- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Pakistan’s top court on Tuesday allowed to remain free the founder of the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which U.S. and Indian intelligence agencies have linked to the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai that killed 166.

The Supreme Court ruled that the government lacked sufficient evidence to imprison hard-line Islamist cleric Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, and analysts and Western officials said the decision could embolden anti-U.S. groups to attempt a terrorist attack.

The ruling follows an Indian court’s death sentence for the sole surviving attacker in the 2008 Mumbai assaults, in which six Americans were killed, and attempts by Indian and Pakistani officials to improve relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. Many Indians blamed Pakistan for sheltering and training the Mumbai attackers.

Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) has operated in the region comprising Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Bangladesh since the 1990s. But in the wake of the Mumbai attacks, investigators unearthed from computer records and e-mail accounts a list of 320 locations worldwide deemed possible targets by LeT.

“While we recognize the independence of the Pakistani judiciary, we are disappointed by this development,” said a U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the subject. “We urge Pakistan to follow through on its commitment to combat all forms of terrorism.”

“The court’s decision sends a signal that LeT is above the law in Pakistan and will not be effectively controlled,” said Bruce Riedel, a veteran CIA officer who led a review of U.S. policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan for President Obama. “This suggests we are heading for another Mumbai sooner or later.”

Saeed was placed under house arrest a month after the Mumbai attacks, but he was released a year ago after the provincial Lahore High Court ruled there was insufficient evidence in the case.

A Pakistani Embassy spokesman in Washington declined to comment on the court’s decision.

India’s foreign secretary, Nirupama Rao, said India had provided “enough evidence” to Pakistan about Saeed’s activities.

The October arrest of David Coleman Headley, a U.S.-born Pakistani-American, and his admission that he scouted targets in Mumbai for LeT has fueled concern among U.S. officials that the terrorist group may have sleeper cells within the United States.

“LeT has traditionally operated in its own region, but there are indications that the group is trying to help plan operations in other parts of the world,” said another U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss intelligence matters freely.

On Monday, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told reporters in New Delhi that a major effort was under way to “bridge the trust deficit with Pakistan.”

Ashley Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the U.S. is “deeply concerned about this problem in part because LeT has now become a threat to U.S. security directly, even though the Pakistani intelligence services do not believe that LeT undermines their own interests.”

“LeT represents the exemplar of the challenges facing U.S.-Pakistani counterterrorism cooperation: If a group does not threaten the Pakistani state directly, it usually ends up being exempted from Pakistani interdiction despite the fact that it threatens Pakistan’s allies and its neighbors and, lest it be forgotten, Pakistan itself,” Mr. Tellis said.

Evidence of LeT fingerprints on several plots — from Mumbai and Afghanistan to Denmark and Bangladesh — has prompted U.S. acknowledgment that the group has grown into a terrorist organization with capabilities rivaling those of al Qaeda.

Story Continues →