With India accusing Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) of last week's deadly attacks on Mumbai, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), an organization that the US and India say is a front for the LeT, invited the press to its facilities in Pakistan Thursday in an effort to show that it is only an Islamic charity.
The Times (of London), one of the news organizations invited to Markaz-e-Taiba, the JuD's main facility outside Lahore, Pakistan, writes that "Indian accounts [suggest] Markaz-e-Taiba is the dragon's lair," but "the reality... appeared rather more civilised."
A lunch of spiced chicken, rice and bread was laid out across ten round tables in an immaculate rose garden inside the complex, 30 miles from the Pakistani city of Lahore.
Polite young men with long beards handed around bottles of mineral water as a spokesman held forth in impeccable English. The gunmen who normally patrol the 75-acre grounds were nowhere to be seen. "Welcome," said a smiling guard as he frisked a visitor at the gate.
This was the friendly face of the Islamist movement now at the centre of the investigation into the Mumbai attacks — and a tense diplomatic stand-off between India and Pakistan.
India accuses the JuD of being a front for the Pakistan-based LeT, which India believes is responsible for last week's attacks on Mumbai that left 185 dead. But the JuD claims that it is merely an Islamic charity, and condemns the Mumbai attacks. The Times reports that although some Indian hawks have called for an attack on the JuD at Markaz-e-Taiba, "the tour illustrates how difficult that could be."
First, [the JuD] condemns the Mumbai attacks and denies any involvement. "What happened in Mumbai is not jihad," said Mr Muntazir [JuD spokesman]. "I don't see how any Muslim can carry out such a kind of thing."
Secondly, it says that it does nothing illegal: its professed aim is to provide academic and religious education to Pakistani boys and girls neglected by the State.
Its complex includes two schools where 513 boys and 487 girls are taught the national curriculum, according to Rashid Minhas, the school principal.
"It is imperative that Muslims should learn science," he said. The complex also contains a mosque, an Islamic seminary, a hospital, a carpenter's workshop, a guesthouse and several residential blocks.
The BBC, which also attended the open house, writes that if Markaz-e-Taiba is really a center for the training of militants, "the atmosphere in the school and the entire complex is remarkably open and easy."
The centre of the compound is dominated by a huge mosque, surrounded by the educational facilities, the residential complex and a small shopping centre.
Men and women move about freely and there is no evidence of any militants or training facilities.
At the barrier at the main gate of the complex the guards were carrying no arms.
The entire complex, in fact, closely represents a university campus.
It appears to be nowhere near the armed training camp described in many - possibly speculative - stories in the international media.
The BBC also notes that the students, taking ordinary physics and chemistry classes, "smile and shyly pose for the camera, just like any other normal children in a school setting."
Nonetheless, India and the US claim the JuD is a front for the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Canada's National Post reports, due at least in part to the fact that the leader of the JuD, Hafez Mohammed Saeed, founded the LeT to fight the Soviets toward the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. After the Soviets withdrew, the LeT turned its focus toward the India-Pakistan conflict in Kashmir, and was reportedly involved in attacks on New Delhi in 2000.
Mr. Saeed claims to no longer have any ties to Lashkar-e-Taiba but U. S. officials say Lashkar and Jamat are one and the same.
"Saeed is LeT's overall leader and plays a key role in LeT's operation and fundraising activities worldwide," the U. S. Treasury said in a statement in May, when it froze the bank accounts of Mr. Saeed and [Zakiur-Rehman Lahkvi, the LeT chief of operations].
The U. S. statement alleges that in 2006, Mr. Saeed had funded and managed a terrorist training camp that prepared fighters for attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Mr. Saeed personally decided which graduates of Lashkar camps to send off to fight, the statement says.
The Associated Press notes in its report on the Markaz-e-Taiba event that there were signs present of the JuD's ties to militancy.
A sticker on the door of one of the mostly run-down classrooms showed the organization's militant streak: "One should be prepared to die for the holy prophet," it read.
Inside, 13-year-old student Abdul Basit said he received regular lessons as well as religious studies, including about "the importance of jihad", or holy war.
When asked to elaborate, the boy looked toward his teacher, who signaled with his hands to stop him talking.
The Guardian reports that despite the JuD's broad invitations to observe the campus, in reality, press access was limited. The Guardian also indicates that the open house may have taken place at least in part due to the insistence of Pakistan's security agency, which has been accused of supporting the LeT.
...The madrasa, mosque, and other facilities remained out of bounds, and once the official tour was over the media were no longer welcome. Although the group had said anyone was welcome to look around the site at any time, the Guardian's attempt to take up this offer after the tour was met with a heavy-handed response: burly young men arrived on motorcycles and circled, demanding that we leave.
Given the attention that has suddenly been focused on Lashkar-e-Taiba, and on to the complex at Muridke, the invitation to visit may have been arranged after a prod from the Pakistani authorities.
Certainly there were plain-clothed officials present, who said they were members of "special branch" - often a euphemism for the Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency. They wanted to provide an armed escort back to Lahore, but why intelligence agents were there - and why an escort might be necessary - was unclear. Muridke is not in a dangerous part of Pakistan, and the offer was declined.
But despite the focus on Lashkar-e-Taiba, the evidence linking them to the attacks on Mumbai is incomplete. Myra MacDonald, a blogger for Reuters, worries that the press may be focused on Lashkar-e-Taiba in the same way that it was regarding WMDs in Iraq before the US invasion in 2003.
...[The focus on Lashkar-e-Taiba] all makes sense, and blaming Lashkar-e-Taiba for the Mumbai attacks is easier than listening to what it says about itself. But in the light of the media debacle over our coverage of WMD in Iraq, should we accept this so easily?
One of the comments on my earlier post has challenged whether Lashkar-e-Taiba was indeed responsible. The comment says:
"The Lashkar-e-Toiba is essentially a Kashmir-centric Organization, it benefits nothing by attacking Mumbai at such a scale bringing the two countries at the brink of a war, rather it dare not do any such foolhardiness on its own, they have a free run in Pakistan, why would they jeopardize it? Why would the Pakistani Establishment face an International outcry & a war for a Lashkar-e-Toiba? The laskar chief was put under house arrest during the Mumbai train blast in 2006 by Pakistan even though India had not yet sounded anything. They attack to make a Political statement, why would they not own up such a successful mission? ... The military precision witnessed in the Mumbai attack is far more superior than the profile of Laskar operatives..."
Are we in danger of jumping on the Lashar-e-Taiba bandwagon just as the media did on WMD in Iraq? Or I am simply questioning the obvious? Either way, we probably need to get out there and turn over a few more stones.