LONDON (Reuters) - The arrest of two men in Chicago on terrorism charges linked to Lashkar-e-Taiba has revived fears about the Pakistani militant group’s global reach and its ability to plot attacks in India and around the world.
A major attack in India — still angry over an assault on Mumbai one year ago — could trigger Indian retaliation in Pakistan and draw the nuclear-armed neighbors into a conflict that would also torpedo U.S. hopes of stabilizing Afghanistan.
David Headley and Tahawwur Hussain Rana were arrested last month and accused of plotting an attack on Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which ran cartoons of the prophet Mohammad in 2005, U.S. authorities said in court documents.
According to the court documents, they discussed their plans with members of Lashkar-e-Taiba and al-Qaeda linked Pakistan-based militant Ilyas Kashmiri. Lashkar also talked to them about possible attacks in India and suggested these should be given priority over the alleged plot in Denmark.
Neither Headley, a U.S. citizen who had spent time in Pakistan, nor Rana, a Canadian citizen born in Pakistan, have yet entered pleas. Rana’s lawyer said he would deny the charges.
Officials have long worried that Lashkar-e-Taiba, blamed for the attacks on Mumbai, could use its big network of support in the Pakistani diaspora to hit Western targets.
The Chicago case showed quite how powerful that network could be. And it suggested the group was still actively planning attacks in India and raised fears it could use Western nationals who might escape police attention to strike there.
Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram told the Washington Post police in India also were investigating whether the two men had links to the Mumbai attack, which killed at least 166 people.
“Chicago really exemplifies the group’s capabilities and the leadership’s priorities,” said Washington-based analyst Stephen Tankel, who is writing a book on the group.
Lashkar “remains committed to an India-first approach, but also poses a real threat to the west.”
Once nurtured by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency to fight India in Kashmir, Lashkar-e-Taiba shares al Qaeda’s concept of global jihad, as underscored by its alleged willingness to support the planned attack in Denmark.
“Lashkar-e-Taiba is no longer a Pakistani movement with only a Kashmir political or military agenda. Lashkar-e-Taiba is a member of al Qaeda,” former French investigating magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguiere told Reuters in an interview last week.
The group’s Jamaat ud-Dawa charitable wing wins support and funding worldwide for its humanitarian work in Pakistan, giving it a powerful network which police say has been used to plot attacks in countries from Britain to Australia to Bangladesh.
But it is Lashkar’s ability to wreak havoc in India and to raise tensions with Pakistan that makes it most dangerous.
India broke off formal peace talks with Pakistan after the assault on Mumbai and is still pressing Pakistan to dismantle Lashkar’s infrastructure and training camps.
Lashkar is officially banned in Pakistan but unofficially tolerated as the only militant group not believed to have been involved in attacks inside the country, analysts say.
And with Pakistan fighting the Taliban in South Waziristan and facing a wave of reprisal attacks in its cities, it is seen as unwilling to create a new enemy by turning on it right now.
That leaves the risk the group, some of whose members are believed to have slipped out of the control of the ISI and even of its leadership, could strike again in India.
Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram said this month India would retaliate if hit by another attack from Pakistan.
Gurmeet Kanwal, at the Indian Army’s Center for Land Warfare Studies, said this could even include attacks by the Indian Air Force (IAF) across the Line of Control (LoC) dividing Kashmir.
“If the next big strike can be credibly attributed to Pakistan Army/ISI planning and support, the IAF and the Indian Army are likely to be ordered to strike across the LoC at purely military targets and known terrorist infrastructure because the government will be forced to bow to public pressure,” he said.
Such a move would force the Pakistan Army to rush troops from its western border with Afghanistan to its eastern border with India, and run a serious risk of escalation.
Yet the threat of an India attack would probably make Pakistan even more reluctant to dismantle Lashkar-e-Taiba, whose armed cadres are seen as a first line of defense in the event of war with its much bigger neighbor.
Untangling that Gordian knot is likely to come up during a visit to Washington next week by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has personally led efforts to improve relations with Pakistan in the face of domestic criticism.
But with peace between India and Pakistan a long way off, the immediate risk is both that Lashkar might stage attacks in India, or provide its global network to support other Islamist militants, including al Qaeda, in targeting the west.
“The interesting thing it (the Chicago case) points to is how fluid these networks are,” said Praveen Swami, a Kashmir specialist at India’s The Hindu newspaper.
It could even try to combine the double objective of striking India as well as Westerners by attacking western targets within India itself.
This happened in Mumbai when the 10 gunmen targeted both Indians as well as hotels and a cafe popular with foreigners, along with a Jewish center in their three-day assault.
“This does not mean every attack inside India ... will target Western interests,” said Tankel in an article to be published next week in the CTC Sentinel, produced by the Combating Terrorism Center at U.S. military academy West Point.
“But the threat of such attacks must now be included within its wider targeting options,” he said.
Editing by Jon Hemming