Ties that bind: Lashkar and the global jihad

The Lashkar-e-Taiba, it is asserted, is a product of the India-Pakistan contestation in Jammu and Kashmir and has little interest in targeting the West. Both claims are ill-founded.

December 12, 2009 01:08 am | Updated December 16, 2016 02:55 pm IST

GLOBAL JIHAD: Hafiz Saeed once became frankly hostile to the Pakistani establishment. "It is time to wage jihad against them, " said he.

GLOBAL JIHAD: Hafiz Saeed once became frankly hostile to the Pakistani establishment. "It is time to wage jihad against them, " said he.

“Umm al-Qura Maintenance Company, LLC,” read the sign outside the door. Inside the sparse office, named for the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s main training base in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the jihadist group’s top military commander was having an increasingly heated argument.

Muzammil Bhat, who investigators say supervised the training and execution of the November 2008 terror strikes in Mumbai, had arrived in Dubai to meet with a long-standing asset he hoped would facilitate operations inside India. But the former Nizambad commerce student, Abdul Razzak Masood, flatly refused to cooperate, saying India wasn’t the enemy. He demanded that the Lashkar, instead, focus its resources on targeting the United States, principal adversary of the Islamist movement.

Ever since the arrest of Pakistani-American jihadist David Headley — charged with carrying out the reconnaissance that enabled the carnage in Mumbai — intelligence services across the world have been revisiting the Masood case. Headley’s case has made clear that the Lashkar possesses transcontinental networks of global reach and lethality. Masood’s story helps to understand the complex ties that bind the Lashkar and the global jihadist movement.

First recruited by the Lashkar in 1998, Masood became a protégé of Arif Kasmani — a Karachi-based Partition migrant who is alleged to have financed the fire-bombing of the New Delhi-Lahore Samjhauta Express. Kasmani counted both al-Qaeda chief Osama bin-Laden and Taliban-linked cleric Nizamuddin Shamzai among his friends. He was among the key figures who persuaded the Lashkar leadership to sign a 1998 declaration by bin-Laden, calling for a global jihad.

In the wake of al-Qaeda’s massive attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, the Lashkar came under intense pressure from its patrons in Pakistan’s military establishment to sever the al-Qaeda links. But late that year, the Lashkar decided to support the jihadists in Afghanistan. By August 2003, Kasmani was running a dedicated front-organisation, Khairunnas, which funnelled funds, material and volunteers into Afghanistan. Later, as the fighting in Iraq gathered momentum, Masood travelled to Ilam in Iran, hoping to run a similar operation there.

The Lashkar, many experts have long claimed, is a product of the India-Pakistan contestation in Jammu and Kashmir and has little interest in targeting the West. Both assertions are ill-founded.

Worldwide reach

In 1982, a student of the Jamia Mohammadia seminary in Gujranwala volunteered to serve along with the mujahideen fighting against the socialist forces in Afghanistan. Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi, who went on to become the Lashkar’s military chief, soon fell out with his group over theological issues. He set up a parallel organisation linked to the neoconservative Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadis sect.

Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, his brother-in-law Hafiz Abdul Rahman Makki and Zafar Iqbal, all teachers at Lahore’s Islamic University of Engineering and Technology, separately set up the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, dedicated to religious campaigning. In 1986, Lakhvi suggested that they join forces, and the two groups merged into the Markaz Dawat wal’Irshad — the parent organisation of the Lashkar. Palestine-born jihadist Abdullah Azzam — best known as Osama bin-Laden’s ideological mentor — also played a key role in setting up the MDI. Their objective, the MDI’s website stated, was “to organise the Pakistanis participating in the Afghan jihad on one platform.”

Far from focussing on Kashmir, the Lashkar’s cadre joined in jihadist struggles across the world. For example, Lashkar units participated in the civil war in Tajikistan, which ran from 1992 to 1997. They also fought in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In a 1993 interview to the MDI magazine al-Dawa, Lashkar commander Abu Abdul Aziz — also known as Abdul Rehman al-Dosari — argued that the Bosnia campaign provided an opportunity to “make Islam enter Europe through jihad.”

Kashmir, where the Lashkar mujahideen first began operating in 1993, was seen as a stepping stone for a global jihad which would re-establish a caliphate. In the Lashkar’s conception, the jihad in Kashmir marked just one part of a worldwide contestation between Islam and kufr, or disbelief.

By late last decade, the Lashkar’s transnational affiliations were evident. Pakistan’s Urdu-language daily Jang reported in December 1998 that jihadists from more than 50 countries had attended the Lashkar’s annual congregation at its Muridke headquarters. The invitation had proclaimed: “You can go to any jihadi frontline in the world and you will find Markaz Dawat wal’ Irshad mujahideen crushing the infidels and destroying the fortresses of the devil.”

The Pakistani state, the Lashkar leadership believed, was an ally in its jihadist project — not an enemy, as other Islamist groups increasingly came to believe. In the foundational Lashkar tract, Jihad in the Present Times, ideologue Abdul Salam bin-Mohammad argued that Pakistan’s rulers “do not at least outwardly and apparently disown Islam though they do follow a policy based on hypocrisy.” Saeed himself insisted that his organisation did “not believe in revolutionary change in Pakistan; rather we want a gradual reform.”

Pakistan’s establishment approved. In 1998, Punjab Governor Shahid Hamid, accompanied by a host of federal and provincial ministers, visited Muridke to “congratulate the Lashkar-e-Taiba on the martyrdom of their 418 mujahid in Indian-occupied Kashmir.”

Saeed, the Nawa-i-Waqt reported on April 19, 1998, told journalists that the visit would help to dispel the impression that the Lashkar was a terrorist organisation.

Providing resources

Less than a week after the September 11, 2001 attack on the U.S., evidence began to emerge that the organisation was starting to make its resources available to jihadists from across the world who were seeking to fight in support of the Taliban.

Battered by the assault from the West, the al-Qaeda and the Taliban were under pressure. But the Lashkar, with its deep sources of patronage within Pakistan, turned its camps into factories feeding the global jihad. Cleric Ali al-Timimi tapped into those factories when he created what came to be known as the Virginia Jihad Network — a group set up to answer Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar’s call to defend Afghanistan against invasion.

Virginia residents Randall Todd Royer and Ibrahim Ahmed al-Hamdi, both trained at Lashkar camps in 2000, began to recruit volunteers on al-Timimi’s instructions. Four of the new recruits are known to have travelled to Pakistan to train with the Lashkar. One Virginia Jihad Network member, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, was eventually held in Saudi Arabia in 2003, on charges of participating in an al-Qaeda plan to crash hijacked aircraft into targets in the West.

Many of the Virginia Jihad Network members trained alongside Willie Brigitte — a French national who was arrested on charges of attempting to stage terrorist attacks in Australia. Brigitte is believed to have been given his instructions by Sajid Mir — the same Lashkar commander who is alleged to have handled David Headley. In interviews to French judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere, Brigitte confirmed that the Lashkar ran at least one camp for foreign jihadists. French investigators established that another Paris-based Lashkar operative, Ghulam Mustafa Rama, had links with Richard Reid — the jihadist who attempted to blow up a Paris-Miami flight with explosives planted in his shoes.

British national Dhiren Bharot was held along with six other men in April 2005 for planning to bomb multiple targets in the U.S., including the headquarters of Citigroup, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Bharot, it turned out, had trained with the Lashkar in 1995, and then fought with jihadist units in Jammu and Kashmir. He became disillusioned with what he saw as a “secondary [sic.] rate jihad,” and went on to work with the al-Qaeda.

Lebanese national Assem Hammoud was held in April 2006 for planning to target Port Authority Trans-Hudson commuter trains running between New Jersey and New York. Hammoud told the Lebanese police that he had planned to travel to Pakistan to train at a Lashkar-run camp to acquire the skills needed to execute the attack. Early in 2005, British troops in Basra arrested Dilshad Ahmad, a key Lashkar commander who earlier served in Jammu and Kashmir.

Meanwhile, the Lashkar’s public posture became increasingly anti-West. On the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Saeed declared that the “western world is terrorising Muslims. We are being invaded, humiliated, manipulated and looted. How else can we respond but through jihad?” He called for a “fight against the evil trio, America, Israel and India.”

By 2007, Saeed had become frankly hostile to the Pakistani establishment. In one speech reported on the Jamaat-ud-Dawa website, he demanded that Pakistan stop “trying to please the Christians and the Jews.” Later, he argued that “Muslim rulers have disappointed the Ummah [worldwide Muslim community]. It is time to wage jihad against them. They are not Muslims. They are the agents of Jews.”

Like it did before September 2001, the Pakistani state seems willing to overlook such language, perhaps perceiving the Lashkar to be of instrumental utility in pursuing its tactical objectives against India. But, the evidence suggests, the price for this policy will be increasingly paid across the world — not just in India.

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