SINGAPORE (Reuters) - The death of Osama bin Laden has robbed Islamist militants of their biggest inspiration and al Qaeda itself has dwindled to a few hundred fighters in the region, but Pakistan remains a haven for militants with both ambition and means to strike overseas.
Worse, there are signs that groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure), nurtured by Pakistan’s spy agency to advance strategic interests in India and Afghanistan, are no longer entirely under the agency’s control.
Even if the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), under intense pressure following the discovery of bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town, sought to roll up the groups, it may not be able to do so without provoking a major backlash.
In Lashkar’s case, according to experts, it is not even certain if it is under the control of its own leadership, with many within pushing for greater global jihad. Several others are spinning off into independent operatives which makes it harder for security agencies to track down.
“Lashkar has become international, and no more a Pakistani outfit, per se. It has got its claws sunk in Central Asia, Afghanistan and Arabia, if not in the Maghreb (north Africa) nations. So, Pakistanis may not condone them any longer,” said a U.S.-based South Asia expert with ties to the intelligence community.
“Lashkar’s jihadi appetite cannot be whetted with Kashmir alone. They are now for the Caliphate (theocratic Islamic state) -- thanks to the Saudi and other Arabian money. The question is will Pakistan’s tainted security apparatus be able to quell an organization like that? I hope they will, but I doubt it.”
Lashkar, one of the largest and best funded militant groups in Pakistan with a successful charity organization as its public face, is blamed for the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai.
The attacks were the group’s most audacious since it began fighting India in Kashmir in 1993 and later elsewhere as part of its pan-Islamist ideology, but also in line with the Pakistan army’s goal to “bleed India by a thousand cuts.”
Among the 166 people killed in the Mumbai violence were foreigners, including victims of an attack on a Jewish center, bringing the group to Western attention and boosting its standing among other militant groups in the region.
But Stephen Tankel, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says Lashkar has been linked with a range of operations in the West since 2001, offering training in many cases, financing in others and at least in one case trying to mount an attack of its own as far away as Australia.
At least one of the London suicide bombers in 2005 is believed to have attended Lashkar training focused primarily on indoctrination. But police did not find any evidence of the group’s involvement in the attack.
Activists associated with the group and based in Paris are also suspected of providing some logistical support to would be “shoe-bomber” Richard Reid in 2001.
Lashkar operatives in Britain are suspected of having provided money to those involved in a 2006 attempt to bomb transatlantic flights using liquid explosives, Tankel said in a testimony before members of a U.S. Congressional committee on the group’s role following the elimination of bin laden.
In one case, rather than contributing to an attack in the West, Lashkar planned an operation of its own in Australia, training Frenchman Willy Brigitte at its camp in Pakistan in 2001/2002 and giving financial support. The attack was foiled and Brigitte convicted.
Tankel, who is writing a book on Lashkar, said he believed it to be a credible threat to the West. “The threat, comes both from the possibility that core LeT could contribute to attacks against the West as well as from factions and freelancers in the group,” he told Reuters.
“This is compounded by the fact that collaboration and hence integration with other outfits in Pakistan have increased. Thus LeT is able to act as part of a consortium, and if the leadership does not go far enough in contributing to the global jihad, then there are opportunities for members within the group to link up with other outfits that do.”
The independent operatives may retain access to Lashkar’s infrastructure and networks, meaning the group’s capabilities could be used for attacks even if the leadership did not necessarily sanction them, he said. Finally, members of the group were already fighting in Afghanistan, showing clearly their fight was no longer focused on India.
Last month, a top U.S. military commander told Congress that the United States had evidence of Lashkar’s presence in Europe and the broader Asia-Pacific region.
“Unquestionably they have spread their influence internationally and are no longer solely focused on South Asia and on India,” Admiral Robert Willard, head of the Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Lashkar is not the only group in the constellation of organizations that have found sanctuary in not just Pakistan’s the northwest, but also in the heartland of Punjab and its cities such as Karachi, and plotting attacks beyond the region.
The Pakistani Taliban, which has declared war on the Pakistani state for collaborating with the United States, gave bomb-making training as well as money to Pakistan-American Faisal Shehzad who tried to set off a car bomb in New York’s Times Square last year, according to his testimony in court.
Also last year, U.S. prosecutors charged the group’s leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, for his role in a suicide attack that killed seven CIA employees at a U.S. base in Afghanistan in December 2009. That attack triggered a deadly series of U.S. missile strikes by unmanned drone attacks on the group’s hideout in South Waziristan, in which it lost several commanders.
But the key point is that lines between the different groups operating out of Pakistan have become so blurred that it is hard to slot them into categories.
For instance, the Pakistani Taliban, which were committed to fighting the Pakistani state, are now increasingly joining insurgents fighting U.S. and international troops across the border in Afghanistan.
While Lashkar has flourished, another group that was also fiercely anti-India, the Jaish-e-Mohammad, has virtually gone underground -- which worries counter-terrorism experts just as much as its being active.
Its leader, Maulana Masood Azhar, was one of three people India released in return for freeing passengers of an Indian Airlines plane hijacked to Kandahar in 1999. Pakistan banned the group after India blamed it for a 2001 attack on its parliament.
A Pakistan security source said that its members had gone into hiding or have split into groups. He estimates its active ranks at around 5,000, with about 1,500-2,000 fighters.
Adding to the volatile mix in northwest Pakistan are fighters from Central Asia, mainly the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
“At this point the threat comes from a consortium of outfits, splinters, networks and freelance operators working in concert,” said Tankel.
As outgoing commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan General David Petraeus once said, groups operating out of Pakistan have long shared a symbiotic relationship.
“They support each other, they coordinate with each other, sometimes they compete with each other.” he said. “Sometimes they even fight each other.”