Ten Years After Mumbai, the Group Responsible is Deadlier Than Ever
Ten years ago today, ten gunmen from Lashkar-e-Taiba launched a complex attack that lasted over 60 hours against India’s commercial capital, Mumbai. They targeted two luxury hotels, one of the country’s busiest railway stations, a café popular with foreign tourists, and a Jewish community center. The “26/11 attacks,” as they are known in India, left 166 people dead, and put Lashkar-e-Taiba on the global map. By the time of the attacks, it was already one of the most powerful terrorist groups in South Asia, and generally considered to be Pakistan’s most reliable proxy against India.
I devoted several years of my life to researching this militant group’s evolution, and exploring the calculus behind Mumbai for my first book, Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba. The attacks derailed a fragile peace process between India and Pakistan, created fears that another attack of similar scale and lethality in India would trigger war between the two nuclear-armed powers, and ushered in a trend of active shooter sieges by other jihadist groups. The most notable legacy of the attacks, however, may be that the group has actually increased its presence and influence in Pakistan despite the widespread knowledge that it was responsible for killing 166 people, including six Americans. Bluntly speaking: Lashkar-e-Taiba got away with it. That fact says a lot about the group and about Pakistan.
A Sanctioned Attack
When people ask me about this militant group’s relationship with the Pakistan military and its Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), I often point out that Lashkar-e-Taiba has never executed a major terrorist attack — Mumbai included — without sanction from its handlers. David Coleman Headley — a Pakistani-American who performed reconnaissance for the Mumbai attacks, and is currently serving a 35-year prison sentence in the United States — testified that he met with six different Pakistani intelligence officers during his time with the group. Headley also identified several ISI officers who helped to plot and support the 26/11 attacks, information that another Lashkar operative confirmed to U.S. and Indian authorities after his arrest. The U.S. government indicted one of the ISI officers — known as Maj. Iqbal — who provided direction and funding for the Mumbai attacks, as well as for an aborted plot to attack the Danish newspaper that published cartoons of Mohammad, Islam’s prophet. According to Headley, Iqbal personally chose the Jewish community center as a target, reportedly because he thought it was a front for the Israeli Mossad. There is no evidence to support Iqbal’s belief.
Many Indian officials and some American ones I’ve spoken with over the years believe a plot of this nature could never have moved forward without approval at the highest levels of the ISI. Others have posited that Shuja Pasha — the director general of the ISI at the time — may have approved the attack without knowing the details, and that he assumed the operation would be a more limited affair like previous attacks. It’s also possible that Lashkar-e-Taiba’s ISI handlers were given broad guidance that general attack planning against India could move forward, and they operated under a form of command by negation in which the operation moved forward because no one told them to stop. When trying to assess culpability within the ISI it is also important to note that the seaborne infiltration that enabled the attack was actually attempted in September and again in October. Both of these efforts failed, albeit without alerting the Indian authorities. The timing is important because Pasha’s predecessor — Nadeem Taj —left his position as director general of ISI prematurely in October 2008. Thus, it is possible he approved the plot in some form, in which case we are left to wonder whether the full scope of information was relayed to Pasha during the transition.
We may never know how high ISI awareness or support went. We do know this: ISI handlers abetted the operation, meaning that the attacks were sanctioned from Lashkar-e-Taiba’s perspective. This assistance was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the overall level of state support the group received.
A Slap on the Wrist and a Pat on the Back
Lashkar-e-Taiba did not suffer any tangible costs for 26/11. The group has changed its name several times since the Sept. 11 attacks to evade sanctions and escape bans. The Pakistani government still differentiates between Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is officially banned, and Jamaat-ud-Dawa — its above-ground organization — which is not. In reality, they remain two sides of a single organization, led by the same individuals. After Mumbai, the authorities temporarily shuttered Jamaat ud Dawa’s offices, and prohibited the organization from fundraising and propagandizing. This “crackdown,” like previous ones, was cosmetic. A former official in the Punjab provincial government involved in executing the crackdown told me the authorities briefed senior Lashkar-e-Taiba leaders in advance of any punitive actions. According to this person, they were basically told, “Don’t panic. We’re not going to crack down too hard. We will tell you in advance what we will do.” Today, the organization continues to train, fundraise, recruit, propagandize, and otherwise operate with the security establishment’s blessing.
The ISI also took steps to help Lashkar address internal organizational problems that may have contributed to the scope and scale of the attacks. Mumbai began as a relatively small operation involving only one target and a few terrorists, but expanded considerably during summer 2008. The jihadist insurgency in Pakistan was gaining strength at the time, and anti-state groups were attracting talent from state-allied organizations like Lashkar. Enhancing its jihadi credibility was probably one of the aims of the attacks. Rather than crack down hard on the group, the ISI provided its leaders with resources to keep current members in line and induce former members who might be assisting anti-state militants to return to the fold. According to former Lashkar-e-Taiba members I spoke with in 2011, those who refused silver risked lead.
It was necessary to restrain the group temporarily from launching additional attacks against India in the wake of the 26/11 attacks. Lashkar-e-Taiba members I met with at the time told me they were under orders to lay low when it came to operations against India. However, the military and ISI simultaneously helped to grow Lashkar-e-Taiba’s presence in eastern Afghanistan. This served a dual purpose: The Afghan front provided a pressure release valve, while the influx of Lashkar-e-Taiba members yielded additional intelligence to the security establishment about the militant state of play across the border. This practice of encouraging the group’s participation in Afghanistan continues: enabling it to wage jihad against U.S. and Afghan forces, as well as to launch occasional attacks against Indian interests; and putting its members in a position to gather intelligence on other groups. Most recently, researchers have assessed that at least some Lashkar-e-Taiba defections to the Islamic State’s so-called Khorasan Province in Afghanistan are actually ISI promoted infiltrations intended to provide the security establishment with situational awareness of the group.
A Seat at the Table
The conventional wisdom regarding why the military and ISI, which determine Pakistan’s foreign and security policies, have preserved Lashkar is that the group still provides much leverage vis-à-vis India. Close observers of Pakistan have recognized for years now there is another reason: Lashkar-e-Taiba not only abjures launching attacks in Pakistan, but also helps combat groups that do. It has not only gathered intelligence about anti-state militants — jihadists, as well as separatists in Balochistan — but also helped to neutralize them at times. Lashkar-e-Taiba has also promoted an ideological and theological counter narrative condemning militant groups that attack the Pakistani state. The fact that a jihadist group has become one of the standard bearers for the counter-narrative against these organizations is a testament to the degree to which Lashkar-e-Taiba’s brand of jihad has become intertwined with state policy. It also highlights the fact that extremist interpretations of Islam have entered the Pakistani mainstream.
Lashkar-e-Taiba has embraced this role for ideological and operational reasons. The group has long asserted that while appropriate to “press the Pakistani rulers to enforce Islam” it is incorrect to directly fight against them since that would mean a cessation of jihad against the kufr. Put another way, refraining from violence against Pakistan is necessary to maintain its support for jihad against India, the United States, and other non-Muslim enemies. Yet this is only half the story. Lashkar-e-Taiba is as committed to reforming Pakistani society and promoting its brand of extremist Islam at home as it is waging jihad abroad. Staying on the state’s good side has provided the group’s leaders with space to do precisely that. Today, many Pakistanis see Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which runs hospitals and ambulance services across the country, as a robust social welfare organization, and not an alias for a lethal terrorist group.
In the decade since the Mumbai attacks, Lashkar-e-Taiba leaders have gained a bigger seat at the table in Pakistan. Hafiz Saeed, the group’s amir, is both a wanted man by the U.S. government (the Rewards for Justice program put a $10 million bounty on his head) and the face of the Milli Muslim League political party. Lashkar-e-Taiba launched the party in 2017, and it contested Pakistan’s general elections earlier this year. The party’s platform contains numerous objectives, including ensuring that both Pakistani society and the state conform to the injunctions of the Quran and Sunna, supporting the struggle in Kashmir, promoting a foreign policy that furthers the interests of the global umma, and countering the Takfiri extremist ideology of groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Although Saeed and others originally claimed this new political party was a purely independent entity, he announced late last year that Jamaat-ud-Dawa was contesting elections under its banner. To be clear: Pakistan makes a cosmetic distinction between Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa, but the United States and the United Nations consider them to be the same organization and have designated it as a terrorist group. Thus, members of the internationally designated terrorist organization responsible for 26/11, as well as countless other attacks over the past three decades, are running for office in Pakistan. And there’s ample evidence they have the military’s blessing.
Individual members of jihadist organizations have been contesting elections in Pakistan for years. And the Jamiat Ulema-e Islam — one of Pakistan’s most notable religious parties — has long provided a political umbrella for various terrorist organizations. Some of these groups are following Lashkar-e-Taiba’s lead and attempting to form their own political parties. In theory, entering electoral politics can have a moderating influence on terrorist organizations and perhaps even create conditions for mainstreaming them. In reality, the Pakistan security establishment has not forced a choice between terrorism and politics. Instead, Lashkar-e-Taiba has been given space to arrogate political power, influence the domestic discourse, and promote hawkish policies toward India, all while continuing to ply its terrorist trade.
A Clean Getaway
Until only a few months before the Mumbai attacks, the plan was for the ten man terrorist team to escape. It was only in August that the group’s leaders decided it would be a martyrdom operation. Nine of the terrorists fought to the death. The tenth — Amir Ajmal Kasab — was captured. A video filmed by Indian police shows him lying on a hospital trolley on the first night of the attacks, confessing to his membership in Lashkar-e-Taiba and to the group’s responsibility for the attacks. Additional evidence recovered from the ship the attackers used for travel from Pakistan (and forgot to scuttle), along with communication intercepts helped the Indian authorities to build a compelling case against the group.
India executed Kasab in late November 2012, almost four years to the day after the Mumbai attacks began. U.S. authorities arrested David Headley, the Pakistani-American who conducted reconnaissance for the attacks, in the United States, where he is currently in prison. But their leaders in Lashkar-e-Taiba and the ISI handlers supporting them got away pretty much scot-free. The Pakistani authorities charged seven of the group’s members, including the group’s second-in-command, in connection with the attacks. Not surprisingly, none were convicted in Pakistani courts, or extradited to India. All are back on the street. The ISI handlers who supported the attack reportedly moved on to other assignments. Lashkar-e-Taiba leaders not only remain at large. They and the group their organization arguably have more influence in Pakistan than ever before.
Stephen Tankel is an associate professor at American University, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New America Security, a senior editor at War on the Rocks, and the author of With Us and Against Us: How America’s Partners Help and Hinder the War on Terror.
Image: Wikimedia Commons