Pakistan-based group eyed after Mumbai

A possible link to Lashkar-e-Tayyaba spotlights what some say is a troubling tolerance of militants by Pakistan.

As Indian investigators sift through the wreckage of Tuesday's deadly railway blasts in Mumbai, which killed at least 200 and wounded 700, suspicions are beginning to point to Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, or the Army of the Righteous, a Pakistani-based militant outfit with a long history of terrorist attacks inside India.

It is too early to say whether the group was directly responsible for masterminding the violence. A Lashkar-e-Tayyaba spokesperson, Abdullah Ghaznavi, denied that the group was involved in the attack.

But the blasts help shine a spotlight on what some analysts here claim is the state's troubling ambivalence toward militant groups, letting them change names and operate at low levels for matters of political expediency.

Whether or not Lashkar-e-Tayyaba was directly involved, they add, the group has achieved a kind of inspirational leadership role, becoming an operational template for militant splinter groups in India in much the same way that Al Qaeda has on the global stage.

"This is a new dimension. In India you now have groups of Muslims who may be influenced by Lashkar-y-Tayyba, but which act independently," says Hasan Askari Rizvi, a defense analyst in Lahore. "Lashkar-e-Tayyaba has become a pejorative to cover all such groups."

Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, which first emerged in 1993, has demonstrated a sophisticated capacity to carry out brutal, large-scale attacks, some of them deep inside Indian territory. Indian authorities implicated them in the 2001 attack on Parliament, which left 14 people dead, and also blame them for killing more than 100 people within two days in Indian-held Kashmir in 2000.

The group, which the US State Department describes as having several thousand members, was used as a proxy by the Pakistani Army and intelligence agencies against Indian forces in Kashmir throughout the 1990s, analysts say, when tensions between the nuclear rivals ran especially high. Receiving patronage and support from the state, it was also allowed to collect funds and recruit members openly.

The State Department describes its aid stream as including donations from Pakistanis in the Persian Gulf and Britain, as well as donations from Islamic nongovernmental organizations and Pakistani business people.

These open-ended operations changed, on paper at least, following the Sept. 11 attacks and President Bush's crackdown on international terrorist groups. In October 2001, Washington designated Lashkar-e-Tayyaba as a terrorist affiliate. Under US pressure, President Pervez Musharraf banned the group in 2002.

But many analysts say that Lashkar-e-Tayyaba merely changed its name. Calling itself Jamat-ud-Dawa, it said it was a welfare and educational organization, spreading the teachings of Wahhabi Islam through a large network of schools, hospitals and madrassahs.

Its reemergence, analysts say, is typical of many purportedly banned militant organizations in Pakistan.

"The government didn't want to take action against them ... the reason being that it might create a backlash in the domestic context," says Mr. Rizvi, explaining that the state feared it might lose the support of religious elements. "They didn't want to go against them all the way because it's politically expedient to allow them to operate at a low level."

The group went underground, but reemerged with the same leadership. Founder Hafiz Mohammed Saeed is now the leader of Jamat-ud-Dawa, which he runs just outside Lahore.

Jamat-ud-Dawa has repeatedly denied any affiliation between the groups. Jamat-ud-Dawa has to date never been implicated in any violence in Pakistan. Still, because of the murky connections, Mr. Musharraf placed it on a watch list in 2003.

Even under scrutiny, Jamat-ud-Dawa has flourished as a well-funded religious movement. The group claims to educate more than 20,000 students in 140 schools, in addition to churning out religious scholars at 29 madrassahs.

When the earthquake struck last October, Jamat-ud-Dawa turned its network into one of the top dispensers of relief aid, garnering praise from international relief groups, government officials, and even Musharraf. But questions about it reemerged just months ago. In April, the State Department announced that it was designating Jamat-ud-Dawa a terrorist organization and an alias of Lashkar-e- Tabba.

The news shocked the leadership of Pakistan's right-wing religious parties, prompting public outcries. Pakistan has so far not banned the group. Following the April declaration, the Foreign Ministry of Pakistan said it was not legally bound to ban Jamat-ud-Dawa unless the UN Security Council passed a resolution demanding it do so.

"If we are not required, we do not put any entities on the terrorist list if the action is taken under the US domestic law," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Tasnim Aslam was quoted as saying in early May. The State Department has forwarded a plea to the Security Council.

Some analysts say that the differences between Jamat-ud-Dawa and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba are legitimate. "Whatever Lashkar-e-Tayyaba is doing, Jamat-ud-Dawa is not responsible," says Ershad Mehmud, an expert on Kashmiri militant groups at the Institute for Policy Studies in Islamabad. Mr. Mehmud says that the government has cracked down on militants like Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, diminishing their ability to launch attacks.

"In the past couple of years, we've been seeing that the government is trying hard to eliminate the militants, especially in Kashmir after the peace process," says Mehmud, adding that he has met recently with militants who claim that they can no longer infiltrate Indian-administered Kashmir.

Like other analysts, Mehmud says that the Mumbai attacks, while perhaps not directly the work of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, drew inspiration from the group. "The violence has been internalized in Kashmir and India. In India, there is always militancy going on. They can take their inspiration from Al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba," says Mehmud.

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