Blamed for the large-scale terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) has gained prominence as one of the world’s most fearsome terrorist groups. In a Q&A, Stephen Tankel discusses the growing threat posed by LeT and the group’s relationship with Pakistan’s government and security forces.
Tankel, author of the new book Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba, explains what should be done to limit LeT’s reach and prevent a fresh attack in South Asia from bringing two nuclear powers to the brink of war.
- How did LeT rise to prominence?
- What is the relationship between Pakistan and LeT?
- What is the state of the Pakistan-India relationship since the Mumbai attacks in 2008?
- Will LeT be a spoiler in the peace talks between India and Pakistan?
- How have LeT’s goals changed?
- How big of a threat does LeT pose compared to other terrorist groups?
- Does LeT pose a threat to the West?
- Is there a relationship between al-Qaeda and LeT?
- How should Pakistan respond to the threat posed by LeT?
Lashkar-e-Taiba’s parent organization, Markaz-ud Dawa-wal-Irshad (MDI), was born in 1986 when the man who became its emir, Hafiz Saeed, merged his primarily missionary organization with a militant organization led by Zaki-ur Lakvi, the man who is now on trial for planning the 2008 Mumbai attacks. So from the outset, it was a militant and missionary organization.
Lashkar-e-Taiba was launched in 1990 as the armed wing of MDI, but essentially if you know their philosophy, you don’t really separate between the two. The group fought on multiple fronts in the 1990s, the foremost of them was in Kashmir, and it became powerful with the help of state support.
Its strength is actually born of weakness in that it is an Ahl-e-Hadith organization and most of the militant organizations in Pakistan are Deobandi. Because LeT was Ahl-e-Hadith and because it was estranged from the wider Ahl-e-Hadith movement, Pakistan’s Army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) thought that, lacking other natural allies in the country, LeT would be easier to control. So, the ISI infused it with a great amount of support and Lashkar proved itself to be a very obedient, reliable, and aggressive proxy against India and India-administered Kashmir. With the help of state support, it was able to both build up its missionary and its militant capabilities.
One must first distinguish between the relationship during the 1990s, earlier in this decade, and then after General Pervez Musharraf resigned from power. Today, it is fair to say that the civilian government’s relationship with LeT is very different than the ISI’s relationship. Some elements within the ISI are closer to LeT. It is also important to note that one of Lashkar’s strengths is not just that it has close relations with some elements within the ISI, it also has close relationships with elements in the army and also, to a lesser degree but still significant, in the civilian bureaucracy and in law enforcement.
There are several reasons for these relationships. First of all, LeT remains a useful and reliable proxy against India. Second, and perhaps more important today, is the fact that LeT is one of the few groups that is not attacking the Pakistani state. It is therefore seen in a different light than many of the other groups. Finally, through its social outreach—through its above-ground organization—it provides a lot of important services, which has allowed it to develop ties with the civilian bureaucracy, particularly at the provincial level in Punjab.
At the time of the Mumbai attacks, there was a peace process in the works called the Composite Dialogue, which was stumbling along—it wasn’t in great shape, but it was still in existence. The Composite Dialogue was put on hold after the Mumbai attacks. Now, there is the beginning of a thaw in the relationship and the two sides are starting to talk to one another at official levels about some of the important issues.
Obviously there is still a long way to go and this is complicated by the fact that, in addition to the Composite Dialogue, there was also a back-channel discussion that was taking place regarding territorial disputes, particularly Kashmir. There is disagreement over how far along the two sides were in those back-channel talks. The current civilian government in Pakistan is reluctant to even acknowledge any types of agreements that were reached thus far. All of these complicating factors make it difficult for talks to move forward, but the two sides are talking more than they were a year or two ago.
Another mass LeT attack would at the very least derail the thaw that is taking place between the two countries and could present a situation where you have India preparing for war against Pakistan. At the moment, it seems that the army and the ISI are taking steps to prevent this from happening, because they don’t want another major attack—they don’t want war. But as long as LeT exists, the capacity exists to use them for that purpose or there is the possibility that they could launch an attack without sanction if they see a peace deal on the horizon that would lead to their own demobilization.
In terms of how India and Pakistan move forward, LeT will be very much a part of that process. Whenever I’ve spoken with Indians about Pakistan relations, LeT is always at the forefront of their discussions.
Added on to that, LeT not only launches its own strikes against India, it has also provided a lot of support for an indigenous jihadist movement in India. That raises questions about whether we can prevent LeT from providing support via transnational networks even if we are able to rein in LeT and keep them from launching attacks, and how will that potentially complicate a peace process.
So there are a lot of different things that need to happen to take the group apart. I would argue that it needs to be degraded over time—not just domestically, but also transnationally—to make sure that any action against it does not lead to greater threats or instability in the region.
LeT is starting to act on goals that it has always voiced. It was born as a pan-Islamist organization that was going to fight on multiple fronts. It has always prioritized India and it is fair to say that the leadership still does prioritize India as its main enemy.
But as the Kashmir jihad has waned and the Afghan insurgency has expanded, Lashkar is increasingly participating on that front. That infuses an element of anti-Americanism into the group, particularly among some of the younger generation.
So you are getting a tension in the organization at the moment about whether to stay true to an identity as a Pakistani proxy vis-à-vis India, which it has been historically, or whether to embrace its pan-Islamist ideology, which is increasingly being infused by anti-Americanism.
LeT’s capabilities dwarf many of the other militant outfits in Pakistan and internationally. It’s got a very robust training apparatus. Because of the level of state support that it received for some time, its training infrastructure has quite a lot of cachet—its militants are among the best trained and its trainers are quite capable as well. It still has an above-ground infrastructure in Pakistan, which means that you can link up with the training apparatus or with other groups. It also has transnational networks that span multiple continents.
So for all of those reasons, in terms of its capabilities, it has the ability to threaten the United States and its allies quite a bit. The flipside of that is that because Lashkar remains closer to the Pakistani state than a lot of the other groups and because it does not want to lose its above-ground infrastructure, there is a degree of leverage that officials have over it that they don’t have over other groups. So its capabilities are quite threatening, but its intent is more difficult to gauge.
One of the emerging dangers I would point to is the fact that because there are tensions in the organization over whether to expand the scope of its jihad, there are some factions within LeT that might use some of these capabilities without their leaders’ sanction. That is one of the areas moving forward that the United States will be concerned about to a greater extent.
Some of LeT’s members are fighting in Afghanistan right now, where they are actively killing coalition forces—that is of course a threat. Then there is the threat that comes from its ability to facilitate or support attacks against either the U.S. homeland or other Western countries, or U.S. or Western interests in South Asia. It can help with recruiting, help with financing attacks, help with performing reconnaissance, provide safe houses in Pakistan, and provide false papers—all of the things one needs to pull off a terrorist attack. It can provide the training as well.
Then there is the threat of a unilateral attack in which LeT isn’t just providing support as part of a consortium. It has the capabilities to strike within South Asia as we’ve seen with the Mumbai attacks, as well as an attempted attack in Australia in 2003, and it was looking at an attack in Denmark in 2008.
So it has the capacity to support other organizations or launch its own attacks. That said, it is still important to remember that within the organization, some of the senior leaders, in terms of their intent, might be able to be dissuaded by the army and the ISI. The concern is whether they have control over the entire apparatus.
There is a relationship between al-Qaeda and LeT, but I question the degree to which it is a very robust relationship. They have ties going back to the 1980s, which isn’t surprising because al-Qaeda was born in Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet jihad, as was the parent organization of Lashkar-e-Taiba. There has been collaboration during the 1990s in terms of training and, in this decade, LeT has provided facilitation or support to al-Qaeda in Pakistan and we believe for attacks overseas.
Because LeT’s senior leaders are closer to the army and ISI, there is a trust deficit between al-Qaeda and LeT. This means that LeT operatives are going to be very careful and there are incidences of Lashkar members being used against insurgents in Pakistan who are launching attacks against the state. One gets into a situation where there is separateness and togetherness, there’s competition and collaboration, and where they work together, but they don’t always trust each other.
Several things are impinging on action against LeT. To put it quite bluntly, as a member of the Pakistani security services did to me several years ago, he said rhetorically, “Who gains if we go after Lashkar-e-Taiba and who loses?” And the answer is that where India would gain, Pakistan would pay the costs because LeT is one of the few groups not attacking the Pakistani state and they want to make sure that they aren’t taking steps that would draw LeT further into that insurgency—so that’s number one, the costs are deemed to be prohibitive.
Number two, the group still has utility. At the very least, it provides Pakistan with leverage at the negotiating table in terms of any future peace deal with India or their ability to pursue such a peace deal. So the costs are high and the benefits appear low.
That said, I do believe there is recognition among some quarters in the security establishment that LeT poses a potential threat to the state over the long term. The question is what to do about it. One thing a lot of us can agree on is that any action against LeT needs to be a process. The group needs to be dismantled as part of a process, rather than a hammer-like crackdown that could splinter the organization and create greater threats to Pakistan, India, and the West.
Moving along those lines, Pakistan needs to be exploring, as I believe they are beginning to, programs for deradicalization, or at least disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration. There also needs to be additional capacity building, particularly for law enforcement in Punjab, where the potential for a backlash is greatest.