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.
“In terms of organizational capability, LeT is more robust than the central al Qaeda organization,” said Stephen Tankel, author of the forthcoming book “Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba.”
Mr. Tankel said there is concern about LeT’s “potential role as a trainer or facilitator, particularly given its transnational networks as well as ability to act as a gateway to al Qaeda.”
“Furthermore, what is also troubling is the fact that even if LeT’s leadership can be deterred from directly striking the U.S., it’s questionable whether the same can be said for the myriad operatives that make up its transnational networks,” he said.
The Pakistani court’s decision also risks straining Pakistan’s fragile relationship with India, which considers Saeed one of the masterminds of the Mumbai attacks. Indian officials have expressed concern that the cleric has been allowed to freely stir up anti-India sentiments at rallies in Pakistan.
Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said the court’s decision demonstrates that there is “little appetite in Islamabad to shut down LeT activities.”
“If the Pakistani leadership was serious about cracking down on LeT, we would see them closing training facilities, restricting Hafeez Mohammad Saeed’s ability to hold public rallies, and fully prosecuting those found guilty of involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks,” Ms. Curtis said.
In November, Mr. Obama sent a letter to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari urging Pakistani institutions to cut ties with terrorist groups. Mr. Obama specifically mentioned LeT, along with al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and Tehrik-e-Taliban.
The Pakistani government banned LeT in 2002, but Saeed now heads Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a charity that Western officials say is a front for LeT.
The Bush administration branded LeT a foreign terrorist organization soon after the group attacked the Indian Parliament in New Delhi on Dec. 13, 2001. In 2002, the nexus between al Qaeda and LeT was exposed with the capture of al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah, the accused mastermind of the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, who was found at an LeT safe house in Faisalabad, Pakistan.
Analysts and Western officials say LeT surpasses al Qaeda in its capacity for recruitment and fundraising.
U.S. officials have raised their concerns about the activities of LeT and Mr. Saeed in meetings with their Pakistani counterparts.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia held a hearing on LeT’s growing ambitions in March. It was the first congressional hearing specifically devoted to the group.
The panel’s chairman, Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, New York Democrat, said of LeT: “This group of savages needs to be crushed. … We’re not doing it, and we’re not effectively leading a global effort to do it. And we’re going to regret this mistake. We’re going to regret it bitterly.”
Ms. Curtis said LeT should be seen as part of the al Qaeda network and so the threat from the group should be met “with the same seriousness and determination as the U.S. is fighting al Qaeda.”
“While LeT may have focused its attacks primarily against India in the 1990s, it is clear that the LeT is developing a broader pan-Islamist agenda and that its future attacks will almost undoubtedly involve Western facilities and citizens,” Ms. Curtis said.