In the wake of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, international attention has been drawn to Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the group responsible for the attack. Stephen Tankel, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment, presented an overview of the history, structure, and operations of LeT and offered his thoughts on the organization’s future. Tankel described LeT as shaped by two dualities.

Militant and Missionary

The first is its role as both a militant group dedicated to waging violent jihad and as a missionary group that uses social services and proselytizing to call people to its interpretation of Islam.

Arm of the State and Pan-Islamic Movement

The second duality concerns the purpose of its violence: it is a proxy that serves the agenda of some within the Pakistan security establishment and a Pan-Islamist outfit dedicated to waging war to protect all members of the umma (the worldwide Muslim community). Although at times complementary, these two roles will continue to create tension within the organization as well as inevitable problems for Pakistan and the international community, Tankel argued. He illustrated this by tracing its arc of military engagements.

  • Early Military Activities: From the outset, LeT’s interest was not only focused on Kashmir. The organization always had a transnational approach; it also conducted activities in Bosnia-Herzogovina and Tajikistan.
  • Willing Proxy for the State: The Pakistan army and its Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) had been supporting non-state proxies in the Kashmir conflict since it erupted in 1988. By the early 1990s they were increasing support to Pakistani, as opposed to indigenous, outfits and decided to increase their support for Lashkar’s participation in the Kashmir jihad. This decision was driven in part by the fact that, at the time, LeT was a small group in Pakistan. The army and ISI presumed that its relative weakness compared with other militant outfits in Pakistan would make it easy to control. The group, in turn, was ambitious and eager for support, and so it channeled its pan-Islamist ambitions toward ‘liberating’ Indian-administered Kashmir.
  • Benefit of State Sponsorship: LeT’s arrangement with the Pakistani state allowed it to build up both its social and military infrastructure within the borders of Pakistan, free of outside harassment. LeT was also able to grow its transnational networks during this time.
  • Identifying the Enemy: LeT reconciled its pan-Islamist ambitions with Islamabad’s agenda against India by depicting India as the primary, though not the only, enemy of Islam. In addition to waging a guerilla war in Kashmir under the direction of the military and the ISI, it also began expanding its support to other terrorist networks within India.

Evolving Jihad

Tankel described how LeT evolved from its relatively parochial focus on liberating Kashmir and waging war against India into a regional and global threat.

  • Expanding Its Mandate: LeT also began providing training to local militants fighting in Afghanistan and even militants engaged in activities against the Pakistani state. LeT also became involved in attacks against the West, such as an attempt to attack the Australian electricity grid in 2002.
  • Building Capabilities: Because LeT was able to keep supply lines open within Pakistani borders and avoid harassment from the government, its capabilities grew rapidly. The organization relied less and less on the army and the ISI, until the government provided LeT with only passive protection and the freedom to maneuver undisturbed.
  • New Fronts: As LeT was encouraged to scale back in Kashmir by its Pakistani handlers, its leadership opened up a second front in Afghanistan, which brought it into direct engagement with U.S. and coalition forces.  The decision to escalate its activities in Afghanistan also necessitated an increased presence in the tribal areas, which led to more collaboration with other jihadi groups.

Mumbai and the Future

The Mumbai attacks that brought Lashkar-e-Taiba to the world’s attention also illuminate both the future potential of the group and the possible pitfalls it faces.

  • Dual Motives: By targeting foreigners, LeT can both hurt India economically and gain jihadi credibility.
  • Increased Publicity: Although the attacks served to bring more attention to LeT’s cause, they also brought LeT closer to the forefront of the U.S. struggles against terrorism. Dismantling LeT’s networks became a high-priority item on the U.S. anti-terrorism agenda.
  • Codependent Relationship: Pakistan maintains some degree of control over the command structure of LeT, which it can leverage to rein in some undesirable activity. However, because of the scattered nature of terrorist organizations, members of LeT are able to use elements of the organization’s military capabilities and apparatus to support their own individual interests, with little oversight from LeT leadership or the Pakistani authorities.
  • A Lose-Lose Situation: The international community in general and Pakistan specifically are left with no good options. If no attempt is made to rein in LeT, it will continue to act against Indian and international targets, Tankel warned. However, pressure on the organization to temper its activities too much could lead to increased freelancing, meaning LeT’s capabilities could be used outside of the leadership chain of command. This presents an inherently unstable situation.