The Next Al Qaeda?

While the U.S. remains focused on hunting down Al Qaeda's original leadership along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, a lesser-known Islamic militant group has emerged as potentially the most dangerous terrorist outfit on the planet. For more than 15 years Lashkar-e-Taiba, known widely as LeT, has been targeting Indian interests, particularly in the disputed territory of Kashmir. But Western and Indian intelligence experts say LeT now has a growing interest in attacking foreigners and expanding its reach on a global scale—and that the group has the capability to carry out devastating attacks beyond India. At a U.S. Senate intelligence--committee hearing in February, Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, said LeT is now "becoming more of a direct threat," and "placing Western targets in Europe in its sights." Its "willingness to attack Jewish interests and locations visited by Westerners," he said, "raise[s] concerns that either the group itself or individual members will more actively embrace an anti-Western agenda."

To some analysts, LeT may be an even greater threat than Al Qaeda because of its technological sophistication, its broader global recruiting and fundraising network, its close ties to protectors within the Pakistani government, and the fact that it is still a less high-profile target of Western intelligence. Since about 2003 its fingerprints have been found on anti-Western attacks and plots from Afghanistan to Iraq, Dhaka to Copenhagen. And the choice of targets in LeT's most spectacular operation to date—the carefully choreographed November 2008 assault on Mumbai, including luxury hotels popular with Western travelers and a Jewish center—have been cited by Blair and other top U.S. officials as a sign of LeT's increasing interest in attacking the West. "In Mumbai the targets they went after were the targets of the global jihad," says terrorism expert and former CIA officer Bruce Riedel. Shortly after Mumbai, Pakistani authorities arrested alleged LeT communications specialist Zarar Shah and reportedly discovered on his laptop a list of 320 potential targets, most of them outside India. They included sites in Europe, says a Western intelligence official.

As further evidence of LeT's increasingly global agenda, U.S. authorities point to the case of David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani-American living in Chicago who was arrested in October for allegedly conducting surveillance on behalf of LeT for the Mumbai attacks. (He has pleaded not guilty.) Investigators say he and LeT had another plan as well: attacking the offices of the Danish newspaper that had run a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005. Reportedly acting on information provided to the FBI following his arrest, authorities in Bangladesh late last year picked up a number of LeT operatives whom they believe were preparing to attack the American and British embassies in Dhaka. "Very few things worry me as much as the strength and ambition of LeT, a truly malign presence in South Asia," Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, the U.S. State Department's top counterterrorism official, told reporters in January, after the Dhaka plot was uncovered. To Riedel, the plot against the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka shows that "we are now at war with Lashkar-e-Taiba." And in February a previously unknown faction of LeT claimed responsibility for the bombing of a café in Pune, India, that was popular with foreign tourists and expats. Before Mumbai, Western intelligence officials say, LeT had seemed careful to avoid killing foreigners in India. Now, as in Mumbai and Pune, the group seems committed to "internationalizing" even its Indian attacks.

LeT's roots date back to the guerrilla war against the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Among its founders was Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian who, along with Osama bin Laden, formed the influential Afghan Services Bureau, a precursor to Al Qaeda. Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, LeT sent its militants to fight in the Tajik civil war as well as in Bosnia. But it found its first real calling in the violent uprising against Indian rule in Kashmir. Pakistan's formidable spy agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, eagerly backed LeT, among other proxies in Kashmir, with money, weapons, and training. LeT headquarters in Muridke was set up on 77 hectares of land donated by the Pakistani government. Its construction was funded by many of the same Saudi moneymen who financed Al Qaeda. To this day, analysts say, some in the Pakistani military regard LeT as an important reserve force that could be unleashed in the event of a conflict with India.

It's not clear when LeT began plotting against Western targets, but its grudge against the West is longstanding. LeT's philosophy is similar to other Pan-Islamic jihadi groups, including Al Qaeda, but with a uniquely Pakistani twist. It wants to establish a Muslim caliphate across South Asia, re-creating the dominance of the 17th-century Mughal empire. In addition to being virulently anti-Jewish, LeT is rabidly anti-Hindu. It blames British imperialism and the West for what it perceives as the weakness of Pakistan, and Muslims in South Asia generally. In its official literature, the group has called for the "reconquest" of Europe, which it claims was once in Muslim hands but was stolen away by Christian Crusaders. Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, one of LeT's founders and its top spiritual leader, has repeatedly proclaimed that the Western world "is terrorizing Muslims." "We are being invaded, humiliated, manipulated, and looted," he told a Pakistani newspaper in 2003. "How else can we respond but through jihad?" He has urged his fellow Muslims to "fight against the evil trio: America, Israel, and India." As recently as this past spring, his son, Hafiz Talha Saeed, had publicly preached that it is the duty of every Muslim to wage jihad against Jews and Christians wherever they are.

In practice, however, LeT restricted its attacks to targets in India until recently. In the wake of 9/11, unlike other jihadi organizations, LeT steadfastly refused to send fighters to battle U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan and publicly claimed it was interested only in liberating Kashmir from Indian control, in order to avoid antagonizing its protectors in Islamabad or drawing scrutiny from Western intelligence. But as long ago as 1998, Dilshad Ahmed, a top Lashkar military commander, argued that LeT should expand its operations beyond India. And in 2003 Lashkar sent militants to fight in Iraq, including Ahmed, who was captured there by British forces. That same year, a Lashkar-orchestrated plot to launch a major terrorist attack in Australia was thwarted by French and Australian authorities. As anti-American sentiment has grown in Pakistan over U.S. drone strikes on Pakistani soil, Lashkar's anti-Western rhetoric has become more heated, according to Stephen Tankel, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of a forthcoming book about LeT. Though LeT still denies any role in Afghanistan, U.S. security experts say LeT began sending fighters to battle U.S. troops there in 2006, and by 2008 they were among the mixed group of 200 militants who overran a U.S. outpost in Wanat, killing nine U.S. soldiers, which at the time was one of the single worst U.S. combat losses in Afghanistan.

There is evidence that LeT began plotting attacks against Western targets in India around the same time the group decided to get involved in Afghanistan. In 2007 it sent an Indian operative it had trained, Riyazuddin Nasir, to plot attacks against Western and Israeli targets at beach resorts in Goa, India, but Nasir was arrested by chance before he could carry out any attack. That did not stop LeT from targeting Westerners and Jews. Ajmal Kasab, the sole surviving Mumbai terrorist, told police interrogators that attackers had been instructed to single out Americans, Britons, and Israelis "because they have done injustice to the Muslims."

What worries many Indian and Western intelligence officials now is LeT's extensive international network. For starters, LeT's relationship with Al Qaeda is increasingly close. In 2002 Abu Zubaydah, alleged Qaeda mastermind of the 1998 bombings on the U.S. embassies in Africa, was arrested at an LeT safe house in the Pakistani city of Fai-sa-la-bad. Tawfiq bin Attas, a suspected Qaeda operative arrested by the Pakistanis in 2003, allegedly told interrogators he had recruited at least a dozen men to carry out attacks against U.S. targets from LeT camps. More recently, at least one of the perpetrators of the 2005 London Underground bombings, later claimed by Al Qaeda, had attended LeT training camps. LeT also provided funding to alleged Qaeda terrorists arrested in 2006 for plotting to blow up 10 airliners en route from London to the United States. In March 2009 a British parliamentary committee concluded that Al Qaeda and LeT had reached a "merge point" and were coordinating their activities closely. LeT leaders "have now aligned themselves in practice and operationally with the goals of Al Qaeda and the global Islamic jihad," says Riedel.

LeT's network is even broader than Osama bin Laden's, some analysts say. Unlike Al Qaeda, which is on the run and largely confined to the isolated AfPak border, LeT operates terrorist training camps more or less in the open, preparing thousands of young men for jihad every year (although a far smaller number are actually selected for terrorist missions). As many as 200,000 people have attended these camps over the past 20 years, by some estimates, including several hundred from Europe and North America. Some trainees returned home, where they may continue to work clandestinely for LeT. In a recent briefing paper for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Tankel writes that the group uses the Persian Gulf for fundraising purposes and as a logistical and recruiting hub. Authorities investigating "shoe bomber" Richard Reid's support networks in Paris "uncovered channels used to send volunteers from France to Lashkar camps in Pakistan." The group "also deployed a French convert named Willie Brigitte to Australia in 2003 to support attacks there." Riedel says LeT has "cells in the U.K., throughout the Persian Gulf, Nepal, and Bangladesh, and probably in the U.S. and Canada." Most of these cells are currently limited to providing logistics—ranging from recruiting and fundraising to procuring SIM cards and providing reconnaissance—for attacks against India, as was the cell in Bangladesh before it began plotting against the U.S. and British embassies in Dhaka.

Last spring, FBI Director Robert Mueller voiced concern about the number of LeT operatives from so-called visa-waiver countries, such as Britain and France, whose citizens are allowed to enter the U.S. with only a cursory background check. Still others, like Headley, may have U.S. passports. Since 2003 nearly a dozen members of the so-called Virginia jihad network, based outside Washington, were found guilty of terrorism-related charges for providing support to LeT and seeking to attend its training camps. Members of the group helped an LeT operative buy night-vision equipment, bulletproof vests, wireless video cameras, and even an unmanned aerial vehicle in the United States and then ship them to Pakistan. One consequence of this global reach is that LeT has already "become the replacement infrastructure" for the Qaeda network, says Juan Carlos Zarate, a former deputy national-security adviser for counterterrorism under President George W. Bush. Even if LeT itself did not orchestrate a strike in Europe or the U.S., he says, it might lend its international operatives to Al Qaeda for such an attack.

That's worrisome, many analysts say, because of LeT's technological sophistication. The Mumbai assaults took an exceptional degree of planning. The terrorists hijacked an Indian fishing boat on the open sea, navigated it to Mumbai with help from a GPS device, transferred to an inflatable dinghy, which they landed in Mumbai harbor after dark, and fanned out to hit multiple targets almost simultaneously. The attacking teams carried GPS devices to locate targets and had studied Google map images, Styrofoam mock-ups, and videos of the interiors of their targets. The terrorists stayed in constant contact with LeT handlers over mobile phones. The handlers, in turn, employed an Internet-based telephone service to conceal their location, and used live international TV images to help direct the assault. They also knew how to amp up worldwide media attention. "I can't think of any other group that has done anything on that scale of sophistication," says Nigel Inkster, the former director of intelligence and operations for Britain's Secret Intelligence Service. Benjamin, the top State Department counterterrorism official, has said that the only group that can even compare to LeT in terms of its size, sophistication, global capability, and ambition is Hizbullah, the Iranian-backed terrorist group.

Taking on LeT may be even tougher than countering Al Qaeda. If Pakistan is reluctant to go after (or allow the U.S. to go after) Al Qaeda in the border regions, it is less eager to go after LeT's base in the Pakistani heartland. Unlike Al Qaeda, LeT has a large charity arm that is popular in both Punjab and Kashmir, where it runs schools, an ambulance service, mobile clinics, and blood banks. It earned tremendous good will in Kashmir for providing humanitarian assistance after a devastating earthquake in 2005. Moving against it could provoke serious civil unrest—or even civil war. LeT and the Pakistani Army draw many recruits from the same poor Punjabi areas, often from the same families. LeT's humanitarian wing worked alongside the Pakistani military to help civilians displaced during the Army's campaign to retake the Swat Valley from the Taliban. Zarate describes Is-lama-bad as being in "a delicate dance with a Frank-enstein of their own making" when it comes to LeT. He says that many Islamabad officials realize that the group has become a liability, but want to avoid provoking LeT into turning on the state.

Even without direct attacks on the West, LeT could deal a severe blow to Western interests. Few believe New Delhi would allow another major attack from a Pakistani-based group to pass without a military response. And any conflict between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan has the potential to spiral out of control. Even a limited Indo-Pak conflict could have severe effects on the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. Nearly 80 percent of supplies for NATO forces in Afghanistan are offloaded in the Pakistani port of Karachi. An Indo-Pak war would also distract Pakistan from pursuing the Taliban. One solution, then, is for the U.S. and its allies to move more aggressively to ferret out and dismantle LeT cells located throughout the Pakistani diaspora. The other is to do everything possible to support peace efforts between India and Pakistan, including resolution of their dispute over Kashmir. Just last week New Delhi and Islamabad resumed direct peace talks for the first time since the Mumbai attacks, although no immediate breakthroughs were expected. It is likely that Islamabad will be willing to wipe out LeT only when it perceives less of a threat from India. But worryingly, some analysts say, Western intelligence agencies are still not focusing enough of their resources on LeT. And that means the next time the group makes headlines, it might be with a devastating attack—not in Mumbai, but in Manhattan or Miami.