Pakistan on tightrope with militant raid

It targeted a camp of the group linked to the Mumbai attacks Sunday.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

By raiding a militant camp in Pakistani Kashmir Sunday, Pakistan has made its first response to United States calls for action against militants tied to the Nov. 26 attacks in Mumbai (formerly Bombay).

The raid targeted Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a charitable organization that the US State Department says is a front for the militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba. The alleged mastermind of the Mumbai attacks, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, was arrested in the raid, Reuters reported.

The operation signals a delicate moment for Pakistan. Lashkar-e-Taiba has been the country's most loyal proxy army against India, but the US sees it as a growing player in global terrorism and in Afghanistan. As with the Taliban, Pakistan is being asked to confront militants it once nurtured, and no group has been more closely entwined with Pakistan's intelligence service than Lashkar-e-Taiba.

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The links have been so strong that "I almost see them as a state actor," says Christine Fair, a South Asia analyst at RAND Corp., a security consultancy in Arlington, Va.

As of Monday, the Pakistani government had made no official comment about the Sunday raid. Reports came from local residents and reporters, who say the Jamaat-ud-Dawa compound near Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir, was cordoned off by the Army. Reuters quoted a Jamaat-ud-Dawa official as saying that Mr. Lakhvi had been arrested.

Pakistan will hope that the operation lessens international pressure, which has built as evidence connecting Lashkar-e-Taiba to the Mumbai attacks has increased. "We are taking action based on the intelligence given to us," a Pakistani official told The Wall Street Journal, suggesting that there would be other operations in the coming days, and adding: "It's Pakistan's decision based on our own national interest."

It is, however, clearly in America's interest, too. Lashkar-e-Taiba is a group with designs beyond the subcontinent. Cultivated by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate as a proxy army to pressure India on Kashmir in the 1990s, Lashkar-e-Taiba has established training camps that act as schools for would-be terrorists.

Lashkar-e-Taiba camps hosted the so-called "Virginia jihadis" – 11 Americans convicted of plotting against the United States between 2004 and 2006. A Frenchman was convicted of planning a terrorist attack in Australia after leaving a Lashkar-e-Taiba training camp in 2003. And Rashid Rauf, the England-born Al Qaeda operative allegedly behind the plan to blow up jetliners over the Atlantic with liquid bombs in 2006, also had early connections with Lashkar-e-Taiba.

"It has transcended its parochial roots," says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University in Washington. "It has ambitions to step up to the plate should Al Qaeda falter."

It is in Afghanistan, however, where Lashkar-e-Taiba's ambition is felt most by the US. It turned to Afghanistan after former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf bowed to international pressure and began to crack down on militancy in Kashmir in 2002. The result is that Lashkar-e-Taiba began to form links with Al Qaeda and the Taliban, says Ahmed Rashid, author of "Taliban."

Just as Lashkar-e-Taiba honed the skills of would-be terrorists from the West, it has also worked with the Afghan Taliban to make them more professional, says Mr. Hoffman.

This change has occurred without interference from the Pakistani Army, despite the fact that Lashkar-e-Taiba is banned in Pakistan. After Pakistani militants attacked the Indian Parliament in 2001, the group was outlawed and its leaders arrested. They were soon released, however, and Lashkar-e-Taiba was allowed to reform under the guise of Jamaat-ud-Dawa. Though the US listed Jamaat-ud-Dawa as a terrorist group in 2006, it remains legal in Pakistan – and denies any tie to Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Pakistan's unwillingness to clamp down on militants is not unusual, says Ms. Fair, of RAND. It has long used militants to achieve its strategic goals in India and Afghanistan. Yet among these many groups, Lashkar-e-Taiba is perhaps the most closely allied with the ISI, partly because it never turned against the Pakistani government, as some militants did.

Moreover, it is a group with roots in the Pakistani heartland of Punjab – as opposed to Al Qaeda or the Taliban, whose centers of gravity are the Arab world and the Afghan borderlands. For these reasons, there are questions about whether the Pakistani government has the resolve to build upon this weekend's raid – or whether this will simply be a repeat of 2002.

"If the Pakistani Army really does go after Lashkar-e-Taiba, it's not going to be pretty," says Fair.

The headquarters of Jamaat-ud-Dawa sits in Muridke, just an hour's drive from the Punjabi capital of Lahore. There, the charitable arm of Jamaat-ud-Dawa has established a 140-bed hospital and a school for 2,000 boys and girls. Nationwide, the organization has 2,000 schools.

"They have done a lot of social networking, like Hamas," says Fair, referring to the Palestinian Islamic group with militant and social-service wings.

Along the Grand Trunk Road, where trucks rumble past tea stalls and bakeries, there is only sympathy for Jamaat-ud-Dawa. "The Jamaat-ud-Dawa have their [school] here, they don't do anything wrong, they're a big part of this town," says Mazhar Ali, a carpenter whose shop overlooks the main road.

"Everyone would take to the streets in protest if anything happened to them," he adds.

Yet across Punjab, the news of this weekend's raid is already having an effect. In the main Jamaat-ud-Dawa office in Lahore, an official acknowledges that the government has asked it to lower its profile. In Muridke, six men gathered beneath a Jamaat-ud-Dawa flag, collecting blankets for victims of an earthquake in Balochistan, are packing up. They have already received the orders: Remove the flag.

But they hope it won't be for long. "Our work, our jihad, our preaching won't end," says Abdul Hameed, a Jamaat-ud-Dawa officer. "We will continue our work for as long as we can."

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