Islamist Stronghold in Pakistan Linked to Mumbai

There are no signs that point the way to Markaz-e-Taiba except for the sudden appearance of closely situated gas stations, and even a housing settlement, with conspicuously Quranic names. But everyone in this area of Pakistan seems to know where this alleged stronghold of the outlawed militant group Lashkar-e- Taiba is located. Since India's claims of the organization's involvement in the Mumbai attacks, it has been speculated that this "Center of the Pious" could be a potential target of highly unlikely but still-feared Indian airstrikes within Pakistan proper. In a rare gesture, the center opened its doors to journalists on Thursday to counter what it said was Indian propaganda.

Markaz-e-Taiba is a 150-acre, dust-dimmed oasis in the middle of forgotten villages in Muridke, just outside Lahore. The 14-year-old gated complex with security cameras and manned by watchful but unarmed volunteers—at least on the day of the press tour—was introduced to journalists as a health and educational facility. The visitors were pointedly shepherded through the school's science laboratories and shown classrooms with young boys and girls in traditional shalwar-kameez.

"We have 3,000 boys and girls here as young as five and as old as 17," said Yahya Mujahid, spokesman for Jamat-ud-Dawah, which now runs the center. Most of the students are from surrounding villages and pay a modest annual tuition. "There is no fear here, and little else that many people claim." Addressing concerns about the facility, Mujahid denied any history or existence of "martial training which India pipes about all the time" and said that the school curriculum complies with government policy. Allegations to the contrary were, he said, "a miracle of self-delusion."

Jamat-ud-Dawah, which roughly means "enter into the fold of Islam," is fashioned as an Islamic charity and is widely believed to be an alias for the banned group Lashkar-e-Taiba. The U.S. State Department says Lashkar-e-Taiba is "one of the three largest and best trained groups fighting in Kashmir against India" and has links with Al Qaeda. It was outlawed in January 2002 following the attack on India's parliament which led to a military standoff between both countries.

Jamat-ud-Dawah itself was designated a terrorist organization by the United States in 2006, but this has not impeded its expansive operations in Pakistan. The organization has a nationwide footprint and runs numerous medical clinics, schools, housing projects and an ambulance service. It won some public acclaim for its work alongside the Pakistan Army in the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, and says it has built 5,000 homes there. The organization says its teams were in Bam, Iran, to help with relief efforts following the 2003 earthquake and that it has sent aid to Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Maldives following natural disasters there. Jamat-ud-Dawah claims to have spent at least $8.74 million since 2003 on various charitable initiatives. It says its funding is raised exclusively from the Pakistani public.

Both organizations also have the fiery, former university professor Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, 62, in common as their leader—although his spokesman says Saeed's links with Lashkar were severed in 2001. Saeed was under "house arrest" for most of 2002. In Pakistan, this is often a euphemism for being in the protective custody of intelligence agencies. Following last week's terror siege in Mumbai, India has reportedly demanded that Pakistan hand over Saeed along with 19 others for questioning. Pakistan contends that India has demanded the handover of only three suspected terrorists and that Saeed is not among them. And in any event, Pakistan says it will not comply without evidence.

"It is upsetting," said spokesman Mujahid, speaking in the shade of the primary-school entrance, "to be doubted and misrepresented when all we have done and all we want to do is help our fellow man."

Acknowledging that tempers seem to be cooling down on both sides of the border and that the worst may be over, Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari left Thursday on a two-day official visit to Turkey.