, the Lashkar had at least eight trained Pakistani nationals hidden away in the safehouse: a group not dissimilar to the perpetrators of the maximum terror bombings of July 2006. Around the new group were dozens of targets the Lashkar has long hoped to hit among them, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and the Mumbai Stock Exchange.

But this group of Lashkar had instructions very different to those of the Mumbai serial bombers. Armed with fake identification papers, Awan and Araiyan were to travel over a thousand kilometres north to Jammu and Kashmir. The rest of the group, it is thought, followed them, two at a time, to replenish the forces of Lashkar commanders in the region.

Using the resources the Lashkar had in place in March, the organisation could have executed a series of horrific attacks in Maharashtra or Gujarat but for some reason, had orders not to. "They didn't even want to try," says a senior intelligence officer, "which makes no sense at all."

Exclusively obtained by The Hindu , investigation records of the case provide fascinating fresh insights into how the Lashkar is responding to changing circumstances in Pakistan.

Abbotabad-based Awan, the oldest of five siblings, had been forced to drop out of school in the tenth grade in 2003, after which he began working as a daily-wage labourer. In November 2005, he heard an incendiary speech on atrocities in Kashmir at an Abbotabad mosque. Joining the jihad was an irresistible offer: it held out not just the prospect of economic security for his family, but a meaning for an otherwise miserable life. Some years earlier, Araiyan had made much the same journey. A resident of Nawab Shah district in Pakistan's Sindh province, Araiyan was the youngest of eight children. By the estimation of his family, the 1987-born Araiyan was also the least successful. Despite his family's hopes, Araiyan proved an academic failure, and dropped out of school in the fourth grade. In 2000, afraid that the young man would fall a victim to bad habits, Araiyan was persuaded to take up religious classes at a local madrassa.

If the plan was to keep Araiyan out of bad habits, it backfired. He ended up attending Lashkar-led congregations each Friday, where Indian "atrocities" in Jammu and Kashmir were a favoured topic. In 2003 months after President Musharraf proscribed the Lashkar he finally signed up.

Araiyan now received a 40-day advanced course in guerrilla warfare techniques at Lashkar's sprawling Umm al-Qura camp. A two-hour walk into the mountains from the Pakistan-administered Kashmir town of Muzaffarabad, Umm al-Qura was among the Lashkar's best-known training camps.

By the time Awan trained at Umm al-Qura, though, it was no longer in any meaningful sense a camp. His three instructors who were there in the winter of 2005-2006 stayed in a single tin shed, while the two-dozen recruits were put up under tarpaulin sheets or the rude earth-and-stone huts of Gujjar shepherds. There was no electricity, nor a regularly supply of water. Firing practice was sharply restricted for fear of drawing the attention of nearby Pakistan army positions. When Inter Services Intelligence personnel visited Umm al-Qura, the recruits were ordered to hide.

It was only in December 2006, that the Lashkar informed Awan and Araiyan that the time had come to put their skills to the test. From the Bait ul-Mujahideen, the Lashkar's operational headquarters in Muzaffarabad, eight men travelled to Rawalpindi, and then south to Karachi. They had strict instructions to travel in groups of two, using separate compartments on the Rawalpindi-Karachi train and avoiding conversation with other passengers. After a long wait in a widow-less room on the Karachi coast, the group was finally told that the time had come for them to be launched forward into Jammu and Kashmir but that their route would first involve a journey by sea.

"Apun ko jaldi jaane ka," the paan-chewing, Mumbai-accented fishing-boat captain the Lashkar operatives came to know as `Abbas' told them: "we need to get going quickly."

Four days out on the ocean, the boat was stopped by an Indian Coast Guard patrol. The men were stopped, searched and then allowed to go. While Araiyan and Awan thought `Abbas' had bribed their way out of trouble, their eventual arrest suggests the Coast Guard was in fact cooperating with Indian intelligence to track the Lashkar's sea route. No word is yet available on the other six Lashkar operatives, but it is possible the group is still under surveillance possibly the cause of a string of recent counter-Lashkar successes in Jammu and Kashmir.

What are lessons that can be learned from the Awan-Araiyan story? On the one hand, the Lashkar's recruitment and fundraising infrastructure seems to be intact no surprise, given Pakistan's refusal to act against its internationally-proscribed parent religious organisation, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa.

Yet, the conditions at Umm al-Qura make clear that the Lashkar is seeking to conceal the scale and size of its military activities. The precautions taken in transporting the group from Muzaffarabad to Karachi suggests the Lashkar now wishes to conceal major operations from the ISI itself. Infiltration through the Line of Control, in turn, requires some degree of cooperation from the Pakistan Army, and the Lashkar's use of the expensive and hazardous sea route to replenish its units in Jammu and Kashmir suggests this is no longer forthcoming. Awan's testimony to his interrogators also suggests Lashkar recruiters have been forced to operate out of sight in rural areas.

For Indian counter-terrorism policy makers, these facts are of obvious importance. Speaking days after the July 11, 2006, serial bombings Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asserted he was "certain that the terrorist modules responsible for the Mumbai blasts are instigated from across the border."

But less than two months later, Prime Minister Singh changed course. After a September 16 meeting with Pakistan's President, General Pervez Musharraf, he asserted that "terrorism is a threat to Pakistan." Prime Minister Singh's apparent volte face led to sharp criticism, all the more so since little seems to have been achieved in the months since India and Pakistan agreed to set up a Joint Counter-Terrorism Mechanism. At the Mechanism's last meeting, Islamabad moved to exclude terrorist operations in Jammu and Kashmir from its purview, a move that provoked outrage in New Delhi.

Despite the appearance of stalemate, the ground situation has improved. For months, there have been whispers that Prime Minister Singh's Havana declaration was preceded by secret Pakistani promises to wind down major jihadi operations. Just one major terrorist attack has taken place outside of Jammu and Kashmir since last summer. Even that the firebombing of the Samjhauta Express was intended to appear as if it had been executed by Hindu fundamentalist groups, and thus provide a pretext for breaking the shackles Pakistan seems to have placed on Islamist terror groups.

Has Pakistan, then, drawn a red line the Lashkar and other jihadi groups may not cross? No clear answers are available. But, in the wake of arrests of Lashkar-linked terrorists in the United States of America, the United Kingdom, and Australia, pressure has built up on Islamabad to rein in the terror group. Pakistan may finally be getting the message.

Does this mean Pakistan's long covert war against India is, under international pressure, finally drawing to an end? Not quite at least, not just yet.

Secret counter-terrorism deals aren't new, but have had an unhappy record of failure. Meetings were authorised by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq in an effort to defuse the tensions caused by Pakistani support for Khalistan terrorists. Former RAW chief A.K. Verma and former Inter-Services Intelligence head General Hamid Gul then held two rounds of discussions, brokered through Jordanian royal Talal bin-Hassan. Although Pakistan handed over four Indian troops who had defected after Operation Bluestar, no further progress was made towards ending ISI support for Khalistan terror groups.

Efforts were again made in 1990-1991, during the regime of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to resume the covert intelligence dialogue. Amidst escalating tensions in Jammu and Kashmir, Lieutenant-General Asad Durrani, the ISI chief, and RAW spymaster G.S. Bajpai met in Singapore for a third round of India-Pakistan secret dialogue. This time, there were no results at all: "it was," a former RAW official B. Raman has recorded, "a dialogue of the deaf."

So far, Pakistan appears to have moved to restrain the Lashkar from acting on its publicly declared desire to execute major terrorist strikes in India but done little to dismantle its capability to do so. As the detente process proceeds, India needs to ensure that Pakistan is urged to take this next, necessary step.