- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 9, 2008

EXCLUSIVE:

LAHORE, Pakistan

Lashkar-e-Taiba will not be crippled by Monday’s arrest of the purported mastermind of the Mumbai attacks and at least 19 other members of the militant group, a Lashkar coordinator said.

“We´re still well-organized and active,” said the militant, who serves as a coordinator for the group, which has a large following despite being outlawed in 2002.

The 20 members of Lashkar-e-Taiba were arrested Monday amid growing criticism that Pakistan has allowed the militant group to continue operating openly, despite claims to the contrary.

The Lashkar coordinator spoke with The Washington Times in a safe house near Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city, on the condition of anonymity - presumably to avoid arrest.

He said Lashkar’s strength in Pakistan was in the thousands.

Pakistan on Monday announced the arrest of Zaki-u-Rehman Lakhvi, who was among 20 arrested during a raid in Muzaffarabad in the Pakistan-controlled portion of Kashmir.

Indian media reports have identified Mr. Lakhvi as the organizer of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai that killed 172 people and raised tensions between India and Pakistan - two nuclear-armed nations that have fought three wars.

The Lashkar fighter in Lahore said the group has “huge strength” and is concentrated in Pakistan’s tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan.

He ran his fingers through his bushy beard as he sat in a dingy room for the interview, surrounded by boys ages 15 to 20 who listened intently as he spoke.

Inside the room was a wooden cupboard, a bed and two chairs. The walls were blank, and the space was lit by a solitary lamp. The man stood uncomfortably against the wall throughout the interview, his eyes avoiding this female reporter’s face.

Pakistani officials initially denied any link between the Mumbai killings and Lashkar-e-Taiba. The group, whose name means “army of the pure,” was created by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) two decades ago to pursue Pakistani claims to Kashmir, a Muslim majority territory that India largely controls.

Lashkar has been implicated in multiple acts of terrorism against India in the past decade, and though banned by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in 2002, has reorganized.

“The Lashkar definitely has the capability and the capacity to conduct attacks such as those which took place in Mumbai,” said Rasool Baksh Raees, a political science professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

The sole gunman arrested in the Mumbai attacks, Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, 21, has told Indian authorities that he is a member of Lashkar.

According to news reports, Mr. Kasab was born in a village called Faridkot in southern Punjab. The village has a population of about 2,000, intermittent water supplies and no gas connections. Children run barefoot, and the town’s only school educates boys until the eighth grade.

Reporters who have visited the village have been unable to find anyone who knows Mr. Kasab. The Lashkar organizer said this didn´t surprise him because those who join his group are given other names.

“All those who join these organizations are given Arabic names,” he said. “Sometimes to make them less conspicuous they´re given non-Arabic but purely Muslim names.”

Additionally, it´s normal practice in these organizations to change the names of their fighters every six to eight months, he said.

Many of the members are school dropouts, said those familiar with the workings of Lashkar. One former member, who gave his name as Muhammed Yusuf, 27, said he joined Lashkar four years ago but became disillusioned with the organization within months and left.

“We were a group of 16,” Mr. Yusuf said in a telephone interview. “Most of them were dropouts, but we also had some highly educated young men.”

Mr. Kasab has said that he left Faridkot for Lahore in 2005. Some accounts say his uncle sold him to Lashkar.

The Lashkar organizer denied that the group had to purchase recruits.

“Young boys come to us usually because their friends have convinced them, because they believe jihad is the epitome of being a good Muslim or because their families are involved,” he said.

Mr. Yusuf said the recruits he knew had all been volunteers.

“The group I was part of was introduced to each other at a neighborhood mosque,” he said. “Junior members of the Lashkar first invited us for all-night worship sessions during Ramadan. Then they invited us to group study sessions, where we would read the Koran for hours at end; and then later they took us all to Peshawar, where we were introduced to the idea of becoming a jihadist. None of the people with me had been forced into this process or sold into it.”

But Sharmeen Obaid, a filmmaker who has covered jihadists in Pakistan extensively, said that selling boys into jihad is a common practice.

“It´s happening more and more nowadays as people become more desperate for money in Pakistan,” she said. “After the [2007 Kashmir] earthquake when a large number of children became orphans, I was told that a number of them were sold to organizations” such as Lashkar. She said the price for one recruit could range from $10,000 to $19,000.

Other accounts of Mr. Kasab´s life suggest he arrived in Lahore by train and was overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of the station, which has 11 platforms. He may have made his way to the Sufi shrine Data Darbar, where free food is served.

“Sufi shrines and mosques are usual meeting grounds for young boys,” the Lashkar organizer said. “Often boys meet at these mosques and become friends. Then if one of the friends start becoming religious, he convinces the others to follow suit.” The organizer said this was how he was inducted into the militant outfit.

Mr. Kasab also could have found his way directly to the Lashkar-e-Taiba headquarters in Lahore. There, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, 63, the organization’s leader, lives in a sprawling compound that includes a cream-colored mosque.

Located in one of Lahore´s busiest marketplaces known as Chuburghi, the compound is easy to find and marked by a sign with its name: the Qadisiyah Center. The reference is to the place where Arabs defeated the Persians in the seventh century and began converting them to Islam.

The group also runs a charity wing called Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which was active in providing relief in Muzaffarabad after the Kashmir earthquake. Jamaat-ud-Dawa maintains a sprawling 75-acre campus about 15 miles north of Lahore in an area called Muridke.

Mr. Yusuf, the former Lashkar member, said the process of induction into a jihadist outfit begins with teaching boys about Islam.

“We would sit on the floor in mosques and simply read the Koran and discuss it,” he said. “This would go on for days on end and no other topic was ever discussed.”

Spotters pick the best students and send them for military training. According to accounts given by Mr. Kasab to Indian police, he was trained in Lashkar-e-Taiba camps in Pakistan and Kashmir.

Mr. Yusuf remembers his days in a jihadist camp as being tough.

“We were supposed to get up at dawn and we would only be allowed to go to sleep after the night prayers,” he said. “We had to sleep on the floor and were given dried-up chapatis [bread] to eat three times a day. The idea was to make us so strong that we wouldn´t desire anything, neither food nor sleep.”

Yahya Muhammed, a spokesman for Lashkar-e-Taiba, has denied that the organization has training camps.

“The Jamaat-ud-Dawa was formed in 1986, while the Lashkar-e-Taiba was formed in 1986 and our main aim was to help our Kashmiri brothers,” he said. “Then on 24th December, 2001, we decided to hand over the Kashmir branch of our group to our brothers in Kashmir. Now we have no connection with them. Then, in 2002, the government of Pakistan banned us for no reason.”

Mr. Muhammed said the outfit was involved only in charitable ventures and that the allegations against the group are “simply Indian propaganda.”

The Lashkar organizer contradicted the spokesman’s account. He said jihadist training is rigorous, takes place in the tribal areas near the border with Afghanistan and is divided into several parts.

The first part involves classes that “last for 40 days and during this course, we are taught the use of light machine guns, Kalashnikovs, G3 pistols and grenades,” he said. “By the end of the training, we are able to assemble a Kalashnikov with our eyes blindfolded.”

The second part, known as Hezbollah, “continues for 30 days and involves the making of bombs, use of chemicals and detonators etcetera,” he said. A third part involves training in guerrilla fighting, he said.

He said a fourth part was reserved for a very few. He said he had not received the training and so could not describe it.

The organizer said Mr. Kasab was obviously well-trained but didn´t seem to be a Lashkar member. “We don´t kill innocents,” he said. “That´s not the way we operate.”

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