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Pakistan denies militant group is global terror threat

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 25, 2010

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | The Pakistani-based militant organization Lashkar-e-Taiba is being viewed increasingly by U.S. political and military leaders as a global terrorist threat. But most Pakistanis remain unaware of the group's activities and agenda and continue to give it significant support.

According to the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, Lashkar-e-Taiba is a Kashmiri-focused Islamist group with ties to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda. Since 1993, the group has carried out numerous attacks on Indian troops and civilians in the disputed Jammu and Kashmir province, as well as attacks inside India. It is thought to have several thousand members.

"LeT enjoys the backing of a powerful patron, the ISI, while it has adopted the global agenda of al Qaeda, making it a major threat to America and our allies," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA counterterrorism specialist now with the Brookings Institution. ISI is Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence service.

Pakistanis' lack of understanding and popular support of Lashkar-e-Taiba, including in some official circles, have prevented Islamabad from taking concrete action against the militant organization.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen, speaking to reporters in Islamabad on July 25, said, "The United States sees the Lashkar-e-Taiba becoming more lethal by the day and thinks its gradual growth now clearly shows that it has global inspirations to spread terror.

"I have watched since 2008 the LeT move to the west, getting more active in the region and engaging more with other terrorist groups. It heightens our concern as it is not only confined to the region but has global inspirations," the four-star admiral said.

Richard C. Holbrooke, U.S. special envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, said during a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi on July 22 that "Lashkar-e-Taiba is as dangerous as Taliban and al Qaeda, with which it was working in close coordination, and that Pakistan has been asked to deny it a foothold in that country."

"The LeT's goal is to create maximum problems between India and Pakistan besides working against the interests of Western countries. Tackling [Lashkar-e-Taiba] is equal to any other priority in the region," Mr. Holbrooke said.

The official U.S. statements were received with surprise in Pakistan because the group has been linked only to militant activities in the region, specifically Afghanistan and Indian Kashmir, and was not regarded as having established a global network of terrorists.

Pakistani analyst Ali Ashraf said in an interview that the U.S. officials' assessment of Lashkar-e-Taiba was out of place.

"I don't think LeT has become so big an organization that it could be a global threat," Mr. Ashraf said. "The problem with the Americans is that they first label an organization extremely dangerous, without it being so, and then they try to prove it."

Mr. Ashraf heads the FATA Research Center in Islamabad.

A senior Pakistani Interior Ministry official who is knowledgeable about militant groups said the ministry does not have any indication or proof that Lashkar-e-Taiba is linked to terrorism outside the region or inside the country.

However, India officially accused the militant organization of carrying out the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks and claimed that it has provided enough proof to Pakistan.

Pakistan, however, has regarded New Delhi's information as insufficient and unsubstantiated.

Lashkar-e-Taiba's headquarters, a sprawling complex housing madrassas and hospitals, is near the major city of Lahore, capital of the Punjab province.

Hafiz Saeed, head of the charitable organization Jamaat-ud-Dawa, Lashkar-e-Taiba's main front group, is able to move about freely in Pakistan.

One likely reason for Pakistani inaction, analysts say, is the group's role in a decades-old military and intelligence state policy for Afghanistan and India that calls for using non-state militant groups as proxies. Lashkar-e-Taiba has been accused of carrying out this policy in Afghanistan and in Indian Kashmir.

Pakistani security officials said privately that it would be dangerous to repress Lashkar-e-Taiba, with its militant prowess and ideological roots, when other groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan have created havoc in the country.

One official said "the consequence of an estranged LeT would be very hot for the country to handle."

Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa have not been involved in terrorist attacks inside Pakistan, and Mr. Saeed recently declared suicide attacks within the country as "haram," or illegitimate.

Despite Pakistanis' support of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa in Pakistan, some significant political parties and leaders, as well as civil society organizations, have accused the groups of training terrorists and carrying out militant activities.

The Awami National Party, part of Pakistan's ruling coalition, in June called for a crackdown on the Muridke headquarters of Lashkar-e-Taiba to eliminate its terrorist camps.

"The terrorists have their camps in Muridke and their elimination is essential for uprooting terrorism," said the party's top leader, Bashir Bilour, who is also senior minister in the government of Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa province.

Jamaat-ud-Dawa spokesman Atiq-ur-Rehman Chohan described Mr. Bilour's comments as "baseless and irresponsible" and invited Awami National Party leaders to visit its headquarters at Muridke to see whether any terrorist camps exist there.

The Aman Tehreek, a conglomerate of anti-terrorist civil society groups of Pakistan, has declared that a "decisive operation" against militants is necessary because Punjab has become the "new hub of terrorists."

However, Pakistanis note that Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa have delivered key social and relief services during disasters, including recent massive floods in the country.

Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa also have raised large amounts of money for charities and donations.

The 2010 survey by the Washington-based Pew Research Center titled "Global Attitude Project" revealed that 25 percent of Pakistanis held "favorable" views of Lashkar-e-Taiba, and 35 percent held "unfavorable" views, while 40 percent had no opinion.

Although Lashkar-e-Taiba may not be considered a global security threat to Pakistanis, the group has believed in global jihad, or Islamic holy war, since its beginning.

Mr. Saeed and another cleric, Zafar Iqbal Chaudhry, formed Lashkar-e-Taiba in Afghanistan's Kunar province in 1988. Both were professors of Islamic studies at the University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore.

Their mentor was Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian professor who came to Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1988 to organize and wage jihad against the Soviet army. Consequently, he persuaded bin Laden to come to Pakistan and join the jihad.

Mr. Saeed and bin Laden then developed a close relationship. Both belong to the Wahhabi school of Islamic thought. Only 15 percent of Pakistanis claim adherence to the tenets of the sect.

Bin Laden and Mr. Saeed were staunch followers of Azzam and fully endorsed his ideology of pan-Islamism and global jihad. After Azzam was killed in Peshawar in 1989, bin Laden formed al Qaeda in the same northwestern Pakistani city, which is the capital of Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa province.

Azzam was said to be the ideologue for the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

"Keeping in view the origin and ideological base of LeT, it can never be ruled out that it would not pursue global militant and terrorist agenda," said Imran Khan, a Peshawar-based analyst.

"However, there are at [the] moment very few indications so far that the group has really become a global security threat. In my view, I think even if the group wants to, it does not have the wherewithal to launch a global terror war."

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