Pakistani security forces have begun a crackdown on the Lashkar-e-Taiba terror group that India has blamed for the outrage, arresting its commander
December 9, 2008

Pakistani security forces have begun a crackdown on the Lashkar-e-Taiba terror group that India has blamed for the outrage, arresting its commander Zakiur Rehman Lakhwi and 19 other fighters.

This is the post where I willingly eat some crow,which will no doubt please some critics of my earlier posts on the recent terror attacks in Mumbai.

Right from the first, India blamed the Lashkar e-Taiba, a primarily Kasmiri-separatist terror group, for Mumbai. I felt that they had insufficient evidence to do so, even based upon the testimony of one captured attacker who was almost certainly tortured into confessing what Indian interrogators would have been already pre-disposed to hear. The Mumbai attacks represented a change in tactics more reminiscent of purely internal Indian terror groups such as the Naxalites and there'd been no shortage of internal Muslem-Hindu tensions to justify an indigenous group being behind the attacks. But the LeT had certainly been behind earlier attacks in Mumbai in 2006 and, if the LeT were involved, then the Pakistani ISI intelligence agency had to accept a great deal of culpability as the LeT have been their creature all along. Still, I cautioned against leaping to premature conclusions and using the LeT as an excuse to gloss over internal Indian ethnic strife. However, new details, independently gained, are now surfacing which give Indian accusations fresh impetus and in the light of those details I have been forced to re-evaluate my thinking on the whole issue.

First, an excellent bit of investigative journalism from Saeed Shah, a freelancer who often writes about the region for McLatchy but on Sunday had a piece in the UK's Observer in which he recounts tracking down the family of the captured attacker and placing him firmly as a Pakistani from a tiny village, one of four hamlets all called Faridkot in Pakistan's Punjab province. He also confirms that the man, Mohammed Ajmal Amir, had been a member of the LeT and has obtained national identity numbers for the whole family. Shah also alleges that there's been a careful attempt at a cover-up, orchestrated in part by ISI agents who were supposedly feverishly looking for Amir's roots, which is why other journalists couldn't track Amir's home and family down.

While sometimes confirming that Amir did live in the village, and had a son called Ajmal, on other occasions locals claimed to know nothing.

Finally one villager confirmed what was going on: 'You're being given misinformation. We've all known from the first day [of the news of the terrorist attack] that it was him, Ajmal Amir Kasab. His mother started crying when she saw his picture on the television.'

Attempts to meet Amir, the father, however, were not to be successful. Villagers eventually told us that he and his wife, Noor, had been mysteriously spirited away earlier in the week.

'Ajmal used to go to Lahore for work, as a labourer,' continued the villager who feared being named. 'He's been away for maybe four years. When he came back once a year, he would say things like, "We are going to free Kashmir."'

... Following our last visit to Faridkot, the mayor, Wattoo, announced via the loudspeaker at the mosque that no one was to speak to any outsiders. By yesterday, Pakistani intelligence officials had descended in force on Faridkot. Locals, speaking by telephone, said a Pakistani TV crew and an American journalist had been roughed up and run out of town.

It seems certain now that Amir is exactly who and what Indian authorities said he was and that pakistani authorities have known this and acted to muddy the waters. Syed Saleem Shahzad, who is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief and a noted investigative reporter with many scoops to his credit, has been filling in details on how the Mumbai operation came about, including the cack-handed lack of control ISI exrecised over its own proxies.

Under directives from Pakistan's army chief, General Ashfaq Kiani, who was then director general (DG) of the ISI, a low-profile plan was prepared to support Kashmiri militancy. That was normal, even in light of the peace process with India. Although Pakistan had closed down its major operations, it still provided some support to the militants so that the Kashmiri movement would not die down completely.

After Kiani was promoted to chief of army staff, Lieutenant General Nadeem Taj was placed as DG of the ISI. The external section under him routinely executed the plan of Kiani and trained a few dozen LET militants near Mangla Dam (near the capital Islamabad). They were sent by sea to Gujrat, from where they had to travel to Kashmir to carry out operations.

Meanwhile, a major reshuffle in the ISI two months ago officially shelved this low-key plan as the country's whole focus had shifted towards Pakistan's tribal areas. The director of the external wing was also changed, placing the "game" in the hands of a low-level ISI forward section head (a major) and the LET's commander-in-chief, Zakiur Rahman.

Zakiur was in Karachi for two months to personally oversee the plan. However, the militant networks in India and Bangladesh comprising the Harkat, which were now in al-Qaeda's hands, tailored some changes. Instead of Kashmir, they planned to attack Mumbai, using their existent local networks, with Westerners and the Jewish community center as targets.

Zakiur and the ISI's forward section in Karachi, completely disconnected from the top brass, approved the plan under which more than 10 men took Mumbai hostage for nearly three days and successfully established a reign of terror.

That's a pretty detailed set of allegations about ISI's initial direction and how it later lost control, leading to a bloodbath. But the broad swath of Shahzad's story has been repeated in other articles, most notably one from the NY Times Monday partially reported by Mark Mazzetti, as reliable a stenographer of US intelligence anonymous sources as they could hope to find.

Unlike Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants, who have been forced to retreat to mountain redoubts in western Pakistan’s tribal areas, Lashkar commanders have been able to operate more or less in the open, behind the public face of a popular charity, with the implicit support of official Pakistani patrons, American officials said.

American and Indian officials believe that one senior Lashkar commander in particular, Zarrar Shah, is one of the group’s primary liaisons to the ISI. Investigators in India are also examining whether Mr. Shah, a communications specialist, helped plan and carry out the attacks in Mumbai. “He’s a central character in this plot,” an American official said.

The LeT is a clear proxy for Pakistani intelligence and always has been, even if it isn't under their perfect control. In the past, LeT safe houses have been used to shelter Al Qaeada leaders, among others, inside Pakistan even though the two groups don't see perfectly eye-to-eye - something which probably couldn't be done without the ISI knowing about it and approving at some level. It also has a history of using, and learning from, purely local extremists. The following two paragraphs from the NYT piece point to a possible channel for the LeT adopting tactics more readily associated with indigenous Indian groups such as the Naxalites.

The Mumbai attacks, which included foreigners among its targets, seemed to fit the group’s evolving emphasis and determination to elevate its profile in the global jihadist constellation.

Lashkar also has a history of using local extremist groups for knowledge and tactics in its operations. Investigators in Mumbai are following leads suggesting that Lashkar used the Students’ Islamic Movement of India, a fundamentalist group that advocates establishing an Islamic state in India, for early reconnaissance and logistical help.

Intelligence agencies for nation states tend to think about top-down chains of command and organization, because that's the culture they inhabit. However, as counter-terrorism expert Marc Sageman pointed out in a seminal 2003 essay, for terrorist networks themselves the truth is more often an organic growth from the bottom up. He was writing about Al Qaeda at the time, but his words apply equally well to all such networks.

Operatives in caves simply cannot communicate with people in the field... The network is now self-organized from the bottom up, and is very decentralized. With local initiative and flexibility, it’s very robust... The network grows organically, like the Internet.

When you have a state actor like the ISI meddling as well, those top down and bottom up currents mix in an often confusing way. India's intelligence agencies were looking through a top-down state-organized prism, and were missing the organic, Occam's Razor explanation of spontaneously arising homegrown cells reaching out to find/create a network. I was doing the reverse. If Shahzad is correct, the Indian authorities in their initial statements over-estimated the Pakistani ISI's level of direction of involvement while I under-estimated it. I apologise for that mistake but maintain that it's better not to ascribe to malice what can be just as readily ascribed to incompetence or synchronicity until the evidence is clear.

Now, it is reported that Pakistani troops have raided an LeT camp and made arrests, including one of the LeT leaders accused by India of masterminding the Mumbai attacks. Given that Pakistan has repeatedly said that any arrested individuals associated with the Mumbai attacks will be given trial there rather than extradited to india, one has to wonder if it's just another move in a cover-up of embarassing ISI complicity. The dangers of too public an exposure are readily seen - according to other reports, the UK and US had to intervene after Mumbai to prevent a war between these two rival nuclear powers. The ISI's involvement in just about every thread of terrorism which plagues the world is a pernicious threat which must be dealt with somehow, but I'm entirely unconvinced it's worth nuclear war over.

Unfortunately, I don't believe for a second that the Pakistani civil government has the power to push through reform or that the Pakistani military wants those reforms in the first place. And I suspect the Bush administration, which so consistently looked the other way about Pakistan's involvement in that terrorism while Musharraf was still in power, knows that already. I suppose a good place for an new US administration to begin would be for the US and its allies to stop arming both sides in the regional arms race. The sub-continent is still a disaster waiting to happen and, although Obama's foreign policy prescriptions are better than the one's we would have gotten from McCain and his neocon brethren, I'm not at all certain Obama's plans are the whole answer either.

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