Lashkar-e-Tayiba, the jihadist group suspected as perpetrator of the stunning terrorist attack last month in Mumbai, has expanded its ambitions greatly since the late 1980s, when it was founded, with Pakistani military sponsorship, to battle the Indian Army in Kashmir.
The terrorist group is now closely intertwined with Al Qaeda and its global agenda, say terrorism experts.
And if its responsibility for the Mumbai atrocities — which its leader denies — is ultimately confirmed, LeT will now also have under its belt its first attack on an explicitly Jewish target: the Chabad House in Mumbai, where six Jews died when two members of the terrorist band invaded.
The new development seems to be no mystery to Judea Pearl, father of the murdered Wall Street Journal South Asia correspondent Daniel Pearl, whose killers forced him to announce his Jewishness and connections to Israel on video before beheading him.
“By targeting Jews, they are trying to rally broader Muslim support for their cause, which is Kashmir and the situation of Muslims in India,” he told the Forward.
But Daniel S. Markey, director of the State Department’s policy planning staff on South and Central Asia from 2003 to 2007, said LeT’s turn to a broader agenda should not be deemed merely tactical.
“They make no bones about an anti-Western, anti-Jewish/Israel ideology, so it is not terribly surprising that they would also target the Chabad house in the context of an attack designed to attract international attention like this one,” said Markey, now a senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
At the same time, growing intelligence and military cooperation between India and Israel has angered Muslim radicals in the region, giving them a way to tie Israel to issues closer to home.
During the Mumbai attacks, one of the suspected gunmen at the Chabad house called a popular Indian TV channel to denounce the recent visit of an Israeli general to the Indian-ruled section of the Kashmir Valley. “Are you aware how many people have been killed in Kashmir?” he asked the audience.
In late 2004, there were reports in the Indian media about unmanned Israeli-made planes being used by Indian forces to locate LeT operatives in Kashmir. “The closer Israel-India cooperation has given fodder to their belief in a big anti-Islamic conspiracy between Hindus and Jews,” said Rajan Menon, a fellow with the New America Foundation.
India has often been listed by bin Laden and his lieutenant Ayman al- Zawahiri as a part of the ‘Crusader-Zionist-Hindu’ conspiracy against the Islamic world. Leaders of the LeT and like-minded Pakistani militant groups have aired similar views.
“By some accounts, LeT is now more interconnected with Al Qaeda and other terrorist operations,” said Markey, the former State Department official. “This attack doesn’t suggest that LeT has changed its core ideology, but perhaps it has ratcheted up its ambition, inspired by other recent examples of spectacular attacks by similar groups.”
Kashmir, a Himalayan territory disputed between India and Pakistan since the partition of the British Raj in 1947, has been LeT’s historic objective. But the group is now advocating the creation of an Islamic state, or Khalifate, in all of south and central Asia, echoing Al Qaeda. Its operatives have reportedly worked closely with Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and some of its volunteers have reportedly gone to fight in Iraq. Since 9/11, several key Al Qaeda operatives arrested in Pakistan have been found in LeT-run safe houses. And one of the perpetrators of the July 2005 subway suicide bombings in London was trained at an LeT camp, according to British investigators.
In January 2002, Pakistan reluctantly agreed to ban LeT after India denounced it as the group that stormed its Parliament in New Delhi, nearly sparking a war between the two nuclear armed nations.
Although technically still outlawed in Pakistan, under a new name — Jamaat-ud-Dawa — LeT continues to run training camps for militants and a large charitable and social-services network. It even has designated spokesmen to field press queries. Pakistan, which regards the cause of Kashmir as central to its identity, has resisted pressure from the United States to close the group down in its redubbed incarnation.
Such groups “certainly have an anti-Jewish bent,” said Teresita Schaeffer, director of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. But now, she said, “The question is whether they are likely to expand their geographic reach beyond the subcontinent.”