A Year After Mumbai, Lashkar's Threat Has Only Grown


Nov 25, 2009

By Stephen Tankel

One year ago [Nov. 26], 10 gunmen from the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba laid siege to Mumbai. Lashkar's main enemy is India, but it has also waged a peripheral jihad against the United States and its allies since shortly after 9/11. By 2008, Lashkar was already one of the most powerful militant groups in South Asia, with transnational reach. But the Mumbai attacks, which killed at least 166 people, marked its bloody debut on the global jihadi stage.

One year later, Lashkar remains a potent force. International pressure on Pakistan to crush the group has not succeeded. While researching a book tracing Lashkar's evolution, I spoke with a number of policymakers, diplomats, security officials, and members of the media from Pakistan, India, the United States, United Kingdom, and other Western nations. The overwhelming majority of them remain pessimistic Lashkar will be dismantled in the near term, even as they worry that the threat it poses is increasing.

After the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan cracked down on Lashkar and its above-ground social welfare wing, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa. But as has historically been the case, the crackdown appears to have been aimed at controlling rather than destroying the group.

Most of those detained have been released. While some training camps were closed, others have opened. Lashkar continues to be involved in terrorist plots against Indian and western targets. A number of attempts have been thwarted since the attacks in Mumbai last year. Although the Jamaat-ud-Dawa was barred from raising money and its social welfare apparatus put under nominal state control, during my last visit in May it was openly collecting donations for Lashkar and selling jihadi propaganda.

Why did Lashkar escape serious sanctions?

First, it historically has been Pakistan's most reliable proxy against India and elements within the military clearly wish to maintain this capability. Demobilizing Lashkar is akin to dismantling a weapons system, a step unlikely to be taken absent a fundamental shift in the country's relations with India.

Second, Lashkar does not conduct attacks within Pakistan, and is one of the few militant groups not to do so. One former official in Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) told me the U.S. expects Pakistan to hit Lashkar to prove it is treating every jihadi group equally—but that all jihadi groups are not equal for his country.

There is also the question of how to dismantle the group. Some Pakistani officials maintain this must be done slowly to avoid a backlash. They also argue the country's capabilities are stretched too thin at the moment. The nightmare scenario they cite involves thousands more militants turning their guns on the state. U.S. officials also must be aware that if Lashkar feels threatened at home, it may increase its terrorist activities against the West.

It would be naïve to suggest Pakistan should not first focus on the militants currently attacking its people. In addition, surmounting the perception held by some that dismantling Lashkar is not in Pakistan's strategic interests will take time.

Understanding the Pakistani position does not mean simply accepting Lashkar's continued existence. Steps could be taken to begin what surely will be a lengthy process of shutting down Lashkar. Some facts should be part of any debate regarding the group's future.

Many of Lashkar's leaders live relatively openly and not in some hidden redoubt along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. This provides greater leverage over Lashkar than many other groups. To date, leverage has been used to try to control Lashkar. Given the right political conditions, it could be used to support demobilization efforts.

This will not be easy, and could require messy compromises regarding how leaders are treated. Another major challenge will be to avoid unleashing powerful splinter groups or thousands of leaderless jihadis.

Here there is hope. Although freelancing has increased, Lashkar remains among the most cohesive militant groups in Pakistan. It also historically taught members that waging war inside Pakistan was wrong. This is a lesson many in the lower ranks have taken to heart. Moreover, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa has acted as a repository for decommissioned militants in the past, suggesting some are willing to forsake fighting in favor of a social welfare or proselytizing mission.

There is no doubt some militants will need to be dealt with forcibly. Domestically, civilian law enforcement and intelligence agencies know a lot about Lashkar's operations and could thwart them if empowered to do so. Given the proper tools, the police and civilian intelligence agencies would be equipped to mitigate any backlash.

This will require funding a systematic program of capacity building and reform to improve pay and morale, reduce corruption, increase investigative capabilities and otherwise enable civilian law enforcement to operate more independently of the army. Assisting Pakistan to develop a program for disarming, demobilizing and reintegrating militants into society also could help reduce the risk of backlash. These prescriptions are not Lashkar-specific. But they would help to mitigate the capacity-problem, which is often cited as a reason for inaction.

Because Lashkar's infrastructure is transnational, eradicating its presence on Pakistani soil will not nullify the threat. However, much of the information necessary to neutralize these networks is in the hands of Lashkar operatives in Pakistan, and possibly some of their former handlers.

It is no surprise India has made dismantling Lashkar a top priority. The United States should continue to pressure Pakistan to do so too, placing particular precedence on increased intelligence sharing regarding Lashkar's transnational operations. This request obviously will need to be balanced against others being made. But as long as Lashkar's infrastructure exists it will be used, and the carnage in Mumbai could be repeated.

Stephen Tankel is an adjunct staff member at the RAND Corporation and the author of the forthcoming book Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba (Hurst & Co./UK and Columbia University Press/U.S. – 2010).

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.