SINGAPORE May 5 The death of Osama bin Laden
has robbed Islamist militants of their biggest inspiration and
al Qaeda itself has dwindled to a few hundred fighters in the
region, but Pakistan remains a haven for militants with both
ambition and means to strike overseas.
Worse, there are signs that groups such as the
Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure), nurtured by Pakistan's spy
agency to advance strategic interests in India and Afghanistan,
are no longer entirely under the agency's control.
Even if the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), under
intense pressure following the discovery of bin Laden in a
Pakistani garrison town, sought to roll up the groups, it may
not be able to do so without provoking a major backlash.
In Lashkar's case, according to experts, it is not even
certain if it is under the control of its own leadership, with
many within pushing for greater global jihad. Several others are
spinning off into independent operatives which makes it harder
for security agencies to track down.
"Lashkar has become international, and no more a Pakistani
outfit, per se. It has got its claws sunk in Central Asia,
Afghanistan and Arabia, if not in the Maghreb (north Africa)
nations. So, Pakistanis may not condone them any longer," said a
U.S.-based South Asia expert with ties to the intelligence
"Lashkar's jihadi appetite cannot be whetted with Kashmir
alone. They are now for the Caliphate (theocratic Islamic state)
-- thanks to the Saudi and other Arabian money. The question is
will Pakistan's tainted security apparatus be able to quell an
organisation like that? I hope they will, but I doubt it."
Lashkar, one of the largest and best funded militant groups
in Pakistan with a successful charity organisation as its public
face, is blamed for the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai.
The attacks were the group's most audacious since it began
fighting India in Kashmir in 1993 and later elsewhere as part of
its pan-Islamist ideology, but also in line with the Pakistan
army's goal to "bleed India by a thousand cuts".
Among the 166 people killed in the Mumbai violence were
foreigners, including victims of an attack on a Jewish centre,
bringing the group to Western attention and boosting its
standing among other militant groups in the region.
But Stephen Tankel, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace, says Lashkar has been linked with a range
of operations in the West since 2001, offering training in many
cases, financing in others and at least in one case trying to
mount an attack of its own as far away as Australia.
At least one of the London suicide bombers in 2005 is
believed to have attended Lashkar training focused primarily on
indoctrination. But police did not find any evidence of the
group's involvement in the attack.
Activists associated with the group and based in Paris are
also suspected of providing some logistical support to would be
"shoe-bomber" Richard Reid in 2001.
Lashkar operatives in Britain are suspected of having
provided money to those involved in a 2006 attempt to bomb
trans-Atlantic flights using liquid explosives, Tankel said in a
testimony before members of a U.S. Congressional committee on
the group's role following the elimination of bin laden.
In one case, rather than contributing to an attack in the
West, Lashkar planned an operation of its own in Australia,
training Frenchman Willy Brigitte at its camp in Pakistan in
2001/2002 and giving financial support. The attack was foiled
and Brigitte convicted.
Tankel, who is writing a book on Lashkar, said he believed
it to be a credible threat to the West. "The threat, comes both
from the possibility that core LeT could contribute to attacks
against the West as well as from factions and freelancers in the
group," he told Reuters.
"This is compounded by the fact that collaboration and hence
integration with other outfits in Pakistan have increased. Thus
LeT is able to act as part of a consortium, and if the
leadership does not go far enough in contributing to the global
jihad, then there are opportunities for members within the group
to link up with other outfits that do."
The independent operatives may retain access to Lashkar's
infrastructure and networks, meaning the group's capabilities
could be used for attacks even if the leadership did not
necessarily sanction them, he said. Finally, members of the
group were already fighting in Afghanistan, showing clearly
their fight was no longer focused on India.
Last month, a top U.S. military commander told Congress that
the United States had evidence of Lashkar's presence in Europe
and the broader Asia-Pacific region.
"Unquestionably they have spread their influence
internationally and are no longer solely focused on South Asia
and on India," Admiral Robert Willard, head of the Pacific
Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Lashkar is not the only group in the constellation of
organisations that have found sanctuary in not just Pakistan's
the northwest, but also in the heartland of Punjab and its
cities such as Karachi, and plotting attacks beyond the region.
The Pakistani Taliban, which has declared war on the
Pakistani state for collaborating with the United States, gave
bomb-making training as well as money to Pakistan-American
Faisal Shehzad who tried to set off a car bomb in New York's
Times Square last year, according to his testimony in court.
Also last year, U.S. prosecutors charged the group's leader,
Hakimullah Mehsud, for his role in a suicide attack that killed
seven CIA employees at a U.S. base in Afghanistan in December
2009. That attack triggered a deadly series of U.S. missile
strikes by unmanned drone attacks on the group's hideout in
South Waziristan, in which it lost several commanders.
But the key point is that lines between the different groups
operating out of Pakistan have become so blurred that it is hard
to slot them into categories.
For instance, the Pakistani Taliban, which were committed to
fighting the Pakistani state, are now increasingly joining
insurgents fighting U.S. and international troops across the
border in Afghanistan.
While Lashkar has flourished, another group that was also
fiercely anti-India, the Jaish-e-Mohammad, has virtually gone
underground -- which worries counter-terrorism experts just as
much as its being active.
Its leader, Maulana Masood Azhar, was one of three people
India released in return for freeing passengers of an Indian
Airlines plane hijacked to Kandahar in 1999. Pakistan banned the
group after India blamed it for a 2001 attack on its parliament.
A Pakistan security source said that its members had gone
into hiding or have split into groups. He estimates its active
ranks at around 5,000, with about 1,500-2,000 fighters.
Adding to the volatile mix in northwest Pakistan are
fighters from Central Asia, mainly the Islamic Movement of
"At this point the threat comes from a consortium of
outfits, splinters, networks and freelance operators working in
concert," said Tankel.
As outgoing commander of U.S and NATO forces in Afghanistan
General David Petraeus once said, groups operating out of
Pakistan have long shared a symbiotic relationship.
"They support each other, they coordinate with each other,
sometimes they compete with each other." he said. "Sometimes
they even fight each other."
((Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider in Islamabad;
Editing by Nick Macfie)